IʿJĀZ is the concept of the "miraculousness of the Qurʾān." That the Qurʾān is the miracle of Muḥammad is an Islamic doctrine of the utmost importance because it is held to prove the divine source of the holy Book, and hence its authority, as well as the authenticity of the Prophet to whom it was revealed. But what constitutes this miracle is a subject that has engaged Muslim thinkers for many generations. By the early part of the third century ah (ninth century ce), the word iʿjāz had come to mean that quality of the Qurʾān that rendered people incapable of imitating the Book or any part thereof in content and form. By the latter part of that century, the word had become a technical term, and the numerous definitions applied to it after the tenth century have shown little divergence from the key concepts of the inimitability of the Qurʾān and the inability of human beings to match it even when challenged.
The idea of the challenge is based on several verses of the Qurʾān: in sūrah 52:33–34 there is a challenge to produce a discourse resembling it; in sūrah 17:88, to bring forth a like of it; in sūrah 11:13, to contrive ten sūrahs similar to it; in sūrahs 10:38 and 2:23–24, to compose only one sūrah matching it, the latter sūrah adding, "and you will not." The Qurʾān declares also that even if men and jinn were to combine their efforts, they would be incapable of producing anything like it (17:88) or even like one surah of it (10:38).
The argument, as in Ḥujaj al-nubūwah (Proofs of prophethood) of al-Jāḥiẓ (d. ah 255/869 ce), that Muḥammad's pagan Arab contemporaries failed to take up the challenge to discredit him, although they were masters of rhetoric and strongly motivated by opposition to Islam and by tribal pride, led some Muslim thinkers to associate the miracle with the Qurʾān's sublime style. Others supported this argument by reference to the contents of the Qurʾān, highlighting its information about the distant past, its prophecies of future and eschatological events, its statements about God, the universe, and society—all of which were beyond an unlettered man like Muḥammad.
Early in the theological discussion, al-Naẓẓām (d. 846) introduced the concept of the ṣarfah ("turning away") and argued that the miracle consisted in God's turning the competent away from taking up the challenge of imitating the Qurʾān, the implication being that otherwise the Qurʾān could be imitated. This notion was acceptable only to a few, such as Hishām al-Fuwaṭī (d. 833?), ʿAbbād ibn Sulaymān (ninth century), and al-Rummānī (d. 996). On the whole, the Muslim consensus continued to hold to the stylistic supremacy of the Qurʾān. In his systematic and comprehensive study entitled Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān, al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013) upheld the rhetorically unsurpassable style of the Qurʾān, but he did not consider this to be a necessary argument in favor of the Qurʾān's uniqueness and emphasized instead the content of revelation. On the other hand, al-Qādī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025) insisted on the unmatchable quality of the Qurʾān's extraordinary eloquence and unique stylistic perfection. In volume 16 of his extensive Al-mughnī (The sufficient book), he argued that eloquence (faṣāḥah ) resulted from the excellence of both meaning and wording, and he explained that there were degrees of excellence depending on the manner in which words were chosen and arranged in any literary text, the Qurʾān being the highest type.
The choice and arrangement of words, referred to as naẓm, have been treated in several books entitled Naẓm al-Qurʾān, such as those by al-Jāḥiẓ, now lost, al-Sijistānī (d. 928), al-Balkhī (d. 933), and Ibn al-Ikhshīd (d. 937). Al-Rummānī offered a detailed analysis of Qurʾānic style in his Al-nukat fī iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (Subtleties of the Qurʾān's inimitability) and emphasized the psychological effect of the particular naẓm of the Qurʾān without, however, disregarding other elements of content that render the Qurʾān inimitable. His contemporary al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 998) argued in his Bayān iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (Clarification of the Qurʾān's inimitability) that the source of iʿjāz the insuperable manner in which Qurʾanic discourse binds meaning and wording, using various styles that combine literary qualities characteristic of the Qurʾān alone and that are conducive to a special psychological effect.
The author who best elaborated and systematized the theory of naẓm in his analysis of the iʿjāz is ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 1078) in his Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz (Indicators of inimitability). His material was further organized by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209) in his Nihāyat al-ījās fī dirāyat al-iʿjāz (Extreme concision in the comprehension of inimitability) and put to practical purposes by al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) in his exegesis of the Qurʾān entitled Al-kashshāf (The elucidator), rich in rhetorical analysis of the Qurʾanic style.
Hardly anything new has been added by later writers on iʿjāz. In modern times, Muṣṭafā Ṣādiq al-Rāfiʿī (d. 1937) emphasized two points in explaining the sources of iʿjāz in his Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān wa-al-balāghah al-nabawī-yah (Cairo, 1926), namely, the insufficiency of human capabilities to attempt an imitation and the persistence of this inability throughout the ages. A more recent writer, ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Khaṭīb, offers four points in the same vein in his two-volume study Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān: Dirāsah kāshifah li-khaṣāʾiṣ al-balāghah al-ʿarabīyah wa-maʿāyīrihā (An elucidating study of the characteristics of Arabic rhetoric and its criteria; 2d ed., Beirut, 1975), namely, the absolute truth of the Qurʾān; its authoritative, all-knowing tone of speech; its beautiful naẓm ; and its spirituality, which derives from the spirit of God.
Abdul Aleem's article "ʿIjazuʾl-Qurʾān [sic]," Islamic Culture 7 (1933): 64–82, 215–233, surveys the development of the iʿjāz doctrine and the major works on the subject. A shorter survey can be found in the introduction to A Tenth-Century Document of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by G. E. Von Grunebaum (Chicago, 1950), which also contains a well-annotated English translation of the sections on poetry of Muḥammad ibn al-Tayyib al-Bāqillānī's Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān. J. Bouman's Le conflit autour du Coran et la solution d'al-Bāqillānī (Amsterdam, 1959) analyzes the theological discussions on iʿjāz in their historical background and presents al-Bāqillānī's in detail. John Wansbrough argues in his Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Oxford, 1977), pp. 77–83 and 231–232, that the dogma of iʿjāz developed more as an assertion of the Qurʾān's canonical status within the Muslim community than as evidence of Muḥammad's prophethood.
Issa J. Boullata (1987)