Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – part 3 and conclusion

Continuing my review of Christoph Luxenberg’s A Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran:

Forehead or Firewood: Q 37:103-104

When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, ‘Abraham…(Q37:103-104)

Luxenberg’s selection of this passage, and especially the term للجبين li-l-jabīn (‘forehead’, does not appear to fulfil the criteria he set for choosing obscure passages. While he himself wonders why scholars are not ‘suspicious’ that such details are not found in Biblical or Apocryphal material, he notes that ‘even linguistically nobody has raised any objections.’[1] While he states that he regards the conjectural explanations by the commentators as ‘scarcely convincing’,[2] it appears that the primary reason Luxenberg is concerned with this verse is its misalignment with the Biblical account. He dismisses Tabarī’s explanations, as well as Jeffrey’s endorsement of it. To Jeffrey’s suggestion that the term derives from the Aramaic גבינא (gbīnā) (‘eyebrow’) Luxenberg states: ‘What is lacking here, however, is any indication of the usage of [jabīn] in modern written Arabic, as well as in the contemporary Arabic dialects of the Near East.’[3] It is not entirely clear why such a question is even relevant, let alone consistent with a methodology that assumes a number of Qur’ānic terms were forgotten.

Luxenberg then accepts the explanation that term originates from ‘Syro-Aramaic’ but then adds ‘the real problem does not lie in the etymologically correct explanation of this expression, but in its misreading. In fact, the concrete guidelines of the Biblical account (Gen. 22:9) provide us with a indication of the real sense of this passage.’ [4] At this point it is quite clear that Luxenberg has decided to reject any reading that does not follow the Biblical passage. Thus تله (talla) is reread as the Syriac root ܬܠܐ (tlā) and read as bind[5] while jabīn is emended to للحبين (li-l-habīn) which by reference to the Syriac root ܚܒ (hb) ‘to burn’ is interpreted as the masculine plural active participle ‘burning’, which Luxenberg then renders loosely as ‘burning [materials]’ or ‘firewood’.[6] Luxenberg manages to obtain a meaning ‘on’ for the preposition li (a meaning not documented in Classical Arabic) by reference both to a Syriac dictionary[7] and on the basis of Q 7:143, although again on the basis of conforming the Qur’ānic reading to a biblical one.[8] Thus Luxenberg’s revision reads unsurprisingly: ‘and he (Abraham) had (laid) him (his son) bound upon the fire (wood), we called to him: Abraham!’

Reynolds mentions this revised reading as among those results of Luxenberg’s that are ‘intellectually compelling’.[9] Yet the technique used to arrive at the result does not bear scrutiny – Luxenberg selects a passage that though perhaps puzzling is not linguistically so, and then rejects jabīn not because it is obscure, but because it does not match the Biblical passage. Kroes notes that Luxenberg uses three pages in an attempt to argue that li can be used to mean on, and yet his use of a Biblical passage here ‘presupposes exactly what it tries to prove’.[10] The same is true of the passage as a whole – when the parallel biblical passage is made the arbiter of the correct reading it is unsurprising when something very close to the Biblical passage emerges at the end

Receiving the Eucharist? Q 96:19

No! Do not obey him [Prophet]: bow down in worship and draw close. (Q 96:19)

Luxenberg also provides revisions of several complete sūras include Sūra 96, which he suggests based on his results is a liturgical document.[11] This in itself is not a particularly controversial assertion – Neuwirth, for example, has also concluded that Meccan sūras were intended for liturgical recitation.[12] However Luxenberg also argues that the sūra is ‘part of that nucleus of the Koran, the Christian Syrian origins of which cannot be ignored’, arguing that the sūra has the ‘character’ of a preface introducing Syriac Christian liturgy. ‘That this liturgy is communion is indicated by the final Syro-Aramaic term.’ This final term is اقترب (iqtarib), which Luxenberg maintains is borrowed from the Syriac ܐܬܩܪܒ (ethqarrab), and which he claims is a technical term of the Christian Syrian liturgy.[13] Citing the Kitāb al-Agānī of Abū l-Farağ al-Isfahānī (d.967 CE), Luxenberg refers to an account when ‘Adī ibn Zayd (d. c.590 CE) and Hind bint an-Nu‘mān (d. after 602 CE) went on Maundy Thursday into the church of al-Hira to ليتقربا (li-yataqarrabā) ‘to receive the Eucharist’, and so he regards use of the term as ‘historically documented in the 6th century even from the Arab side.’[14]

There are some difficulties with Luxenberg’s arguments. Again, he appears to circumvent portions of his own method, selecting a phrase that appears to have little difficulties and at the very least not documenting his earlier steps, although this is perhaps due to revising an entire sūra at once. Secondly, his evidence for pre-Islamic use of li-yataqarrabā is actually from a document of the 10th century, and so presumably does not give a more reliable picture of pre-Islamic Arabic than Islamic Arabic sources of the same period. Nor can he, as Baasten notes,[15] simply identify iqtarib, of the eighth stem, with taqarraba of the fifth stem. While, as de Blois points out, taqarraba is ‘indeed a calque’, ‘there is no good reason to assume that the same Syriac verb was ‘borrowed’ a second time’.[16] Böwering also concurs that the verb would have to be in the fifth stem, and adds that Luxenberg overlooks a parallel passage in Q 53:62.[17]

What then of the ‘technical term’ of the Christian Syrian liturgy? Here it appears that Luxenberg may have overstated his point. ܐܬܩܪܒ (ethqarrab) as the ethpa‘al form of ܩܪܒ can mean to receive the Eucharist, but that is but one possible meaning among many, including the more mundane meaning ‘to be brought near’, ‘come near’ or ‘approach’.[18] This meaning can be easily attested to in the Peshitta, as in James 4:8: ܘܩܪܘܒܘ ܠܘܬ ܐܠܗܐ ܘܢܬܩܪܒ ܠܟܘܢ – ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’[19] Thus ethqarrab does not automatically mean ‘to receive the Eucharist’, rather context is necessary to determine if that is the correct translation. And here is the difficulty with Luxenberg’s rendering of Q 96:19 – Luxenberg has presumed that the context of iqtarib is Christian Syriac liturgy, and so translated it as ‘take part in the liturgy of Eucharist’, and yet his evidence that Sūra 96 is a Christian liturgy is based on his rendering of iqtarib. He has assumed the result, and then proclaimed that same assumption as evidence. There is no evidence that iqtarib should be rendered as anything to do with the Eucharist.


So, having examined several of Luxenberg’s examples, what conclusions can I have of his work overall. There’s several conclusions I think we can come to:

1) Luxenberg doesn’t appear to always follow his methodology.

That in itself might not be a failing – it’s a mistake to believe that literature can be processed in a strict methodological fashion as if it was a hard science. But there do seem to be some issues. It’s not clear that Luxenberg follows his own rule about selecting those passages that are obscure – two of our examples don’t fall into that category, and other emendations likewise seem selected on other grounds. His emendations of the youths of paradise, for example, are required not by any obscurity of language but by Luxenberg’s earlier emendation of the hūri passages.[20]

2) Some of Luxenberg’s emendations rely on particular, unjustified, theological assumptions.

In two of the examples we found that the revision was justified by a prior assumption about the meaning of a passage. Thus the Abraham text was modified until it matched the Biblical narrative, while iqtarib was translated as ‘receive the Eucharist’ without any contextual basis. The results are inevitably presupposed when Luxenberg reasons that as the Qur’ān claims to confirm the message of previous scriptures, and emends Q 4:82 to read ‘were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture) many differences (inconsistencies)’, and therefore claims that there cannot be any contradiction between the Bible and Qur’ān.[21] But this ignores obvious areas of contradiction,[22] and even if Luxenberg were right about the claim in Q 4:82 – which is doubtful – it doesn’t mean that such a claim is true. Further such an approach cannot help but ‘discover’ that the Qur’ān consists of nothing more than parallels with Biblical and Syriac Christian material.

3) Luxenberg’s method, as practiced, assumes its results in advance.

Thus Neuwirth states:

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.[23]

Luxenberg’s work does seem to have fallen prey to the tendency described by Saleh, where the background and training of scholars is reflected in their findings.[24] And so Luxenberg attempts to find Syriac everywhere, even in cases where his emendations do not really require it – thus his unnecessary reference to Syriac in discussing his proposed emendation of al-raqīm, for example. A particularly glaring example is his effort to not merely trace the word šaytān to the Syriac sātānā but its ultimate meaning to a ‘Syro-Aramaic’ root meaning abominable,[25] seemingly unaware of the fact that שתן has a perfectly acceptable Hebrew meaning ‘adversary’.[26] This approach is aggravated by the fact that an ill-defined ‘mixed language’ ‘frees him to make capricious surmises’ about the meaning of a passage.[27] Nor is sufficient attention paid to the possible limits of etymology – even if an Arabic term did originate in Syriac, that by no means demands that it have the same meaning. Barr’s warning, cited by Saleh, is quite applicable, that it is ‘wrong to suppose that the etymology of a word is necessarily a guide either to its “proper” meaning in a later period or to its actual meaning in that period.’[28]

4) Building on the above – Luxenberg’s thesis is unconvincing.

Neither his emendations, nor his method are particularly compelling, and thus his broader thesis about a ‘Syro-Aramaic’ background for the Qur’ān is likewise uncompelling. There are a number of interesting historical questions around the Qur’ān and the origin of Islam. And it is entirely possible that Syriac Christianity plays a role in that (although the absence of evidence makes that difficult to determine). But Luxenberg fails to make the case that the Qur’ān was originally, as he ultimately suggests, based on some Christian lectionary.

[1]Ibid., 169.

[2]Ibid., 169-170.

[3]Ibid., 170.

[4]Ibid., 171.

[5]Ibid., 171-173.

[6]Ibid., 173-174.

[7]Ibid., 174-175.

[8]Ibid., 175.

[9]Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its historical context, 16-17.

[10]Kroes, “Review.”

[11]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 304-305.

[12]Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” 64-65.

[13]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 323.

[14]Ibid., 324-325.

[15]Martin F. J. Baasten, “Review of Christoph Luxenberg, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache,” Aramaic Studies 2, no. 2 (2004): 270,

[16]de Blois, “Review.”

[17]Gerhard Böwering, “Recent research on the construction of the Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 78.

[18]Robert Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), 517,

[19]From James 4:8, in Suryanice incil ve mezmurlar (Syriac New Testament and Psalms) (Istanbul: Bible Society in Turkey). The underlined is the 3rd person masculine singular imperfect of ethqarrab.

[20]Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 244.

[21]It is on this basis that he revises away the ‘virgins’ and ‘youths’ of paradise. Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 249-250.

[22]Such as whether God begets, for example.

[23]Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History.”

[24]Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy,” 6.

[25]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 100-103.

[26]Best seen in 1 Samuel 29:4, where the Philistines are described as worrying that David might become לשתן, ‘an adversary’, to them.

[27]Fred M. Donner, “The Qur’ān in recent scholarship,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 38-39.

[28]Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy,” 13.

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