Luxenberg Thesis: the idea that Islam originated as a Monophysite Christian sect in eastern Syria. It assumes that the Quran was not written in Arabic but in Syriac-Arabic, which in turn presupposes that there has been a time in which the Quran was not recited, so that the believers could forget the original language.
It 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 Quran.
The source of this surprising statement is the book under review: Christoph Luxenberg's Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Quransprache (2000 Berlin). 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 small 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 Quran 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 Quran 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 Quranic 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 Quran were already written down during the life of the prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE). At the battle of Yamama, under the first caliph Abu Bakr (632-634 CE), so many victims fell among the ones that knew the Quran by heart that Abu Bakr ordered Muhammad's secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit, to codify a complete Quran. Through inheritance this text ended up with Hafsa, the daughter of Abu Bakr's successor Umar and one of Muhammad's widows. But the Quran was mainly transmitted orally, as recited text, and this was seen as the most important method of "keeping" the Quran. It is mainly the oral transmission that, according to the traditional view, guaranteed the continuity and integrity of the Quranic text. The nascent islamic empire rapidly expanded during the reign of the third caliph, Uthman (644-656 CE). 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 Quranic 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 Quranic codices had to be destroyed. In the library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan there is a very old Quran 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 Quran as insurpassable and inimitable.note[The English translation of quotes from the Quran are from: Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. 2004 The Quran, Oxford.] This is based on Q 2:23:
If you have doubts about the revelation We have 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 can),
and on Q 17:88:
Say, "Even if all mankind and jinn came together to produce something like this Quran, they could not produce anything like it, however much they helped each other".
The language of the Quran is regarded as the purest Arabic. That too is emphasised in the Quran:
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);
So We have revealed an Arabic Quran to you, in order that you may warn the capital city and all who live nearby (Q 42:7).
The language of the Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran 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, called rasm, are unequivocal. About a century after the first compilation of the Quran 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 also added.
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 Quran developed.
Discussions between traditional Muslims and western 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 kanu yakdhibuna, "for their persistent lying". The standard text is based on the text of imam Asim († 744 CE) as transmitted by imam Hafs († 796 CE). It is used in the whole Islamic world, except in North Africa. Here the text of imam Nafi († 785 CE) as transmitted by imam Warsh († 812 CE) is used. In the latter, the same passage runs 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 أرْجُلِكُمْ arjulikum. 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 "over" 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 also mentions a lot of alternative readings that do not belong to the canonical texts. According to our sources these are all from Quranic 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 Quran derived from various languages, mainly from Syriac. In the seventh 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 Quran.
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 Quran 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 been recognised as such by western translators or that have been called so by Tabari (839-923 CE) in his extensive tafsir.
A number of possibilities that could lead to a solution are then checked:
- 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 Arabic word;
- A different placement of the diacritical dots that might lead to another Syriac word;
- A literal translation of the Arabic into Syriac in 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 which has 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 misunderstood.
It is important to note that options 1, 2, 4, 7 and 8 leave the Arabic character of the Quran 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.
That thesis can hardly be summarised in short, but the 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" قسْوَرَۃٍ qaswara 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.note[Internet-Qurans give آذَنَّاك, with an ا alif as the penultimate letter. Printed Qurans (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 Qurans on the internet reflect a limitation of the layout.]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)."note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 60-61.]
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 Quran (10:83, 23:46, 38:75 and 44:31). They are translated as "domineering", "arrogance", "high and mighty" and "tyrant".note[All in the translation of Abdel Haleem 2004.] It fits 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".note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 62-63.]
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.note[A note in Abdel Haleem's translation even mentions that Rakim is seen by some commentators as the name of the dog of the Seven Sleepers.] 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 Quran, 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?note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 65-67.]
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's time) but this seems more like a creatively invented explanation from hindsight.
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.note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 300-302, note 318.]
The changes that Luxenberg suggests, aren't limited to 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 Quran".
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, although 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 le Salam", "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.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 Quran 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.] This 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 passage.
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.note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 147-157.]
This reading doesn't differ vastly from the classical one, but it does have one important advantage: It fits the biblical story, as it was known in the seventh 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 Quran.
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 it's identical.note[Luxenberg's writes the Arabic without an alif: زوجنهم zawwajnahum and روحنهم rawwahnahum respectively, but this makes no difference for his suggestions.] 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".note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 221-241.]
This reading too requires some acrobatics in vocabulary, 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 44:54.note[Chr. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Quran (2000), 241-269.] The added advantage, thinks Luxenberg, is that the texts about the "grapes of paradise" not just fit the descriptions of paradise in seventh century Syriac Christian texts much better; they also liberate the Quran 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":
- The application of his method delivers a more fitting interpretation for difficult passages than the traditional way of reading the Quran;
- This proves that the Quran 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 Quran;
- Given the content of the "improved readings" the conclusion that the Quran was based on Christian liturgical texts is justified, if it wasn't a Christian text to begin with.
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.
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 internet 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 entrusted their ideas on the subject to paper and these are not all positive. François de Blois points to a couple of grammatical mistakes in Luxenberg's book and calls him a "dilettante".note[Blois, F. de 2003: "Review of 'Christoph Luxenberg', Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Quran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Quransprache" in: Journal of Quranic Studies, Vol. V, Issue 1, pp. 92-97.] 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 Quran was indeed derived from Syriac Qeryana "lectionary", that still does not mean that the Quran actually was a Christian lectionary, at most it had a comparable function: text to be recited'note[Neuwirth, A. 2003: "Quran and History - A Disputed Relationship. Some Reflections on Quranic History and History in the Quran" in: Journal of Quranic Studies, Vol. V, Issue 1, pp. 1-18.].
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 footnotes 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 Quran "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 Quran 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 remains unchanged.
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 of", "upon".
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 Quran: Q 7:143 When his Lord revealed himself to the mountain.note[This translation differs from some other English translations, where li- is indeed translated as "on" even though it's probably incorrect Arabic (e.g. Yusufali).] 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 Quran had Christian precursors.
One would expect that the correct reconstruction of a 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 of 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 examples 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. And 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 Quran was actually a reworked Christian text by putting forward that Quran actually means "Lectionary", a collection of texts to be read in the Christian liturgy. Then follow examples of Syriac loanwords in the Quran. 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 Quranic passages and the method of reasoning feeds the suspicion that Luxenberg is arguing towards a preset conclusion: the Quran is (actually) a Christian text. Given his arguments that seems a far reaching conclusion, too far even.
Tracing the Quran to a Christian source raises other objections. The number of parallels between the Quran 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 material.
The story of king Solomon and the queen of Sheba in the Quran for example (sura 27), agrees very well with the account that the Targum Sheni gives of the book of Esther (1.13), much better than with the Biblical version.note[The scholarly consensus seems to be that the Quranic 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 Quran. 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 and Christian apologetic websites.]
There are also philological indications for "Jewish sources". The Quranic 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 Quran than Luxenberg supposes.
If one reads the Quran, 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 Quran 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 around. The Quran 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 Bahira, who 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 Quran to a Christian counterpart of the Bahira-story, in which Bahira wrote the Quran 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 Quran is therefore also called "the book of the cow". That seems a bizarre detail. The second sura of the Quran is called al Baqara "the Cow" and it is known that in some early Quranic collections, that of Ibn Masud for example, the first sura was missing. These Qurans indeed opened with "the Cow".
With his conclusions Luxenberg, without mentioning it himself, comes very close to a modern variant of this legend, which probably developed in the eighth century. So the suspicion that 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 "anti-Islamic".
It is striking that a comparable legend developed among Jewish circles. "Ten Jewish Sages" would have written the Quran according to this story, and this one too originated from the need to explain the great similarities between the Quran 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 Quran manuscripts. About 12,000 fragments belonged to 926 copies of the Quran, the other 2,000 were loose fragments. The oldest known copy of the Quran so far belongs to this collection: it dates to the end of the seventh 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 Quran 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".note[Graf von Bothmer H.C., Ohlig K.H., Puin G.R. 1999: "Neue Wege der Quranforschung" in: Magazin Forschung 1, 33-46.]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 Quranic manuscripts must have been used for a long "a".
Certainly not everything Luxenberg writes is nonsense or 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 inferno.note[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 Quran", in: Dialoog nr. 4, juni 2004, 18-35.]