'Review' Of Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache ('Christoph Luxenberg', 2000, Das Arabische Buch: Berlin) By Angelika Neuwirth

M S M Saifullah

First Composed: 23rd August 2003

Last Updated: 23rd August 2003


Assalamu-`alaikum wa rahamtullahi wa barakatuhu:

The following material deals with a brief review of the book Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache by 'Christoph Luxenberg'. It is taken from her article "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. The references are omitted for the sake of brevity. Interested readers should consult the above article for details.


It was linguistic and stylistic evidence, however, that led Günter Lüling and recently Christoph Luxenberg to the reconstruction of a pre-canonical text. Let us briefly look at the scenario. The Qur'an is traditionally held to reflect pure Arabic language, attesting its close relation to the cultural aud linguistic orbit of Arabia. But since the monotheist tradition that the Qur'an continues is based on scripture codified in Hebrew and Greek, and circulating predominantly in Syriac which was also the language of a host of liturgical texts, it is hard to believe that the Qur'an should be devoid of traces of that tradition either spiritually or linguistically. It is not surprising to fInd a large number of loan words, mostly Syriac, in the Qur'an, as was noted by the earliest Islamic philologists. The orthography that underlies the Qur'an, originally not more than a deficiently represented consonantal basic layer, the rasm, though going back to Nabatean precedents was strongly imprinted by Syriac models. It was only during the eighth and ninth century that Qur' anic orthography was fully developed to unequivocally represent the sound structure of the texts. The final orthography whose implementation was supervised by linguistic specialists served to unify the still inconsistent writing of the text and to preserve it in the shape demanded by the newly standardised grammar of classical Arabic which was derived from the structure underlying the language of ancient Arabic poetry. Thus, questions arise as to the earlier shape of the Qur'anic text veiled by the standardised normative orthography. Was the Qur'an from the beginning a text in the poetical koine, as the high language using i`rab is labelled, while the spoken language was different, there being a kind of diglossia similar to that currently observed? Or was the Qur'an originally held in the language of Mecca, the vernacular of the first listeners, and only subsequently 'normalised' to fit the rules of `arabiyya? What about the Syriac interferences? Were they more perspicuous than they appear in the textus receptus?

The question is important not least since it touches on the reliability of the oral transmission of the Qur'an. Tradition holds that oral transmission played a momentous role in preserving the integral shape of the Qur'an - was it eclipsed at a later stage by a predominantly written transmission? What significance does the written transmission have? Do certain obscure expressions in the Qur'an point to a deficient understanding of text units that was perhaps caused by a mistaken writing?

Questions like these have been tackled by Ignaz Goldziher, Theodor Nöldeke and Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, Arthur Jeffery and many others in the first half of the last century, usually without challenging Islamic tradition in principle, scholars rather trying to situate their findings within the traditional image. Others, however, like Karl Vollers who advocated a vernacular form for the Qur'an and charged the Arab grammarians with having transformed that linguistic shape into classical `arabiyya, did contradict Islamic tradition. Alphonse Mingana, moreover, who claimed a strongly Syriac imprinted form of the Qur'an text, constructed an agency of exterior influence by crediting the redactor with stylistic copy-editing of the Qur'an. This redactor, who is sometimes called 'author', would have integrated a host of foreign - Syriac - loan words into the Qur'anic language and thus brought about the linguistic revolution that the Qur'an - viewed within the ancient Arab context - reflects. Thus, the vision of the Qur'an's novelty, its non-identity with the poetical koine, veiled by the later standardised orthography, aroused questions long before the appearance of the contemporary revisionists.

But it was not before Lüling - and more recently Luxenberg - that a revisionist construction of early Islamic history was designed on a linguistic basis Günter Lüling published his Der Ur-Qoran three years before the books of Wansbrough and Crone and Cook appeared. He considers about one third of the Qur'an - the shorter suras that reflect a particularly succinct and highly poetical style and thus are often perceived as difficult, even mysterious - to be the outcome of a rewriting of originally Christian hymns. Gerald Hawting has stressed the arbitrariness of this study: 'It seems to me that the argument is essentially circular and that since there is no way of controlling or checking the recomposed ur-Qur'an, there is a danger that it will be recomposed to suit one's own preconceptions about what one will find in it'.

Lüling' s claim of the pre-canonical Christian text that had fallen into total oblivion is, however, revived, though his work is nowhere explicitly acknowledged, by anew investigation with the pretentious title The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur 'an - A Contribution to the Deciphering of Qur'anic Language, by Christoph Luxenberg, which appeared in 2000. Luxenberg seeks to re-animate the debate about the Qur'anic language as either poetical `arabiyya or vernacular, advocating the vernacular option. The original Qur'anic language is, as he tries to prove on the basis of Qur'anic orthography, lexicon and syntax, an Arabic-Syriac linguistic blend. His aim is to trace not only overt but also 'hidden' syriacisms - be they Syriac spellings assumed to have been blurred through the later arabicisation of Qur'anic orthography or be they earlier Syriac understandings divergent from those suggested by the exegetes who - in his view - no longer understood the original language of the Qur' an and thus had to resort to the later developed Arabic etymology for their analysis. Luxenberg discusses some 75 cases, but these in his view are only 'symptoms' of a lingustic reality that covers much larger strata of the Qur'an. There is an entire Syriac code to the Qur'an, a Syriac reading, a syro-aramäische Lesart.

In view of the popularity gained by Luxenberg's book it is perhaps worthwhile to present briefly his method starting from 'obscure' lexemes or expressions in the Qur'an, Luxenberg first (I) consults Tabari and Lisan al-`Arab, looking for explanations that might point to an underlying Aramaic reading or interpretation. If none is found he looks (2) for a root in Syriac, homonym to that in Arabic, but whose meaning 'fits better' into the context. If no result is achieved, Luxenberg tries (3) to sound out a Syriac root for the Arab lexeme in question by deleting the transmitted dots and vocalisation strokes and guessing a substitute that could be mirroring a Syriac word. The last step (4) in Luxenberg's method is to translate the Arabic expression into Syriac and to sound out its original Syriac meaning.

The method presupposes its very results: the facticity of a Syriac layer underlying the Arabic text. Much of his material relies on obvious circular argument. One has to keep in mind that principally Syriac, which is linguistically closely related to Arabic, will offer in innumerable cases etymological parallels for individual words or expressions of the Qur'an; particularly since religious vocabulary is abounding in Syriac These parallels in many cases are simply due to the close linguistic relation between the two Semitic languages and do not necessarily reflect a cultural contact. With Luxenberg, however, the tracing of Syriac 'origins' for Arabic words grows into an obsession. It culminates in the re-formulation of entire Qur'anic discourses such as the eschatological recompense of the rightful in Paradise which, according to Luxenberg, is devoid of erotic elements, what was taken for paradisiacal wide-eyed virgins, al-hûr al-`în, being in fact nothing more than white raisins.

Luxenberg's approach implies that the Arabic pronunciation of many words in the Qur'an is not genuine, but has replaced a Syriac. Therefore, the evidence of Syriac/Arabic homonyms or Syriac words bearing some similarity to Qur'anic Arabic words but sounding slightly different from their Arabic counterparts points to an originally Syriac wording of the Qur'anic text that has been wrongly arabicised. These instances therefore can be used as arguments against the validity of oral tradition as such. The Arabic form in question is understood as due to a textual corruption of its Syriac original made possible by a deficient written tradition, thus allowing the conclusion that oral tradition was non-existent 'Should such an oral transmission have existed at all, it has to be considered as disrupted rather early'. Adducing a large number of cases - though, in my view, few of them seriously worth considering - Luxenberg claims that the entire scholarly edifice of Islam, largely based on the reliability of oral tradition, is unfounded. This conclusion provides him with the premise for his project of a totally new interpretation of the Qur'an.

Syriac/Arabic parallels, in Luxenberg's view - one has to note - indicate Syriac origin not only linguistically but theologically as well. Thus, the Syriac word qeryânâ which matches the Arabic qur'an meaning 'recitation', 'lectionary', in Luxenberg's imagination is not only a linguistic loan, but the very proof of Syriac cultural origin not only did the Syriac word qeryânâ become the Arabic word qur'an, but a real Syriac lectionary became, via translation into Arabic, the Arabic Islamic scripture. A linguistic observation is thus pressed to support a theological hypothesis. By re-interpreting the entire semantic field of reading, reciting, inspiring, 'à la Syriaque', Luxenberg shifts the understanding of the Islamic scripture from the communication of a divine message to a work of translation or exegetical teaching, probably achieved by Syriac religious scholars. The general thesis underlying his entire book thus is that the Qur'an is a corpus of translations and paraphrases of original Syriac texts recited in church services as elements of a lectionary.

It is striking that the alleged extent of hybridity in Qur'anic language as such does not interest Luxenberg seriously - he nowhere reflects about the actual use of that language, as limited to cultic purposes or as vernacular - hybridity merely serves as a means to de-construct the Qur'an as genuine scripture, or, phenomenologically speaking, to de-construct Islamic scripture as the transmitter's faithful rendering of what he felt to have received from a supernatural source. The Qur'an thus is presented as the translation of a Syriac text. This is an extremely pretentious hypothesis which is unfortunately relying on rather modest foundations. Luxenberg does not consider previous work in the diverse disciplines of Qur'anic studies - neither concerning the pagan heritage, nor the poetical Arabian background, nor the Jewish contacts. He takes interest neither in religio-historical nor in literary approaches to the Qur'an although his assumptions touch substantially on all these discourses. Luxenberg limits himself to a very mechanistic, positivist linguistic method without caring for theoretical considerations developed in modem linguistics. Luxenberg has the merit to have raised anew the old question of the Syriac stratum of Qur'anic textual history that had - since Mingana - been marginalised. But the task of a profound and reliable study of the Syriac elements of the Qur'an is still waiting to be fulfilled.

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