The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran

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The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran
AuthorChristoph Luxenberg
Original titleDie Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran
SubjectQur'anic studies
PublisherHans Schiler Publishers
Publication date
1 May 2007
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
297.1/22 22
LC ClassPJ6696 .L8913 2007

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

The book received considerable attention from the popular press in North America and Europe at its release, perhaps in large part to its argument that the Quranic term Houri refers not to beautiful virgins in paradise (Jannah), but to grapes there.[1]

The thesis of the book is that the text of the Quran was substantially derived from Syriac Christian liturgy, arguing that many "obscure" portions become clear when they are back-translated and interpreted as Syriacisms. While there is a scholarly consensus that the language of the Quran is influenced by Syro-Aramaic, Luxenberg's thesis goes beyond mainstream scholarly consensus and was widely received with skepticism in reviews.[citation needed]


The work advances the thesis that critical sections of the Quran have been misread by generations of readers and Muslim and Western scholars, who consider Classical Arabic the language of the Quran. Luxenberg's analysis suggests that the prevalent Syro-Aramaic language up to the seventh century formed a stronger etymological basis for its meaning.[2]

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 (mäkktä) (fem.), with the meaning of "(the) lower (one).[3]

A notable trait of early written Arabic was that it lacked vowel signs and diacritics which would later distinguish e.g. ب, ت, ن, ي, and thus was prone to mispronunciation. Arabic diacritics were added around the turn of the eighth century on orders of al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, governor of Iraq (694–714).[citation needed].

Luxenberg claimed that the Quran "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 work of Muslim scholars.

Luxenberg argues that the Quran 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 eighth century.

What is meant by Syro-Aramaic (actually Syriac) is the branch of Aramaic in the Near East originally spoken in Edessa and the surrounding area in Northwest Mesopotamia and predominant as a written language from Christianization to the origin of the Koran. For more than a millennium Aramaic was the lingua franca in the entire Middle Eastern region before being gradually displaced by Arabic beginning in the 7th century.[4]

Luxenberg remarked 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 tortuous conjectures, it makes sense – he argues – to look to Syriac as well as Arabic.

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

His proposed methodology[edit]

  • Check whether a plausible, overlooked explanation can be found in Tafsir al-Tabari (completed ca. 883 CE).
  • Check if there is a plausible explanation in the Ibn Manzur's Lisān al-ʿArab (completed ca. 1290 CE), the most extensive Arabic dictionary (this dictionary postdates the Tabari commentary by about 400 years, so might plausibly contain advances in lexical insight).
  • 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.[5]: 34–5 

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

Word analysis[edit]


According to Luxenberg, the word qur'an ("reading, lectionary") is a rendition of the Aramaic word qeryan-a, a book of liturgical readings, i.e. the term for a Syriac lectionary, with hymns and Biblical extracts, created for use in Christian services. Luxenberg cites the suggestion by Theodor Nöldeke "that the term Qorān is not an inner-Arabic development out of the synonymous infinitive, but a borrowing from that Syriac word with a simultaneous assimilation of the type fuʿlān."[6]


The word houri, universally[citation needed] interpreted by scholars as white-eyed virgins[dubious ] (who will serve the faithful in Paradise; Qur'an 44:54, 52:20, 55:72, 56:22) means, according to Luxenberg, white grapes or raisins. He says that many Christian descriptions of Paradise describe it as abounding in pure white grapes. This sparked much ridicule and insult from the Western press who allege that "suicide bombers would be expecting beautiful women and getting grapes."[7]


The passage in surat al-Ahzab 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 a witness to those prophets who came before him.[citation needed]

Ibrahim's sacrifice[edit]

The verse 37:103, considered to be about Ibrahim's sacrifice of his son, reads when translated into English from Arabic, "And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead". But using Syriac instead of Arabic for almost the same Arabic rasm, "he put him down upon his forehead", changes the meaning to "he tied him to the firewood".[8][9]

Aya analysis[edit]

The Quranic passage in surat an-Nur, 31 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 a 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 (Greek λέντιον, lention) before he washes the disciples' feet at the last supper.[10]


Luxenberg's book has been reviewed by Blois (2003),[11] Neuwirth (2003)[12] and following the English translation by King (2009) [13] and Saleh (2011).[5]

The most detailed scholarly review is by Daniel King, a Syriacist at the University of Cardiff, who endorses some of Luxenberg's emendations and readings and cites other scholars who have done the same, but concludes:

"Luxenberg's meta-theory of Qur'ānic origins is not proved by the evidence he sets forth in this book. That certain of the Qur'ān's expressions and words (as well as broader ideas and themes) are of Christian origin is well founded, and should in general be sufficient to explain the data presented here without needing recourse to either of the two more radical theories he espouses, namely that the Qur’ān was in origin no more than a Christian lectionary, and that the language which it is written is an 'Aramaic-Arabic hybrid'. More must be offered to convince anybody as to the mechanisms by which such a strong cultural and linguistic contact could have occurred".[14]

The conclusion of King's article summarizes the most prominent reviews of Luxenberg's work that have been published by other scholars.

Gabriel Said Reynolds complains that Luxenberg "consults very few sources" -- only one exegete (Abu Jafar al-Tabari) -- and seldom integrates the work of earlier critical studies into his work; "turns from orthography to phonology and back again"; and that his use of Syriac is "largely based on modern dictionaries".[1]

Robert Hoyland argues against Luxenberg's thesis that Syro-Aramaic language was prevalent in the Hijaz during the time of the Quran's inception, finding Arabic script on funerary text, building text inscriptions, graffiti, stone inscriptions of that era in the area.[15] He further argues that Arabic evolved from Nabataean Aramaic script not Syriac.[16] He concludes that Arabic was widely written, was used for sacred expression and literary expression, and was widely spoken in the Middle East by the seventh century CE.[17] He proposes that "the rise of an Arabic script in the sixth century" was likely the work of "Arab tribes allied to Rome" and Christian missionaries working to convert Arab tribes.[18]

The Quran is "the translation of a Syriac text," is how Angelika Neuwirth describes Luxenberg's thesis – "The general thesis underlying his entire book thus is that the Quran 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 Quran studies, but "limits himself to a very mechanistic, positivist linguistic method without caring for theoretical considerations developed in modern linguistics."[12]

Blois (2003) is particularly scathing, describing the book as "not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism" and concluding that Luxenberg's "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."[11]

Saleh (2011) describes Luxenberg's method as "so idiosyncratic, so inconsistent, that it is simply impossible to keep his line of argument straight."[5]: 51  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."[5]: 56  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.[5]: 55 [19]

Saleh further attests[5]: 47  that Luxenberg does not follow his own proposed rules.[20]

Richard Kroes (2004) 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."[21]

Patricia Crone, professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, in a 2008 article at refers to Luxenberg's work as "open to so many scholarly objections" and "notably amateurism".[22]


  1. ^ a b Reynolds, "Quranic studies and its controversies", 2008: p.16
  2. ^ Stille, Alexander (2 March 2002). "Scholars Are Quietly Offering New Theories of the Koran". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Luxenberg 2007, p. 327.
  4. ^ Luxenberg 2007, p. 9.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Walid Saleh, The Etymological Fallacy and Quranic Studies: Muhammad, Paradise, and Late Antiquity in: The Qur’an in Context, ed. Angelika Neuwirth, Brill (2011).
  6. ^ Theodor Nöldeke, Geschichte des Qorâns (1860), cited in Luxemburg (2007), p. 70.
  7. ^ "Virgins? What virgins?". The Guardian. 2002-01-12.
  8. ^ Luxemberg, Die Syro-aramaische Lesart des Koran, 254-94
  9. ^ Reynolds, "Quranic studies and its controversies", 2008: p.16-17
  10. ^ The Virgins and the Grapes: the Christian Origins of the Koran Archived 2009-04-17 at the Stanford Web Archive
  11. ^ a b Review by François de Blois Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 2003, Volume V, Issue 1, pp. 92-97.
  12. ^ a b "Qur'an and History - A Disputed Relationship. Some Reflections on Qur'anic History and History in the Qur'an", Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 2003, Volume V, Issue I, pp. 1-18 (excerpts at
  13. ^ "King, Daniel "A Christian Qur'an? A Study in the Syriac Background of the Qur'an as Presented in the Work of Christoph Luxenberg," JLARC 3, 44-71 (2009)" (PDF). School of History, Archaeology and Religion. Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  14. ^ King, Daniel (2009). "A Christian Qur'ān? A Study in the Syriac background to the language of the Qur'ān as presented in the work of Christoph Luxenberg". Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture. 3: 71. doi:10.18573/j.2009.10300.
  15. ^ Hoyland, "Epigraphy and the Linguistic Background to the Quran", 2008: p.53-56, 61-64
  16. ^ Hoyland, "Epigraphy and the Linguistic Background to the Quran", 2008: p.60-61
  17. ^ Hoyland, "Epigraphy and the Linguistic Background to the Quran", 2008: p.63-64
  18. ^ Hoyland, "Epigraphy and the Linguistic Background to the Quran", 2008: p.57-60
  19. ^ (Italics in source)
  20. ^ Saleh additionally states 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 stratum of vocabulary and grammatical structure which makes it impossible to assign many words and formants to a particular language. Op cit, p. 55.
  21. ^ Richard Kroes. "Missionary, dilettante or visionary?". Archived from the original on 2018-12-10.[year needed]
  22. ^ Crone, Patricia (31 August 2006). "What do we actually know about Mohammed?". Archived from the original on 21 April 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2009.


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