Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – part 2

Having last time covered Luxenberg’s methodology, from part 2 onwards of this review I will examine several case studies where Luxenberg proposes emendations. Thus, without further ado:

The seven sleepers and al-raqīm: Sūra 18:9

[Prophet], do you find the Companions in the Cave and al-Raqim so wondrous, among all Our other signs? (Q 18:9)[1]

Luxenberg identifies الرقيم al-raqīm as a problematic passage, noting that of the three translations he uses Bell and Blachère render it as a place name while Paret translates it as inscription. Likewise he mentions Bellamy’s more recent attempt at emendation, which proposes al-ruqūd (the sleeping [boys]) in place of al-raqīm (memorial tablet).[2] Luxenberg believes that Bellamy’s emendation is undermined by the fact that it proposes 4 emendations to a word of five letters and argues that ‘lectio difficilior would be better served if we had to change just one letter’. It is notable here that Luxenberg does not perform (or at least is not seen to be performing) any of his stated steps of his method prior to emendation.

Luxenberg’s proposed emendation involves two factors. First he suggests the medial y be read instead as a long ā,[3] an idea that underlies many of Luxenberg’s emendations.[4] This in itself is not implausible – Stewart notes that Nöldeke first identified this possibility, while Donner indicates that other evidence exists, such as in Jubal Usays inscription 107, to suggest this orthography is possible. The second factor in Luxenberg’s emendation is replacing the final m with a d. He suggests d could have been misread as r, and that early kufic Qur’ān manuscripts, such as the manuscript of Samarkand, demonstrate that a final r and final m could be confused in a second stage of transcription. It is confusing, however, when he maintains that the ‘mixing up’ of r and d (as in his examples of taud and tūr) are only conceivable on basis of Syriac letters,[5] for he earlier pointed out the possibilities of ‘mixing up’ the Arabic d and r due to optical similarity.[6] Based on his earlier statements, recourse to the Syriac script seems unnecessary, especially as this is the only use of Syriac in this example.

Thus the final result of Luxenberg’s revision here is الرقاد al-ruqād, leading to the revised verse: ‘Do you think, say, that the people of the cave and sleep were strange among our signs?’[7] Despite apparent peculiarities in the method, this appears a possible emendation, as it appears to fit the context. However, Griffith’s suggestion seems more plausible still. Noting the important role played by a lead tablet in pre-Islamic narratives of the Youths of Ephesus, he suggests that it is entirely possible that al-raqīm could simply mean inscription,[8] matching the tablet in the related narratives. The odd grammatical form, he suggests, could be understood as a Syriacism.[9] If Griffith is right, and changing zero letters is presumably preferable to one, then there are little grounds for an emendation in this case.

Donkeys or Lions: Sūra 74:51

What is the matter with them? Why do they turn away from the warning, like frightened asses fleeing from a lion? (Q74:49-51)

The problematic term here is قسورة qaswara, traditionally rendered lion, as by Tabarī on the basis of a tradition from Ibn ‘Abbās. However Jeffrey indicates that there is no such word in Ethiopic, nor in Aramaic.[10] Luxenberg suggests the Syriac word ܩܘܣܪܐ (qusrā), a dialectal form meaning worn-out or decrepit ass,[11] reading qaswara instead as qāsūrā, requiring however that the tā marbūta also act as a mater lectionis for the long ā. Contextually, Luxenberg argues that the Qur’ānic context is explainable in two ways: a) either the metaphorical asses are running away from a real danger (for example, a lion) ‘and that would be logical’ or b) or they run away from something that by its very nature cannot be a threat. Luxenberg argues in support of b) that ‘with this metaphor the Koran wants to say that there is nothing frightening about its admonition.’[12]

Yet contextually this interpretation could be doubted. The previous verses seem to suggest that perhaps the admonition is very frightening indeed. Verse 36 speaks of ‘a warning to all mortals’ (Q 74:36).[13] The guilty will be asked ‘“what drove you to the Scorching fire?”’ (Q 74:42)[14] and the sūra informs us that ‘no intercessor’s plea will benefit them now’ (Q 74:48) and ‘No! Truly they have no fear of the life to come’ (Q 74:53), strongly implying they should be frightened. If this is the case, then contextually it is far more likely that qaswara stands for something far more frightening than a worn-out donkey. Luxenberg’s emendation here is possible, but not necessarily probable.


[1]All Qur’anic quotations are from M. A. S. Abdul Haleem, trans., The Qur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) unless otherwise stated.

[2]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 80.

[3]Ibid., 81.

[4]Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 240.

[5]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 83.

[6]Ibid., 31.

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

[8]Sidney Griffith, “Christian lore and the Arabic Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its Historical Context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 125-126.

[9]Ibid., 126-127.

[10]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 61.

[11]Ibid., 62.

[12]Ibid., 63.

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