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The Inimitable Language of the Qur’an
Dr. Dildar Ahmed


The Qur’an, the Islamic Holy Book, has been recognized by the scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as inimitable not only in its contents but also in its language and style. In this paper, an attempt has been made to underline some of the linguistic beauties of the Qur’an in the light of views and comments of some eminent Qur’anic scholars.

The Qur’an is a Linguistic Miracle

The Holy Qur’an is unique not only in its meaning, thought and message but also in its form, intonation and diction. Revealed more than fourteen hundred years ago to the Prophet Muhammad (sws), it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of literature. The unmatched beauty and power of its language, rhythm and cadences have inspired Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. The French scholar Paul Casanova, thus, pays his tributes to the miraculous language of the Qur’an in the following words: “Whenever Muhammad was asked a miracle, as a proof of the authenticity of his mission, he quoted the composition of the Qur’an and its incomparable excellence as proof of its Divine origin. And, in fact, even for those who are non-Muslims nothing is more marvellous than its language which with such a apprehensible plenitude and grasping sonority with its simple audition ravished with admiration those primitive peoples so fond of eloquence. The ampleness of its syllables with a grandiose cadence and with a remarkable rhythm have been of much moment(um) in the conversion of the most hostile and the most sceptical.”1 Regarding the style and the structure of the Qur’an, Dr Fadl al-Rahman Ansari, the eminent theologian, observes: “The problem may be viewed in three dimensions, namely, (i) intonation, (ii) diction, and (iii) thought, and the Qur’an is inimitable and unique in each.”2. The Holy Qur’an’s “depths in the dimension of meaning and its heights in respect of grandeur are simply immeasurable by human genius”, he continues. The American scholar Harry Gaylord Dorman regards the style of the Qur’an as a miracle: “It (the Qur’an) is a literal revelation of God, dictated to Muhammad by Gabriel, perfect in every letter. It is an ever-present miracle witnessing to itself and to Muhammad, the Prophet of God. Its miraculous quality resides partly in its style so perfect and lofty that neither men nor jinn could produce a single chapter to compare with its briefest chapter, and partly in its content of teaching, prophecies about the future, and amazingly accurate information such as the illiterate Muhammad could never have gathered of his own accord.”3

The Inimitable Language of the Qur’an

Linguistically, the Qur’an is neither poetry nor prose but it draws the beautiful qualities of both in such a splendid manner that it is more elegant than poetry and more fluent that prose. In the preface of his translation of the Qur’an, Ahmed ‘Ali describes the beauty of the Qur’anic language in these words: “The Qur’anic Arabic is distinguished by sublimity and excellence of sound and eloquence, rhetoric and metaphor, assonance and alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhyme, ellipse and parallelism. Its cadences and rhythm, pauses and stops, imply eloquent speech and duration.”4

The Qur’an is incomparable in its style. In all kinds of expression and address such as encouragement, dissuasion, praise, censure, demonstration and explanation, the exposition of the Qur’an is of the highest degree. It has such sweetness and pleasure that no human tongue can resemble it. It is a recognized fact that the Qur’an did not follow the unnatural rhetorical style in vogue at the time of its revelation. Instead of following the most favourite themes of romance and military expeditions of the time, the Qur’an introduced a wide range of subjects related to various aspects of individual and collective life such as spiritual, ethical, social, economic, political, and legal etc.

The Impact of the Qur’an on the Arabic Language

The unparalleled sublimity of the language of the Qur’an has put an enduring impact on the Arabic language itself and has endowed it with a unique position among other languages. According to the French Orientalist, Ernest Renan (1823-1894): “The Arabic language is the most astonishing event of human history. Unknown during the classical period, it suddenly emerged as a complete language. After this, it did not undergo any noticeable changes, so one cannot define for it an early or a late stage. It is just the same today as it was when it first appeared.”5 This is actually an acknowledgement of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, which has been recognized by both the scholars of the past and the present. Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914), for instance, says: “No religious book has had such an impact on the language in which it was written as the Qur’an has had on Arabic literature.”6 The noted American historian and author of the famous “The 100”, Michael Hart gives his opinion in the following words: “The centrality of the Koran in the Moslem religion and the fact it is written in Arabic have probably prevented the Arab language from breaking up into mutually unintelligible dialects, which might otherwise have occurred in the intervening thirteen centuries.”7 Gorge Sale, the well-known orientalist and translator of the Qur’an, regards the language of the Qur’an as “the standard of the Arabic tongue”.8

A Challenge to Unbelievers

The Qur’an has challenged the disbelievers that if any one thinks that it is a product of human imagination and not a Divinely revealed book, then he should do his best and make all possible efforts to produce ten surahs, or even a single surah, of similar merit. The challenge appears at four different places: 2:23-24, 10:38, 11:13-14, and 17:88:

And if you doubt any part of what We have bestowed from on high, step by step, upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah of similar merit, and call upon any other than God to bear witness for you- if what you say is true! And if you cannot do it – and most certainly you cannot do it- then be conscious of the fire whose fuel is human beings and stones which awaits all who deny the truth! (2:23-24)

And yet, they [who are bent on denying the truth] assert, “He [Muhammad] has invented it!” Say [unto them]: “Produce, then, a surah of similar merit; and [to this end] call to your aid whomever you can, other than God, if what you say is true! (10:38)

And so they assert, [Muhammad himself] has invented this [Qur’an]! Say [unto them]: “Produce, then, ten surahs of similar merit, invented [by yourselves], and [to this end] call to your aid whomever you can, other than God, if what you say is true! And if they [whom you have called to your aid] are not able to help you, then know that [this Qur’an] has been bestowed from on high out of God’s wisdom alone, and that there is no deity save Him. Will you, then, surrender yourselves unto Him?” (11:13-14)

Say: “If all mankind and all invisible beings would come together with a view to producing the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce its like even though they were to exert all their strength in aiding one another!” (17:88)

There have been a number of people, like Musaylamah Ibn Habib, Tulayhah Ibn Khuwaylid, Nadhr Ibn al-Harith, Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu al-‘Ala al-Ma‘arri, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, al-Mutanabbi, who did attempt to produce a book equal to the Qur’an but they failed miserably and ultimately had to admit that it was simply not possible to produce the like of the Divine Book. In fact, their efforts look ridiculous when compared with the literary majesty of the Qur’an. F.F. Arbuthnot remarks: “From the literary point of view, the Qur’an is regarded as a specimen of the purest Arabic, written in half poetry and half prose. It has been said that in some cases grammarians have adopted their rules to agree with certain phrases and expressions used in it, 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.”9

In his commentary on the Qur’an, Sheikh Tantawi Jawhri narrates an amazing story demonstrating the inimitability of the Qur’an. He says that an Egyptian writer, Kamil Gilani told him that one day he was with an American orientalist called Finkle, with whom he enjoyed a deep intellectual relationship. “Tell me, are you still among those who consider the Qur’an a miracle?” Whispered Finkle in Gilani’s ear, adding a laugh to indicate his ridicule of such belief. He thought that Muslims could only hold this belief in blind faith. It could not be based on any sound, objective reasoning. “Before issuing any pronouncement on the style of the Qur’an,” Gilani said, “We should first have a look and see if we can produce anything comparable to it.”

Gilani then invited Finkle to join him in putting a Qur’anic idea into Arabic words. The idea he chose was: “Hell is extremely vast.” Finkle agreed, and both men sat down with pen and paper. They produced about twenty Arabic sentences. ‘Hell is extremely vast,’ ‘Hell is vaster than you can imagine,’ ‘Man’s intellect cannot fathom the vastness of Hell,’ were some of the sentences they produced. They tried until they could think of no other sentence to express this idea. Gilani looked at Finkle triumphantly. “Now that we have done our best, we shall be able to see how the Qur’an stands above all works of men,” he said. “What, has the Qur’an expressed this idea more eloquently?” Finkle enquired. “We are like little children compared to the Qur’an,” Gilani told him. Amazed, Finkle asked what was in the Qur’an. Gilani recited this verse from surah Qaf: On that Day We will ask Hell: “Are you full?” And Hell will answer: “Are there any more?” (50:30). Finkle was startled on hearing this verse. Amazed at the supreme eloquence of the Qur’an, he openly admitted defeat. “For you to acknowledge the truth,” Gilani replied, “is nothing strange, for you are a man of letters, well aware of the importance of style in language.” This particular Orientalist was fluent in English, German, Hebrew and Arabic, and had spent all his life studying the literature of these languages.” 10

The Qur’an is Untranslatable

The language of the Qur’an is so unsurpassable in its expression as well as meaning that it is not possible for a translator or commentator to translate it completely into any other language. The fact is that it is simply impossible for a mortal human being to encompass the eternal Word of God. The view is shared by all the great scholars and translators of the Qur’an. Marmaduke Pickthall, the renowned English translator of the Qur’an, observes in the foreword of his translation: “The Qur’an cannot be translated. That is the belief of old-fashioned sheikhs and the view of the present writer. The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sound of which moves men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur’an – and peradventure something of the charm-in English. It can never take place of the Qur’an in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”11

Muhammad Asad, one of the great Qur’anic translators, exegete and scholars of modern times, regards it as “impossible to ‘reproduce’ the Qur’an as such in any other language.”12 Regarding his own translation, he says: “I am fully aware that my rendering does not and could not really ‘do justice’ to the Qur’an and the layers upon layers of its meaning.”13 He further remarks that “let the reader remember that the very uniqueness of the Qur’an consists in the fact that the more our worldly knowledge and historical experience increase, the more meanings, hitherto unsuspected, reveal themselves in its pages.”14 And, “The longer I worked on this holy task, the more I realized how distant any human intellect is –and always be – from a complete understanding of the Word of God.”15 ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, the famous English exegete of the Qur’an, is reported to have once said: “The best translator of the Qur’an is Time.”16 Another modern translator of the Qur’an, Arthur J. Arberry, has made similar comments; he observes, “In making the present attempt… to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Koran, I have been at pains to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which-apart from the message itself-constitute the Koran’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind…” This very characteristic feature—“that inimitable symphony” as the believing Pickthall described his Holy Book—has been almost totally ignored by previous translators; it is therefore not surprising that what they have wrought sounds dull and flat indeed in comparison with the splendidly decorated original.”17 The French scholar Edward Montet declares: “the Coran (Qur’an)… its grandeur of form is so sublime that no translation into any European language can allow us to appreciate it.”18 John Naish, a Christian clergyman, recognizes the fact in the following words: “The Qur’an in its original Arabic dress has a seductive beauty and charm of its own. Couched in concise and exalted style, its brief pregnant sentences, often rhymed, possess an expressive force and explosive energy which it is extremely difficult to convey by literal word for word translation.”19

The Qur’an at a number of places introduces itself as a book of guidance for the entire humanity as, for example, in surah Baqarah, it says:

It is the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was revealed, which is the Guidance for humankind, and has all clear signs for guidance and is a criterion [to judge between right and wrong]. (2:185)

It is, therefore, the duty of every Muslim to read and understand it, and communicate its message to others according to his or her capacity. A translation of the Qur’an is certainly not equivalent to the Qur’an but it is indeed a means to approach its message if we do not know Arabic. That is why its scholars have always been trying to render the message of the Qur’an into other languages and it has been translated into almost all major languages of the world. In English alone, there exist more than thirty translations of the Qur’an today, which have been done by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. In the words of Hamilton Gibb:

As a literary monument, the Koran [Qur’an] 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.20










1. Paul Casanova, L’Enseignement de I’Arabe au College de France (The Arab Teaching at the College of France), in Lecon d’overture, 26 April 1909.

2. Fadl al-Rahman Ansari, The Qur’anic Foundation and Structure of Muslim Society, vol.1 (Karachi: Indus Educational Foundation), 85.

3. Harry Gaylord Dorman, Towards Understanding Islam (New York: 1948), 3.

4. Ahmed ‘Ali, Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation (Karachi: Akrash Publication, 1993), 7.

5. Mawlana Wahiduddin Khan, Qur’an: the Miracle of Prophet, at: 6.Ibid.

7. Michael Hart, The 100 (: London: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 9.

8. George Sale, The Koran: The Preliminary Discourse (London & New York: 1891), 47.

9. F. F. Arbuthnot, The Construction of the Bible and the Koran (London: 1985), 5.

10. Sheikh Tantawi Jawhari, al-Jawahir fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim, vol. 23, 111.

11. Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation (New York: 1961), vii

12. Muhammad Asad, Foreword, The Message of the Qur’an (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus Limited, 1980), v.

13. Ibid., viii.

14. Ibid., vii.

15. Malise Ruthven, Muhammad Asad: Ambassador of Islam, 62, cf. Islamic Studies, vol. 39 (Islamabad : IRI), 186.

16. Isma’il Ibrahim Nawwab, A Matter of Love: Muhammad Asad and Islam, Islamic Studies, vol. 39 (Islamabad: IRI), 186.

17. Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), x.

18. Edward Montet, Traduction Francaise du Coran (Paris: 1929), 53.

19. John Naish, M. A. (Oxon), D. D., The Wisdom of the Qur’an (Oxford: 1937), viii.

20. H. A. R. Gibb, Arabic Literature-An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 36.

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