Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Has the Quran’s Challenge Been Met? Pt. 3

Sam Shamoun

We now come to the fifth and final problem with Ally’s claims.

The challenge of the Quran to produce something similar is purely subjective, since which Muslim would or could ever admit that the challenge has been met when to do so would basically take one outside of the fold of Islam? Besides, the challenge is directed to the disbelievers, not to Muslims:

Or do they say: "He (Muhammad) has forged it?" Say: "Bring then a Surah (chapter) like unto it, and call upon whomsoever you can, besides Allah, if you are truthful!" S. 10:38 Hilali-Khan

Or they say, "He (Prophet Muhammad) forged it (the Qur'an)." Say: "Bring you then ten forged Surah (chapters) like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than Allah (to your help), if you speak the truth!" S. 11:13 – cf. Q. 2:23-24; 17:88

This means that it is left up to the disbelievers to decide whether this challenge has been met, not the Muslims. And, unfortunately for Ally and his fellow cohorts, the unbelievers have long held that it has not only been met, but in some cases the Quran has even been surpassed by other literary works:

"Among the Moslem scholars of the early period, before bigotry and hyperbole prevailed, were some such as Ebrahim on-Nazzam who openly acknowledged that the arrangement and syntax of the Qor'an are not miraculous and that work of equal or greater value could be produced by other God-fearing persons." (Ali Dashti, Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, translated from Persian by F.R.C. Bagley [Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, CA 1994], p. 48)

"It is widely held that the blind Syrian poet Abu'l-`Ala ol-Ma'arri (368/979-450/1058) wrote his Ketab ol-fosul wa' l-ghayat, of which a part survives, in imitation of the Qor'an." (Ibid., p. 48)

Ali Dashti also demonstrates why the Quran’s structure or moral instructions are far from being miraculous: 

"The Qor'an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words, and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Qor'an's eloquence. The problem also occupied the minds of devout Moslems. It forced the commentators to search for explanations and was probably one of the causes of disagreement over readings." (Ibid., pp. 48-49)

"To sum up, more than one hundred Qor'anic aberrations from the normal rules and structure of Arabic have been noted. Needless to say, the commentators strove to find explanations and justifications for these irregularities.

"Among them was the great commentator and philologist Mahmud oz-Zamakhshari (467/1075-538/1144), of whom a Moorish author wrote: ‘This grammar-obsessed pedant has committed a shocking error. Our task is not to make the readings conform to Arabic grammar, but to take the whole of the Qor'an as it is and make the Arabic grammar conform to the Qor'an.’

"Up to a point this argument is justifiable. A nation's great speakers and writers respect the rules of its language in so far as they avoid modes of expression which are not generally understood and popularly accepted, though they may occasionally find themselves obliged to take liberties. Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, rhetoric and poetry were well developed and grammatical conventions were already established. The Qor'an, being in the belief of Moslems superior to all previous products of the rhetorical genius, must contain the fewest irregularities.

"Yet the Moorish author's censure of Zamakhshari is open to criticism on the ground that it reverses the usual argument. This is that the Qor'an is God's word because it has a sublime eloquence which no human being can match, and that the man who uttered it was therefore a prophet. The Moorish author maintained that the Qor'an is faultless because it is God's word and that the problem of the grammatical errors in it must be solved by changing the rules of Arabic grammar. In other words, while most Moslems answer deniers by citing the Qor'an's eloquence as proof of Mohammad's prophethood, the Moorish author, having taken the Qor'an's divine origin and Mohammad's prophethood for granted, held all discussion of the Qor'an's wording and contents to be inadmissible." (Ibid., pp. 50-51)

"In the field of moral teachings, however, the Qor'an cannot be considered miraculous. Mohammad reiterated principles which mankind had already conceived in earlier centuries and many places. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus had said similar things." (Ibid., p. 54)

"Neither the Qor'an's eloquence nor its moral and legal precepts are miraculous. The Qor'an is miraculous because it enabled Mohammad, single-handedly and despite poverty and illiteracy, to overcome his people's resistance and found a lasting religion because it moved wild men to obedience and imposed its bringer's will on them." (Ibid., p. 57)

Dashti wasn’t the only scholar to note these problems:

“There are indeed many roughnesses of this kind, and these, it is here claimed, are fundamental evidence for revision. Besides the points already noticed – hidden rhymes, and rhyme-phrases not woven into the texture of the passage – there are the following: abrupt changes of rhyme; repetition of the same rhyme word or rhyme phrase in adjoining verses; the intrusion of an extraneous subject into a passage otherwise homogeneous; a differing treatment of the same subject in neighboring verses, often with repetition of words and phrases; breaks in grammatical construction which raise difficulties in exegesis; abrupt changes in the length of verses; sudden changes of the dramatic situation, with changes of pronoun from singular to plural, from second to third person, and so on; the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory statements; the juxtaposition of passages of different date, with the intrusion of late phrases into early verses. In many cases a passage has alternative continuations which follow one another in the present text. The second of the alternatives is marked by a break in sense and by a break in grammatical construction, since the connection is not with what immediately precedes, but with what stands some distance back.” (Bell & Watt, Introduction to the Quran [Edinburgh, 1977], p. 93 – cited by Ibn Warraq in Why I am not a Muslim [Prometheus Books; Amherst NY, 1995], pp. 112-113)

Another person who met the challenge was Al-Nadr b. al-Harith, a contemporary of Muhammad’s:

When Abu Jahl said that to them, Al-Nadr b. al-Harith b. Kalada b. `Alqama b. Abdu Manaf b. Abdu'l-Dar b. Qusayy got up and said: 'O Quraysh, a situation has arisen which you cannot deal with. Muhammad was a young man most liked among you, most truthful in speech, and most trustworthy, until, when you saw grey hairs on his temple, and he brought you his message, you said he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we have seen such people and their spitting and their knots; you said, a diviner, but we have seen such people and their behaviour, and we have heard their rhymes; and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we have heard all kinds of poetry; you said he was possessed, but he is not, for we have seen the possessed, and he shows no signs of their gasping and whispering and delirium. Ye men of Quraysh, look to your affairs, for by God, a serious thing has befallen you.' Now al-Nadr b. al-Harith was one of the satans of Quraysh; he used to insult the apostle and show him enmity. He had been to al-Hira and learnt there the tales of the kings of Persia, the tales of Rustum and Isbandiyar. When the apostle had held a meeting in which he reminded them of God, and warned his people of what had happened to bygone generations as a result of God's vengeance, al-Nadr got up when he sat down, and said, 'I can tell a better story than he, come to me.' Then he began to tell them about the kings of Persia, Rustum and Isbandiyar, and then he would say, 'In what respect is Muhammad a better story-teller than I?' (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], pp. 135-136)

In fact, Muhammad even had verses composed rebuking al-Nadr for his assertions:

Al-Nadr b. al-Harith b. `Alqama b. Kalada b. `Abdu Manaf whenever the apostle sat in an assembly and invited people to God, and recited the Quran, and warned the Quraysh of what had happened to former peoples, followed him when he got up and spoke to them about Rustum the Hero and Isfandiyar and the kings of Persia, saying, ‘By God, Muhammad cannot tell a better story than I and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied as I have.’ So God revealed concerning him, ‘And they say, Stories of the ancients which he has copied down, and they are read to him morning and night. Say, He who knows the secrets of heaven and earth has sent it down. Verily, He is merciful, forgiving.’ [Sura 83.13]

And there came down concerning him, ‘When Our verses are read to him he says, fables of the ancients’. [Sura 83.13]

And again, ‘Woe to every sinful liar who hears God's verses read before him. Then he continues in pride as though he had not heard them, as though in his ears was deafness. Tell him about a painful punishment’. [Sura 45.7] (Ibid., pp. 162-163; bold emphasis ours)

Not surprisingly, Muhammad had al-Nadr killed shortly thereafter:

“… When the apostle was in al-Safra', al-Nadr was killed by `Ali, as a learned Meccan told me. When he was in `Irqu'l-Zabya `Uqba was killed. He had been captured by `Abdullah b. Salima, one of the B. al-`Ajlan.

“When the apostle ordered him to be killed `Uqba said, 'But who will look after my children?' 'Hell', he said, and `Asim b. Thabit b. Abu'l-Aqlah al-Ansari killed him according to what Abu `Ubayda b. Muhammad b. `Ammar b. Yasir told me.” (Ibid., pp. 308; bold emphasis ours)

Now as far as The True Furqan is concerned, there have been cases where Muslims actually thought they were reading or hearing the Quran. Moreover, there have been many non-Muslims that speak Arabic, including an Ivy League scholar of Arabic, who actually claim that it not only matches the Quran, but actually surpasses it in some aspects. As Christian scholar and apologist Dr. Michael Licona explains in an interview he did with Lee Strobel for his book, The Case For the Real Jesus:  

“The Qur’an provides a test for people to verify its divine origin: gather the wisest people in the world and call upon the jinn, which are similar to demons but without necessarily all the negative connotations, and try to write a surah, or chapter, that's as good as one in the Qura’n. The implication, of course, is that this can't be done.”

“Do you think it can be?”

“I think so, rather easily. One person who speaks Arabic wrote what he calls The True Furqan, in which he maintains the style of the Qur’an in Arabic but with a message that's more Christian than Islamic. Some Muslims heard portions of it read and were convinced that it was the Qur’an! One scholar in Arabic dialects told me that some of the classical Arabic in The True Furqan was much more beautiful than anything he had read in the Qur'an. So I guess the test has been passed. For those of us who can't read Arabic – which, by the way, includes about 80 percent of the Muslim world – we can perform a test by comparing the first surah of the Qur'an to Psalm 19 of the Bible.”…

“But,” I pointed out, “Muslims would say you've got to read the surah in Arabic because it's got a particularly beautiful flow in that language.”

“I’d reply, ‘Can you read Hebrew?’” said Licona. “If not, how do you know that the Arabic is better than the Hebrew song, which has a flowing rhythm similar to the surah? It really comes down to what language sounds best to you, sort of like choosing between McDonalds and Burger King. It's very subjective, don't you think? That's why it's not a good test of the Qur'an's divine nature.” (Strobel, The Case For the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 2007], Challenge #3, Part 2: The Cross-Examination, pp. 129, 131; bold emphasis ours) 

The following Christian writer commented on Licona’s appeal to The True Furqan and a Muslim apologist’s attempt of undermining it:

9. The True Furqan—Still an Unanswered Challenge

At least, the answers Ali Ataie provides in his rebuttal document don’t work.

First, he argues that the Qur’an is inimitable in Arabic. That is, think what we might about the loveliness of the Qur’an when translated into English, but without reading it in its original Arabic, we cannot appreciate its inimitability.

A. As Licona explained in the debate, he asked an Ivy League scholar of Arabic Dialects to read the True Furqan and to compare it to the Qur’an. This professor, who wished to remain anonymous, stated:

"It seems to me that the Arabic in The True Furqan is good. It does not have any obscure terms like the Qur'an. And in some places it seems more beautiful to me than anything I have seen in the Qur'an."

So how does Ataie’s first response work here? A man fluent in the Arabic of the Qur’an concludes that the True Furqan is "more beautiful to (him) than anything (he has) seen in the Qur’an." What is the Muslim response? "This guy is wrong"? He’s qualified to issue an opinion on the original Arabic of the Qur’an and compare it to that of the True Furqan. And this opinion is that the True Furqan passes the test. If the only response is to discount such a well-informed opinion, then the Qur’an isn’t issuing a very fair test, is it? It might as well simply state, "If you don’t believe the Qur’an is of God, you are wrong."

Second, Ataie argues that the True Furqan plagiarizes the Qur’an. (And if it did, then I grant the rest of the Ataie’s argument—it would indeed fail the challenge that the Qur’an itself poses.)

B. One of the points and value of Licona’s quoting the first surahs of both works is to demonstrate that the True Furqan does not plagiarize the Qur’an. The two quoted surahs bear absolutely zero resemblance to one another in content. And so he has absolutely zero grounds for claiming that it is plagiarized. Of course, the True Furqan is written in poetic and narrative forms similar to the Qur’an. But this isn’t plagiarism any more than is a sonnet written after Shakespeare wrote his.

Third, Ali writes, "Some poor Arab Christian on his last evangelical leg decided to plagiarize many of the chapters of the actual Qur’an and made minor changes in order to ‘Christianize’ the text. The despicability and deception of such a move is surpassed only by its desperation. The Bible isn’t working for them; they have to use OUR scripture in order to convert people to their religion. I’m flattered, but still very offended."

C. I can understand why he’s offended. I don’t blame him for it. But of course, in exchanges between two religions that profess mutually exclusive claims, parties on both sides are bound to be offended. (I wonder whether Ali Ataie would be so understanding of Christians who might be offended by his own "Gospel" in which he chops up the 4 Gospels of the Bible and mashes certain pieces together with certain invention of his own.) Furthermore, I respect Ataie’s approach to handling this offense: he writes online and evangelizes in person, sharing his arguments and reasons for believing as he does.

But this remains to be said: Even as he expresses his offense, Ataie seems to dodge the implications of the True Furqan’s success. People are reading this book. Muslims are reading this book. Muslims who know Arabic are reading it in Arabic. And worldwide, this book is having an un-nerving effect: Muslims often mistake it for the Qur’an itself. If the True Furqan failed the challenge that the Qur’an itself poses, people would not be making this mistake.

D. Again, I ask why Ali Ataie didn’t attempt this rebuttal in the debate itself, where Licona first raises the issue of the True Furqan. (Amy Sayers, "Jesus: Resurrected or Rescued?" A Review of the Debate Between Mike Licona and Ali Ataie; underline emphasis ours)

With the foregoing in perspective, Ally is going to have the face the music and accept the fact that the disbelievers are not at all impressed with the Quran’s highly subjective challenge to match it, since the unbelievers have produced works which they feel are not only equal to the Quran, but actually far superior, especially in terms of grammar and eloquence, as well as spiritual and ethical instructions.

So much for Ally’s criticism of The True Furqan.


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