Arabic / Tafsir

“al-Jassas and Qur’anic Inimitability”

“Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas on

Qur’anic Inimitability”


ayat al-tahaddi


  • Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas al-Hanafi, theologian, jurist, exegete and linguist (d.370/981)[1] comments regarding the challenge of the Qur’an:

“His words (Most High), ‘Say: {If mankind and the jinn were together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they helped one another}[2] indicate the inimitable nature of the Qur’an.[3] Some people say that its inimitable quality is in the wording or construction (nazm)[4] on the one hand and in the meanings (ma`ani) and the arrangement in which ideas are presented, on the other hand. They use as evidence the fact that in this verse [just mentioned] the Qur’an challenges the Arabs and the non-Arabs, the jinn and humans. It is well-known that the non-Arabs could not be challenged on the aspect of the wording and its construction, therefore the challenge for them must be to do with the meanings and the arrangement in which ideas are presented.”[5]

قوله تعالى ( قل لئن اجتمعت الإنس والجن على أن يأتوا بمثل هذا القرآن ) الآية فيه الدلالة على إعجاز القرآن، فمن الناس من يقول: إعجازه في النظم على حياله، وفي المعاني وترتيبها على حياله، ويستدل على ذلك: بتحديه في هذه الآية العرب والعجم، والجن والإنس، ومعلوم أن العجم لا يُتحدون من طريق النظم، فوجب أن يكون التحدي لهم من جهة المعاني وترتيبها على هذا النظام، دون نظم الألفاظ

“Some of the scholars insist that its inimitable quality is limited to composition of its words as well as rhetorical eloquence of expression. They say: The inimitable quality of the Qur’an has many aspects such as its beautiful composition, its rhetorically eloquent and concise wording, combining many levels of meanings in very few words, being completely free of any word that sounds ineloquent or any ideas or meanings that are out of place as well as being free of any contradictions. All of it, from beginning to end, is consistent. The words of people (al-`ibad), on the other hand, especially if they speak at length, cannot be free of cheap words, corrupt meanings and contradictions. What we have mentioned of the flaws in people’s speech is present in the speech of people of all languages and not just Arabic. Thus, it is possible that the challenge of the Qur’an applies to the non-Arabs in that way, namely: challenging them to bring something that is free of the faults and flaws referred to above, because saying things in an eloquent manner is not something that is limited only to Arabic, to the exclusion of other languages, even though the Arabic language is the most eloquent. We know that the Qur’an is the most sublime level of eloquence, so it is possible that the challenge to the non-Arabs is by way of challenging them to produce words at the highest level of eloquence in their own languages.”[6]

ومنهم من يأبى أن يكون إعجازه إلا من جهة نظم الألفاظ، والبلاغة في العبارة، فإنه يقول: إن إعجاز القرآن من وجوه كثيرة منها: حسن النظم، وجودة البلاغة في اللفظ والاختصار، وجمع المعاني الكثيرة في الألفاظ اليسيرة، مع تعريه من أن يكون فيه لفظ مسخوط ومعنى مدخول، ولا تناقض ولا اختلاف تضاد، وجميعه في هذه الوجوه جار على منهاج واحد، وكلام العباد لا يخلو إذا طال من أن يكون فيه الألفاظ الساقطة، والمعاني الفاسدة والتناقض في المعاني، وهذه المعاني التي ذكرنا من عيوب الكلام : موجودة في كلام الناس من أهل سائر اللغات، لا يختص باللغة العربية دون غيرها، فجائز أن يكون التحدي واقعاً للعجم بمثل هذه المعاني: في الإتيان بها عارية مما يعيبها ويهجنها من الوجوه التي ذكرناها، ومن جهة أن الفصاحة لا تختص بها لغة العرب دون سائر اللغات وإن كانت لغة العرب أفصحها وقد علمنا أن القرآن في أعلى طبقات البلاغة فجائز أن يكون التحدي للعجم واقعا بأن يأتوا بكلام في أعلى طبقات البلاغة بلغتهم التي يتكلمون بها


  • Imam al-Jassas quotes some scholars grounding the inimitable aspect of the Qur’an in a set of qualities that are beyond the productive capacity of human beings, i.e. impossible to imitate, such as:

[1] the production of speech free of flaws;

[2] speech that maintains consistent eloquence;

[3] speech that has optimally produced meanings and

[4] speech produced without any contradiction.

  • The above criteria are applicable to peoples of all language and so in this way the Qur’anic challenge becomes an extendable challenge beyond the parameters of Arabic. The challenge then would be to: produce a composition that is free from flaws, that is consistent, meaningful and contains no contradiction and can be in any language.


[1] For an account of his life, thought and works, refer to Ibn al-Nadim, al-Fihrist, p.208; al-Saymari, Akhbar Abi Hanifah, pp.166-167; al-Dhahabi, Siyar al-A`lam al-Nubala’, vol.14, pp.340-341 and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Ta’rikh Baghdad, vol.4, p.314. See also M. Bedir, “al-Jassas”, in Islamic Legal Thought: A Compendium of Muslim Jurists, ed. O. Arabi et al, pp.147-168.

[2] Q. 17:88.

[3] For some early expositions of Qur’anic i`jaz, refer to al-Baqillani’s I`jaz al-Qur’an, pp.57-72 and al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I`jaz in K. Abu Deeb’s al-Jurjani’s Theory of Poetic Imagery, pp.24-64. See also R. M. Allen, An Introduction to Arabic Literature, pp.225-229 as well as my Introducing Arabic Rhetoric, pp.27-52 for further details and references.

[4] Sometimes translated as ‘composition’, ‘syntax’ and ‘form’.

[5] al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an, vol.5, p.34.

[6] Ibid., vol.5, pp.34-35.

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