Naivety

I’m not trying to be controversial.

Controversial stuff just keeps happening. And well-intentioned people, out of the goodness of their heart, seem unable to recognise what is happening.

So terrorists in Paris have launched a series of well-coordinated attacks using both guns and bombs (having learned from the 2008 Mumbai attacks that small arms are as an effective a terrorist weapon as explosives). So far at least 128 people are recorded as having been killed, and ISIS have claimed responsibility, and certainly provided the inspiration.

And of course there are a range of public reactions to this. Most of what I’m seeing falls into several categories: some expressing sorrow and solidarity with the people of Paris. Others asking why these things happen. And some (often the same people) express sentiments that these people do not represent “real” Muslims, are a tiny minority, or that this has nothing to do with Islam.

Unfortunately, the last two statements are fundamentally connected. One of the reasons things like this keep happening, and are going to get worse, is because of people’s good-hearted, wishful thinking about what’s really going on.

Radicalism in Islam

Every time something like this happens, both Governments and private individuals claim that this has nothing to do with Islam, or at most involves a “tiny minority”. This is an understandable response, grounded in the desire to avoid any kind of backlash (however hypothetical) against innocent people. Unfortunately there is rarely any attempt to ground this hope in actual details.

Islam of course is a vast religion, with over 1.6  billion adherents. And it is no more monolithic and unified than Christianity is. There are branches of Islam – such as the Ahmaddiya or Ismailis – who are not remotely involved in terrorism, and indeed are actually heavily persecuted (the Ahmaddiya, for example, are regard as ‘not Muslim’ in Pakistan, and so are open to attack). Those who insist that all Muslims are the enemy aren’t correct, and aren’t doing us any favours, since by their logic (namely that the radicals are the ‘correct’ Islam) they’d seem to be almost encouraging all those not involved to join up.

Yet the converse is often based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Islamist radicalism draws upon long-standing strands in Islamic tradition. These aren’t the only strands, true, but they’ve been in place since the beginning of Islam. And at least amongst Sunni radicals – who aim to dispense with what they see as unIslamic bid’a (“innovation” – seen as a bad thing) such as Sufism or Saints and return to the golden age of the four rashidun (“righteous”) caliphs – they are drawing upon some very long-standing strands indeed, including Qur’anic passages and Hadith (traditions/sayings of Muhammad, which form a secondary source of authority for Islamic teachings). It’s why I cringe a bit when some people talk about Islam needing a reformation, since arguably it’s going through one already (the wars of religion following the reformation and counter-reformation in Europe were no picnic, after all).

Some accept that these ideas do come from a Islamic background, but make the claim that Islamic radicals are no more than a “tiny minority”. These needs quantification, because some people simply haven’t thought this through. Even if no more than 1% of Muslims were sympathetic to the Islamic State, for example, we’d still be talking about 1.6 million people.

Unfortunately the situation is much worse.

If we look at surveys of Muslim attitudes, both in the Middle East and in Great Britain, we do not find much comfort. For example, this Pew Research Centre survey from 2013 trumps the fact that a majority of Muslims have unfavourable views of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately that majority is only 57%. 13% had a favourable view, and a further 23% claimed not to know or refused to answer the question. Even if one went with a baseline of 13% of Al Qaeda sympathisers, that still leaves 208 million Al Qaeda sympathisers – three times the population of the UK. Other surveys provide equally comforting information: In 2006 a survey found almost 25% of British Muslims felt the 7/7 attacks on London in 2005 were ‘justified’, 28% wanted Britain to become an Islamic fundamentalist state, and that 78% supported the punishment of those who printed or re-printed the Muhammad cartoons. A 2015 ComRes poll found that 27% of British Muslims sympathised with the motives behind the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and 11% said that such magazines “deserved to be attacked”. A 2007 survey found that nearly a third of Muslim 18-24 year olds in Britain “believed that those converting to another religion should be executed”; apparently it is good news that amongst those over 55 ‘less than a fifth’ believed the same. It is little wonder that there are more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than there are serving in the British Army.

My own anecdotal experience more than bears this out: while pursuing my Masters in Islamic Studies, my fellow students were very prone to voicing their support for Al Qaeda and its tactics, their belief that the Mumbai attacks were a conspiracy by India to make Pakistan look bad, or claims that “the Jews own the BBC”. I remember one class vividly where one teacher (who was fairly young – other teachers included the old Shia Imam who taught Qur’anic hermeneutics who was very vocally opposed to Al Qaeda for all the right reasons) started referring to “martyrdom operations” (the preferred radical term for suicide bombings), and all the other students around me were nodding along. Amongst young British muslims, radical opinions are far more widely held than most people realise.

Based on the surveys, however, I think a reasonable conjecture is that a minimum of 10% of Muslims worldwide are vocal sympathisers with the most extreme Jihadists, and that in some demographics this is much higher. There’s a further percentage who at least sympathise in part, and who are unlikely to counteract the actions of the radicals. There are also some positions that Westerners would consider radical (such as attacks on those deemed to ‘insult’ Islam, or the death penalty for those who leave Islam) that enjoy even higher support, and may even be considered mainstream positions amongst many Muslims. Even if we take are bare minimum of 10%, we are left with over 160 million Jihadist sympathisers. We are not talking a tiny fringe here, on the order of the Branch Davidians. Rather we’re talking about something that (in proportionate terms) is comparable to Protestant Evangelicalism in Christianity. No one would refer to them as a “tiny fringe” or “completely unrepresentative” of “Real Christianity”. For the Latter-day Saints among my readers, perhaps this may put it most vividly: for every single Latter-day Saint, active or inactive, I estimate that there are at least ten ISIS sympathisers.

So yes, this is something to do with Islam. Not all Muslims, certainly, but enough of them that this is a serious problem. A minority of the people of Northern Ireland were involved in terrorism too, but no one would have claimed that the IRA or UVF “had nothing to do with Ireland”. Anyone whose first reaction to yet another of these attacks is to try and claim that this is nothing to do with Islam is – however well intentioned – only trying to put their head in the sand and pretend this isn’t a problem.

Immigration

And so I come onto a particularly controversial symptom of that blinkeredness, namely the current mass immigration into Europe, particularly from Syria and other portions of the Muslim world.

It’s understandable that people would want to help.

Indeed it’s right to help those driven out of their homes.

But – as I pointed out speaking in an ecclesiatical and familial context – misguided mercy may end up being very merciless to others.

The following points should be considered:

We are therefore engaged on a public policy of allowing into Europe millions of people (nearly a million in 2015 alone), of whom I’d estimate at least 10% are terrorist sympathisers, a figure that may likely be considerably higher in view of the demographics. We do not adequately screen those passing our frontiers, and at the same time those who are suffering most are abandoned to the wolves, even when they make it all the way to Europe!

And then we wonder how events in Paris can happen, and why they keep on happening!

Nor is this just a matter a public policy. I know of at least one person amongst my past acquaintances who (out of a misguided sense of compassion) is planning a trip out to Greece this December to help personally move immigrants onto the mainland. Let’s say they manage to help ten people make the trip. While percentages never quite work like that, it would easily be within the bounds of probability that one of those people is a supporter of radical fundamentalist Islam. Who this good person helped to mainland Europe.

Gee… thanks!

And it’s only going to get worse: A German prediction of their demographic change suggests it is likely that with the recent influx and those that will follow that Germany could have a population of 20 million Muslims by 2020, a proportion of roughly 20%. Even if that doesn’t happen by 2020, relative demographic differences (i.e. who’s having children) will make that happen in time. This effect across Europe is undoubtedly going to mean substantial societal change – and in the present climate, considerably more radicals to commit terrorist attacks.

It’s a policy born of madness and wishful thinking. I imagine the hope is that somehow Europe will be able to defeat radical ideas through counter-extremism policies and all the new immigrants and their descendants will happily integrate rather than join the existing parallel societies. I find this extremely unlikely. You can’t fight something with nothing, and the modern West increasingly offers little but empty materialism and creature comforts. Instead I see two options as far more likely: either this continues to happen, until Europeans states increasingly resemble the Near and Middle East (the so-called Eurabia), or a counter-reaction will happen, which like all human things will overreact in a horrible way. In either case, the prospects of free societies and an absence of this sort of violence are slim. And the possibility that we end up with something like a continent-wide Yugoslavia is far higher than it ever should be (and were the Government inclined to take my advice on preparing for the worst-case scenario, it’d begin setting up secret caches of small arms and ammunition in the countryside – rural areas being far more likely to remain in loyalist hands. But I say stuff like this, so they won’t.).

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.

Conclusion

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, http://www.cristoph-heger.de/baasten.pdf.

[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, http://www.tyndalearchive.com/TABS/PayneSmith/.

[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.

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.

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, http://www.safarmer.com/Indo-Eurasian/Walid_Saleh.pdf.

[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.