Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (3)

Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (3)

The role of the poet in pre-Islamic Arabia 

Except for a few proverbs, legends, and some magical and medicinal formulae, the bulk of the literary heritage from the pre-Islamic era was in the form of poetry.(1) Prose, which lacks the elaborate rhythm and formal structure of poetry, did not lend itself easily to memorization. Furthermore, in the absence of a developed system of writing, prose was much less easily preserved. Prose works from the pre-Islamic period were mainly genealogies (ansab) and legends dealing with inter-tribal wars (ayyam al-'arab). (2) Poetry therefore represents the main form of artistic expression during the pre-Islamic era. The significance of poetry in pre-Islamic Arabia was underscored by the annual fairs, the most famous of which was the Suq Ukaz, in which poets competed for fame and recognition through recitations of poetry. The recitations constituted the main form of entertainment at the fairs. which were cultural as well as trading events. 

The pre-Islamic poet, enjoying his enviable talent for composing poetry, played multiple roles. He was an artist, an entertainer, a journalist, and the spokesman for his tribe. Furthermore, he was the historian who kept alive the history and past glories of his tribe. His poetry provided a very effective means of propaganda and public relations. He was readily capable of influencing public opinion, and his poetry was sought by kings and tribal chiefs who generously rewarded him. In short, the poet enjoyed a very prominent status in pre-Islamic Arabia. (3)

The Inimitability of the Qur'an 

The inimitability of the Qur'an is not limited to its content. In fact, the Holy Book of Islam is held by Muslim scholars to be inimitable not only in its content but also in its language. The Qur'an, it has been constantly maintained, embodies linguistic and literary beauty which exceeds anything of human origin. This is borne out by the fact that no-one has ever been able to compose anything remotely resembling it in its linguistic, literary, or conceptual elegance.(4) This point is repeatedly emphasized in the Holy Book itself. Thus the Qur'an says: If the whole of mankind and the jinn were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur'an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed each other up.(5)

The inimitable nature of the Qur'an was recognized by generation after generation of scholars. Al-Tabari (d. 923) dealt with this subject in his voluminous study of the Holy Book.(6) Al-Zamakhshari elaborated on this theme in his famous al-Kashshaf,(7) as did Baydawi in his Tafsir. (8) AlBaqillam, a prominent scholar, wrote a book which he devoted entirely to this subject and to which he gave the title I'jaz al-Qur'an (The Inimitability of the Qur'an). (9) Here he wrote: The Qur'an is so wonderfully arranged and so marvellously composed, and so exalted is its literary excellence that it is beyond what any mere creature could attain. (10)

Al-Jawziyya, also a noted scholar, added that: Whoever knows Arabic and is acquainted with lexicography, grammar, rhetoric, and Arabic poetry and prose recognizes ipso facto the supremacy of the Qur'an(11) Ibn Khaldun also dealt with certain aspects of the style of the Qur'an: The inimitability of the Qur'an consists in the fact that its language indicates all the requirements of the situation referred to, whether they are stated or understood. This represents the highest degree of speech. In addition, the Qur'an is perfect in the choice of words and excellence of arrangement. (12)

The inimitability as well as the linguistic significance of the Qur'an can be better understood within its pre-Islamic context and according to the role language played during that period. Furthermore, the linguistic significance of the Qur'an can also be better understood within that same context. The linguistic aspect of the Holy Book was brilliantly used by the Prophet in challenging and eventually prevailing upon his fellow Arabs who held in high esteem those who were eloquent and articulate. The eloquence of the Qur'an clearly impressed and overwhelmed them. This explains why the Qur'an has been referred to as 'Muhammad's miracle', or. as the 'miracle of Islam'. The use of the power of the Qur'an as a means of persuasion was admitted by the Prophet himself and was mentioned repeatedly in the Qur'an mostly in the form of a challenge to the disbelievers to produce something similar.

On the need and justification for the Prophet to use a book such as the Qur'an, Ibn Qutayba wrote: Almighty Allah offered the Qur'an as the Prophet's sign in the same way as He offered signs for all the other prophets. He sent the things most appropriate to the time in which they were sent. Thus Moses had the power to divide the sea with his hand and rod, and to let the rock burst forth with water in the desert, and all his other signs in a time of magic. And Jesus had the power to bring the dead back to life, to make birds out of clay, to cure those who had been blind from birth and the leprous, and all his other signs in a time of medicine. And Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him salvation, had the book and all his other signs in a time of eloquence. (13)

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1. Hitti, Op. Cit., pp. 90-91. 

2. Ibid. 

3. Cheyne. Op. Cit.. pp. 56 ff 

4. A number of excellent works were devoted entirely to this aspect of tne Qur'an, e.g., al-Suyiti, al Itqan, and al-Baqillani, I'jaz al-Qur'an, Beirut, 1979.

5. (17:88) 

6. Abu Ja far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Qur'an. 

7. Mahmud b. Umar al-Zamakhashari (d. 1143). 

8. Nasr al-Din al-Baidawi (d. 1286) 

9. Al Baqillan, Op. Cit.. pp 45 ff 

10. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Kitab al-Fawai'id al-mushawwig ila •ulum al-Qur'an wa'ilm al-bayan, Cairo, 1909, pp. 7, 246. 

11. Ibn Khaldun, Op. Cit., vol. 3, 338 

12. Ibn Qutayba, Kitab Ta'wil mushkil al-Qur'an, Cairo, 1954, p. 10. 

13. Ibn Khaldun, Op. Cit., vol. 3, 1266