The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran

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The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran
SyrioAramaicReadingOfTheKoran.jpg
Author Christoph Luxenberg
Original title Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran
Country Germany
Language English
Subject Qur'anic studies
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Hans Schiler Publishers
Publication date
1 May 2007
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 352
ISBN 3-89930-088-2
OCLC 124038162
297.1/22 22
LC Class PJ6696 .L8913 2007

The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran English Edition of 2007 (Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache (2000)) is a book by Christoph Luxenberg.

This book is considered a controversial work, triggering a debate about the history, linguistic origins and correct interpretation of the Qur'an. It has received much coverage in the mainstream media.[1]

The book argues that the Qur'an at its inception was drawn from Christian Syro-Aramaic texts, in order to evangelize the Arabs in the early 8th century.[2]

Summary[edit]

Richard Kroes summarises the argument of the book as follows:

According to Luxenberg, the Qur'an was not written in classical Arabic but in a mixed Arabic-Syriac language, the traders' language of Mecca and it was based on Christian liturgical texts. When the final text of the Qur'an was codified, those working on it did not understand the original sense and meaning of this hybrid trading language any more, and they forcefully and randomly turned it into classical Arabic. This gave rise to a lot of misinterpretations. Something like this can only have happened if there was a gap in the oral transmission of the Qur'anic text. That idea is in serious disagreement with the views of both traditional Muslims and western scholars of Islam.[3]

Thesis[edit]

The work advances the thesis that critical sections of the Qur'an have been misread by generations of readers and Muslim and Western scholars, who consider classical Arabic as the language of the Qur'an. Luxenberg's analysis suggests that the prevalent Syro-Aramaic language up to the 7th century formed a stronger etymological basis for its meaning.[4][5]

A notable trait of early written Arabic was that it lacked vowel signs and diacritic points which would later distinguish e.g. B, T, N, Y ب ت ن ي (Defective script), and thus was prone to misinterpretation. The diacritical points were added around the turn of the eighth century on orders of Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef, governor of Iraq (694–714).

Luxenberg remarks that the Qur'an contains much ambiguous and even inexplicable language. He asserts that even Muslim scholars find some passages difficult to parse and have written reams of Quranic commentary attempting to explain these passages. However, the assumption behind their endeavours has always been, according to him, that any difficult passage is true, meaningful, and pure Arabic, and that it can be deciphered with the tools of traditional Muslim scholarship. Luxenberg accuses Western academic scholars of the Qur'an of taking a timid and imitative approach, relying too heavily on the biased work of Muslim scholars.

The book's thesis is that the Qur'an was not originally written exclusively in Arabic but in a mixture with Syriac, the dominant spoken and written language in the Arabian peninsula through the 8th century.

Luxenberg argues that scholars must start afresh, ignore the old Islamic commentaries, and use only the latest in linguistic and historical methods. Hence, if a particular Quranic word or phrase seems meaningless in Arabic, or can be given meaning only by tortured conjectures, it makes sense – he argues – to look to the Aramaic and Syriac languages as well as Arabic.

Luxenberg also argues that the Qur'an is based on earlier texts, namely Syriac lectionaries used in the Christian churches of Syria, and that it was the work of several generations who adapted these texts into the Qur'an we know today.

His proposed methodology[edit]

  • Check whether a plausible, overlooked explanation can be found in Al-Tabari's commentary.
  • Check if there is a plausible explanation in the Lisan al-Arab by Ibn Mandhur, the most extensive Arabic dictionary (this dictionary antedates Tabari, so might contain new material).
  • Check if the Arabic expression has a homonymous root in Syriac or Aramaic with a different meaning that fits the context.
  • Judge whether or not the meaning of the Syriac/Aramaic root word might make better sense of the passage.
  • Check to see if there is a Syriac word which would make sense of the passage.
  • Experiment with different placements of the diacritics (which indicate vowels, etc.) later added to the earliest text, the rasm. Perhaps there is a version of the rasm that will give an Arabic word that makes sense of the passage.
  • If there is no Arabic word that works, repeat the experiment and look for Syriac words.
  • Translate the Arabic phrase into Syriac and check the Syrian literature for a phrase that might have been translated literally into Arabic; the original meaning in Syriac may make more sense than the resulting Arabic phrase (such translated phrases are called morphological calques).
  • Check to see if there is a corresponding phrase in the old Syrian literature, which may be an analog of an Arabic phrase now lost.
  • Check to see if it is a correct Arabic expression written in Arabic script, but in Syriac orthography.[7]

"Plausibility", "judging" and "making sense" of single word involves looking at occurrences of the same word in more obvious Koranic passages, and looking at Aramaic apocryphal and liturgical texts, which were carried over almost verbatim into the Koran.

Word analysis[edit]

Qur'an[edit]

According to Luxenberg the word "al-qur'an" is derived from the Aramaic word "qeryan-a" meaning ‘lectionary’ a book of liturgical readings. This book was a Syro-Aramaic lectionary, with hymns and Biblical extracts, created for use in Christian services. This Arabic lectionary is a trace of the pre-Islamic, Christian past of certain Arab communities, who were amongst the first Christians. It was not meant to start a new religion, but a legacy of an older one.[8] It is accepted by scholars and orientalists internationally that the word "qur'an" (without the article l-) is derived from the Arabic root word "qara'a", which means reading. Luxenberg's Aramaic "qeryan" (without the article -a) is also derived from the same, shared Semitic root Q-R-' "reading", as is obvious from the translation "lectionary", "a text for reading".

Huri[edit]

The word huri, universally interpreted by scholars as white-eyed virgins (who will serve the faithful in Paradise; Qur'an 44:54, 52:20, 55:72, 56:22) means, according to Luxenberg, white grapes. He says that many Christian descriptions of Paradise describe it as abounding in pure white grapes. This sparked much joking in the Western press; suicide bombers would be expecting beautiful women and getting grapes.[9]

Khatam[edit]

The passage in Sura 33 that has usually been translated as "seal of the prophets" means, according to Luxenberg, "witness". By this reading, Muhammad is not the last of the prophets, but only a witness to those prophets who came before him.

Aya analysis[edit]

The Quranic passage in Sura 24 (al-núr, "The Light"), verse 31, reads in Arabic "wa-l-yaDribna bi-KHumuri-hinna ʿalâ juyûbi-hinna", and is traditionally translated as saying that women "should draw their veils over their bosoms" (Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary).[1] It has been interpreted as command for women to cover themselves, and is used in support of hijab. In Luxenberg's Syro-Aramaic reading, the verse instead commands women to "snap their belts around their waists." Luxenberg argues that this is a much more plausible reading than the Arabic one. The belt was a sign of chastity in the Christian world. Also, Jesus puts on an apron before he washes the disciples' feet at the last supper.[10]

Academic objections[edit]

Luxenberg’s argument that the Qur’an has Syro-Aramaic origins has attracted debates in the academic community and popular media. Scholarly reviews have been critical of his book.[7][11][12][13]

The Qur'an is "the translation of a Syriac text," is how Angelika Neuwirth, a German scholar of Islam, describes Luxenberg's thesis – "The general thesis underlying his entire book thus is that the Qur'an is a corpus of translations and paraphrases of original Syriac texts recited in church services as elements of a lectionary." She considers it as "an extremely pretentious hypothesis which is unfortunately relying on rather modest foundations." Neuwirth points out that Luxenberg doesn't consider the previous work in Qur'an studies, but "limits himself to a very mechanistic, positivist linguistic method without caring for theoretical considerations developed in modern linguistics."[12]

Richard Kroes describes him as "unaware of much of the other literature on the subject" and that "quite a few of his theories are doubtful and motivated too much by a Christian apologetic agenda."[3]

François de Blois, in the Journal of Qur'anic Studies, points to grammatical mistakes in Luxenberg's book:[3] "His grasp of Syriac is limited to knowledge of dictionaries and in his Arabic he makes mistakes that are typical for the Arabs of the Middle East."[3][11] He describes his book as "not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism."[11]

Patricia Crone, professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, refers to Luxenberg's work as "open to so many scholarly objections" and "notably amateurism".[14]

Dr. Walid Saleh describes Luxenberg's method as "so idiosyncratic, so inconsistent, that it is simply impossible to keep his line of argument straight."[7] He adds that according to Luxenberg, for the last two hundred years, Western scholars "have totally misread the Qur'ān" and that, ad hominem, no one can understand the Qur'an as "Only he can fret out for us the Syrian skeleton of this text."[7] Summing up his assessment of Luxenberg's method, he states:

The first fundamental premise of his approach, that the Qur'ān is a Syriac text, is the easiest to refute on linguistic evidence. Nothing in the Qur'ān is Syriac, even the Syriac borrowed terms are Arabic, in so far as they now Arabized and used inside an Arabic linguistic medium. Luxenberg is pushing the etymological fallacy to its natural conclusion. The Qur'ān not only is borrowing words according to Luxenberg, it is speaking a gibberish language.[7]

A review by Prof. Walid Saleh[15] attests that Luxenberg does not follow his proposed rules.[16]

Islamic writers mention the following issues with Luxenberg's hypothesis; "The geographical spread of pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions range from Zebed from the Syriac speaking heartland in the north to Mada'in Salih in the south and from Abu Darag (Egypt) in the West to Sakakah in the East. Syrian Aramaic or the Syriac was the language which Luxenberg says the Qur'an was partially written in. The bulk of the pre-Islamic Syriac inscriptions are confined to the Edessa region in modern south Turkey. It is certainly a long way from the hijaz region and in particular Makkah! The pre-Islamic Syriac inscriptions south of Damascus are almost non-existent (an exception being the one at Jabal Usays, south east of Damascus), except those written by travellers or pilgrims. ... Apart from Luxenberg's lack of understanding regarding the development of Syriac and Arabic orthographies, grammars and lexicographies, his work makes no attempt to anchor his arguments in any believable historical context, as we have already seen earlier. It is not clear who these Christians of pre-Islamic Makkah were who used the alleged Qur'anic aramäische-arabische Mischsprache and how these writings produced the Arabic Qur'an. What kind of time scales were involved in the transformation? What were their religious beliefs and what made them change their(!) religion into Islam?"[17]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 'The Koran As Philological Quarry: A Conversation with Christoph Luxenberg'
  2. ^ The Virgins and the Grapes: the Christian Origins of the Koran
  3. ^ a b c d Richard Kroes. "Missionary, dilettante or visionary?". Livius – Articles on Ancient History. 
  4. ^ The New York Times Radical New Views of Islam and the Origins of the Koran
  5. ^ The Syro-Aramaic Reading Of The Qur'an, 2007, English Edition Chapter 18: "Contrary to the earlier assumption of a dialect of Arabic spoken in Mecca, the present study has shown that, insofar as the Arabic tradition has identified the language of the Koran with that of the Quraysh, the inhabitants of Mecca, this language must instead have been an Aramaic-Arabic hybrid language. It is not just the findings of this study that have led to this insight. Namely, in the framework of this study an examination of a series of hadith (sayings of the Prophet) has identified Aramaisms that had either been misinterpreted or were inexplicable from the point of view of Arabic. This would lead one to assume that Mecca was originally an Aramaic settlement. Confirmation of this would come from the name Mecca (Macca) itself, which one has not been able to explain etymologically on the basis of Arabic. But if we take the Syro-Aramaic root Km (ma, actually makk) (lower, to be low) as a basis, we get the adjective akm (mäkkä) (masc.), atkm (mäkk1ä) (fem.), with the meaning of "(the) lower (one)."
  6. ^ The Syro-Aramaic Reading Of The Qur'an 2007 English edition, Foreword
  7. ^ a b c d e * Review by Prof. Walid Saleh (Department and Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto) pp. 34–5
  8. ^ Jim Quilty (2003-07-13). "Giving the Koran a history". Daily Star. lebanonwire.com. Archived from the original on 2007-05-20. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  9. ^ "Virgins? What virgins?". The Guardian. 2002-01-12. 
  10. ^ The Virgins and the Grapes: the Christian Origins of the Koran
  11. ^ a b c Review by François de Blois (Department of Iranian Studies, University of Hamburg)
  12. ^ a b Neuwirth, A. 2003: 'Qur'an and History – A Disputed Relationship. Some Reflections on Qur'anic History and History in the Qur'an' in: Journal of Qur'anic Studies, Vol. V, Issue 1, pp. 1–18.
  13. ^ Michael Marx (2004-05-22). "What is the Koran?". inamo 37/2004. 
  14. ^ Crone, Patricia (31 August 2006). "What do we actually know about Mohammed?". Retrieved 2009-03-27. 
  15. ^ Review by Prof. Walid Saleh (Department and Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto) p. 47
  16. ^ In his critique of Luxenberg, Professor Walid Saleh indicates that "The etymology of a word is a poor indication of what it means in a new context." He refers to Paul V. Mankowski's Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lakes: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 1–13 and quotes M O'Conor's article "The Arabic Loanwords in Nabatean Aramaic" JNES 45 (1986), 215: "[T]he fundamental difficulty of all intra-Semitic language study: there is a common stratus of vocabulary and grammatical structure which makes it impossible to assign many words and formants to a particular language. p. 55
  17. ^ http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Text/Mss/vowel.html

External links[edit]

Academic press[edit]

Popular press[edit]