Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran–part 1

I plan to revisit in the next couple of posts some work I did around four years ago now, but which periodically comes to mind whenever the news turns to Islam. As I see it, there are two significant errors that pop up whenever public discussion turns to the topic (normally in the wake of a terrorist attack). The first is that such attacks have nothing to do with Islamic tradition, are to be entirely blamed on current foreign or domestic policy grievances, and that the world ‘Islam’ means peace. This is less than accurate – ‘Islam’ means submission (to God), extremist groups do drawn upon certain long-standing strands of Islamic tradition, and said extremists, while perhaps influenced by other concerns, have a world view shaped by their particular religious conceptions. The other error (and I believe both tend to feed off each other), is that such extremists are the sole ‘genuine’ representatives of Islamic tradition, that Islam is monolithic and focused around violent jihad, and has been in constant state of hostility with the West and the rest throughout all its history. This too is inaccurate, in some cases grossly so. Islam is a religion is 1.3 billion adherents, and is no more monolithic in its teachings and doctrines than Christianity is, both as a body today and throughout history. There’s certain traditions that have lent themselves to extremist causes, but there’s other longstanding Islamic traditions too. There’s Islamic groups that entirely disavow notions of violent jihad, while amongst others is only to be practiced defensively. There are extensive interpretive traditions attached to the Qur’an – meaning one cannot simply take a Qur’anic verse out of context, and assert it must be interpreted in a certain way (some commentators seem to assume that Muslims must read their scriptures following certain Protestant methodologies). Blaming all Muslims for extremism is like blaming the Quakers for the IRA.

Sadly the lack of a balanced approach is likely to continue, and it also seems to have become enmeshed with particular historical debates over the origin and growth of Islam. Thus particular revisionist academics, who have suggested such things as that the Qur’an emerged around 150 years later than conventional histories suggest, or suggest the possibility that Muhammad never existed, or lived somewhere other than Mecca, have become popular in circles wary of Islam at large. That shouldn’t necessarily count against the revisionists themselves, a number of whom are respectable academics, but such debates have had a wider audience than they otherwise would enjoy. I confess to a certain sympathy for some of these revisionists, even as I largely disagree with them. Most of the written sources upon which the traditional histories are built do date from several centuries later. Of course, Islamic scholarship claims a continuous oral tradition, and furthermore was conscious at a very early stage of potential difficulties, seeking means to sort out genuine oral traditions from later compositions even if a number of Western scholars haven’t been too convinced by their efforts. I personally also believe that there’s things recorded in that tradition (such as the story of Uthman’s – the third Caliph, or successor to Muhammad – destruction of other recensions of the Qur’an), that are unlikely to have been the sort of thing a later inventor would wish to fabricate. Likewise, when John Wansbrough, using form criticism from biblical studies, dates the Qur’an to around 150 years later in Mesoptamia, I think that raises more questions about the efficacy of form criticism than it does about the date of the Qur’an. But the likes of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and so on, aren’t cranks to be dismissed either, and a subset of such revisionist ideas about the Qur’an, although they don’t always agree with each other, has lived on in Islamic studies.

Into this mix comes the work I wrote about four years ago, Christoph Luxenberg’s Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran (translated into English as The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran). Christoph Luxenberg is as psuedonym, so his own credentials are hard to assess, but his work is available to review. Claiming to present a new reading of the Qur’an, by suggesting that at least portions may be better understood by reference to Syriac, that Syriac Christian culture was the important cultural context for the Qur’an, and that a number of emendations were necessary to retrieve the original meaning of the Qur’an. It attracted a lot of attention at the time of its release, likely because of its claim that the ‘virgins in paradise’ of popular lore should be understood as mere grapes.[1] Scholarly reaction was decidedly mixed,[2] but as Devin Stewart noted, while the reviews make a number of important points they address only a few of the hundreds of emendations that Luxenberg proposes, leaving many of his emendations untested.[3] My impression is that his thesis, at least broadly, has continued to have a significant influence, particularly on the professional anti-Muslim authors such as Robert Spencer, as well as on those who’ve presented revisionist histories for a popular audience such as Tom Holland. Yet I do not believe it deserves such influence. Tasked with writing an essay on the subject, I examined several of Luxenberg’s emendations and in my opinion found significant issues, casting doubt on his broader method and thesis. Since it still seems to be around in the ether, I’ve decided to take and adapt sections of that essay for several posts here as part of a review. Hence the inconsistent footnoting! I’ll first address overall points of Luxenberg’s claims and methodology in this post, and then turn to several examples in later posts.

It is worthwhile noting that Luxenberg is not the first to propose emendations of the Qur’ānic text, nor the first to examine the role of foreign terms in the Qur’ān, nor the first to propose a radically different background from the traditional account for the emergence of the Qur’ān. A number of revisionist scholars have proposed different, and often conflicting, theories for the emergence of the Qur’ān.[4] Both within the tradition of Islamic scholarship[5] and with Western scholarship[6] there has been recognition and study of foreign terminology. Likewise even emendation has played a role in both traditional[7] and modern scholarship of the Qur’ān.[8] Nor is Luxenberg’s claim to have identified a pre-Islamic Christian core to the Qur’ān entirely new, but resembles Luling’s ideas of a Christian ‘Ur-Qur’ān’.[9]

What is new, according to de Blois, ‘…is the claim that large portions of the Qur’an are not grammatically correct Arabic, but need to be read as Aramaic, inflectional endings and all. The Qur’an is thus not (grammatically) Arabic with Aramaic loan-words, but is composed in a jargon that mixes structural elements of two different languages.’ [10] Unlike the view that the Qur’ān contains non-Arabic words, which would still leave the language of the Qur’ān as essentially Arabic,[11] Luxenberg claims that the language of Mecca was a hybrid of Arabic and what he terms Syro-Aramaic,[12] by which he principally means Syriac.[13] He further claims that the Qur’ān frequently combines the grammatical forms of Arabic and ‘Syro-Aramaic’[14] and further suggests that the original Qur’ānic text was written in Garshuni, or Arabic (or one presumes an Arabic-Aramaic compound) written in Syriac script.[15] The processes involved in Luxenberg’s methods, based on these assumptions, provide radically different interpretations of a number of passages, and is obviously at variance with idea of Qur’an being an essentially Arabic text.[16] The question posed is to what degree do these interpretations, upon examination, justify the methodology Luxenberg has embraced.


Luxenberg’s Methodology

Luxenberg’s working method is founded on several key assumptions.[17] Firstly, citing Nöldeke,[18] he claims that ‘Syro-Aramaic’ was ‘the most important written and cultural language’ in the ‘sphere’ in which the Qur’ān emerged, at a period when Arabic was not a written language and in which ‘learned Arabs’ used Aramaic as a written language. He suggests that initiators of written Arabic received their ‘knowledge and training’ in a Syro-Aramaic cultural milieu. Secondly he claims that ‘these Arabs’ were ‘for the most part’ Christianized and a large proportion took part in the Syriac Christian liturgy. Thus he concludes that ‘nothing would be more obvious’ than to have incorporated elements of their ‘Syro-Aramaic’ cultural language and cult into Arabic.[19] These underpin his understanding of Qur’ānic language and his idea of ‘deciphering’ the Qur’ānic text by means of Syriac and his claim that most literature on the Qur’ān is based on the fallacious ‘historical-linguistic’ conceptions of traditional Arabic exegesis.

Luxenberg defines the primary aim of his work as being ‘in the first place’ to clarify texts identified by Western scholars as obscure, although he also claims that his investigation of the overall language of the Qur’ān has uncovered a ‘goodly number’ of misreadings and misinterpretations, and that there are both more passages that have been misunderstood than has been admitted by previous commentators and translators and that there are ‘considerable deficits in the previous interpretation of many aspects of the syntactic structure of the language of the Koran’.[20] Thus he states that he will limit his attempts to generate ‘a more reasonable reading’ to those cases in which ‘the context is obviously unclear’ and in which the classical commentators are ‘at the limit of their Arabic’ and disagree.[21]

Luxenberg’s proclaimed methodology follows a series of steps, applied to passages identified as obscure by Western Qur’ānic scholars. Firstly Luxenberg checks the commentary of Tabarī to see whether a cited interpretation ignored by western translators better fits the context.[22] If this fails, he then examines the Lisān al-‘arab of Ibn Manzūr, for possible alternate definitions. If this is determined to be fruitless then Luxenberg examines possible cognates and homonyms in Syriac, which ‘based on a consideration of objective criteria clearly fits better in the context.’ If these prior steps have been unsuccessful in rendering a better reading, Luxenberg attempts emending or removing diacritical points, on the basis that the early Arabic script lacked diacritical marks,[23] and attempts to find a better Arabic expression. Failing this, Luxenberg attempts to make out Syriac terms with the altered diacritics. Finally, if all the previous steps were fruitless, Luxenberg then attempts to translate apparently genuine Arabic terms into Syriac to see if Syriac term renders a better meaning.[24] As a separate category, Luxenberg also examines those expressions without satisfactory definitions in the Lisān and which are not explainable by translation into Syriac by examining the medieval Syriac dictionaries such as that by Bar ‘Alī (d.1001) and Bar Bahlūl (c. 963).[25]

It is by this method that Luxenberg purports to decode the supposed mixed language and uncover the “real” meaning of the Qur’ān. A number of possible methodological criticisms could be raised at this stage. However, Luxenberg asserts that ‘the examples that follow in the main part of this study may be seen as putting this method to the test’. My following posts will examine several of Luxenberg’s examples to put his statement to the test.. 

[1] Richards Kroes, “Review of Ch. Luxenberg, ‘Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Qur’an’,”.

[2] For some reviews, see: Robert R. Phenix and Cornelia B. Horn, “BOOK REVIEW: Christoph Luxenberg (ps.), Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran.,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies.; Claude Gilliot, “Langue et Coran: une lecture syro-araméenne du Coran,” Arabica 50.3, no. 3 (July 2003): 381-393.; François de Blois, “Review of “Christoph Luxenberg”, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Qur’an: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur’ansprache,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 5, no. 1 (2003): 92-97.; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History – A Disputed Relationship. Some Reflections on Qur’anic History and History in the Qur’an,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 5, no. 1 (2003): 1-18.; Simon Hopkins, “Review of Christoph Luxenberg, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28 (2003): 377-380.

[3] Devin J. Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 227-228.

[4] Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its historical context, 9; Fred M. Donner, “The historical context,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33.

[5] Carter informs us that not only did al-Suyūtī, for example, list over 100 foreign words, but that Medieval scholars had strict criteria for identifying foreign terminology. Michael Carter, “Foreign Vocabulary,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 121; Farid Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005), 68.

[6] Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 226.

[7] For examples, see Ibid., 230-231.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Harald Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 66.

[10] de Blois, “Review.”

[11] Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” 68; Mustansir Mir, “Language,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 89-90.

[12] Christoph Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran., English Edition. (Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007), 327.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Ibid., 57.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 67-68.

[17] Although he does not state them as assumptions.

[18] Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 10-11; Although as Saleh rightly points out, the quote is actually discussing the situation of the Palmyrians and Nabateans of the 3rd century CE. Walid Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy and Quranic Studies: Muhammad, Paradise and Late Antiquity,” 30,

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

[20] Ibid., 22.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Luxenberg’s statement that ‘it occasionally happens that the Arabic tradition has kept an accurate or an approximate memory of an earlier Aramaic expression’ suggests that he is already looking for Syriac equivalents as this stage, however. Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 31.

[24] Ibid., 23-25.

[25] Ibid., 25-27.

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