Thanwi: Expressive Guidance on Delving into Qur’anic Eloquence


Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi[1]

Translated by Waqar Akbar Cheema

On June 18, 1937, the Amritsar weekly Akhbar Ahle Hadith published an edict about a scholar from Azamgarh, UP, India, who had opined that the Qur’an contained some words that were not grammatically and rhetorically the best choice in their respective contexts but were nevertheless used for rhyming considerations. The edict termed the opinion a mistake while insisting that it was neither tantamount to disbelief nor a sin. On July 1, 1937, the Delhi weekly, Akhbar Muhammadi, retorted that it was not just a scholarly slip; instead, the writer insisted, it was nothing short of heresy and sin, as the position the Azamgarh scholar had taken effectively eroded the deference the Qur’an commanded. In response, the Akhbar Ahle Hadith write-up referred to certain reports which conveyed that some of the Companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) had also made critical remarks about some constructions and word forms used in the Qur’an. It also cited some later opinions to this effect. Moreover, it mentioned how Companions and the subsequent scholarly tradition remained open to multiple names for Qur’anic surahs (chapters), suggesting that it reflected the understanding that the generally known title of surahs fell short of considering all their subjects.

The three excerpts were sent to Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (d. 1943), a prominent religious scholar of the first half of the twentieth-century Indo-Pak subcontinent, for his succinct comments. His response, titled Malahat al-Bayan fi Fasahat al-Qur’an (ملاحة البيان في فصاحة القرآن), now included in Imadad al-Fatawa[2], is translated below. The translator has added footnotes, including the references.

Allah says in surah al-Kahf:

الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ عَلَى عَبْدِهِ الْكِتَابَ وَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ لَهُ عِوَجَا


Praise belongs to Allah who has sent down the Book to His servant and allowed no crookedness in it. (18:1)

Crookedness (‘iwaj) is opposite to evenness (istaqamat), and for a thing to be even means being flawless; therefore, crookedness includes every flaw. Moreover, it is used as an indefinite noun in a negating construction, which implies against the presence of any flaw whatsoever. Therefore, in Tafsir Ruh al-Ma‘ani, it is stated:

ولم يجعل له أي للكتاب عوجا أي شيئا من العوج باختلال اللفظ من جهة الإعراب ومخالفة الفصاحة وتناقض المعنى وكونه مشتملا على ما ليس بحق أو داعيا لغير الله تعالى


“And He has allowed no crookedness in it,” meaning that no element of flaw or distortion is present in the Book, whether in terms of grammatical irregularities, a departure from eloquence, a contradiction in meaning, or inclusion of what is unjust or calling upon other than Allah, the Exalted.[3]

Moreover, putting up a challenge, Allah said:

وَإِنْ كُنْتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَى عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُوا بِسُورَةٍ مِنْ مِثْلِهِ


If you are in doubt about what We have revealed to Our servant, then bring a Surah similar to this (2:23)

These clear statements establish that the Noble Qur’an is free from every flaw, and this exaltation confirms its miraculous nature. Further, the ummah has a consensus that this belief is from the essentials of faith to the degree that rejecting it is unanimously deemed as disbelief. Let alone the believers, the disbelievers, too, have always acknowledged its total inimitability, for had there been any room for doubt, they would not have failed to express it. Just as these verses constitute the textual proof for the Qur’an’s inimitability both epistemically and rhetorically, the failure of the greatest among the masters of language to meet its challenge is the rational proof for it, both epistemically and rhetorically. Now, by the agreement of the people of faith (ahle millat) and the rationalists (ahle ‘aql), such a fact cannot be contradicted by an equally established fact because it would entail the (impossible) existence of two contradictory truths. Accordingly, if a conflicting assertion comes from an infallible source, it would be imperative to reject it as a mistake of intervening narrators, besides interpreting it other than its apparent meanings. If, however, it comes from a fallible source, it is a must to reject it if the source is not deserving of a charitable presumption. If, on the other hand, he is a subject of charitable presumption, it is (again) better to resort to locating the mistake with the narrators and interpreting it differently.

With this introductory premise established, the narrations and statements with the impression of contradiction are either not genuinely contradictory, such as some words being at odds with the rules of usage. Because they are not against the absolute rules but only against general conventions. Relying solely on general conventions itself, however, is wrong since other conventions also exist. Even if we assume that some usage is against the rules, though such an assumption would hardly be valid, recognising a rule as such would then be deemed a mistake rather than considering its violation a problem. This is because the rules are based on the speech of the eloquent among native speakers rather than them being required to adhere to any rules. No one can have qualms about accepting this. This is just as the principles in jurisprudence are derived from the reasoning of expert jurists (mujtahidin), but they do not articulate their opinions as based on them. Or if the narrations and statements are indeed contradictory (to the premise above), they are to be refuted or explained differently.

This principal investigation provides for the assessment of all the specific issues. For instance, opposing some language conventions for the verse-ending pattern considerations is a violation of just one convention, not a contravention of an absolute rule, because the preference for verse-ending pattern consistency is also a valid convention, as mentioned in al-Itqan, Ch. 59 Sec. 2. Moreover, this observation too is relevant only when the verse-ending pattern is the sole consideration. However, in the Noble Qur’an, there are many instances where a phonemic pattern to verse-endings starts, breaks for a verse, and then returns.[4] From this, we learn that a pattern to verse-endings is not the only reason for departure from language conventions; other reasons also exist. Accordingly, in al-Itqan Ch. 59, Sec. 2, after mentioning several examples of general conventions traded-off against phonemic relevance, a statement of caution is given in the words of Ibn al-Sa’igh (d. 776/1375), who said.

In the same verses, besides a phonemic pattern, one may also find other reasons for departure from the conventions because, as reported, “the wonders of the Qur’an will never be exhausted.”[5]

A case in point is a narration from Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/687) about which Abu Hayyan (d. 745/1344) said:

من روى عن ابن عباس أنه قال ذلك فهو طاعن في الإسلام ملحد في الدين وابن عباس بريء من ذلك القول


Whoever affirms that Ibn Abbas said this is casting doubt on Islam and is misguided in religion, while Ibn Abbas is innocent of that statement.

It is thus mentioned in Ruh al-Ma‘ani in a discussion of the verse “hatta tasta’nisu” (24:27), along with a comment on Abu Hayyan’s position. However, the author adopted a different explanation.[6]

Likewise, in a discussion of the verse “afalam yay’asi alladhina amanu” (13:31), Ruh al-Ma‘ani has a similar narration addressed:

وأما قول من قال: إنما كتبه الكاتب وهو ناعس فسوى أسنان السين فهو قول زنديق ابن ملحد على ما في البحر، وعليه فرواية ذلك كما في الدر المنثور عن ابن عباس رضي الله تعالى عنهما غير صحيحة


Whoever claims that it was written by the scribe while he was drowsy, and so he equated the teeth of the letter ‘seen,’ then this is the statement of a heretic given to misguidance, as noted in Al-Bahr al-Muhit. Thus, the narration from Ibn Abbas, as mentioned in al-Durr al-Manthur, is not authentic.[7]

One indication of it being inauthentic is that the opposite is narrated from Ibn ‘Abbas himself in answer to the tenth enquiry [of Nafi‘ b. al-Azraq (d. 65/685)] as recorded in al-Itqan, Ch. 36, Sec.3.[8] In the same way, each case has details to be explored. Whereas mentioning all of them would require a more extended discourse as against the brevity sought in the question, here I quote an excerpt from the Arabic marginalia of my tafsir, Bayan al-Qur’an, for the verse “hatta tasta’nisu” (24:27) which would serve as a response to all such statements collectively.

والذي تحرر عندي فيه وفيما ورد من أمثاله على تقدير ثبوت هذه الروايات ان هؤلاء رضي الله عنهم سمعوا القراءة التي اختاروها من رسول الله صلي الله عليه وسلم ولم يستمعوا القراءات الموجودة، ثم إن تلك القراءات نسخت ولم يبلغهم الخبر فداوموا عليها وأنكروا غيرها لمخالفة ظاهر القواعد وعدم سماعه، كما كان أبو درداء يقرأ “والذكر والأنثى” وكانت عائشة تقرأ “خمس رضعات”.


I have gathered from this and similar reports, assuming they are authentic, that these companions had listened to the recitations they chose directly from the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), but they had not heard the other recitations extant to this day. Then, those recitations (they had chosen) were abolished, but the news did not reach them, so they continued with them and rejected others due to their contradiction with the common language conventions besides not having heard them directly from the Prophet. This was the same with Abu al-Darda, who used to recite “al-dhakara wa al-untha” (instead of “wa ma khalaqa al-dhakara wa al-untha” in 92:3) and ‘Aisha, who used to recite the five-suckling verse.[9]

The surahs’ multiple names are irrelevant to this discussion, for there is no contradiction among various names. However, finding fault with any of the names is an abominable innovation, as some surah names are also mentioned in the Prophet’s (ﷺ) sayings.

Based on this, similar observations on usages in hadith can also be answered. For instance, using ma’zurat (corresponding to ma’jurat) instead of mawzurat[10] is also a convention known as ‘coupling’ (azdawaj), as noted in Qamus al-Muhit.[11]

— Ashraf Ali [Thanwi], Dhu al-Qa‘da 26, 1356 AH (i.e., January 27, 1938)

Notes & References:

[1] “Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi – referred to as Mujaddid al-Millat (the Renewer of the Community) and Hakim al-Ummat (Physician of the Community) – is arguably the most famous graduate of Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband. . . . He was one of the most prolific writers in the history of Islam and wrote books on practically all of the Islamic disciplines. . . . He died in 1362/1943.” See Taqi Usmani, Muhammad, The Great Scholars of the Deoband Islamic Seminary, (London: Turath Publishing, 2013) 40.

[2] Thanwi, Ashraf Ali, Imdad al-Fatawa, (Karachi: Makataba Darul ‘Ulum, 2010) Vol.4, 457-461

[3] Al-Alusi, Shahab al-Din Mahmud, Ruh al-Ma‘ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim wa Sab‘a al-Mathani, (Beirut: DKI, 1415 AH) Vol.8, 192.

[4] See, for instance, Qur’an Surah al-Ra‘d (no.13), wherein verses 11-15 have a similar verse-ending phonemic pattern. It breaks in verse 16, but it returns in verse 17. Likewise, a pattern starts at verse 38 and continues till the end of the surah, i.e., verse 43, after a break in verse 42.

[5] Al-Darimi, Abu Muhammad, al-Musnad, edited by Hussain Salim Asad (Riyadh: Dar al-Mughni, 2000) Vol.4, 2099 Hadith 3375 – graded as hasan. Al-Darimi gives a slightly different isnad for the report from the Prophet (ﷺ) on the authority of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib from the one recorded by al-Tirmidhi in his work. See Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami‘ al-Kabir – Sunan al-Tirmidhi, (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 2009) Vol.5, 171-172 Hadith 3130. See also, al-Qurtubi, Shams al-Din, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, (Cairo: Dar al-Kutab al-Misriyya, 1964) Vol.1, 5.

It is also narrated from ‘Abdullah b. Mas‘ud. See, Ibn Kathir, ‘Imad al-Din, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-A‘zim, (Riyadh: Dar al-Taiba, 1999) Vol.1, 21-22.

Abu Bakr also said this in one of his speeches. See Abu ‘Ubaid, Qasim b. Sallam, al-Khutab wa al-Mawa‘iz, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Thaqafa al-Diniyya, n.d.) 187 no. 121; Ibn Abi Shaiba, Abu Bakr, al-Musannaf, Ed. Muhammad ‘Awwama (Beirut: Dar Qurtuba, 2006) Hadith 35572; Al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud, al-Zuhd, (Hulwan: Dar al-Mishkat, 1993) 50 no. 26.

Ibn ‘Abbas is also said to have mentioned this. See, Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, al-Durr al-Manthur fi Tafsir al-Ma’thur, (Cairo: Markaz Hijr, 2003) Vol.3, 458

[6] Al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani, Vol.9, 328. See also, Al-Andalusi, Abu Hayyan, al-Bahr al-Muhit fi at-Tafsir, (Beirut: Dar al-Fekr, 1420 AH) Vol.8, 30-31.

[7] Al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani, Vol.7, 148. See also, Al-Andalusi, Abu Hayyan, al-Bahr al-Muhit, Vol.6, 391.

The Late Mahmud Shakir (d. 1997) discussed the particular report under reference in his posthumously published work al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a, which we have reviewed here.

[8] “Said Nafi‘: “Tell me about yay’as (13:31).” Ibn ‘Abbas replied: “It means to know (ya‘lam).” [Nafi‘ asked:] “And do the Arabs recognise that?” [Ibn ‘Abbas replied:] “Indeed: have you not heard this verse of Malik b. ‘Awf? La-qad ya’isa l-aqwamu anni ana bnuhu wa-in kuntu ‘an ardi l-‘ashirati na’iya” [The people have known that I am his son, even though I have been away from the land of my kin].” See Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Select Chapters of Itqan on the Language of the Qur’an, Translated, annotated and introduced by Dr. Sohaib Saeed, (Glasgow: Ibn ‘Ashur Centre for Qur’anic Studies, 2023) 21

Here, Ibn ‘Abbas explains the construction he objected to in another report. This does not necessarily prove that the other report is inauthentic, but it suggests that Ibn ‘Abbas was eventually convinced of the validity of the recital with the construction and, therefore, sought to defend and explain it. Thus, it goes with the response to such reports that al-Thanwi gives next.

[9] Thanwi, Ashraf ‘Ali, Bayan al-Qur’an, (Karachi: al-Bushra Welfare and Educational Trust, 2019) Vol.2, 1402. This view crystallised out of Thanwi’s deliberations following his correspondence with another prominent scholar, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri (d. 1927), over thirty years before this writing. The correspondence is preserved, and we plan to translate it next, in-sha’Allah.

That ‘Aisha recited the five-suckling verse is based on an impression from the apparent reading of a narration in Sahih Muslim. For a critical analysis and explanation, see our article, Reality of the ‘Missing’ Qur’anic Verse on Suckling

[10] This refers to a hadith alluded to in the Akhbar Ahle Hadith piece mentioned above, which goes as:

 ‘Ali said, The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) went out and saw some women sitting, and he said: ‘What are you sitting here for?’ They said: ‘We are waiting for the funeral.’ He said: ‘Are you going to wash the deceased?’ They said: ‘No.’ He said: ‘Are you going to lower him into the grave?’ They said: ‘No.’ He said: ‘Then you would return burdened with sin (ma’zurat) and not rewarded (ma’jurat).’

See, Ibn Majah, al-Sunan, Hadith 1578. It is also narrated by Anas b. Malik. While the isnad of each of the narrations has some weakness, they are deemed reliable collectively. See Al-‘Asqalāni, Ibn Hajar, al-Maṭālib al-‘Aliya, Edited by Sa’d b. Nasir al-Shathri et al. (Riyadh: Dar al-Asima, 1998) Vol.5, 296-297 Hadith 817. It is also narrated as a mursal report of Muwarriq al-‘Ijli (d. 105/723-24), and the construction is used in a contextually similar statement of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab as well. See, Al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Dabhel: Majlis al-‘Ilmi, 1983) Vol.3, 456 Hadith 6298-6299.

[11] Al-Firozabad, Abu Tahir, al-Qamus al-Muhit, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 2005) 492. See also, Lane, Edward William, Arabic-English Lexicon, (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968) Part 8, 2939.

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