The Miraculous Language of the Qur'an

Evidence of Divine Origin

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Bassam Saeh
  • London, England: 
    International Institute of Islamic Thought
    , June
     2015.
     104 pages.
     $8.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781565646650.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How can one prove, based primarily on linguistic evidence, that the Qur’an is a miraculous text coming from a divine, non-human source? More pertinently to the case of this review, how can a reviewer evaluate whether an author that claims to have so proven has actually achieved his objective? Therein lies my conundrum, as I review this peculiar book written by the respected Syrian scholar Bassam Saeh.  

Saeh, of course, is not the first person to claim that the Qur’an is miraculous: many Muslim scholars, both classical and modern, have attempted to demonstrate that the language of the Qur’an displays a unique quality of “inimitability,” iʿjāz, a word that shares the same verbal root with the Arabic word for “miracle,” muʿjiza. For Saeh, however, positing that the Qur’an is a work of outstanding eloquence, impossible to reproduce, is not sufficient proof for its divine origin and its standing as a miracle in the literal sense of the word. After all, Shakespeare, Dante, Rousseau, and Goethe (Saeh’s own examples, 8) were all inimitable prodigies of eloquence, but we do not think of them as gods! 

The true miracle of the Qur’an, Saeh argues, must be sought in the novelty of its language. He contends that the Qur’an’s Arabic was so markedly different  from the style and the language of the contemporaneous literary genres that the first hearers of the Qur’an were stupefied by its innovative beauty. Yet, however much the Qur’an might have stretched the boundaries of Arabic idiom, its addressees still understood it and appreciated the literary marvel that it truly was. 

Having thus stated what he means by the linguistic miracle of the Qur’an, Saeh devotes the bulk of this slim volume to examples of novel constructions (tarākīb) and expressions (taʿbīrāt) in the Qur’an (particularly in chap. 74) that diverged from the accustomed usage one encounters in two genres that were supposedly coeval with the Qur’an: the pre-Islamic poetry and the non-Qur’anic proclamations of Muḥammad (ḥadīth). With his admirable mastery of Arabic language and literature, Saeh produces ample evidence for how and why the Qur’an sounded unlike any other Arabic speech to Muḥammad’s interlocutors. He convincingly argues that the Qur’an, armed with its arsenal of new expressions and first-person direct speech, occupies a higher plane of aesthetics and majesty compared to the literary production of the best practitioners of poetry and prose at the time, including Muḥammad. 

But still, does the newness of its language make the Qur’an a text from out of this world, and prove that its provenance can be nothing but divine? The problem with this book is not that Saeh believes in the celestial authorship of the Qur’an (as all Muslims do), but that he is naïvely persuaded that this belief can be confirmed by “airtight, abstract scientific analysis” (7). He not only claims that he managed to theorize the verbal aesthetics of the Qur’an more accurately than his predecessors, but also that anyone who reads his book can see the miracle of the Qur’an just the way he sees it, “in a scientific, irrefutable manner” (6). 

As impressive as his list of new Qur’anic expressions and constructions might seem, Saeh’s work is doomed to mediocrity in the face of the impossible objective he set out for himself to attain. I also have a long list of grievances about his examples of new expressions in the Qur’an, and his method to identify them, but I will limit myself to one set of claims that he makes about the Qur’an’s language without proper backing. 

Saeh argues throughout the book that the Qur’an introduced semantic innovations in certain words, so that in their Qur’anic usage they appeared with hitherto unknown, mostly metaphorical meanings. The word kafara originally meant “to cover, conceal,” but in the Qur’an it denotes “disbelief,” dīn meant “religion,” but the Qur’an uses it in the sense of “judgment,” the word for “witnessing” came to signify “martyrdom,” and so forth. Students of other Semitic languages could effortlessly tell that the said semantic rearrangements for these words had already existed in Hebrew or Syriac long before the appearance of the Qur’an. The word munāfiq, “hypocrite,” was not invented by the Qur’an from an unrelated verbal root, it was just adopted from Classical Ethiopic. The Qur’an’s unconventional spelling for certain words, such as ṣalāt and zakāt, is not evidence for its exceptionality, it is just an orthographic calque from Aramaic. Saeh justifiably writes in a confident tone about all things Arabic, but when his arguments call for an expertise, say, in Semitic philology and linguistics—and they very frequently do due to the nature of his claims—he is woefully out of his depth. 

All this is to say that this book is patently apologetic, and reading it will not be a breeze for anyone who cannot read religious apology without a profound sense of skeptical discomfort. The reader will be sure to find in it the typical dose of orientalist-bashing (some, like A. J. Arberry, are spared for their favorable opinions about the Qur’an’s style, though), inaccurate statements about other scriptures, and frequent resorts to undying platitudes about Islamic history.  

But, is it all gloom and no sunshine? I should mention that this short book is an abbreviated English translation of a longer version written in Arabic. Perhaps certain infelicities in the arguments of the English rendition can be attributed to the selective nature of the translation. In any case, the translator of this book, Nancy Roberts, must be lavishly commended for producing an excellent translation considering that her job was not made any easier by the intricate linguistic argumentation in the original Arabic. On this note, allow me to end with what bothered me most about this volume: Nancy Roberts’s great work as the translator of this book is acknowledged neither in the cover page, nor in the title page, as is customary, but in a single line at the end of the foreword. Anyone who skipped the foreword could be led to believe that Saeh composed this book in English, and Roberts’s contribution could go grossly uncredited.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Suleyman Dost is Assistant Professor of Classical Islam at Brandeis University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018

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