The Miraculous Nature of the Qur’an

@ Sohail Nakhooda

The Qur’an includes a very peculiar claim, which differentiates it from all the other sacred books. In several verses with some difference in detail, God (Allah), as the speaker in the Qur’an, challenges all created beings, including humans and jinns, to bring about a work that resembles the Qur’an.1 On the basis of these verses, which are known as “the challenging verses” (ayat al-tahaddi), the Muslim tradition holds that the Qur’an is inimitable. Thus the Qur’an is miraculous in the sense that no created being can produce a text similar to it. This doctrine also known as “the inimitability of the Qur’an” (i'jaz al-Qur’an) is a deeply discussed issue in the Medieval Age among Muslim scholars.2 Oliver Leaman has recently revived this debate by offering a philosophical evaluation of Said Nursi’s understanding of the miraculousness of the Qur’an. Leaman argues that Nursi’s view is not immune to certain generic criticisms regarding this miraculousness phenomenon. Nonetheless, Leaman’s reading of Nursi is at best superficial, since he does not present Nursi’s view entirely. I argue that Leaman utilizes the straw man fallacy. As such Leaman’s critique directed towards Nursi, I’ll argue, is based on an incomplete presentation of the latter’s argumentation, criticizing Nursi on the basis of this incomplete presentation. In what follows, I’ll present Leaman’s evaluation and critique of Nursi. Secondly, I shall present the aspects of Nursi’s view overlooked by Leaman in his critique to show that Leaman’s criticisms are not applicable to it.


To begin with, Leaman does not commit himself to the idea that the Qur’an is miraculous. He tries to understand how Muslim scholars, in general, and Said Nursi in particular, interpret the challenging verses and apprehend what exactly is inimitable and miraculous in the Qur’an. Leaman points out three main views on this issue in the history of Islamic intellectual thought.3 The first view puts forward the content of the Qur’an. This view, according to Leaman, appeals to the truths presented by the Qur’an, and to its maxims and rules appropriate for practical life. For Leaman, considering the content suggesting practical guidance is not a good way to understand the miraculousness of the Qur’an because he thinks that the practical suggestions and instructions of the text can be regarded as appropriate for us to follow if we are already convinced that the text is miraculous. Thus they cannot be used to justify the miraculousness of the Qur’an.4 The second view suggests looking at the style of the Qur’an to understand its miraculousness. This view concerns only the stylistic features of the Qur’an and purports to present it as the most excellent composition of sounds and words. For Leaman, this view completely appeals to our aesthetic judgment for deciding whether the Qur’an is miraculous or not. As aesthetic judgments are subjective, some people may consider the style of the Qur’an to be beautiful and others may reject it. Thus, being based on aesthetic criteria, this view is at best suggestive or persuasive, but not conclusive.5 The last view presents a more balanced approach and focuses both on the form and content of the Qur’an. For Leaman, this is a more plausible candidate for understanding the miraculousness phenomenon and worth examining in detail.6 Leaman considers Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani and Said Nursi to be significant proponents of the last view. Leaman concentrates on evaluating Nursi’s ideas probably because Nursi claims and exemplies that the miraculousness of the Qur’an can be seen in a very small part of it, consisting of not more than a few verses. Leaman evaluates two main examples from Nursi.

As for the first example, Nursi pays attention to the verses in which God states His own creative action. For example, consider the following verses: “O earth, swallow up your waters! And, O sky, cease [your rain]!” (11:44); “And He directed [His Knowledge, Will, Power, and Favor] to the heaven when it was as a cloud [of gases], and ordered it and the earth, ‘Come both of you, willingly or unwillingly!’ They said: ‘We have come in willing obedience’” (41:11).

In these verses, the speaker is God Himself and He gives orders to be executed. As Leaman notices, these orders are totally different from human orders because divine orders result in the realization of the relevant activity, whereas such orders can never be realized if given by human beings. It is the performative meaning of such verses, as Leaman notes, that brings about an extraordinary dimension to the miraculousness phenomenon. Leaman has two observations here. First, he thinks that a small part of the Qur’an, such as these verses, rejects the whole meaning of the Qur’an and these short verses should not be evaluated independently of the whole text. That is to say, arguing for the miraculousness of the Qur’an on the basis of a smaller part thereof does not have any privilege over arguing for the miraculousness of the whole Qur’an. Secondly, Leaman thinks that such verses cannot be used to establish that the Qur’an is miraculous because they can only serve to support such a conclusion if we are already convinced that the speaker of the Qur’an is God. If it is really God who is speaking in the text, then we can easily see the absurdity to expect the same creative activity from creatures. Yet Leaman comments, “This is what the text is supposed to prove,” and thus he considers such an argument to be circular.7

The second example of Nursi concerns the following verse: “If a breath of Your Lord’s punishment touches them” (“Wa la in massathum na atun min adhabi Rabbika”) (21:46). According to Nursi, this verse makes us think about the totality of God’s punishment by showing the intensity of just a little part of it. Thus the words in this verse are chosen exactly to express the scarcity of the punishment. In Leaman’s terms, “This passage stresses the restraint of God’s action, and matches it with literary restraint.”


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