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Inimitability of Quran: Meanings and Types

Inimitability of Quran: Meanings and Types

I`jaz al-Quran as a term is translated into English in various ways. Some translators render it as “inimitable ellipticism”, while others use “miraculous elegance”, and still others use “grandiose cadence” or “emotive and evocative force”.

As a professional translator and teacher of translation, I prefer to use the English equivalent “inimitability of the Quran” due to its simplicity and sufficiency in rendering the term beyond any coarseness.

Quran vs. Poetry

To ascertain the uniqueness of the Quran and the fact that it cannot be compared to any similar speech, different names were given to it and to all its components in a way that proves the dissimilarity between the Quran and Arabic poetry even as regards the mere names of things. Al-Jahiz (159-255 AH) emphasizes this stating,

Allah refers to His Book (i.e. the Quran) in a way unlike that which the Arabs use to describe their speech in every detail.

Accordingly, He calls it in its entirety Quran, while they call theirs diwan (meaning, a collection of poems or poetry).

He calls one of its [114] parts surah, while the Arabs call the unit of their poetry qasidah (meaning, a poem).

He calls a part of one surah an ayah, while they call theirs’ bayt (meaning, a line of poetry or verse). “[1]

However, this comparison may seem very strange as there is no similarity between the Quran and Arabic poetry in all respects. Maybe Al-Jahiz was influenced by the allegations of some people that the Quran is nothing but poetry and, therefore, he tried to refute this in relation to the names attributed to both.

I believe Al-Jahiz should have saved his effort as there is no ground for any comparison whatsoever between poetry and the Quran.

Moreover, these names of the Quran and its components were also innovations that were unknown to the pre-Islamic Arabs; a matter which proves the Quran to be beyond human power and capacity.

Areas of inimitability

Areas of the inimitability of the Quran are extensively varied. Many scholars and rhetoricians in the past and present wrote on the inimitability of the Quran, its aspects and manifestations.

Al-Suyuti (849-911 AH), for example, explores thirty-five distinctive features of the inimitability of the Quran, all of which are related to its literary supremacy alone.

While other scholars were interested in the way the Quran tells about the al-Ghaib, i.e. the unseen or metaphysics, others were more interested in what can be called the ‘Rhetoric Inimitability’ of the Quran. Al-Baqillani (d. 403 AH), Al-Rummani (d. 386 AH), Al-Khattabi (d. 388 AH), Al-Jurjani (d. 471 AH), and Al-Razi (250-311 AH) as well as others wrote extensively on this aspect.

There is also a number of modern and contemporary scholars who found it interesting to write on the same aspect such as Al-Rafi`i (1881-1937), Qutb (1906-1966), Draz (1894-1958), and Bint Ash-Shati’ (1913-1998).

Other scholars showed interest in the ‘legislative’ or ‘reformist’ inimitability of the Quran such as Rida (1865-1935) in his al-Wahi al-Muhammadi, i.e. The Revelation to Muhammad.

In addition, a new aspect has recently emerged; it is called the ‘scientific’ inimitability of the Quran.

It refers to up-to-date scientific discoveries that were unknown to man at the time the Quran was revealed and hence, to use linguistic terminology, could then be described as ‘anachronisms’. No one could ever imagine that these discoveries would appear at the hands of an ‘unlettered’ person from an illiterate society and in a world void of any tools that make such discoveries possible.[2]

For brevity reasons, this article focuses on the rhetoric inimitability of the Quran only.

Rhetoric inimitability of the Quran 

Commenting on the rhetorical inimitability of the Quran, Al-Rafi`i states that when the Arabs encountered the Quran, they found no difference between its terminology and the terminology they use.

However, the way these terms were put together and even the way the letters comprising these terms were joined, were all novel to them.

That is why they failed to imitate it and they considered “the style of the Quran is something unlike that which they were familiar with,” and hence, it would be impossible for them to produce anything like it.

To them, the Quranic style was too perfect to be imitated or copied.[3]

The inimitability of the Quran, as emphasized by Barakah, is “an historical fact” that can neither be denied, nor does it need any proof to confirm.[4]

The Quran, according to him, truly rendered the Arabs, at the time of its revelation, helpless to produce anything of its like.

This failure to generate anything like the Quran continued until the demise of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him).

Many centuries have passed since then, and the more time elapses, the stronger and brighter the miracle of the Quran becomes, and the more unable man becomes to imitate or challenge it.

Yet, “the Quran is still fresh and raising the banner of inimitability challenging all peoples of the world in a very confident and certain manner” as believed by Barakah.[5]

Allah the Almighty says what may mean,

{Say: Verily, though mankind and the Jinn should assemble to produce the like of this Quran, they could not produce the like thereof though they were helpers one of another}. (Al-Israa’ 17:88)

Indeed, discussing the issue of the inimitability of the Quran is in itself miraculous, as whenever any researcher reveals the secrets of one aspect, other aspects are revealed with the passage of time. Al-Rafi`i (1997: 140) hints at this by saying,

What a great resemblance between the Quran with its inimitable style, and the system of this vast universe whom scientists examined from every different angle with various perspectives; yet, it is still, to them, a new creation and a far-fetched final goal![6]

The Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) challenged the Arabs of his time, who failed to produce anything like the Quran as was previously mentioned, though they were the mighty masters of eloquence and rhetoric. This, however, cannot be described by anything other than a miracle.

Being inimitable until the present day, as no one could ever bring anything like it, means that the Quran is inimitable not only by the Arabs, but by all humankind.

This also means that the inimitability of the Quran is not due to sarfah[7] as claimed by some earlier scholars, but, is due to the uniqueness of its internal composition whether it is on the word level, the sentence level, the ayah, the surah, or its entirety.

It should be noted here that the Quran can only be read in the language in which it was revealed, namely Arabic. Anything else is a translation of its meanings and not the divine words of Allah.

Finally, Muslims believe that the Quran is Islam’s eternal miracle whose inimitability is uninterruptedly confirmed through scientific research.

It is also their belief that it was revealed by the Almighty to Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) to bring all people out of darkness into light through the use of all of its unique devices and methods – which when properly applied – humanity can lead the best type of life possible.

Thereupon, are we the true heirs of Prophet Muhammad and his message for real?!


[1] Al-Jahiz as quoted in Al-Suyuti, `Abdul Rahman Jalal Al-Din (2004). Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Quran (Perfection in the Sciences of the Quran). Vol. 1, P. 178. Ed. Ahmad Ibn `Ali. Dar Al-Hadith. Cairo, Egypt.
[2] Among the most prominent contemporary scholars who write on the scientific inimitability of the Quran are Dr. Zaghlul Al-Najjar from Egypt and Dr. `Abdul Majid Al-Zindani from Yemen.
[3] Al-Rafi`i, Mustafa Sadiq (1997). I`jaz al-Quran wal-Balaghah an-Nabawiyyah(Inimitability of the Quran and the Prophetic Rhetoric). Pp. 188-190. Al-Maktabah Al-Tawfiqiyah, Egypt.
[4] Barakah, `Abdul Ghani Muhammad (1989). Al-I`jaz al-Qurani: wujuhihi wa asrarih (Inimitability of the Quran: Aspects and Secrets). P. 11. Wahbah Publishing House. Cairo, Egypt.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Al-Rafi`i (1997), P. 140.
[7] sarfah means keeping the Arabs away from attaining anything like the Quran by Allah’s Ordinance, as was claimed by some earlier scholars such as Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Al-Nazzam (d. 224 AH), Al-Sharif Al-Murtada (d. 436 AH), and Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi (384-456 AH).


About Dr. Ali Al-Halawani

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