The Genre of the Qur’an

Draft 0.3
By Hamza Tzortzis
hamza.tzortzis@theinimitablequran.com

“As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature, having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its contents but also of its style….. and in forcing the High Arabic idiom into the expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold and strikingly effective rhetorical prose[1] in which all the resources of syntactical modulation are exploited with great freedom and originality.”[2]

This statement coming from the famous Arab Grammarian H. Gibb, is an apt description of the Qur’anic style, but this genre is not simply a subjective conclusion, it is a reality based upon the use of features that are abundant in all languages. This may seem strange that the Qur’an has developed its own style by using current literary elements. However, it should be noted that the Qur’anic discourse uses these common elements of language in a way that has never been used before. [3]

This unique genre is part of the Qur’an’s challenge to mankind to produce a chapter like it. [4] Preserved and recorded historical documents have shown that many attempted to meet this literary and linguistic challenge. [5] Modern and Classical Scholarship have proven that these challenges failed to match the linguistic and literary reality of the Qur’anic discourse. [6] Penrice acknowledges the Qur’ans literary excellence:

“That a competent knowledge of the Koran is indispensible as an introduction to the study of Arabic literature will be admitted by all who have advanced beyond the rudiments of the language. From the purity of its style and elegance of its diction it has come to be considered as the standard of Arabic…”[7]

The Qur’an is an independent genre in its own right. [8] Its unique genre is realised through two inseparable elements; rhetorical and cohesive elements. [9] From a linguistic point of view, rhetoric can be defined as the use of language to please or persuade. The term in the Arabic-Islamic tradition would more appropriately be defined as ‘the conveying of meaning in the best of verbal forms’. [10] Cohesiveness is the feature that binds sentences to each other grammatically and lexically. It also refers to how words are linked together into sentences and how sentences are in turn linked together to form larger units in texts. [11]

These elements combine with each other in such a way that interlock and become inseparable. [12] This unique combination captivates the reader and achieves an effective communicative goal. [13] The rhetorical and cohesive components of the Qur’anic text cannot be divorced from each other. [14] Cragg points out that,

“…the Qur’an is understood to say what it says in an inseparable identity with how it says it.” [15]

When these elements are stripped off the Qur’anic text, the text ceases to be a Qur’an and does not sound like one. This is because the Qur’an has a word order that is semantically driven, exhibits meticulous accuracy and achieves staggering adequacy; furthermore it combines linguistic and literary devices in a way that has not been achieved with any other Arabic text [16] Arbuthnot states:

“…and that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as far as elegant writing is concerned, none has as yet succeeded.” [17]

From a linguistic point of view the Qur’an employs various rhetorical features such as the use of rhythm, figures of speech, similes, metaphors, and rhetorical questions. Also, the use of irony and the repetition of words are a just a small part of the Qur’ans repertoire of rhetorical devices. Its cohesiveness includes various methods such as parellelistic structures, phrasal ties, substitution, reference and lexical cohesion. [18] These features provide the bedrock and hang together to create the Qur’ans unique genre. [19]

Non-Qur’anic Arabic texts mostly employ cohesive elements [20] but the Qur’an uses both cohesive and rhetorical elements in every verse. [21] The following linguistic analysis is a good example to highlight the uniqueness of the Qur’anic style:

“Men who remember Allah much and women who remember” [22]
Al-dhalikirin Allaha kathiran wa’l-dhakirati

The Qur’anic verse above, in a different word order such as the verse below,

“Men who remember Allah much and Women who remember Allah much” [23]
al-dhakirina Allaha kathiran wa’l-dhakirati Allaha kathiran

would not deliver the same effect, as the word ‘Allah’ has become linguistically redundant, in other words it has become needlessly wordy or repetitive in expression. The original Qur’anic structure achieved its objective by separating the two subjects in order to sandwich the word ‘Allah’ and using the ‘wa’ particle as a linguistic bond. [24] This Qur’anic verse has also a rhetorical element as the word Allah is ‘cuddled’ and ‘hugged’ by the pious who remember Him a lot, which is indicated by the arrangement of the words in this verse. Additionally the arrangement of the structure provides a pleasing, sweet acoustic effect so as to please the ear; which in linguistics is called euphony. In the above example the Qur’an combines rhetorical and cohesive elements to produce the intended meaning. [25]

There are many other striking examples, for example:

“Yet they make the Jinns as associates with Allah, though Allah did create the Jinns; and they falsely, having no knowledge, attribute to Him sons and daughters. Praise and glory be to Him! (for He is) above what they attribute to Him!” [26]

In this example the word ‘associates’ is used as a buffer word as it is placed between the two words ‘Allah’ and ‘Jinn’ to deliver a strong rhetorical linguistic protest against this claim. [27] Normally the word ‘Jinn’ should have appeared next to the word ‘Allah’, [28] but the Qur’an has specifically chosen the word order to disassociate the word ‘jinn’ with the word ‘Allah’, to exhibit this objection, namely that Allah can have no associate. The other claim made by the non-believers is that God has children. The rhetorical aspect of the whole verse is that it achieves euphony. The cohesive element in this structure is the ‘wa’ particle which acts as a cohesive tie. This links the two claims together. Furthermore the above verse ties in with other major themes of the Chapter such as tawhid (oneness of God). [29]

Any change to the structure of a Qur’anic verse simply changes its meaning, style and literary effect. It is no wonder that Cragg mentioned that, in order for humanity to deal with the challenges it faces today,

“…multitudes of mankind…will need to be guided and persuaded Qur’anically.” [30]

Scholars, linguists and Arabists need a sound linguistic competence in Classical Arabic but also an advanced knowledge in Arabic syntax and rhetoric in order to appreciate the complex linguistic and rhetorical patterns of Qur’anic structures. Most importantly he or she must refer to the major exegeses in order to derive and provide the accurate underlying meaning of a Qur’anic expression, preposition or particle [31].

The unique genre of the Qur’an is part of its linguistic challenge to the whole of humanity. Further research and study into the references below should provide the reader with adequate information to observe how the Qur’an achieves this unique genre and how it can not be possible for any writer to produce its like.

To end and conclude, Bruce Lawrence states:

“As tangible signs Qur’anic verses are expressive of an inexhaustible truth. They signify meaning layered with meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.” [32]

References

[1] The Qur’an’s literary form has been the subject of many studies from Muslim and non-Muslim academics. Due to its unique literary form, some scholars have found it difficult to describe what form the Qur’an falls in to (e.g. Prose – Mursal, Rhymed Prose – Saj or Poetry). Hence, some have simply tried to describe it as a form of rhymed prose, to illustrate this R. A. Nicholson in his book ‘Literary History of the Arabs’ (1930. Cambridge University Press, p. 159) states,

Thus, as regards its external features, the style of the Koran is modelled upon saj, or rhymed prose, of the pagan soothsayers, but with such freedom that it may fairly be described as original.

This is inaccurate as the Qur’an does not fall into any of the known forms of Arabic. Please see http://www.theinimitablequran.com/QuranicStyle.html,www.theinimitablequran.com/InterminglingOfMetricalAndNonMetricalComposition.html and http://www.islamic-awareness.org//Quran/Miracle/ijaz.html for more information.

[2] H A R Gibb. 1963. Arabic Literature – An Introduction. Oxford at Clarendon Press, p. 36.

[3] Please see F Esack. 1993. Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Problems and Prospects. The Muslim World, Vol. 83, No. 2. p. 126 -128; H E Kassis. 1983. A Concordance of the Qur’an. University of California Press, p. xvii and Muhammad Abdullah Draz. 2001. The Qur’an: An EternalChallenge. The Islamic Foundation.

[4] The Qur’an challenges humanity to produce a single chapter like it, please see Qur’an chapter 2 verse 23. As a result of the inimitability of the Qur’anic discourse, there is a consensus amongst Modern and Classical Scholars such as al-Baqillani and al-Rafi’i that the Qur’an is the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) eternal miracle. This view has also been supported by many non-Muslim Qur’anic Scholars and Arabists.

See http://www.theinimitablequran.com/IntroLinguisticLiteraryExcellenceQuran.html for the western perspective.

[5] Please see http://www.theinimitablequran.com/History.html for articles and references dealing with this issue.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Penrice. 2004. Preface of “A Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran”. Dover Publications.

[8] Please see reference [3], http://www.theinimitablequran.com/QuranicStyle.com and H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an. Al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, p. 60-110.

[9] H Abdul-Raof. 2001. Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis. Curzon Press, p. 137

[10] I Boullata. 1988. The Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: I’jaz and Related Topics in A Rippin (ed.), Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an. Oxford: Claredon Press, p. 143.

[11] For more details about the definition of cohesion (including consonance which details the Qur’anic text has lexical and thematic logical harmony) and its manifestation in the Qur’anic discourse please see H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an. Al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, p. 261-281 & 341-344; M Mir. 1983. Islahi’s Concept of Surah Pairs. In the Muslim World. Vol. 73, No.1, p. 22-32; M Mir. Coherence in the Qur’an. Washington: American Trust Publications; M Mir. 1993. The Surah as a Unity: a twentieth century development in Qur’an exegesis. In G. R. Hawting and A-K. A. Shareef (eds.). Approaches to the Qur’an, p. 211-224; and H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Conceptual and Textual Chaining in the Qur’anic Discourse. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. V, Issue 11, p. 72-94.

[12] Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 137.

[13] H Abdul-Raof. 2000. The Linguistic Architecture of the Qur’an. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. II, Issue II, p. 37-51.

[14] Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 137.

[15] K Cragg. 1994. The Event of the Qur’an. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oneworld, p. 46

[16] See reference [3]

[17] F. F. Arbuthnot. 1885. The Construction of the Bible and the Koran. London, p 5

[18] For more information on the Rhetorical Features in the Qur’anic discourse see H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an, p. 265-398 and F Esack. 1993. Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Problems and Prospects. The Muslim World, Vol. 83, No. 2. p. 126 -128.

For information of the Cohesion in the Qur’anic please see reference [11]

[19] Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 107.

[20] Ibid p. 108

[21] Ibid p. 107-108

[22] Qur’an Chapter 33 Verse 35

[23] The Linguistic Architecture of the Qur’an. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. II, Issue II, p. 37-51.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. and see reference [21]

[26] Qur’an Chapter 6 Verse 100

[27] Exploring the Qur’an, p. 70

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a list of the major themes for this Qur’anic chapter please see http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/maududi/mau6.html and see reference [11] for details concerning cohesion and coherence in the Qur’anic discourse.

[30] The Event of the Qur’an, p. 23

[31] Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 2.

[32] Bruce Lawrence. 2006. The Qur’an: A Biography. Atlantic Books, p. 18

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