I was in a quandary. The event was billed as an evening of entertainment. All the faiths and traditions that were participating in “The Parliament of World Religions” meeting in Chicago were to provide some type of entertainment for the event. The program had a long list of music, song and dance recitals. As an organizer for the Muslim program I was at a loss. Music and dance are not exactly encouraged in Islam. The closest I could hope to offer was a group of devotional singers like Qawwals or a performance by the whirling dervishes. Since I obviously had access to neither, I seriously considered opting out of the whole thing. Then I came upon an idea. Why not have someone recite a part of the chapter al-Rahman, (The Compassionate) the most hauntingly melodious of all of the chapters of the Qur’an. For myself listening to the chapter has always been an exquisite auditory experience. Even those who are unfamiliar with the Arabic language would pick up the austere elegance of the recurring refrain “fabi ayyi alaai rabbikuma tukadhibaan”, and which of the favors of thy Lord will ye deny.
An accomplished Qari (reciter) with a deep resonant voice and excellent technique, Qadir Husain Khan, performed the reading of a few verses of the chapter. As the Qari began to speak the rich verses of al-Rahman filled the hall. Standing in the shadows behind the Qari, I could see the expressions of surprise and even awe dawn upon the faces of the audience. I even saw some, in a sign of deference, gradually take off their baseball caps and hats. The short recital met with a warm applause. As we were walking away from the stage a man in saffron clothes walked up to us, and shook the Qari’s hand saying, “Never before have I heard anything so beautiful.”
The auditory effect a recitation of the Qur’an has upon the listener is only the most basic level at which the scripture impresses. It is not surprising that the oral recitation is such an aural experience. Like the scriptures in the past the Qur’an is primarily an auditory and vocal happening. The difference is that, unlike the other scriptures the Qur’an was also contemporaneously written down. It has been correctly pointed out that the rhythm in the Qur’an lies not just in the poetic prose like style it is written in, but primarily in the sound the recitation creates. The recitation has to be done with correct pronunciation, accurate enunciation, right intonation, careful accentuation and the appropriate use of pauses. A good recitation if done correctly may bring tears to the listener’s eyes. Jeffery Lang the author of two insightful books on Islam likens the auditory experience to the voice of a consoling her child’s cry.
Many of the Qaris of the Qur’an have also memorized all or parts of the book. There are no accurate estimates but the number of people that have memorized the Qur’an runs easily into the millions. There is little doubt in my mind that here is no other book in the history of humankind that has been memorized by so many people in toto. Recently I memorized the 30th portion of the Qur’an myself. Although considered the easiest portion to memorize, it was still an arduous task. During the memorization I understood the insightful observation scholars have made that the Qur’an lends itself to memorization. One verse naturally leads to the next. Like some glorious game of dominos the verses come tumbling out of one’s memory bank, one following the next in a breathless succession. Memorization is a time-honored practice that gives the Hafiz (memorizer) a special status in Muslim society. There are families with chains of Huffaz (memorizers) that stretch many generations. It is widely believed that here are two unbroken chains that go back to Prophet Muhammad’s time! The widespread practice of memorization has resulted in a great irony in that many of those who have memorized the Qur’an are ignorant of its meaning. This is especially true among non-Arab Muslims who tend to learn the Qur’an by rote memorization before learning any of the meaning of the verses.
An appreciation of the eloquence of Qur’anic style is a reward reaped particularly by those who take the trouble to learn the Arabic language. The style of the Qur’an maintains a tone of grandeur throughout as well as a sense of dignity and sobriety. The Qur’an recounts the stories of the old Biblical prophets with an urgent and dramatic feeling. The reader can easily imagine himself in the Pharoah’s court or with Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) building the Kaaba or informing his son Ishaq (Isaac) of his intent to sacrifice him.
“He said ‘my son, I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice thee; consider, what thinkest thou?’
He said, ‘My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shall find me, God willing, one of the steadfast.’
When they had surrendered, and he flung him upon his brow,
We called unto him, ‘Abraham, thou hast confirmed the vision; even so We recompense the good-doers. This is indeed the manifest trial.’
And we ransomed him with a mighty sacrifice,
And left him among the later folk ‘Peace be upon Abraham!” (37.102-109. Translation by A.J.Arberry).
The emphasis in the narrative is not on the tangential details but always on capturing the essence of the moment and on the moral of the story. The verses have the uncanny ability to take the mundane as the actions of a honeybee or an ant and make them ethereal. They elevate the simplest acts like greeting and doing business into acts of worship by infusing them with piety and importance.
The Qur’an uses multiple hermeneutical strategies in its discourse including similitudes, analogies, recurring refrains and hyperbole. It reminds the reader of its use of analogies
“In it are verses basic or fundamental, the foundation of the book and others are allegorical.” (3.37)
It uses Qasam (oaths) in an exceptional manner to place emphasis and draw the reader’s attention to a particular idea or thought.
“By the fig and the olive
And the Mount Sinai
And this land secure!
We indeed created Man in the fairest stature
The We restored him the lowest of the low
Save those who believe and do righteous deeds
The shall have a wage unfailing” (95.1-7)
The dramatic use of the simple command Qul (say) addressed to the Prophet Muhammad is an example of direct address that brings the reader the sense of being in divine presence.
“Say: “O unbelievers
I serve not what you serve
And you are not serving what I serve,
Nor am I serving what you have served,
Neither are you serving what I serve.
To you your religion and to me my religion.” (109)
The Qur’an is so different from common Arabic it style, sentence structure and even its grammar that scholars have suggested it is a language in its own right and might be called the Qur’anic rather than the Arabic.
The Qur’an in spite of its formal language and literary eloquence is uncommonly successful in getting its message across very effectively.
“And we have made the Qur’an easy to understand; but is there anyone who will take heed.” (54)
An essay, poem or a piece of prose may be very elegant but if it fails to reach the heart of the reader is merely an exotic artifact. The Qur’an is always striving to reach the hearts of the audience rather than their mind. It makes certain that the reader understands the message without getting overwhelmed by it. The desire of not overwhelming the reader is the rationale Qur’an gives to explain why it was revealed in small portions over 23 years.
“Why wasn’t the Qur’an sent down in its entirety all at once as but a single unit?
We have delivered the Qur’an to you in this manner in order that it might strengthen your heart
And We have arranged it in small components which form a whole.” (25.32)
The concepts and core messages are repeated again and again. A chronological analysis of the verses reveals that over time they become increasingly complex and sophisticated. Their arrangement appears to anticipate questions that may arise in the readers mind. One of the contemporary scholars of Islam, Fredrick Denny notes that while studying the Qur’an he had the uncanny feeling that “the Qur’an was reading him as he was reading the Qur’an.”
Another notable quality of the Qur’an is that it appears to satisfy readers of a wide range of intellectual sophistication. The verses may be understood at many different levels allowing the university professor and the simple worker to both come away satisfied that it is meeting their spiritual and intellectual needs. The opening chapter (Fatiha) is understood at a very straightforward level and has also inspired a Tafseer (exegesis) treatise such as Maulana Azad’s “Tarjumanul Qur’an” that is hundreds of pages long. For most ordinary readers the opening chapter Fatiha is a powerful yet simple supplication asking God to guide humans on to the straight path. Azad saw in it all the major concepts of the Qur’anic message including the concept of one indivisible God inspiring unity of mankind. A God that nourishes and sustains the all of the universe. A God that is compassionate and merciful. A God that is just, who in the life here, on the Day of Judgment and the afterlife is fair to all. Similarly the verse of “Light” (Nur) may be enjoyed simply for its poetic prose or may inspire something as magnificent as Al-Ghazali’s intensely mystical manuscript the “Mishkatul Anwar.
Two South Asian scholars, Farahi and Islahi, have been uniquely successful in analyzing the inner coherence of the Qur’an. Islahi’s exegetical work “Tadabbarul Qur’an” which is based on Farahi’s earlier work illustrates quite well that the Qur’anic discourse is fully connected. The chapters and the verses have a certain degree of self-sufficiency within them and also share themes with preceding and succeeding portions of the book. The Umud (themes) transcend the immediate and are applicable to all times. Another scholar, Fazalur Rahman, in his seminal work “The major themes of the Qur’an” points out that many major themes such as unity of God, unity of mankind under one God and the imperative for righteous action run through the entire Qur’an. Interestingly the inner coherence of the Qur’an makes the need for well-documented chronology of the verses seem redundant.
The Qura’n’s inimitability lies above all in its message. It informs every hope and aspiration of the believer with purpose and nobility. It is a message of both good news and warning.
“The Qur’an verily guides you to a path which is perfectly straight and announces to the believers, who do right, that for them there is a great reward.” (9.10)
It is a communication of guidance and mercy.
“A guidance and mercy to those who do good to others.”(31.3)
It is discourse full of wisdom.
“By the wise Qur’an.” (36.2)
It is a communiqué that admonishes and heals.
“We send down in the Qur’an that which is healing and a mercy.” (17.82, 41.44)
It is a dissertation that is straightforward and without any crookedness.
“An Arabic Qur’an free from ambiguity.” (39.28)
The ultimate reason for the peerless and incomparable nature of the Qur’an lies in its ultimate source the God (Allah). The guidance in the message may emanate from God alone goes beyond the limits of human reasoning and logic. It is given to humans by persuasive examples of creation, nature and history.
“Moreover the Qur’anic content is not such as could be conceived except by Allah.” (10.37, 27.6)
Fortunately for humankind this book fulfils its own predictions that it will be preserved unto eternity. It is now an indisputable fact that Qur’an in its original form is perpetually conserved word for word, syllable for syllable in the minds of Huffaz, on paper and ink, and even on hard and soft drives, floppies and CDs. Scriptures of any of the other major religious cannot make this claim. Even books that were written about the Qur’an including the earliest works of Tafsi) like Ibn Abbas’s book “The Tarjuman” are extant. It gives a new meaning to the words “lauh mahfooz” (preserved tablet) (85.22) that the Qur’an uses to describe itself.
The Arabic word used to describe the inimitability of the Qur’an is Ijaz. The root letters for Ijaz are AJZ , which semantically also mean to render powerless or to frustrate a person’s capacity to explain a phenomenon rationally. The word Muajiza (miracle) is derived from the same root. For Muslims Qur’an is a living Muajiza (miracle) that makes the use of the word Ijaz seem appropriate in describing its qualities. The uniqueness of the oral recitation (Ijazul Qirat), the ease of memorization (Ijazul Hifz), the eloquence of the language and style (Ijazul Baligha), the capacity to satisfy readers of all intellects (Ijazul Bayan), the inner coherence (Ijazul Umud) and the message of guidance (Ijazul Hidaya) make the Qur’an a book without parallel in human experience. This book that Muslims believe has Allah as the ultimate author and source of its wisdom is thankfully preserved unto eternity.