So the Surah FaQaf video came up in my social circles, and I want to address it not only because it has almost reached 10k views, but as someone for whom the answer is so obvious, I feel a sense of service to the average sincere Muslim who may watch it and feel lost and confused.
When I first saw the video, I was actually amused, mostly because of how easy it is to make a convincing argument in the social media world with just flair, production values and an emotional appeal to legitimacy and authenticity.
Let us analyze: what does this composition actually have in common with the Qur’an?
A) It’s in Arabic.
B) It’s split into verses
C) Its recited in tajwid (or rather an attempt was made to do so, it’s actually quite terrible in that aspect).
D) It’s melodious
E) It has some rhyme.
F) It’s about religious and moral topics.
G) It borrows some syntax from the Qur’an, even some direct copying.
So it has some features common with the Qur’an. Therefore its no surprise that some Muslims watch it and think, ‘Wow. That’s a serious challenge.’ But to an observer educated in Arabic prose, literature, Qur’anic i’jaz (inimitability) and artistic elements, it’s an amateur attempt and another failure in a long line of failures.
To start with, this is missing the most critical component of Qur’anic inimitability: the elegance of how it utilizes the intersection between syntax, meaning and intelligence. Almost every sentence is either of a very rudimentary grammatical structure, or it borrows directly from the Qur’an and any seeming attempt to insert eloquence seems to be arbitrary, not linked to meaning and just an attempt to make the composition sound like the Qur’an. What I am referring to here is the attempt at rhyme or سجع, but that is a very minor feature of eloquence in the realm of Arabic linguistics (and even in other languages to be honest, even a child can make the endings of sentences rhyme).
To many people the claim of linguistic eloquence may seem like a very subjective exercise, but to those well versed in the Arabic science of balagha and it’s application in tafsirs like al-Zamakshari and Ibn Ashur it’s anything but. Balagha consists of very particular objective reference points by which produced language can be identified as ‘eloquent’ or ‘intelligent’. It’s why some of the best poets of the Prophetic era were dumbfounded by the Qur’an. Their response to the Qur’an was an objective one in the same way their response to different tracts of Arabic poetry was (as well as their resulting judgement of poetry before Islam and considering one poem to be ‘better’ than the other and thus hung on the Ka’bah after the competitions in Souq Okadh).
For myself having read and studied some Balagha and non-Qur’anic Arabic literature like the Mu’allaqat and Maqamat al-Hariri (which is just a basic non-specialist education in Arabic literature), I was immediately put off by the lack of sophistication in the composition, except for the few grammatical structures copied from the Qur’an were borrowed or verses quoted verbatim. You can tell right away that the author’s Arabic skills are amateur at best. There is a serious difference between an original masterpiece and a cheap imitation, and a connoisseur can easily tell the difference.
The meanings were also very jarring in their lack of tanasuq i.e. flow and connection from one verse to the other. One of the features of the Qur’an for me is it’s ability to ‘sing’ to the soul via it’s rhapsody of meanings. Topic changes that at first seem jarring when logically analyzed seem to linger perfectly within the chaotic, emotional tempo of the subconscious self. And even better is when one reflects longer on these topic changes the mind comes round and begins to appreciate them. This is not mentioning the inter-Surah features being discussed nowadays like the ring structure of Surah al-Baqarah and how verses revealed in a jumble over months can diffuse into a seemingly complex and sophisticated meaning-based structure of distant yet reflective parallels. For the average reader though, the Qur’an seems to move past the mind and speak directly to the soul, and that meanings-based effect of it combined with its eloquence, intelligence, tajwid and melody is what the linguistic miracle of the Qur’an is really about.
The imitation of Qur’anic grammatical structures in this composition are also noteworthy, as that is just borrowing from the Qur’an and claiming that it is itself unique, despite the fact that the Qur’an was actually inventing new forms of syntactical expression or improving older ones. Any attempt to to ‘bring a chapter like it’ must also replicate the feature of not just linguistic eloquence and intelligence (as well as context coming up later), but new forms of syntactic excellence and creativity in the same way the Qur’an did, not just replicate it. In this the author of the video actually ends up doing the same thing as Musaylimah the liar, whose compositions were little but imitations of Qur’anic prose that omitted the intellectual and spiritual effect of the Qur’an’s meanings. Other more sophisticated attempts like the Furqan also do the same, although that was written by a PhD.
People are in general oblivious today to the objective nature of linguistic appraisal because of our obsession with images. But if you were growing up before the days of TV you’d be very aware of it. For a more relatable example compare the use of imagery and symbolism in a book like Lord of the Flies with any other average work of fiction from the library. There is a huge difference. Anyone with an English major can objectively tell you that Lord of the Flies has a masterful take on symbolism and imagery.
Another critical component missing is the context of the Qur’an. The Qur’an was not just a miracle because of it’s objective lingusitic elegance. Although they may not reach the level of the Qur’an in combined lingusitic, spiritual, philosophical, social, psychological and civilizational brilliance, many compositions in Arabic literature over the centuries reached great heights in spiritual, linguistic and philosophical excellence. Take Imam al-Busiri’s Burdah or Rumi as an example. But in the Qur’an’s case that lingusitic intelligence manifested itself in an illiterate and uneducated orphan, known among his people for being trustworthy and dependable (hence his marriage to a noblewoman and the marriage of his daughters to noblemen), a shepherd/trader, in the middle of a vast and empty desert among an uncivilized, backwards and barbaric people, all before Greek Logic, Syriac Linguistics and Persian administration became fused with Islamic systems of thought (or rather before Islam and Islamic systems of thought even existed in the first place). See my blog post on I’jaz for more a quick read on this.
The melodious/tajwid aspect of the Qur’an so emphasized as being replicated in this video is actually a very minor feature of the Qur’ans inimitability. And unfortunately it has become hugely overstated nowadays because of the whole mp3/YouTube recitation culture and the resulting overemphasis on the 10 recitations. I have met people who have traveled abroad to study just to learn Arabic and Tafsir, and nothing else, which gives a poor prognosis for their eventual understanding of the Qur’an. This is a major flaw of Tafsir-centric pedagogies like Pakistan’s al-Huda Institute, and the catastrophe that is ‘Qur’anic Arabic’ in that they don’t realize how much sciences such as Arabic literature/llingusitics, Fiqh, Kalam, and Usul are part of the Qur’an. Those who realize it truly appreciate masterpieces of tafsir like Razi and the hashiyat on Baydawi for example, because they realize how much even the aqli Islamic scieces are dependent on the Qur’an.
In fact the author of this video, a computer engineer who transformed in a few years into a social media New Atheism/Ex-Muslim evangelist, was actually associated with that organization, as well as Ahle-Hadis/Salafi leanings. I’m not surprised really, a computer engineer who thought the Salafist ontological perspective was unintelligent and flawed? In fact I’m more surprised when people of intelligence remain Salafi/Ahle-Hadis.
I’m also not surprised when this individual started ‘refuting’ professional philosophers/theologians like William Lane Craig using 5 minute YouTube rants, because honestly, how are Salafis any different? The person has just carried on the same cult-like behavior: lack of academic and philosophical rigor, intelligence and grounding in the related education disciplines necessary to be an informed commentator on the subject, and an overindulgence in internet/social media evangelism.
Some people have asked me in the past to respond to his claims or debate him. But honestly I don’t have the time and neither do I believe it is very productive to debate people. I wrote this for Muslims watching his stuff, not to ‘debate’ him. I believe its a waste of my time in general to address amateur, uneducated and unsophisticated YouTube/Facebook criticism of Islam because most of it is just a game of rhetoric and polemic where little in the way of intelligent, academic and informed argument matters. It’s literally about who can shout the loudest. Experts don’t do well on social media because they share a space where idiots can finally have the podium and because nuance is boring and tedious. Just look at the success of Dawkins et al an example. Some of the silliest and most philosophically poor ideas have become mainstream because of their rhetoric.
I’d rather spend my time educating Muslims on the theological and philosophical complexities of Islam and help them realize how they can deal with 90%+ of their questions and help bring Islam and Muslims into the future if they actually made the effort to invest in their time and study their religion, philosophy and science properly.
I’ll end with the advice I usually give most of my students: if you take amateur commentators as an authority (in any field), then you are the idiot. Same goes for referring to the wrong specialist for specialist information. You are the idiot and you are held liable for that mistake because that is perfectly within your capacity to correct. Don’t learn philosophy from scientists (or clinical psychologists for that matter), science from philosophers, or theology from overnight ex-Muslim social media sensations.
Stop going through the social media cycles of controversy and shock/awe that are leaving people in a nihilistic mess and instead get a rigorous religious and modern education.