In this approach, the criterion used to establish the miraculousness of the Qurān is intellectualization and reason. One of the things that pushed scholars to take this approach was the significant amount of differences of opinions in the earlier approaches, such as the taste and feel approach, or even the semantic approach, where the standard at times comes across as very subjective. This pushed some scholars to argue for something more general, something that was accessible by a much larger range of people and they found that to be the intellect.
Some of the scholars take issue with limiting the miracle of the Qurān in grammar and semantics and say that which is miraculous is that the Qurān contains material that can satisfy one’s intellect whether they are equipped with the grammatical background or not. In fact, this approach argues that the continuity of the Qurān’s miracle can only be explained by it being intellectually approachable and satisfactory. This also resolves the issue of not having to blindly imitate (taqlīd) someone else’s claim to the Qurān’s miraculous nature as one can readily contemplate over the verses themselves and reach this conclusion.
These verses include those that take about the realities of this world and one’s life, information about things that the intellect could not have perceived on its own, such as information about past or future events, and more importantly, arguments made for certain theological beliefs, such as God’s Oneness.
The most famous opinion on what constitutes the miraculousness of the Qurān is the approach of elucidation and presentation (al-bayān). The proponents of this view maintain the challenge the Qurān puts forth is wholly related to the way it elucidates different meanings through its verses.
Before explaining this approach any further, it is important to know about a division that has existed within the study of Arabic grammar for centuries. The science of ma’ānī, bayān and badī’ are three distinct subjects studied under the overarching science of balāgha. The science of ma’ānī discusses the rules of what makes an expression clear and unambiguous, the science of bayān deals with how any given meaning can be expressed in different ways and as such deals with the use of metaphors and figures of speech, while the science of badī’ deals with the rules of beautifying any given expression.
A very simple definition for an expression that can be considered eloquent (balīgh) is one that follows both the rules studied in the science of ma’ānī and bayān, while the rules of badī’ are not a necessary condition. With this brief explanation, what we mean by a presentational approach is that the proponents believed the miracle of the Qurān is rooted in what is studied in the science of bayān.
Before the revelation of the Qurān, poetry played an important role in conveying messages. It was during this period that the seven famous Hanged Poems were composed and rhymed prose (saj’) by the Arab fortunetellers (kāhin) were powerful examples of literary expertise. It was then that the Arabs were bewildered when they began hearing the verses of the Qurān, verses that were both meaningful and their presentation beyond what they had ever produced themselves. This was one of the reasons that led the polytheists to accuse the Prophet (p) of being a magician.
These attacks were not limited to the Prophet (p) himself, but rather they also attacked the Qurān directly:
[25:4] Those who disbelieve say: “This (the Quran) is nothing but a lie that he (Muhammad SAW) has invented, and others have helped him at it, so that they have produced an unjust wrong (thing) and a lie.”
[16:103] And We certainly know that they say, “It is only a human being who teaches the Prophet.” The tongue of the one they refer to is foreign, and this Qur’an is [in] a clear Arabic language.
As mentioned earlier, scholars formally began looking at the Qurān as a literary masterpiece from 2nd-century Hijri onwards, and from the very beginning, the approach focusing on elucidation was prevalent. Interestingly, a lot of early works found expounding on this view happened to be works written by Mu’tazalī scholars. Abū ‘Abdillah Muḥammad b. Zayd al-Wāsiṭī (d. 309 AH / 919 CE), Abū ‘Ali Muḥammad al-Jubbā’ī (d. 303 AH / 915 CE) and his son Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāyī (d. 321 AH / 933 CE) were from among those who focused on establishing the miracle of the Qurān through its bayān.
Abū Muslim al-Isfahānī (d. 322 AH / 934 CE) was one of the earliest scholars – a Mu’tazalī as well – who tried to reconcile the views of al-sarfah and the miracle rooted in the Qurān’s presentation. One of the most popular exegetical works, Tafsīr al-Kashshāf of al-Zamakhsarī (d. 538 AH / 1143 CE), is based on this approach as the author accepted the notion of an ordered-system in the Qurān which was evident through its presentation.
This is not really a separate approach to establishing the miracle of the Qurān but serves as an annex to the method discussed above. The intent here is to explain the historical context in which the Qurān was revealed in to be able to better understand how it has remained a miracle. Many of the Arabs were known to be strong poets and would engage in competing with one another through poetry. Naturally, this also meant that they were critics of one another and would try to expose the weaknesses of their opponents’ poetry whenever possible.
It was in this setting the Qurān comes and challenges them to produce something similar – as duels and challenges were a norm amongst the Arab poets – yet they were unable to match the style of the Qurān in this specific challenge.
Over the next few centuries, the Qurān essentially became the main criterion by which the sciences of literary criticism were developed, and the quality of expressions and poetry were judged. Scholars would be forced to investigate poetry from the era of ignorance to show the validity of some of the grammatical principles employed in the Qurān, that while were valid, were not commonly used. The Qurānic text also pushed scholars to venture into discussions they had never had before, such as the nature of the Qurān itself, whether its meanings and words were created or pre-eternal, the notion of metaphors, ordered-system, philology and so on.
After the revelation of the Qurān, the standards of literary criticism, tropes, phenomenology etc. that were somewhat common amongst the Arab elites, all went through a significant change and their standards were raised. Despite centuries of effort put in to extract grammatical rules and principles of eloquence, it is the fact that no one has been able to produce anything like the Qurān which attests to its miraculous nature.
God willing, from the next post onwards, we will begin looking at the view of al-sarfah in more detail and the critiques that have been laid against it.
 Al-Tamhīd fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān, by Āyatullah Hādī Ma’rifat, vol. 4, pg. 91
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.