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Three Lines


إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَرَ
فَصَلِّ لِرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ
إِنَّ شَانِئَكَ هُوَ الْأَبْتَرُ

Innaa Atayna kal kawthar
Fasalli li rabbika wanhar
Inna shani-aka huwal abtar

Verily We have given to you the abundance
So pray to your Lord and sacrifice
Indeed, your enemy is the one who is cut off

Chapter al-Kawthar (The Abundance) is the smallest chapter in the Quran consisting of only three lines. From a linguistic, literary, theological, rational and ideological point of view this chapter has the utmost significance. Being the smallest chapter in the Quran it is often cited by those who are involved in some form of polemic. This is due to the famous challenge of the Quran. The Quran states:

“If you (mankind) are in doubt concerning what We revealed to Our servant, then bring a chapter like it….” Quran 2:23

Muslim and non-Muslim exegeses have commented that these verses, and other verses similar to it, are an open challenge to humanity to try and match the literary and linguistic feature/nature of the divine text. It is not surprising that this chapter is often quoted and its significance highlighted by those propagating the Islamic way of life.

This chapter is used as a proof of the Islamic creed. If someone can meet the challenge the text cannot be from the Divine. However, if the challenge can not be met, even though there are a finite set of literary and linguistic ‘tools’ at their disposal; then the question of authorship has great implications.

The Quran was revealed approximately 1400 years ago and for this amount of time the challenge has remained. This however does not mean that no one has attempted to match the literary and linguistic style/feature/nature of the text. Throughout the centuries thinkers, poets, theologians and literary critics have attempted to challenge the Quran. Some of these challengers include Musaylamah, Ibn Al-Mukaffa‘, Abu’l-’Ala Al-Marri, Yahya b. Al-Hakam al-Ghazal, Sayyid ‘Ali Muhammad, Ibn al-Rawandi, Bassar bin Burd, Sahib Ibn ‘Abbad, Abu’l – ‘Atahiya and the contemporary Christian Missionaries who developed the ‘True Furqan’.

Without going into an analysis of why Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have agreed that those who have attempted to challenge the Qur’an have failed, the summary below should suffice:

Even though the challengers have had the same set of ‘tools’, which are the 29 letters, finite grammatical rules and the blue print of the challenge – which is the Quran itself; they have failed to:

1. Replicate the Qur’ans literary form
2. Match the unique linguistic genre of the Qur’an
3. Select and arrange words like that of the Qur’an.
4. Select and arrange particles like that of the Qur’an.
5. Match the Qur’ans phonetic superiority.
6. Equal the frequency of rhetorical devices
7. Match the level of informativity
8. Equal the Qur’ans conciseness and flexibility

For example if we take Musaylamah’s attempt to challenge the Quran,

The elephant.
What is the elephant?
And who shall tell you what is the elephant?
He has a ropy tail and a long trunk.
This is a [mere] trifle of our Lord’s creations.

it can be clearly seen, with reference to the Arabic original, that the style of his speech is in the kahin style of rhymed prose. It lacks informativity and the words and phrases that have been used can be replaced with words that will express greater meaning and produce more eloquent discourse. In other words from a literary and stylistics point of view, this challenge fails.

In light of the above what makes the Quran, or in this case, what makes the shortest chapter in the Quran inimitable? To start, below is a summary of chapter al-Kawthar’s literary and linguistic features:

1. Unique Literary Form
2. Unique Linguistic Genre
3. Abundance of rhetorical devices/features:
- Emphasis
- Multiple Meaning
- Iltifaat – Grammatical shift
- Word order and Arrangement
- Ellipsis
- Conceptual Relatedness (Intertextuality)
- Intensification
- Choice of words & Particles
- Phonetics
- Semantically Orientated Repetition
- Intimacy
- Exaggeration
- Rebuke and contempt
- Conciseness
- Flexibility
- Prophesy/Factual

Unique Literary Form

This chapter like all the other chapters in the Quran can only be described as a unique literary form. This means that this chapter can not be explained as any of the known literary forms of the Arabic language. The Arabic language can be categorised into ‘Prose’ and ‘Poetry’. Arabic Prose being further grouped into rhymed prose (saj’) and continuous speech (mursal). Arabic poetry differs from Arabic Prose as it ends with a rhyme and is distinguished by its metrical rhythmical patterns which are called the ‘al-Bihar.’ There are 16 al-Bihar which all Arabic poetry, pre and post Islamic, are based upon.
This chapter is unique as its internal rhythm can not be described as any of the al-Bihar and its end rhyme and literary bonds differ from any Arabic prose. Therefore its literary form is unlike any known literary forms of the Arabic language.

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