Written by Jason Petersen
In S. 2:23, the Qur’an says, “And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your helpers besides Allah if you are truthful.” In this particular verse, the Qur’an is putting forth a challenge. Muslims claim that this challenge has never been answered.
One of the central arguments for the Islamic faith is that the Qur’an is very rich in a literary and linguistic sense. Muslims say that Muhammad, who claimed to be a prophet of Allah, was illiterate, and the fact that he was illiterate made the writings of the Qur’an a miracle. This is the challenge that the Qur’an puts forth, and it reiterates similar challenges in passages such as S. 10:38 and 11:13. If one doubts the divinity of the message of the Qur’an, then let the challenger produce another book like it, says the Qur’an. Muslims say that the challenge has not been met to this day.
An Undefined Challenge
When this author sought out a Qur’an for purposes of personal study, he was sure to choose one that had commentary by an Islamic scholar. 1 The late Muslim scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali writes concerning S. 2:23:
A similar challenge is contained in 10:38 and in 11:13 doubters are challenged to produce ten chapters like it, while in 17:88, a very early revelation, the whole of mankind are declared to be unable to produce a book like the Qur’an. Is it a question of mere style and diction? The Qur’an itself does not say so, nor does any saying of the Holy Prophet. That the Qur’an itself is a unique production of Arabic literature and has has ever been regarded as the standard of the purity of literature, goes without saying, but the chief characteristics of the Holy Book, in which no other book can claim equality with it, is the wonderful translation which it accomplished, and is to this characteristic that it lays claim in the very commencement when it says that this book is a guide (2:2). That the transformation wrought by it is unparalleled in the history of the world is admitted on all hands, for if the Holy Prophet was the “most successful of all prophets and and religious personalities” (En. Br. 11th ed., Art. Koran), this success was due to no other cause than the Qur’an. Its injunctions swept off the most deep-rooted evils,like idolatry and drunkenness, so as to leave no trace of them in the Arabian peninsula, welded the warring of elements of Arabian society into one nation, and made an ignorant the foremost torchbearers of knowledge and science, and a politically down-trodden people the masters of the greatest empire of the world. Besides, every word of the Qur’an give expression to Divine majesty and glory in a manner which is not approached by any other sacred book. The challenge remains unanswered to this day.
The passage by Ali is quite lengthy, but within the passage, he states that neither the Qur’an nor Muhammed himself specified what the challenge was. How are doubters of the Qur’an going to respond to a challenge that is not defined in the first place? At this point, an example is in order. Suppose two men are being competitive. We shall call the two men Bill and Bob. Bill challenges Bob, but when Bob asks Bill what the challenge is, Bill will not tell him what the challenge is. How is Bob going to meet Bill’s challenge if Bill won’t tell Bob what the challenge is?
In part, the same situation is encountered with the Qur’an and Muslim apologists. They proclaim that the challenge that the Qur’an gives is not answered to this day, but the Qur’an does not tell us what the challenge is in the first place. Instead, Muslims, such as in the case of Maulana Muhammad Ali, have defined the challenge for us. The issue is that there is not a Muslim that can give any epistemological basis for how he can know exactly what challenge the Qur’an was putting forth in the first place. There are many attributes that books may share in common. Perhaps they have literary devices (some more than others), perhaps books can be the same color. Perhaps more than one book can claim divine inspiration. Perhaps books may reference the same characters. The possibilities of commonality are endless. The assertion that the Qur’an is speaking of a literary challenge is not demonstrable from any axiom. Even if the Muslim were to start with an axiom of revelation from the Qur’an, they would not be able to deduce what the challenge was, rather, they would only be able to induce it.
The Problem of Induction and the Challenge
There are a lot of aspects to the problem of induction, but this author will only focus on one aspect in this section of the article. Induction is a process that involves reasoning from a more specific proposition to a more general proposition. Induction is problematic because even if the premises that lead to the conclusion are true, the conclusion can still be false. This means that the inductive process cannot justify the belief that any conclusion that is reached by induction is true. Most defenders of an inductive argument will fall back on the premises that precede the conclusion in order to argue that the conclusion is in fact true, but if the premises do not lead to the truth of the conclusion, then falling back on the premises only begs the question that the premises do indeed show the conclusion is true in the first place.
This problem is very applicable to the challenge that is laid out by Muslims (and not the Qur’an since the Qur’an doesn’t tell us what the challenge is). Even if it were true that the Qur’an is unique in regards to the richness of its literature, it would not demonstrate that the challenge of the Qur’an consists of producing a book with the literary qualities of the Qur’an. The Muslim’s claim concerning the nature of the challenge remains unsubstantiated. Until such a challenge can be defined, one cannot say that the challenge has not been met, for perhaps, unbeknownst to them, the challenge that the Qur’an gives has actually been met. Until the Muslim can solve the problem of induction, they have no grounds for claiming that they know the nature of the challenge given by the Qur’an.
A Question of Standards
It is interesting that the Qur’an would appeal to an outside source to prove that it is divinely inspired. Recall, once again, S. 2:23,”And if you are in doubt as to that which We have raveled to our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your helpers besides Allah if you are truthful.” The Qur’an is clearly stating that if one is unable to produce a work like the Qur’an, then the person is not being truthful. The implications of this challenge is not an inductive claim. So, one must ask, what standard is the Qur’an adopting?
If the Qur’an is adopting literary standards, then the Qur’an is appealing outside of the scope of its revelation. There are no verses in the Qur’an that tell us how one ought to write; the validation of the Qur’an would come about by man’s fallible standards. But what are the standards? Disagreements about how one ought to write abound. One person believes Shakespeare was brilliant, another person believes that he is overrated. 2 Whose standard of literacy should we adopt? And why should we accept the Qur’an as divine if we must appeal to outside sources in order to confirm it? If the Qur’an is authoritative, then it should not need any outside confirmation in order to prevent doubt about its alleged divinity.
The Fallacy of Asserting the Consequent and Miracles
The way that Muslims treat the literary miracle of the Qur’an commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent. This fallacy occurs when one assumes that only one antecedent can be responsible for the consequent. One can hear this fallacy committed in a video by a Muslim apologist by the name of Hamza Tzortzis. 3 In the video, Tzortzis begins by rejecting the definition of miracle that is often given by secular philosophers in favor of an Islamic definition. He states that in Islam, a miracle is defined as an impossible act. Tzortzis states that this means that all possible natural explanations for an event have been exhausted. He gives an example of the account given for Moses by the Qur’an. When speaking with the Pharaoh, Moses threw down his staff and it turned into a snake. Tzortzis then goes on to say that we can experiment with a staff to see if we can turn it into a snake by using a variety of approaches, but once all of the approaches have been exhausted, it is considered a miracle.
What Tzortzis is suggesting is that one can use the scientific method to show that the staff turning into a snake was a miracle. What Tzortzis doesn’t understand is that the scientific method commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent. The fact that the scientific method commits this logical fallacy is the reason why the method itself is theologically neutral. Science cannot demonstrate natural or supernatural causation. In fact, science cannot demonstrate anything to be the case because the scientific method is not meant to be a truth-finding method in the first place. 4 Committing such a fallacy entails that there are an infinite number of possible causes for the effect (e.g., a staff turning into a snake). Because there is an infinite number of possible causes, it is impossible for Tzortzis to exhaust all possible natural causes. 5 If Tzortzis were able to exhaust all possible natural causes, the feat would perhaps be a miracle.
Does the Qur’an Teach Muhammad was Illiterate?
It appears that the central crux of the challenge put forth by Muslims (and apparently not the Qur’an) is that an illiterate man cannot write a book that is so rich in literary devices; some allege that the Qur’an does not lend support to the notion that Muhammad was illiterate. Even if it were the case that Muhammad was illiterate, the Greek Poet Homer was blind and still managed to write one of the most famous pieces of literature, Iliad and the Odyssey. Should this writing also be considered a miracle of Allah? Some Christians (and even Muslims) allege that the notion that the Qur’an is illiterate was a fabrication by Muslims in order to answer a repetitively asked questions by the Christians and the Jews, “Where are your prophets miracles?” 6
It is interesting that in, S. 25:4-5 doubters allege the possibility that Muhammad forged the Qur’an. 7 While the passage is interesting, it is not definitively against the notion that Muhammad was considered illiterate in the Qur’an. S. 96:14 says that Muhammad received his first revelation by writing. Most detractors to Islam will say, “See? How can an illiterate man read a revelation?” The Muslim will most likely respond by saying that Muhammad’s ability to read the revelational writing was the beginning of the linguistic miracle of the Qur’an. While the claim by the Muslim is arrived at from the passage inductively, it does show that the Qur’an does not definitively teach that Muhammad was initially literate.
Supporters of the notion that the Qur’an portrays Muhammad as initially illiterate have brought up some reasonable points. One of the central arguments for Muhammad being portrayed as originally illiterate in the Qur’an is the use of the Arabic word ‘ummi.’ The Muslims that claim that Muhammad was initially illiterate say that the word ‘ummi’ when used in the Qur’an to describe Muhammad means ‘illiterate.’ 8 The argument that the advocates of Muhammad’s initial illiteracy puts forth is an inductive one, but there is an inductive objection that comes from the detractors of the illiteracy position that appears to be equally as forceful. The advocates of the position that Muhammad was not illiterate argue that the word ‘ummi’ in the Qur’an is never used in a way that suggests that it means ‘illiterate.’ 9 Both sides have made numerous points against one another that will not be fully analyzed in this article (but perhaps it may be addressed in a later article). The reader is encouraged to check the sources laid out in the footnotes for more information from both sides of the argument.
It should be evident that the argument concerning whether or not Muhammad was actually portrayed as being initially illiterate in the Qur’an is a matter of semantics and linguistics. This is in a way ironic when one considers that the argument that is being evaluated in this article concerns the linguistics of the Qur’an. The author, however, cautions the reader on even approaching this topic with a Muslim. The majority of Muslims believe that Muhammad was initially illiterate, and while that does not mean that Muhammad was indeed portrayed as initially illiterate in the Qur’an, it may suggest that the arguments put forth by the detractors of the proposition that the Qur’an teaches that Muhammad is illiterate are largely ineffective. This author will defer judgment as to whether or not the Qur’an teaches that Muhammad was initially illiterate. The reader, however, is free to evaluate the issue and decide whether or not this objection is worthwhile.
Issues with how the Qur’an portrays Muhammad’s initial level of literacy notwithstanding, there are at least several effective objections to the notion that the Qur’an was a literary and linguistic miracle. First, the challenge to produce a book like the Qur’an is undefined. Second, the notion that the only way that the Qur’an could have been written as a miracle from Allah commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent. Third, the defining of the challenge by the Qur’an by Muslim scholars and apologists are arrived at from the fallacious process of induction. And last, the Qur’an gives mixed messages as to whether or not Muhammad truly was illiterate prior to receiving revelation by Allah.
1. This author wanted to make sure that he could accurately represent Islam in his critiques.
4. In verse 4, the doubters raise the possibility that Qur’an was not forged by Muhammad alone. Perhaps an Muslim could suggest that someone helped write the Qur’an while Muhammad dictated it. (The commentary that is in this author’s Qur’an suggested that other people helped him write it down. This suggestion does appear to be consistent with the context of S. 25:4-5.) This is normally one of the first verses detractors use to show that the Qur’an shows that Muhammad was actually literate, but one should use caution with invoking this passage.
5. One of the central arguments that Muslims use against atheists is a variation of the cosmological argument. One of the common-supporting arguments used is that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. Since Muslims argue that infinite regress is irrational, they are being intellectually hypocritical if they affirm an argument that commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent.