was not without Schadenfreude
that the press published the story: there was no reason for the
plane-crashers of 11 September 2001 to count on 72 virgins in paradise.
They would only find grapes there. The reason for this disappointing
news? A simple reading mistake in the text of the Qur'an.
The source of this surprising statement is the
book under review.
If the writer is right, he places a bomb under Islam that is comparable
to the effects of Biblical textual criticism to Christianity.
Understandably the author's name 'Christoph Luxenberg' is a nom
de plume of a professor in Semitic languages at a German
university, according to articles in the press.
The statement 'not virgins but grapes' is only a
side step in a book that argues a theory that reaches much further,
this theory has hardly enjoyed any attention in the press. 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.
The traditional view
According to early Islamic sources, texts of the Qur'an were already
written down during the life of the prophet Muhammad (570-632 AD). At
the battle of Yamama, under the first caliph Abu Bakr (632-634 AD), so
many victims fell among the ones that knew the Qur'an by heart that Abu
Bakr ordered Muhammad's secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit, to codify a
complete Qur'an. Through inheritance this text ended up with Hafsa, the
daughter of Abu Bakr's successor Umar and one of Muhammad's widows. But
the Qur'an was mainly transmitted orally, as recited text, and this was
seen as the most important method of 'keeping' the Qur'an. It is mainly
the oral transmission that, according to the traditional view,
guaranteed the continuity and integrity of the Qur'anic text. The
nascent islamic empire rapidly expanded during the reign of the third
caliph, Uthman (644-656 AD). In the various regions of this empire
various ways of reciting the texts developed as well as variant texts.
Uthman started a codification project in which one standard text was
decided on. Hafsa's collection now surfaced again and played a decisive
role in estabishing this unifying text. Other early followers of
Muhammad had also collected their own Qur'anic texts. These were often
different from Uthman's standard. At first some of them gravely
protested against Uthman's standardisation, but eventually it won the
day. Copies of Uthman's version were sent to all corners of the Islamic
realm and by his order all other Qur'anic codices had to be destroyed.
In the library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan there is a very old Qur'an
codex which is supposedly one of Uthman's. It is part of the Unesco
world heritage. The Topkapi museum in Istanbul also possesses an old,
supposedly Uthmanic codex.
Muslims see the Qur'an as insurpassable and
This is based on Q 2:23:
If you have doubts about the revelation
sent down to Our servant, then produce a single sura like it -enlist
whatever supporters you have other than God- if you truly (think you
and on Q 17:88:
Say, 'Even if all mankind and jinn came
together to produce something like this Qur'an, they could not produce
anything like it, however much they helped each other'.
The language of the Qur'an is regarded as the purest Arabic. That too
is emphasised in the Qur'an:
We know very well that they say, 'It is a
who teaches him,' but the language of the person they allude to is
foreign, while this revelation is in clear Arabic (Q 16:103);
So We have revealed an Arabic Qur'an to
you, in order that you may warn the capital city and all who live
nearby (Q 42:7).
The language of the Qur'an is poetic, terse and
sometimes extremely difficult to interpret. During the first centuries
of Islam many scholars studied its text, vocabulary, grammar, style
and historical and biographical background in order to estabish how the
Qur'an had to be understood. These activities resulted in numerous
dictionaries, grammars and extended commentaries, tafsir.
Some critical remarks
Arabic is a 'defective' script: only consonants can be written with it,
vowels are omitted. Furthermore, when the Qur'an was codified a script
was used in which several consonants shared the same signs. Only 17
signs were used to write 28 consonants. Just 7 signs in this alphabet,
are unequivocal. About a century after the first compilation of the
Qur'an the various consonants were distinguished by adding 'diacritical
dots'. From that moment on the five consonants for example that were
written with a 'hook' ﺒ b, ﺘ t,
ﺜ th, ﻨ n en ﻴ y
could be distinguished. Eventually, three centuries later, after some
experimenting with systems for the notation of vowels, the vowels were
In 1923 the al-Azhar
university in Egypt
issued a standard text that is now used worldwide. This standardisation
too had its reasons because despite Uthman's standardisation, several
versions of the text of the Qur'an developed.
Discussions between traditional Muslims and
scholars of Islam on this topic can run high. On the side of the
faithful it is claimed that these only represent the various Arabic
dialects or modes of recitation, the qira'at.
All 7 (or
10, or 14) are considered canonical. On the side of scholarship
however, differences at the level of meaning are recognised.
A good example are the last three words of Q 2:10.
In the Egyptian standard edition these are: بِمَا كَانُو ا يَكْذِبُونَ bima
'for their persistent lying'. The standard text is based on the text of
imam Asim († 744 AD) as transmitted by imam Hafs
AD). It is used in the whole Islamic world, except in North Africa.
Here the text of imam Nafi († 785 AD) as transmitted by imam
Warsh († 812 AD) is used. In the latter, the same passage
like this: بِمَا كَانُو ا يُكَذِّبُونَ bima kanu
yukadhdhibuna, 'for what they denied'. 'Lying' or
'denying', there is a subtle difference...
Not all Muslims deny the existence of these
differences. A very charming example of the way these are dealt with is
Q 5:6: You
who believe, when you are about to pray, wash your faces and your hands
up to the elbow, wipe your heads, wash your feet up to the ankles.
The word أرْجُلَكُمْ arjulakum
'your feet' just like the words for 'face' and 'hands' is written in
the accusative case, so it is seen as the object of the verb 'to wash',
that only occurs once in this verse. According to the transmissions of
the text by Ibn Kathir, Abu Amr, Abu Bakra and Hamza however it is
This means the
same, but is in the genitive case, just like the word for 'head'. In
this version the genitive case is used because of the preposition
'over' (your heads) and because 'feet' has the same case a silent
needs to be understood with '(and wipe over) your feet'. Now the
question is: do the feet need to be washed before prayer or is wiping
them sufficient? According to some Islamic interpreters both
texts are correct, since under normal circumstances people will wash
their feet before prayer, but where there is no water, wiping them
suffices. The combination of the two different transmissions thus
delivers the full revelation as intended by Allah.
Besides these variants early Islamic literature
mentions a lot of alternative readings that do not belong to the
canonical texts. According to our sources these are all from Qur'anic
texts that were destroyed in the wake of Uthman's standardisation.
Early Islamic linguists, and since the 19th
century also western scholars of Islam, have discovered loanwords in
the Qur'an derived from various languages, mainly from Syriac. In the 7th
century this was the lingua franca
of the Middle East, besides Greek, that was mainly spoken in the Byzantine
empire. Mecca, Muhammad's home city was a trade settlement
and Muhammad himself worked in the caravan trade for years. It is
unthinkable that he had no knowledge of Syriac. So it is not surprising
that Syriac loanwords are present in the Qur'an.
Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart
While in the Islamic world the findings of western scholars of Islam
are not universally received with undivided enthousiasm, Luxenberg
takes quite a few steps more by systematically looking into the
possibilities for Syriac offering a clarification of passages in the
Qur'an that are difficult to interpret. While doing that he doesn't
limit himself to just vocabulary, but also looks for grammatical
constructions that might have been copied from Syriac. For this he uses
a relatively simple and strict method.
As 'difficult' he defines those passages that have
recognised as such by western translators or that have been called so
by Tabari (839-923 AD) in his extensive tafsir.
A number of possibilities that could lead to a
solution are then checked:
It is important to note that options 1, 2, 4, 7 and 8 leave the Arabic
character of the Qur'an unchallenged. Option 3 simply rephrases the
presence of Syriac loanwords. Only the options 4, 5 and 6 can serve as
support for Luxenberg's thesis.
- A plausible explanation indicated by Tabari
himself, but overlooked by western translators;
- A plausible explanation unknown to Tabari in
the Lisan, the most extensive Arabic
dictionary (there were no dictionaries yet in Tabari's time);
- An unchanged reading of the Arabic, looking
into the possibilities for it actually being a Syriac word;
- A different placement of the diacritical dots
(meaning the use of different consonants) that might result in another
- A different placement of the diacritical dots
that might lead to another Syriac word;
- A literal translation of the Arabic into Syriac
order to see whether a Syriac expression or phrase has been literaly
translated into Arabic. This is called a morphological calque
(the German Fernseher is a morfological
calque of television);
- A correct Arabic expression, the meaning of
now been lost, which may still have been preserved in old Syriac
literature and lexica;
- A correct Arabic expression written in Arabic
script, but in Syriac orthography, which might thus be easily
That thesis can hardly be summarised in short, but
type of reasoning that Luxenberg uses, can be illustrated with a few
examples that the interested layman can follow.
Lion or lame donkey?
In Q 74:49-51 fun is being made of the unbelievers: What
is the matter with them? Why do they turn away from the warning, like
frightened asses, fleeing from a lion? The word for 'lion'
is a difficult word, according to Tabari. He suspects it's an Ethiopian
loanword, but there is no such word in that language, nor in any other
language in the region. Luxenberg suggests a Syriac reading ܩܘܣܪܐ qusra:
'an old, lame donkey'. It is associated with the root ܩܨܪ qtsr
that also exists in Arabic: قصر qsr 'to be
powerless, to be incapable'. There are two forms of the word: ܩܘܣܪܐ qusra
but also ܩܘܨܪܐ qutsra. The latter is
correctly derived from the root qtsr. The
former is dialect. If this dialectal form was used, it should have been
used as a nomina agentis ('causative')
according to Luxenberg, with an inserted 'u'. The reading qasura
then perfectly fits the Arabic rendering of the word قسْوَرَۃ where the
و waw was later thought to represent a 'w'
instead of a 'u'. The addition of vowels later on resulted in the
incomprehensible qaswara. Luxenberg's
translation of Q 74:49-51 runs like this: What is the
matter with them? Why do they turn away from the warning, like
frightened asses, fleeing from a lame donkey?.
Hook or alif?
The translation of Q 41:47 says: On the Day He asks them:
"Where are My partners?" they will answer: "We admit to You, that none
of us can see (them)."
The phrase 'we admit to You' is a liberal translation of a verb that
means 'to state'. That sounds a bit complicated for someone who is
already quite obviously 'stating' something. In Arabic it says: اذنٰكَ adhannaka
and Tabari has to pull every trick in the book to explain this word:
أعلمناك a'lamnaka 'we declare to you', أطعناك ata'naka
'we obey you', but that
doesn't help much. Luxenberg has a simple solution.
the hook of the nun is an old way of writing
ا alif, a long 'a'. That changes the word
into إذاك iddaka, which in good Arabic means
'then'. His translation then becomes: On the Day He asks
them: "Where are My partners?" then they
will answer: "None of us can see (them)."
In Q 68:13: coarse, and on top of all
that, ill-bred, the word عُتُلًّ 'utull
features. This is translated in various ways: 'ignoble', 'violent',
'greedy', in Shakir's, Yusufali's and Pickthal's translations
respectively, are just some examples. Instead of عتل 'utull
Luxenberg proposes عال 'al.
The same Arabic word, or derivations of it, occur elsewhere in the
Qur'an (10:83, 23:46, 38:75 and 44:31). They are translated as
'domineering', 'arrogance', 'high and mighty' and 'tyrant'.
perfectly in this passage and it is correct Arabic, which 'utull
isn't, according to Luxenberg. Here the ﺘ t
(without the dots, just like the nun in the
previous example) was allegedly used to indicate an ا a.
This was not understood in later times and the dots were added, so it
became a 't'.
In sura 18:9-26 the Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers is told.
Persecuted Christians sought refuge in a cave and fell asleep. God let
them sleep for years until the persecutions were over. The story starts
with 18:9: do you find the Companions in the cave
and al-Raqim so wondrous, among all Our other signs? The
word that is rendered here as 'al Raqim' الرَّقِيمِ ar-raqim,
is translated in various ways. 'Inscription' is used, but mostly
'ar-Raqim' is taken to be the name of the village, wadi or mountain
where the story took place.
Other researchers have suggested a misreading of the Hebrew spelling of
the name Decius,
the emperor under whose rule this episode took place. Decius, דקיס dqis
in Hebrew, could easily have been misread as רקים rqim,
which could in turn have led to Arabic رقيم r(a)qim.
Whichever is true, neither Decius, nor an 'inscription' play any part
in the rest of the story.
Luxenberg suggests two mistakes: the م m
at the end of the word is a misreading of د d.
In the oldest script that was used for the Qur'an, hidjazi,
this is a very likely mistake. Secondly, instead of the ﻴ i
an ا a needs to be read. This latter exchange
we have seen twice before. Thus the word becomes: الرقاد ar-ruqad
'sleep': do you find the Companions in the cave
and the sleep so wondrous, among all Our other signs?
Mecca or Bakka?
In Q 3:96 بِبَكَّةَ bibakkah is read as an
alternative place name for Mecca: Bakka. The preposition bi-
'in, at' results in the following translation: The first
House (of worship) to be established for mankind was the one at Bakkah
(Mecca). It is a blessed place; a source of guidance for all people.
This doesn't seem very likely. Mecca agrees with Macoraba
as already indicated by Ptolemy.
It is assumed the name is related to Sabeic mukarrib,
which means 'sanctuary'. 'Bakka' doesn't seem a logical derivation.
Tabari thinks it is derived from بك bakka
'to cram', 'to huddle' because pilgrims crowded around the Ka'aba at
Mecca (the pilgrimage to Mecca already existed before Muhammad' time)
but this seems more like a creatively invented explanation from
Luxenberg proposes a Syriac reading: ܬܝܟܗ taykeh.
This means 'which he has demarcated'. When this is written in Arabic
letters in rasm, so without the diacritical
dots: تيكه, taykeh, it is identical with ببكه bibakkah.
This would indeed give a
translation that seems more logical: The first House (of
worship) to be established for mankind was the one which
He has demarcated. It is a blessed place; a source of
guidance for all people.
The changes that Luxenberg suggests, aren't
single words. Sometimes he rereads entire phrases and comes up with a
reading that is more closely related to what non-Muslims often consider
'the sources of the Qur'an'.
Q 37:102-111 tells the story of Abraham who wants to sacrifice his son
Ishmael, the father of all Arabs, to God. This story is also known
among Jews and Christians, althought the victim in their version is
Isaac, the father of all Israelites. In one passage the translator
encounters a few stumbling blocks.
فَلَمَّا أسْلَمَا و تَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ fa-lamma
aslama wa tallahu li-l-jabini, 'When they had both
submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on his face,' (Q 37:103)
The word aslama is
explained by Tabari in
three different ways: 'to agree' (Abraham and Ishmael), 'submit' (to
God's will) and 'give' (Abraham his son, the son himself to God). This
already indicates a problem. A wide spectrum of possibilities can be
found in various translations: 'to surrender', 'to submit', 'prononcer
'resign'. Now, the previous verse already states that Ishmael submits
himself and it sounds a bit odd to repeat that in this one. To complete
the problem other, non-canonical, variants have been recorded in early
Islamic literature: fa-lamma sallama.
reading is used by Luxenberg, because it agrees with Syriac ܫܠܡܘ shlemu
'(when they) were ready'.
But the reinterpretation isn't done yet, because li-l-jabini
'on the forehead' also has its difficulties. Tabari reads jabinan
'two temples' and concludes the forehead must be meant, since that is
in between the two. It is easier to refer to jabin,
a word that in Hebrew (גבינא), Syriac (ܓܒܝܢܐ) and Arabic (جبين)
means'eyebrow'. This however seems a funny way to indicate a forehead.
Luxenberg suggests to read the word without the diacritical dot under
the first letter حبين habbin. This agrees
with Syriac ܚܒܢ habbin 'the firewood'
(literally: 'the burning ones').
Then he interprets tallahu
as Syriac ܬܠܐ tla, which means 'to tie
(down)', and has nothing to do with صرعه sara'ahu
'throw down', the word that Arabic commentators use to explain the
Luxenberg's rereading is completed when he
translates the preposition li- as 'upon', 'on
top of': When they were finished, and he had tied him down
on the firewood.
This reading doesn't differ vastly from the
one, but it does have one important advantage: It fits the biblical
story, as it was known in the 7th century Syriac
version, much better.
A lot of Luxenberg's arguments are built up like
dominoes. If the first one falls, the rest has to come down with it.
That is a weakness on the one hand, but on the other hand this type of
domino-reasoning consistently delivers a reading that agrees much
better with what are sometimes regarded as the Christian sources of the
Virgins or grapes?
The by now world-famous story about 'virgins or grapes' also works like
this. Luxenberg starts with Q 44:54 وَ زَوَّجْنَاهُم بِحُورٍ عِينٍ wa
zawwajnahum bi hur 'in, 'We shall wed them to maidens with
large, dark eyes'. For زوجناهم zawwajnahum,
'we shall wed them' he has a different, and purely Arabic, alternative:
روحناهم rawwahnahum 'we shall let them rest'.
It's a difference of only two diacritical dots and in rasm
The interpretation now used by Muslims was a result of the preposition bi
being read as Arabic 'to'. 'We shall let them rest to' doesn't sound as
logical as 'We shall wed them to'. Hence the Arabic reading of bi.
But in Syriac bi also means 'under' or
'among' and that makes the translation 'we shall let them rest
among...' a very good possibility.
If this reading is accepted, hur 'in
cannot refer to virgins any more. Furthermore, the way in which hur
'in is traditionally translated requires some idiomatic
acrobatics. Literally hur is a plural of the
female adjective 'white' (حوراء hawra'). So
it could refer to white women, but the object might just as well be a
female word in the grammatical sense only. The word 'in
is traditionally seen as the plural of the word for 'eye' and is
translated by 'wide-eyed'. It is however not a usual plural and it only
occurs in the phrase hur 'in. So in a sense
it is a hapax.
The literal translation 'wide-eyed whites' would then be a description
of the virgins in paradise. In English translations this rather too
literal choice of words is rendered as 'fair ones with wide, lovely
eyes' (Pickthal), 'fair women with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes'
(Yusufali) and even just 'Houris pure, beautiful ones' (Shakir).
Luxenberg doesn't deny that hur
can mean 'white' and 'in 'eye', but he
proposes, through Syriac, a different reading of bi hur 'in
as a consequence of the changed context:
'among/under fine/crystal clear whites'. That cryptic phrase works more
or less in the same way that 'big cheese' can describe an important
person in English. Luxenberg finds parallels for the metonymic use of
the word 'white' in the sense of 'grape', both in Arabic and in Syriac.
The 'eye' in his view is a metaphor to describe 'the appearance' of
something. For this too he manages to find expressions in both
languages, like 'the "eye" of a man' meaning 'his appearance' and 'the
"eye" of something' in the sense of 'its preciousness'.
This reading too requires some acrobatics in
but Luxenberg succeeds in reinterpreting all 8 other passages in which
the virgins feature, as well as the 3 passages that deal with the
(male) youths in paradise (Q 52:24, 56:17-19 and 76:19). All these
other 11 reinterpretations are consistent with his first rereading of Q
The added advantage, thinks
Luxenberg, is that the texts about the 'grapes of paradise' not just
fit the descriptions of paradise in 7th century
Christian texts much better; they also liberate the Qur'an from, in his
eyes, shamefully erotic imagery of the hereafter.
Luxenberg reinterprets about 57 passages in his
book. The conclusion he draws from this has several 'layers':
It is understandable that not just traditional, but also more liberal
Muslims and western scholars of Islam have given Luxenberg's book some
critical attention, to say the least.
- The application of his method delivers a more
interpretation for difficult passages than the traditional way of
reading the Qur'an;
- This proves that the Qur'an was written in a
mixed Arabic-Syriac language, probably the traders' language of Mecca;
- In view of the type of mistakes that were made,
there must have been a hiatus in the oral transmission of the Qur'an;
- Given the content of the 'improved readings'
conclusion that the Qur'an was based on Christian liturgical texts is
justified, if it wasn't a Christian text to begin with.
Those who are familiar with western Biblical criticism, won't raise
more than an eyebrow at Luxenberg's reinterpretations: no believer
needs to lose a night's sleep over it. That conclusion however is not
shared by traditional Muslims. Newsweek printed a popular article on
the book in its issue of July 2002. It only featured the 'virgins or
grapes' question. Promptly the sale of the issue was forbidden in
Pakistan and Bangla Desh.
The first reactions on Islamic sites on the
were exclusively based on the article in Newsweek. So only the virgins
or grapes figured in them. Mostly these reactions were rather polemic
and generally lacked any solid reasoning. The widespread notion among
Muslims that 'the west' or 'the orientalists' were just out to slander
Islam and ideas about 'anti-Islamic propaganda' played a more important
role than the simple facts. Only Shibli Zaman, a writer on an Islamic
apologetic website, has some knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. He
emphatically proves that the literal meaning of the word hur
is 'white' and 'in
means 'eye' and that they don't mean 'grapes'. He doesn't realise
however that Luxenberg doesn't deny these literal meanings at all.
Zaman clearly didn't read the book.
Only much later western scholars of Islam
their ideas on the subject to paper and these are not all positive.
François de Blois points to a couple of grammatical mistakes
Luxenberg's book and calls him a 'dilettante'.
His grasp of Syriac is limited to knowlegde of dictionaries and in his
Arabic he makes mistakes that are typical for the Arabs of the Middle
East. The latter is corroborated by the professor of Islam at Leyden
University Hans Jansen: Luxenberg is not a professor at a German
university, he is a Lebanese Christian. This would explain Luxenberg's
'Christian agenda': Christians from the Middle East have been involved
in harsh religious debates with Muslims for centuries.
Angelika Neuwirth, a scholar of Islam from Berlin,
dedicates a few words to Luxenberg in an article and mainly emphasises
the lack of interdisciplinary research. He does indeed raise many
questions that could be answered by other disciplines, but its not
entirely fair to blame this on Luxenberg. Her remark that his
conclusions are not fully justified by the results of his research is
much more important. A word in Arabic looking similar to a Syriac word
is to be expected, since the two are closely related languages. The use
of loanwords also doesn't automatically mean that the unchanged and
full meaning is borrowed as well. If qur'an
was indeed derived from Syriac Qeryana
'lectionary', that still does not mean that the Qur'an actually was
a Christian lectionary, at most it had a comparable function: text to
Luxenberg's book is almost unreadable, certainly for the layman. One
needs knowledge of eight languages (German, English, French, Latin,
Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac) and of five different alphabets
(Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Estrangelo) to comprehend the book
fully. A good working knowledge of German, Arabic and Syriac is
indispensable to be able to assess the book.
It looks like a solid scholarly volume: often
take a larger part of the page than the text and some pages are even
completely filled with notes. No one can put it to Luxenberg that he
doesn't document his claims. A nice advantage is his custom to provide
almost every Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac word with a transcription. This
way the layman can still get an idea of his line of thought.
Whether Luxenberg's readings are better than the
traditional ones can to some extent even be decided by someone who does
not speak Arabic by looking at the new translations he offers. At times
these interpretations seem more logical, but some others seem to make
very little difference. Rereading the otherwise unknown place-name
Bakka to: 'that which he has demarcated' seems a good candidate for a
succesful reinterpretation. But whether unbelievers shy away from the
Qur'an 'like asses from a lion' or 'from a lame donkey' seems to make
very little difference. On the one hand the text becomes more ironic,
on the other hand: how disrespectful is it to compare the Qur'an to a
crippled ass? It's only advantage is that you don't need to assume an
Ethiopian loanword that cannot be found. Furthermore the word for
'lion' قسورة qaswara has a س sin,
while the Syriac word that it should be based on has a ܨ tsade
in its root, which normally is a ص sad in
Arabic. So this is a leap of faith, and
Luxenberg needs a dialectal form to make it.
Even a succesful rereading like تيكه taykeh
'that he has demarcated' instead of ببكه bibakkah
'in Bakka' falls victim to the same method. Compare ببكه bibakkah
with بمكه bimakkah
'in Mecca'. It is quite conceivable that a carelessly executed ﻤ is
confused with a ﺒ, especially if the latter already existed in the
shape with a diacritical dot. The whole
problem with 'Bakka' has evaporated, and the translation of the passage
Where Luxenberg tries to conform the passage about
Abraham's sacrifice more correctly to biblical sources, he needs three
pages to argue that the preposition li can be
translated in the way he wishes: When they were finished,
and he had tied him down on (li-) the
firewood. This preposition generally does not mean 'on top
He brings on a plethora of arguments: first he
produces a Hebraism which results in a second alternative translation: When
they were finished and he had tied him down as
(li-) a burnt offering; a Syriac passage where li
is used in the sense of 'on' and finally an Arabic quote from the
Qur'an: Q 7:143 When his Lord revealed himself to the
For those who know the biblical story of God's revelation to Moses on
mount Sinai, this text seems to need another preposition: When
his Lord revealed himself on the mountain.
But this explanation presupposes exactly what it tries to prove: namely
that the Qur'an had Christian precursors.
One would expect that the correct reconstruction
mistaken text has a certain self-evidence to it, that it speaks for
itself. The philological tugging and squeezing that Luxenberg applies,
doesn't plead in favour of that, on the contrary, the three
explanations are partly mutually exclusive. It's still unclear whether li-
is now Hebrew, Syriac or Arabic.
Luxenberg's main problem however is that his line
reasoning doesn't follow the simple and strict method that he set out
at the beginning of his book.
The book would be much easier to follow if some
had been clarified along the lines of this method. Which alternatives
did Tabari give? What possibilities are there in the Lisan?
Which Syriac words could offer an alternative? What other readings were
possible with a different vowelisation? Which solutions were offered by
rearranging the diacritical dots? This way the reader is also
acquainted with alternatives that didn't make it and the reasons why.
Now we are confronted with only positive results.
those positive results are ordered in a discourse that has its own
structure and goal. Already at the beginning of his book Luxenberg
creates the impression that the Qur'an was actually a reworked
Christian text by putting forward that Qur'an
means 'Lectionary', a collection of texts to be read in the Christian
liturgy. Then follow examples of Syriac loanwords in the Qur'an. The
last of which clearly indicate the influence of Christian Syriac texts.
The end of the book features the reinterpretation of two entire suras,
one of which (sura 108) is traced back to 1 Peter 5:8-9. This
consistently Christian rereading of Qur'anic passages and the method of
reasoning feeds the suspicion that Luxenberg is arguing towards a
preset conclusion: the Qur'an is (actually) a Christian text. Given his
arguments that seems a far reaching conclusion, too far even.
Tracing the Qur'an to a Christian source raises
objections. The number of parallels between the Qur'an and Jewish
sources like the Targum for example are quite
large. The Targum
are Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. For purposes of
clarification and teaching, these were often expanded with non-biblical
The story of king Solomon and the queen of Sheba
Qur'an for example (sura 27), agrees very well with the account that
the Targum Sheni gives of the book of Esther
(I.13), much better than with the Biblical version.
There are also philological indications for
'Jewish sources'. The Qur'anic word for 'hell' is jahannam.
This is a Hebrew loanword (gehinnom).
Had it been borrowed from Syriac the last 'm' would be missing. The
occurrence of this kind of derivations indicates a much more
complicated development of the Qur'an than Luxenberg supposes.
If one reads the Qur'an, being familiar with both canonical and
apocryphal Christian texts, the similarities between the two traditions
are easily noted. It is no surprise that the idea that the Qur'an must
have been based, if only partly, on Christian stories has been
formulated many times in history. During the life of Muhammad a
comparable story must have gone aroud. The Qur'an itself refers to it: We
know very well that they say, 'It is a man who teaches him,' but the
language of the person they allude to is foreign, while this revelation
is in clear Arabic (Q 16:103).
Muslims know the story of the Christian monk
recognised Muhammad in his early youth as 'the seal of the prophets',
the last prophet. Christians have reworked that story and the (very
old) wonder at the Christian character of the Qur'an to a Christian
counterpart of the Bahira-story, in which Bahira wrote the Qur'an as a
Christian text, with a few adaptations especially intended for Arabs.
He then sent the book to Muhammad on the horns of a cow. The Qur'an is
therefore also called 'the book of the cow'. That seems a bizarre
detail. The second sura of the Qur'an is called al Baqara
'the Cow' and it is known that in some early Qur'anic collections, that
of Ibn Masud for example, the first sura was missing. These Qur'ans
indeed opened with 'the Cow'.
With his conclusions Luxenberg, without mentioning
himself, comes very close to a modern variant of this legend, which
probably developed in the 8th century. So the
his approach causes is not entirely unfounded. It looks like a new step
in an age old apologetic tradition, that is felt by Muslims to be
It is striking that a comparable legend developed
Jewish circles. 'Ten Jewish Sages' would have written the Qur'an
according to this story, and this one too originated from the need to
explain the great similarities between the Qur'an and Jewish sources.
At the beginning of the seventies excess rainfall caused an old mosque
in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to subside. During the reconstruction,
a hollow space in the construction of the roof was found, that
contained 14,000 fragments of Qur'an manuscripts. About 12,000
fragments belonged to 926 copies of the Qur'an, the other 2,000 were
loose fragments. The oldest known copy of the Qur'an so far belongs to
this collection: it dates to the end of the 7th
century, that is forty to seventy years after the death of Muhammad.
The finds are still studied and are important because there are so many
old copies of the Qur'an in it, that feature many textual variants not
known from the canonical 7 (or 10 or 14) texts.
One of the peculiarities discovered so far, is the
use of the 'hook' of the letters ﺒ b, ﺘ t,
ﺜ th, ﻨ n en ﻴ y
to indicate the letter for which later the ا alif
was used. For example: in some early Sanaa codices in Q 40:3: لاَ إلَهَ
إلاَّ la 'ilaha 'illa 'There is no god but
Him' the Arabic word اله 'ilaha
is written as اليه that's with an 'i', if you read it in the classical
way. This peculiarity could explain why Christian and Jewish words and
names like 'Abraham', 'Satan' and 'Torah' in Arabic suddenly get an
extra 'i': 'Ibrahim', 'Shaitaan' and 'Tawrija'.
This discovery was published in 1999 but is unknown to Luxenberg, just
as he seems to be unaware of much of the other literature on the
subject. But even he, as we saw above, regularly argues that the 'hook'
in early Qur'anic manuscripts must have been used for a long 'a'.
Certainly not everything Luxenberg writes is
too far-fetched, but quite a few of his theories are doubtful and
motivated too much by a Christian apologetic agenda. Even his greatest
critics admit he touches on a field of research that was touched on by
others before and that deserves more attention. However, this needs to
be done with a strictly scientific approach. In fact, his
investigations should be done again, taking into account all the
scholarly work that Luxenberg doesn't seem to know.
It is to be hoped that such research will be done
without any apologetic agenda or anti-Islamic sentiments in the
background; and wouldn't it be nice if the results would keep people
from hijacking a plane and in good spirits throw themselves into an
. The author wishes
to thank Barbara
Roggema of the John Cabbot University in Rome for her generous
assistance in writing this article.
This article is a translation of a slightly improved version of a Dutch
article: Kroes, R. 2004: 'Zendeling, Dilettant of Visionair? Een
recensie van Ch. Luxenberg: Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des
nr. 4, juni 2004, 18-35.
. Ch. Luxenberg,
2000: Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Qur'an: Ein
Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur'ansprache,
Berlin. (ISBN 3-86093-274-8)
. The English
translation of quotes from the Qur'an are from: Abdel Haleem, M.A.S.
2004 The Qur'an, Oxford; Arabic quotes as
given in Luxenberg and other literature were checked on maroc.nl,
in the Arabic text of the Dutch translation of the Qur'an by Fred
Leemhuis and, where applicable, in a printed copy of the text of the
Qur'an according to the transmission of imam Nafi through imam Warsh.
Transliterations of the Egyptian standard edition were checked on the
of the 'Muslim Students Association at the University of South
. Leemhuis, F. 1993:
'Het vertalen van
de Qur'an: 'onbegonnen' werk? Achtergronden en overwegingen bij mijn
Qur'anvertaling', in: Buitelaar, M. & Motzki, H: De
Qur'an, ontstaan, interpretatie en praktijk, Muiderberg.
. p. 45.
give آذَنَّاك, with an ا alif as the
penultimate letter. Printed Qur'ans (both the transmission of Nafi and
Warsh) have no alif as the penultimate
letter, but a small alif above the nun:
اذنٰكَ This is a vowel sign called 'dagger-alif' which does not belong
to the rasm-text. Luxenberg takes the rasm-text,
whereas the alif in Qur'ans on the internet
reflect a limitation of the layout.
. p. 60-61.
. All in the
translation of Abdel Haleem 2004.
. p. 62-63.
. A note in Abdel
even mentions that Rakim is seen by some commentators as the name of
the dog of the Seven Sleepers.
. p. 65-67.
. p. 300-302, note
. Luxenberg quotes
(p. 149) the French
translator Blachère, who in his turn relies on some early
followers of Muhammad: Mujahid, Ibn Abbas and Ibn Masud. The latter
owned a copy of the Qur'an that he had collected and codified himself,
and he preferred it over the standard one that caliph Uthman
prescribed.There were many differences between the two texts.
. p. 147-157.
writes the Arabic without an alif: زوجنهم zawwajnahum
and روحنهم rawwahnahum respectively, but this
makes no difference for his suggestions.
. p. 221-241.
. p. 241-269.
. Blois, F. de
2003: 'Review of
"Christoph Luxenberg", Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Qur'an:
Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur'ansprache' in: Journal
of Qur'anic Studies, Vol. V, Issue 1, pp. 92-97.
. 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.
. This translation
differs from some other English translations, where li-
is indeed translated as 'on' even though it's probably incorrect Arabic
. The scholarly
consensus seems to be that the Qur'anic tale was derived from the same
Jewish stories on which the Targum Sheni is
also based. It needs to be noted that the oldest manuscript of the Targum
dates long after the Qur'an. For a good idea of the style of discussion
from which Luxenberg's book came forth, one can take this issue as a
good example on both Islamic
. Graf von Bothmer
H.C., Ohlig K.H., Puin G.R. 1999: 'Neue Wege der Qur'anforschung'
in: Magazin Forschung 1, 33-46.