Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (2)

Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (2)

The Qur'an: The Prophet's strongest argument 

It has often been argued that the Qur'an is not only the first book, and the highest linguistic achievement, of the Arabic language, but that it is also Muhammad's strongest argument against those who doubted his Message. The question that needs to be addressed here concerns the reason why a holy book, a composition of language, should be hailed as Islam's (and Muhammad's) strongest argument.(1) The point has sometimes been made that other prophets had more tangible miracles. In the case of Muhammad, however, the miracle was not comparable to Moses' staff or Christ's healing powers, but was simply the expression in language of the Qur'an. 

To understand why Muhammad's strongest argument or miracle was a book, the Holy Qur'an, it is necessary to understand the role language and linguistic composition played in the lives of the pre-Islamic Arabs. It is also important to understand the nature of the Arabic language itself during the pre-Islamic period. This understanding will help to show why the revelation of the Qur'an through Muhammad found attentive ears among his contemporaries, who not only were articulate users of the language but also held those skilled in the arts of linguistic composition in high esteem.(2)  

The role played by language in Pre-Islamic Arabia 

Before the rise of Islam, Arabic was mainly a spoken language with an oral literature of elaborate poetry and, to a lesser extent, prose.(3) Writing had not yet fully developed and memorization was the most common means of preserving the literature.(4) Both poetry and prose in the pre-Islamic era dealt with a rather limited range of topics which included in the case of poetry praise, eulogy (panegyric), defamation, and love, and in the case of prose superstition, legends, parables, and wisdom tales.(5) Pre-Islamic Arabs took great pride in their language and in articulate and accurate speech, the latter being one of the main requisites for social prominence. On this particular point, Professor Hitti writes: No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such an irresistible influence as Arabic. (6) 

What made this phenomenon even more remarkable is the near absence of other forms of artistic expression such as music, painting, and drama. The sole elaborate form of artistic expression available to the pre-Islamic Arabs was the art of the spoken word. (7) Eloquence and the ability to compose articulate prose or poetry were foremost among the traits of a worthy Bedouin. (8) Other such traits included horsemanship, courage, and hospitality. With its very nature and structure, its abundance of imagery, vocabulary, and figures of speech, the Arabic language lent itself to elaborate poetic composition and sonorous prose. The tremendous quantity of poetry that we have inherited attests to the significant role language played in pre-Islamic Arabia. In fact, the role language and poetry played was so important that other fields of study which developed during the first centuries of the Islamic era were greatly influenced by the then established study of poetic literature. (9) 

The importance of poetry for that era is clearly manifest in the writings of scholars from subsequent centuries. Al-Jahiz (d. 869), for instance, quotes poetic works in his famous al-Bayan wa l-Tabyin. (10) The grammarian al-Asma'i (d. c. 830) used the term fasih (articulate) in reference to the poets whom he quotes. The following quotation from Ibn Rashiq further illustrates the importance attached to linguistic skills in pre-Islamic Arabia. He writes: Whenever a poet emerged in an Arab tribe, other tribes would come to congratulate, feasts would be prepared, the women would join together on lutes as they do at weddings, and old and young men would all rejoice at the good news. The Arabs used to congratulate each other only on the birth of a child and when a poet rose among them.(11)

In his 'Uyun al-Akhbar, Ibn Qutayba defined poetry as follows: Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs and the book of their wisdom, the archive of their history and the reservoir of their epic days, the wall that defends their exploits, the impassable trench that preserves their glories, the impartial witness for the day of judgement.(12) Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), a notable scholar of the fourteenth century, remarked on the importance of poetry in Arab life: It should be known that Arabs thought highly of poetry as a form of speech. Therefore, they made it the archives of their history, the evidence for what they considered right and wrong, and the principal basis of reference for most of their sciences and wisdom.(13) Almost four centuries earlier, Ibn Faris (d. 1005) elaborated on the same theme, but went further to comment on the quality of the poetry that was composed during the pre-Islamic era: Poetry is the archive of the Arabs; in it their genealogies have been preserved; it sheds light on the darkest and strangest things found in the Book of God and in the tradition of God's apostle and that of his companions. Perhaps a poem may be luckier than another, and one poem sweeter and more elegant than another, but none of the ancient poems lacks its degree of excellence. (14)

Such was the role that the spoken word played in the life of pre-Islamic Arabs. With the emphasis placed on eloquent and articulate speech, the prominent position occupied by those who had the talent for linguistic composition, and the pride the early Arabs took in their language, it is little wonder that the Qur'an was revealed in the most eloquent, articulate, and elaborate style the Arabic language has known. The Qur'an has without doubt provided a level of linguistic excellence unparalleled in the history of the Arabic language. Theologians explain this phenomenon as God's wisdom in addressing the articulate Arabs through the medium in which they were most adept and with which they felt most comfortable. The effectiveness of the Qur'an was thus ensured by the fact that it represented a level of eloquence unattainable even by their most eloquent speakers. The Qur'an remains a book of inimitable quality, not only from a linguistic, but also from and intellectual, point of view. When Muhammad was challenged by his fellow countrymen to present a miracle, in keeping with the tradition of other prophets, he presented the Qur'an to them. The inimitability of the Qur'an is repeatedly emphasized in the Holy Book itself. Thus the Qur'an challenges the disbelievers: And if you are in doubt as to what we have revealed, then produce a surah like unto it (15).(16) 

A yet stronger challenge occurs in another chapter: Or do they say: 'He forged it'? Say: 'Bring then a surah like unto it and call [to your aid] anyone you can.(17)

Continue in the next article: ( Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (3) )

Notes:

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1. On this subject, see Taha Husayn's excellent argument in his Mir'at al-Islam, pp. 125 ff., and Sayyid Qutbs Al-Taswir al-fanni fi l-Qur'an, chs. 1-3. 

2. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, London, 1967, pp. 87 ff.

3. Cheyne, Op. Cit., ch. 4, pp. 52 ff. 

4. Ibid. ,ch. 4, pp. 52 ff. 

5. Ibid. 

6. Hitti, Op. Cit., pp. 90 ff. 

7. Ibrahim Anis, Fi l-lahajat al'arabiyya, Cairo, 1962, ch. 2, pp. 33 ff. 

8. Vicente Cantarino, Arabic poetics in the golden age, Leiden, 1975, pp. 17 ff. 

9. Ibid., ch. 1, pp. 9 ff. 

10. Al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Bayan, Cairo, 1965 

11. Ibn Rashiq, 'Umda, Cairo, 1934, vol. 1, 65; also in al-Suyuti, Muzhir,Cairo, n.d., vol. 2, 203. 

12. Ibn Qutayba, 'Uyun al-akhbar, Cairo, 1964, vol. 2, 185. 

13. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddima, vol. 3, 375. 

14. Al-Suyuti, Op. Cit., vol. 2, 291. 

15. (2: 23)

16. All Qur'anic quotations are taken, with some modification, from the translation of Yusuf A. Ali, The Holy Qur'an, London, 1983.

17. (10: 38)