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May 21, 2015

Textual Miracles of the Qur'an

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The miracles of the Qur'an fall into two categories - those related to content and those related to the text itself.

Those related to content include verses that confirm present-day scientific facts concerning the natural physical laws governing humans, animals, plants, galaxies, stars, planets – all that exists in the universe. Included in this category are verses related to the creation of the heavens and our Earth, as well as those which teach us how to achieve happiness, physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and world peace with justice.

Those related to the text – the subject of this article – include grammatical language, diction (choice of words), inherent music (rhythm and cadence), overall style, literary merit, continuity and flow, composition into verses and chapters, the varying length of verses and chapters, and their arrangement in the final text.

1. Divine miracles attributed to the prophets and messengers who came before Muhammad were not meant to withstand the tests of time and place. For example Jesus’ miracles, such as healing the sick and raising the dead, had local eyewitnesses who recorded them for posterity. But millions, both then and now (including Muslims), could not witness these once-only events and must totally depend on faith to believe in them. By contrast, the primary miracle of Muhammad – the revealed text of the Qur’an itself – is different. It was not only presented as a miracle during his lifetime as proof that the Qur’an is of Divine origin, but is still presented as a miracle up to this very moment, more than 1400 years later.

2. Unlike the ancient Greeks, the people of Arabia during the time of Prophet Muhammad were not a writing culture. Their artistic expression and literary achievements were communicated orally, especially in the form of long poems. Annual competitions were held in which poets recited their own compositions. Only the best of these were written down and were then posted on the walls of the Ka’aba in the city of Mecca (the early Arabian equivalent of a hall of fame) until the next year’s competition. This cultural backdrop is significant, since the miraculous revelation of the Qur’an was held as proof of its Divine origin – not unlike the kind of miracles performed by Moses, which were familiar to ancient Egyptians.

4. In a tribal society like that of early Arabia, every member of every tribe was known to all the others through a long tradition of memorized ancestries. This communally shared oral database was not unlike our modern CV or resumé, in that every individual could access their personal information through the power of collective memory.

5. In the tribal context of shared memory and oral communication, Muhammad was personally known to fellow Arabians as someone who was not considered a poet prior to the age of 40 (when he first began receiving the text of the Qur’an through the angel Jibril); nor was he known to be among the very few in his society who could read and write.

6. Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an over a period of 23 years, from the age of 40 until his death at 63. This unique revelation included verses intended to answer questions, to state divine facts, to teach morality to humankind, to tell stories of creation, to record the lives of the Prophets (among them, Abraham, Moses and Jesus), to instruct humanity in the Law, etc. Throughout the entire 23 years of revelation, the level of language used in the Qur’anic texts was superb, regardless of the topical content. This “classical” Arabic, as it came to be known, captured a refined beauty whose tone and rhythm flow with an inherent music that has reached human hearts and minds for more than 14 centuries. Throughout history, millions – whether native Arabic speakers or not – have dedicated themselves (even from as young as five years) to the discipline of memorizing the Qur’an in whole or in part.

7. In spite of its linguistic beauty, however, the people of the Prophet’s time were opposed to hearing the Qur’an recited. They feared Muhammad would win converts and power, upsetting the social status quo. In retaliation, his detractors launched a smear campaign, calling the Prophet a mere poet, even though it was well known that he did not compose the Qur’an. They also levelled other false accusations, calling him insane, a false priest, a magician, and so on. But Muhammad’s foes failed to tarnish his reputation as an honest messenger of God and this was also recorded in the Qur’an for future generations to know.

8. The Arabians who opposed Muhammad then tried another strategy. They sought the help of famed poet Walid Ben Al-Mogera, who was also a highly respected noble from the Quraish, Arabia’s most powerful tribe. Al-Mogera was asked to write a work that surpassed the Qur’an, but he realized that the task was impossible and wisely refused; instead, he praised the Qur’an. But a few foolish poets did try. They failed miserably and their fake verses are still with us today.

9. In fact, the Qur’an itself challenged those who rejected its divine message and denied Muhammad as a Prophet to come up with a holy scripture of their own, either individually or collectively authored, even just one chapter. No one has ever met that challenge, from that time until the present moment.

10. The current text of the Qur’an was transmitted in written and oral form through a clearly identified chain of people, all known by name, dating from the time of the Prophet until today. Two original manuscripts are still intact; one in a museum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (which I have visited) and the other in Istanbul, Turkey.

11. Although different verses were revealed at different times, the final order of verses and chapters was given to the Prophet through divine instruction, resulting in homogenous units of text.

12. Written texts are normally revised a number of times until the authors are satisfied that the words are as close to perfect as possible. But the Qur’an is unique in that it was perfect from day one. It was orally revealed to the Prophet, who in turn recited the divine verses to copyists, who aurally received and preserved them for the faithful to read, memorize and use in their daily prayers. The tradition of Qur’anic recitation that developed among the believers of early Islam would in turn inspire Muslim Spanish theorists who founded the mathematical science of modern music.

13. Scholars have listed some 50 topics addressed in the Qur’an, all of them expressed in the same beautiful language which contains more than 20 unique literary features. Any well-established author, then or now, would testify to the utter difficulty of compiling comprehensive legal codes related, for example, to marriage and divorce, dietary guidelines, or personal hygiene in literary language as precise, clear, and musically beautiful as that used to express love, happiness, praise, etc.

14. Each chapter of the Qur’an, regardless of when or in what order its verses were transmitted, contains an introduction and conclusion.

15. One verse in the Qur’an states that the Almighty reveled the Qur'an and will protect its sacred text forever, and this what we have today.  Unlike any other religious scripture, the Qur’an is continuously memorized in its entirety by millions the world over in its original classical Arabic – the same mother tongue in which it was first revealed to Muhammad more than 1400 years ago.

16. When chanted in the ancient manner, the eloquent words of the Qur’an impress and move Muslims and non-Muslims alike, whether Arabic-speaking or not. Muslims to this day worship to the flowing cadences of Qur’anic recitation, performed in mosques by professional reciters. This scriptural music is so compelling that Islam never developed the practices of choral hymn and psalm singing that characterize services heard in synagogues and churches.

For linguists who would like to explore the textual miracles of the Qur’an more deeply, I recommend the writings of Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898–1974), Islamic Studies scholar at al-Azhar University in Egypt, especially his book in Arabic, The Qur’an: The Great Miracle.

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