The word “miraculous” doesn’t occur in the Quran. The whole notion of “ijaz” just came later.
Can the Quran be considered miraculously unique in terms of its literary qualities and its content? Is it incomparable to other texts?
It is unique but it is not miraculously unique. Every text is unique. It’s not just because it’s the Quran. The collection of poetry by Al-Mutanabbi (famous Arab Poet) is also unique. The Quran is definitely unique in that there are no similar texts in terms of content and style and how it was compiled and not necessarily the register of Arabic but just that style. “miraculous” is a very loaded word.
What if we change the wording from “miraculously unique” to “superior” or “sublime”? Can the Quran be considered superior in terms of literary qualities and content to any other book out there?
I wouldn’t say superior but I would say that the Quran stylistically is composed in a very high register of Arabic. It is used on the same level as Arabic poetry. Early Muslims were not quoting the Quran to prove scientific phenomena or mathematical phenomena; they were only using it for linguistic issues. So the Quran is written in high register. Whether it’s superior or not, it’s not really a clear issue. It took more than 400 years for Muslim scholars to come up with a framework of what stylistic inimitability is. It took 400 years for someone to come and frame that in a theory of semantics and philology etc. You read something and think “This is miraculous or this is pure.” What’s miraculous about it? You have to feel it, you have to know Arabic well. I know Arabic but I still can’t feel it, it’s very subtle, it’s not really something you can put your finger on.
If I were to write a competing book today considering that the Quran makes a challenge and it says “If all men and jinn would come together, they could not produce the like of this Quran.” (Surah 17:88) If I were to write a competing book today, would it be possible to say that my book is objectively not equal to or better than the Quran?
No, because you will need 400 years for people to study your book and then by that time, the Quran would have 1800 years of people studying it. It’s not going to happen. There’s a famous Arab poet and writer who wrote a competing book in the 10th century. His name is Abu al-Ala al-Maarri, very famous, like Shakespeare in English. He wrote a thick book imitating the style of the Quran. It’s published and available, it’s called Al Fusul wa al-Ghayat. It’s very eloquent, excellent masterpiece. They asked him (they are making fun of him after he wrote it and published it) “So what happened to your Quran? Why didn’t it become famous?” He said “It wasn’t polished in mosques for 400 years.” The point is: issues of superiority is not going to be an objective criterion where someone says “Look I produced something.” People will always poke holes in whatever you write and there’s no really objective criteria to say that this verse or this poem is better than the other poem.
I find the challenge unreasonable or incoherent because even if I did intend to write something down today that I would think is a competition to the Quran, no matter how good it is, people who value the Quran as the sublime book will always be able to say “No, your book is worse than the Quran because of this and this” and there’s an endless supply of reasons to come up with.
And you will need time, you will need 1000 years of scholarship on your book to reach this level. And there are also many problems with that challenge “produce a book like it or a chapter like it” but it doesn’t specify from which perspective.
If you set a challenge without setting the rules, there is no chance.
The later narrative is all about the miraculous inimitable nature of the text of the Quran but this wasn’t the case early on. In the past 150 years, this argument started to lose favor because many Muslims can’t read the Quran in Arabic. 95% of them, even Arabs who can read the Quran, only understand the simple chapters. Even educated Arabs can’t read it unless they really have a decent education in Arabic to read it and appreciate it. So you started to to have this shifting narrative towards other miraculous issues in the Quran – mathematics, science, astrology to support the argument that it’s miraculous, not just syntax. Early scholarship didn’t pay attention to that; it was only focusing on syntax because people had a stronger connection with the language, with the culture, with the text. And they were not thinking about numbers and astrology, medicine, all this stuff.