The inimitability of the Qur’ān (i‘jāz al-qur’ān) in transconfessional contexts of the early ῾Abbāsid period (Hans-Peter Pökel)

The project focuses on the early history of the inimitability of the Qurʼān (i῾jāz al-qur᾽ān) which is the later technical term for its theological and literary uniqueness within the framework of Arabic literature. It considers the tense relation between politics, language and ‘religion’ in the Abbasid period. Here, Muslim scholars developed arguments to consider the Qur᾽ān itself as a miracle and as a testimony for its legitimacy within the framework of interreligious communication. These intellectual endeavors were of central importance in the context of the ῾Abbāsid Empire (749-1258) and took place in a tense environment of social, intellectual and political challenges at a time, when the Qur᾽ān became an arena for public dispute, especially between the 2nd/8th and 4th/10th centuries.

The initial idea and theological warranty of an inimitable scripture is given by the Qurʼān itself: the āyāt al-taḥaddī, the challenge verses, reflect the rejection of the Qur᾽ān or parts of it by the Meccan detractors of the Prophet by identifying it as poetry. In response, they were commanded to produce something similar to the Qur᾽ān or even to its smallest unity (āya/verse). Since the question whether the challenge was met is not answered in the Qur᾽ān, Muslim scholars were much devoted to elaborate on the essential aspects of this challenging character by connecting it to the emphasized arabicity of the Qur᾽ān.

The theological and literary background of this discourse is situated in the context of Mu῾tazilī debates surrounding the ῾nature᾽ of the Qur᾽ān – whether created or not created – which reminds  from an interreligious perspective Christological disputes on the nature of the logos in the Early Church. The idea to consider the Qur᾽ān as God’s creation was the attempt to support theologically a strict monotheism (tawḥīd) which was otherwise violated by an uncreated Qur᾽ān eternal like God himself. Even if the inimitability of the Qur᾽ān was an effort of the Mu῾tazila which was at least in the core lands of the Abbasid Empire abandoned in the midst of the 3rd/9th century the inimitability of the Qur᾽ān continued to be an essential part of Muslim belief. 

It seems that the endeavor to legitimize the revelation of the Qur᾽ān was, on the one hand, an apology against polemical accusations especially from early Christians who considered the religion of Islam as a hairesis of Christianity and emphasized the lack of miracles in the mission of the prophet. Since the Qur᾽ān denies indeed any hint to miraculous signs (āyāt/dalīl) to the prophecy of Muḥammad, Muslim scholars considered the Qur᾽ān itself as a miracle of divine origin (mu῾jiza). On the other hand, it seems that the argumentative development of this discourse was a successful and necessary attempt to locate the Qur᾽ān within a continuous chain of monotheistic traditions which is already reminiscent in the Qur᾽ānic chain of prophets but which was now theologically undergirded to enable an interconfessional communication.

An extended research question is devoted to the translation of the Qur᾽ān from a historical perspective. Modern Muslims often argue with the untranslatability of the Qur᾽ān as a major proof for its inimitable character within Arabic language. While the classical discourses about the inimitability are limited to the framework of Arabic language modern interpretations emphasize the universal superiority of the Arabic Qur᾽ān. Although Muslims themselves translated the Qur᾽ān or parts of it since early Islamic history scholars have been much suspicious to the topic in order to avoid any profanation of the holy scripture in its original language.

Author: Dr. Hans-Peter Pökel