What Is I’jaz?

In Islam, I’jaz, or inimitability of the Qur’an is the doctrine which holds that the Qur’an has a miraculous quality, both in content and in form, that no human speech can match. According to this doctrine, the Qur’an is a miracle and its inimitability is the proof granted to Muhammad in the authentication of his prophetic status. It serves the dual purpose of proving the authenticity of its divineness as being a source from the creator and proving the genuineness of Muhammad’s prophethood to whom it was revealed as he was one bringing the message. The concept of the miraculousness of the Qur’an was understood as soon as it was revealed by Muhammed to the Arabs beginning on 22 December 609 CE, when Muhammad was 40 years of age. According to Sophia Vasalou, a contemporary scholar in theology, the reports about the Arabs’ bewildered reception of the Qur’an is crucial in the argument. “The Arabs, upon hearing it, were lost for words in trying to classify it: ‘is it poetry?’ ‘is it magic?’ ‘is it soothsaying?’ they could not find a literary form to which the Qur’an corresponded” Vasalou adds.

Qur’anic basis

The concept of inimitability originates in the Qur’an. In five different verses, opponents are challenged to produce something like the Qur’an. The suggestion is that those who doubt the divine authorship of the Qur’an should try to disprove it by demonstrating that a human being could have created it:

“If men and Jin banded together to produce the like of this Qur’an they would never produce its like not though they backed one another.”(17:88)

“Say, Bring you then ten chapters like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than God, if you speak the truth!”(11:13)

“Or do they say he has fabricated it? Say bring then a chapter like unto it, and call upon whom you can besides God, if you speak truly!”(10:38)

“Or do they say he has fabricated it? Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recital like unto it if they speak the truth.”(52:34)

“And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down to our servant, then produce a chapter of the like.” (2:23)

In the verses cited, Muhammad’s opponents are invited to try to produce a text like the Qur’an, or even ten chapters, or even a single chapter. It is understood among Muslims that that challenge has not been met.

A page of the Qur'an,16th century: "They would never produce its like not though they backed one another" written at the center.

A page of the Qur’an,16th century: “They would never produce its like not though they backed one another” written at the center.


The literary quality of the Qur’an has been generally acknowledged by Muslim and some non-Muslim scholars and intellectuals. and there is evidence that Muslims accepted Islam on the basis of evaluating the Qur’an as a text that surpasses all human production. Whilst western views typically ascribe social, ideological, propagandistic, or military reasons for the success of early Islam, Muslim sources view the literary quality of the Qur’an as a decisive factor for the adoption of the Islamic creed and its ideology, resulting in its spread and development in the 7th century. A thriving poetic tradition existed at the time of Muhammad, however, according to Afnan Fatani, a contemporary scholar of Islamic studies, Muhammad had brought, in spite of being illiterate, something that was superior to anything that the poets and orators had ever written or heard. They did not question this, what they rejected was the Qur’an’s ideas, especially monotheism and resurrection. Numerous scholars devoted time to finding out why the Qur’an was inimitable. The majority of opinions were around the eloquence of the Qur’an both in wording and meaning as its speech does not form poetry nor prose commonly expressed in all languages. Thus it is understood that the inimitability of the Qur’an resides in this third genre in which words have been arranged in a particular way accompanied with flawless meaning that humans are unable to reproduce.

Nonlinguistic approaches focus on the inner meanings of the Qur’an. Oliver Leaman, favoring a nonlinguistic approach, criticizes the links between aesthetic judgment and faith and argues that it is possible to be impressed by something without thinking that it came about supernaturally and vice versa it is possible to believe in the divine origin of the Qur’an without agreeing to the aesthetic supremacy of the text. He thinks that it is the combination of language, ideas, and hidden meanings of the Qur’an that makes it an immediately convincing product.

Classic works

Folio from a section of the Qur'an, 14th century

Folio from a section of the Qur’an, 14th century

There are numerous classical works of literary criticism which have studied the Qur’an and examined its style:

The most famous works on the doctrine of inimitability are two medieval books by the grammarian Al Jurjani (d. 1078 CE), Dala’il al-i’jaz (‘the Arguments of Inimitability’) and Asraral-balagha (‘the Secrets of Eloquence’). Al Jurjani argued that the inimitability of the Qur’an is a linguistic phenomenon and proposed that the Qur’an has a degree of excellence unachievable by human beings. Al Jurjani believed that Qur’an’s eloquence must be a certain special quality in the manner of its stylistic arrangement and composition or a certain special way of joining words. He studied the Qur’an with literary proofs and examined the various literary features and how they were utilized. He rejected the idea that the words (alfaz) and meaning (ma’ani) of a literary work can be separated. In his view the meaning was what determined the quality of the style and it would be absurd to attribute qualities of eloquence to a text only by observing its words. He explains that eloquence does not reside in the correct application of grammar as these are only necessary not sufficient conditions for the quality of a text. The originality of Al Jurjani is that he linked his view on meaning as the determining factor in the quality of a text by considering it not in isolation but as it is realized within a text. He wished to impress his audience with the need to study not only theology but also grammatical details and literary theory in order to improve their understanding of the inimitability of the Qur’an. For Al Jurjani the dichotomy much elaborated by earlier critics between ‘word’ and ‘meaning’ was a false one. He suggested considering not merely the meaning but ‘the meaning of the meaning’. He defined two types of meaning one that resorts to the ‘intellect’ the other to the ‘imagination’.

Al-Baqillani (d. 1013 CE) wrote a book named I’jaz al-Qur’an (‘inimitability of the Qur’an’) and emphasized that the style of the Qur’an cannot be classified, and eloquence sustains throughout the Qur’an in spite of dealing with various themes. Al Baqillani’s point was not that the Qur’an broke the custom by an extraordinary degree of eloquence but that it broke the custom of the existing literary forms by creating a new genre of expression.

Ibrahim al-Nazzam of Basra (d. 846 CE) was among the first to study the doctrine. According to Al Nazzam, Qur’ans inimitability is due to the information in its content which as divine revelation contains divine knowledge. Thus, Qur’an’s supremacy lies in its content rather than its style. A- Murtaza (d. 1044 CE) had similar views, turning to divine intervention as the only viable explanation as to why the challenge was not met.

Al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025 CE), in his book Al-Mughni (“the sufficient book”), insists on the hidden meanings of the Qur’an alongside with its eloquence and provides some counter-arguments against the criticism leveled at Muhammad and the Qur’an. Abd al-Jabbar studies the doctrine in parts 15 and 16 of his book series. According to Abd al-Jabbr, Arabs chose not to compete with Muhammad in the literary field but on the battlefield and this was another reason that they recognized the superiority of the Qur’an. Abd al-Jabbar rejected the doctrine of sarfah (the prohibition from production) because according to him sarfah makes a miracle of something other than the Qur’an and not the Qur’an itself. The doctrine of sarfah means that people can produce a rival to the Qur’an but due to some supernatural or divine cause decide against doing so. Therefore, according to Abd al-Jabbar, the correct interpretation of sarfah is that the motives to rival the Qur’an disappears because of the recognition of the impossibility of doing so.

Yahya ibn Ziyad al-Farra (d. 822 CE), Abu Ubaydah (d. 824 CE), Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889 CE), Rummani (d. 994 CE), Khattabi (d. 998 CE), and Zarkashi (d. 1392 CE) are also among notable scholars in this subject. Ibn Qutaybah considered ‘brevity’ which he defined as “jam’ al-kathir mi ma’anih fi l-qalil min lafzih” (collection of many ideas in a few words) as one aspect of Qur’anic miraculousness. Zarkashi in his book Al-Burhan stated that the miraculousness of the Qur’an can be perceived but not described.

Scientific I’jaz Literature

A page of the Qur'an with illumination, 16th century

A page of the Qur’an with illumination, 16th century

Some hold that some verses of the Qur’an contain scientific theories that have been discovered only in modern times confirming Qur’an’s miraculousness. This has been criticized by the scientific community.

Maurice Bucaille in his writings provides some interpretations of verses that he claimed to be in agreement with modern science and that had not been known in the past. Bucaille states that he has examined the degree of compatibility between the Qur’an and modern scientific data and that this study has led him to the conclusion that the Qur’an did not contain statements that contradicted modern science. He then argues that it is inconceivable that the scientific statements of the Qur’an could have been the work of man.

Some examples of these verses include 41:11, 23:12-14, 51:47, 78:7, and 21:30 referring to the gaseous state of the material that composed the early stage of the universe, the development of the fetus in the womb, expansion of the universe, the geological concept of mountains serving as stabilizers of the earth’s crust, and the aquatic origin of life respectively.

The methodology of scientific I’jaz has not gained full approval by Islamic scholars and is the subject of ongoing debate. According to Ziauddin Sardar, the Qur’an does not contain many verses that point towards nature, however, it constantly asks its readers to reflect on the wonders of the cosmos. He refers to verse 29:20 which says “Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being” and 3:190 which says “In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed signs for men of understanding” and concludes that these verses do not have any specific scientific content, rather they encourage believers to observe natural phenomena and reflect on the complexity of the universe. According to Nidhal Guessoum, some works on miracles in the Qur’an follow a set pattern; they generally begin with a verse from the Qur’an, for example, the verse “So verily I swear by the stars that run and hide . . .” (81:15-16) and quickly declare that it refers to black holes, or take the verse “I swear by the Moon in her fullness, that ye shall journey on from stage to stage” (84:18-19) and decide it refers to space travel, and so on. “What is meant to be allegorical and poetic is transformed into products of science”.

Page from a Koran, Near East, Abbasid period, late ninth-early tenth century

Page from a Koran, Near East, Abbasid period, late ninth-early tenth century
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul

Muhammad’s literacy

In Islamic theology, Muhammad’s illiteracy is a way of emphasizing that he was a transparent medium for divine revelation and a sign of the genuineness of his prophethood since the illiterate prophet could not have composed the eloquent poetry and prose of the Qur’an. According to Tabatabaei (d. 1981), a Muslim scholar, the force of this challenge becomes clear when we realize that it is issued for someone whose life should resemble that of Muhammad namely the life of an orphan, uneducated in any formal sense, not being able to read or write and grew up in the unenlightened age of the jahiliyah period (the age of ignorance) before Islam.

The references to illiteracy are found in verses 7:158, 29:48, and 62:2. The verse 25:5 also implies that Muhammad was unable to read and write. The Arabic term “ummi” in 7:158 and 62:2 is translated to ‘illiterate’ and ‘unlettered’. The medieval exegete Al Tabari (d. 923 CE) maintained that the term induced two meanings: firstly, the inability to read or write in general and secondly, the inexperience or ignorance of the previous books or scriptures.

The early sources on the history of Islam provide that Muhammad especially in Medina used scribes to correspond with the tribes. Likewise, though infrequently rather than constantly, he had scribes write down, on separate pages not yet in one single book, parts of the Qur’an. Collections of prophetic tradition occasionally mention Muhammad having basic knowledge of reading and writing, while others deny it. For example, in the book Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of early sayings, it is mentioned that when Muhammad and the Meccans agreed to conclude a peace treaty, Muhammad made a minor change to his signature or in one occasion he asked for a paper to write a statement.

Fakhr Al-Razi, the 12th century Islamic theologian, has expressed his idea is his book Tafsir Al Razi:

…Most arabs were not able to read or write and the prophet was one of them. The prophet recited a perfect book to them again and again without editing or changing the words, in contrast when arab orators prepared their speech they added or deleted large or small parts of their speech before delivering it. But the Prophet did not write down the revelation and recited the book of God without addition, deletion, or revision…If he had mastered writing and reading, people would have suspected that he had studied previous books but he brought this noble Qur’an without learning and education…the Prophet had not learned from a teacher, he had not studied any book, and did not attend any classroom of a scholar because Mecca was not a place of scholars. And he was not absent from Mecca for a long period of time which would make it possible to claim that he learned during that absence.

Contrary views


Towards the end of Muhammad’s life and after his death several men and a woman appeared in various parts of Arabia and claimed to be prophets. Musaylimah, a contemporary of Muhammad, claimed that he received revelations, some of his revelations is recorded. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ was a critic of the Qur’an and reportedly made attempts to imitate it. Bashar ibn Burd (d. 784), Abul Atahiya (d. 828), Al-Mutanabbi (d. 965), and Al-Maʿarri (d. 1058) claimed that their writings surpassed Qur’an in eloquence.


Theodor Nöldeke criticized the Qur’anic text as careless and imperfect, however, this has been responded to in Muhammad Mohar Ali’s “The Qur’an and the Orientalists“. He questioned the Qur’an’s divine origin by critically searching for linguistic defects. Schwally (1919) and Wansbrough had similar opinions. Some writers have questioned Muhammad’s illiteracy. Ruthven states that “The fact of Muhammad’s illiteracy would in no way constitute proof of the Qur’an miraculous origin as the great pre-Islamic poets were illiterate.” Peters writes: “We do not know where this minor merchant of Mecca learned to make poetry…most oral poets and certainly the best have been illiterate.” Others believe that Muhammad hired poets or that the Qur’an was translated into Arabic from another language.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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