The Qur'an challenge

Know Islam, Know Paradise


In response to a Christian who honestly and innocently sent me psalm23 to counter the Quran challenge to produce a chapter like unto it… Someone sent me this, so I’m sharing



The Qur’an in many places challenges the people to produce a surah like it. It appears that the Christian missionaries who call the challenge irrelevant or an utterly subjective criterion are pretty much unaware of how the Arabic poetry and prose compare with the Qur’an. This article is devoted to deal with one aspect of the Qur’anic challenge to produce a surah like it. What is meant by surah like it with respect to the Arabic prose and poetry?


The verses of the Qur’an dealing with the challenge are given below (Hilali and Muhsin Khan’s Translation):


Say: “If the mankind and the jinns were together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they helped one another.” [Qur’an 17:88]

And if you (Arab pagans, Jews, and Christians) are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down (i.e. the Qur’an) to Our slave (Muhammad Peace be upon him), then produce a surah (chapter) of the like thereof and call your witnesses (supporters and helpers) besides Allah, if you are truthful. [Qur’an 2:23]

And this Qur’an is not such as could ever be produced by other than Allah (Lord of the heavens and the earth), but it is a confirmation of (the revelation) which was before it [i.e. the Taurat (Torah), and the Injeel (Gospel), etc.], and a full explanation of the Book (i.e. laws and orders, etc, decreed for mankind) – wherein there is no doubt from the Lord of the ‘Alamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists).

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!” [Qur’an 10:37-38]

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!” [Qur’an 11:13]

Or do they say: “He (Muhammad) has forged it (this Qur’an)?” Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recital like unto it (the Qur’an) if they are truthful. [Qur’an 52:33-34]


Abdur Rahim Green mentions that:

These are the sixteen al-Bihar (literally “The Seas”, so called because of the way the poem moves, according to its rhythmic patterns): at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafif, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, alMuktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madid, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria’. So the challenge is to produce in Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen Bihar, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook. Now I think at least the Christian’s “Holy spirit” that makes you talk in tongues, part of your “TriUnity” of God should be able to inspire one of you with that!

To begin with; the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. One of them is rhymed poetry. It is a speech with metre and rhyme, which means every line of it ends upon a definite letter, which is called the ‘rhyme’. This rhymed poetry is again divided into metres or what is called as al-Bihar, literally meaning ‘The Seas’. This is so called because of the way the poetry moves according to the rhythmic patterns. There are sixteen al-Bihar viz; at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafif, al-Hazaj, alMuttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, alMadid, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria’. Each one rhymes differently. For metres of Arabic poetry please see Lyall’s book Translations Of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic. [1] He discusses al-Kamil, alWafir, al-Hajaz, at-Tawil, al Bassit, al-Khafif and al-Madid briefly. [2]


The other branch of Arabic speech is prose, that is nonmetrical speech. The prose may be a rhymed prose. Rhymed prose consists of cola ending on the same rhyme throughout, or of sentences rhymed in pairs. This is called “rhymed prose” or sajc. Prose may also be straight prose (mursal). In straight prose, the speech goes on and is not divided in cola, but is continued straight through without any divisions, either of rhyme or of anything else. Prose is employed in sermons and prayers and in speeches intended to encourage or frighten the masses. [3] One of the most famous speeches involving sajc is that of Hajjaj bin Yusuf in his first deputation in Iraq in post-Islamic and Quss bin Sa’idah in pre-Islamic times.


So, the challenge, as Abdur Rahim Green mentions, is to produce in Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen al-Bihar, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook. Indeed, the Qur’an is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of sajc, and both are rhymed, while some verses have a similarity to Rajaz in its vigour and rapidity. But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category. [4]

It is interesting to know that all the pre-Islam and post Islamic poetry collected by Louis Cheikho falls in the above sixteen metres or al-Bihar. [5] Indeed the pagans of Mecca repeatedly accuse Prophet Muhammad(P) for being a forger, a soothsayer etc. The Arabs who were at the pinnacle of their poetry and prose during the time of revelation of the Qur’an could not even produce the smallest surah of its like. The Qur’an’s form did not fit into any of the above mentioned categories. It was this that made the Qur’an inimitable, and left the pagan Arabs at a loss as to how they might combat it as Alqama bin Abd al-Manaf confirmed when he addressed their leaders, the Quraysh:

Oh Quraish, a new calamity has befallen you. Mohammed was a young man the 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 that he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we 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; you said a soothsayer, but he is not a soothsayer, for 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. Oh men of Quraish, look to your affairs, for by Allah a serious thing has befallen you.

It is a well-known fact that the Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf (or seven forms) to facilitate greater understanding of it among the Arabs who had different dialects. This was also to challenge them on their own grounds to produce a surah like that of the Qur’an. The challenge became more obvious when none of the seven major tribes could imitate it even in their own dialects as no one could claim that it was difficult to imitate due to it not being in their own dialect. [6]


What Do The Orientalists Say About The Inimitability Of The Qur’an?

E H Palmer, as early as 1880, recognized the unique style of the Qur’an. But he seems to have been wavering between two thoughts. He writes in the Introduction to his translation of the Qur’an:

That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur’an itself is not surprising. In the first place, they have agreed before-hand that it is unapproachable, and they have adopted its style as the perfect standard; any deviation from it therefore must of necessity be a defect. Again, with them this style is not spontaneous as with Muhammad and his contemporaries, but is as artificial as though Englishmen should still continue to follow Chaucer as their model, in spite of the changes which their language has undergone. With the Prophet, the style was natural, and the words were those in every-day ordinary life, while with the later Arabic authors the style is imitative and the ancient words are introduced as a literary embellishment. The natural consequence is that their attempts look laboured and unreal by the side of his impromptu and forcible eloquence. [7]

The famous Arabist from University of Oxford, Hamilton Gibb was open upon about the style of the Qur’an. In his words:

…the Meccans still demanded of him a miracle, and with remarkable boldness and self-confidence Mohammad appealed as a supreme confirmation of his mission to the Koran itself. Like all Arabs they were the connoisseurs of language and rhetoric. Well, then if the Koran were his own composition other men could rival it. Let them produce ten verses like it. If they could not (and it is obvious that they could not), then let them accept the Koran as an outstanding evident miracle. [8]

And in some other place, talking about the Prophet(P) and the Qur’an, he states: Though, to be sure, the question of the literary merit is one not to be judged on a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of Arabic language; and no man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep-toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect as Mohammad did. [9]

As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature, having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its contents but also of its style and in forcing the High Arabic idiom into the expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold and strikingly effective rhetorical prose in which all the resources of syntactical modulation are exploited with great freedom and originality. [10]

On the influence of the Qur’an on Arabic literature Gibb says: The influence of the Koran on the development of Arabic Literature has been incalculable, and exerted in many directions. Its ideas, its language, its rhymes pervade all subsequent literary works in greater or lesser measure. Its specific linguistic features were not emulated, either in the chancery prose of the next century or in the later prose writings, but it was at least partly due to the flexibility imparted by the Koran to the High Arabic idiom that the former could be so rapidly developed and adjusted to the new needs of the imperial government and an expanding society. [11]

As the Qur’an itself says: And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Surah like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, – which is prepared for those who reject Faith. (Qur’an 2:23-24)


Lastly, the beautiful style of the Qur’an is admired even by the Arab Christians: The Quran is one of the world’s classics which cannot be translated without grave loss. It has a rhythm of peculiar beauty and a cadence that charms the ear. Many Christian Arabs speak of its style with warm admiration, and most Arabists acknowledge its excellence. When it is read aloud or recited it has an almost hypnotic effect that makes the listener indifferent to its sometimes strange syntax and its sometimes, to us, repellent content. It is this quality it possesses of silencing criticism by the sweet music of its language that has given birth to the dogma of its inimitability; indeed, it may be affirmed that within the literature of the Arabs, wide and fecund as it is both in poetry and in elevated prose, there is nothing to compare with it. [12]

The above sentences speak of themselves. Summing up: Within the Arabic literature, either poetry or prose, there is nothing comparable to the Qur’an. Muslims throughout the centuries are united upon the its inimitability.

There is also a talk by Christian missionaries that there are grammatical ‘errors’ in the Qur’an. In retort, it can be mentioned that the Arab contemporaries of Muhammad(P) were most erudite and proficient in the idiosyncrasies of Arabic speech; and hence, if they had found any grammatical ‘errors’ in the Qur’an, they would have revealed it when Muhammad(P) challenged them with to do so. Therefore, since they did not take up his challenge on this issue, we can be rest assured that no such grammatical ‘errors’ exist in the Qur’an.



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