Christoph Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur’an : A Contribution to the Decipherment of the Qur’anic Language

Book Review : Christoph Lux­en­berg”, The Syro-Ara­ma­ic Read­ing of the Qur’an : A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Deci­pher­ment of the Qur’an­ic Language

Key Take­away

Christoph Lux­en­berg’s the­o­ry in Die Syro-Aramäis­che Lesart des Koran” propos­ing Ara­ma­ic influ­ences on the Qur’an has been met with skep­ti­cism. Crit­ics argue that his lin­guis­tic analy­ses are spec­u­la­tive and not sup­port­ed by robust evi­dence. While his work has stim­u­lat­ed debate about the Qur’an’s his­tor­i­cal con­text, many schol­ars remain uncon­vinced, high­light­ing the need for rig­or­ous and sub­stan­ti­at­ed lin­guis­tic schol­ar­ship in inter­pret­ing the Qur’an’s origins.

i.e., Die Syro-Aramäis­che Lesart des Koran : Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüs­selung der Koransprache. Appeared in Jour­nal of Qur’an­ic Stud­ies, Vol. V, Issue 1, 2003, pp. 92 – 97. Edit­ed/end-notes by Asif Iqbal.

The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Quran

The title of this book announces a new read­ing’ of the Qur’an and the sub­ti­tle promis­es a con­tri­bu­tion to the decod­ing of the lan­guage of the Qur’an.’ The author’s the­ses are sum­marised suc­cinct­ly in his resumé’ (pp. 299 – 307): the Qur’an is not writ­ten in Ara­bic but in an Ara­ma­ic-Ara­bic mixed lan­guage’ which was spo­ken in Mec­ca at the time of Muharn­mad. Mec­ca was orig­i­nal­ly an Ara­ma­ic set­tle­ment’. This is con­firmed’ by the fact that the name makkah is real­ly Ara­ma­ic mạkkhā, low’.1 This mixed lan­guage was record­ed, from the begin­ning, in a defec­tive script, i.e., with­out vow­el signs or the dia­crit­ic points which lat­er dis­tin­guish b, t, n, y, etc. The author denies the exis­tence of a par­al­lel oral tra­di­tion of Qur’an recita­tion. Clas­si­cal Ara­bic comes from some­where else (but we are not told where). The Arabs could not under­stand the Qur’an, known to them as it was only from defec­tive­ly writ­ten man­u­scripts, and rein­ter­pret­ed these doc­u­ments in the light of their own lan­guage. The pro­posed Ara­ma­ic read­ing’ of the Qur’an allows us to redis­cov­er its orig­i­nal meaning.

It might be use­ful to dis­tin­guish straight away what is new and what is not new in these the­ses. Mus­lim schol­ars of the clas­si­cal peri­od debat­ed already the ques­tion of whether or not there is non-Ara­bic’ (Ara­ma­ic, Per­sian, etc.) lin­guis­tic mate­r­i­al in the Qur’an, where­by at least the more broad-mind­ed author­i­ties were con­tent that there was ; since God cre­at­ed all lan­guages there is no rea­son why He should not have used words from dif­fer­ent lan­guages in His rev­e­la­tion. Mod­ern lin­guis­tic schol­ar­ship estab­lished, cer­tain­ly by the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry, that the Ara­bic lan­guage, both in the Qur’an and in oth­er texts, con­tains a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of loan-words from sev­er­al dialects of Ara­ma­ic (Syr­i­ac, Baby­lon­ian Ara­ma­ic, etc). Ara­ma­ic was the prin­ci­pal cul­tur­al lan­guage of the area between the Sinai and the Tigris for more than a mil­len­ni­um and it exer­cised a con­sid­er­able influ­ence on all the lan­guages of the region, includ­ing the Hebrew of the lat­er por­tions of the Old Tes­ta­ment. The Arabs par­tic­i­pat­ed in the civil­i­sa­tion of the ancient Near East, many of them were Chris­tians or Jews, so there is noth­ing sur­pris­ing about the fact that they bor­rowed heav­i­ly from Ara­ma­ic. But this does not make Ara­bic a mixed lan­guage’. What is new in Lux­en­berg’s the­sis 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. We shall exam­ine the plau­si­bil­i­ty of this the­sis in due course.

The sec­ond prin­ci­pal com­po­nent of the author’s argu­men­ta­tion is that, since the lat­er Mus­lims were unable to under­stand the Ara­ma­ic-Ara­bic jar­gon of their sacred book, they were forced arbi­trar­i­ly to add dia­crit­ic signs to the text so as to make it into halfway com­pre­hen­si­ble (clas­si­cal) Ara­bic, there­by invent­ing a sup­posed oral tra­di­tion to jus­ti­fy this new read­ing. To redis­cov­er the orig­i­nal’ mean­ing we need to dis­re­gard the dia­crit­i­cal signs in the tra­di­tion­al text and find some oth­er read­ing. This line of argu­ment is also not new. It has been pur­sued in recent years in a series of arti­cles by the North Amer­i­can Ara­bist J. A. Bel­lamy as well as in a (par­tic­u­lar­ly bad) book by the Ger­man the­olo­gian Gün­ter Lüling ; strange­ly, none of these are men­tioned in Lux­em­burg’s bib­li­og­ra­phy. This too will be dis­cussed in the course of the present review. In any case, a book that announces already in the pref­ace (p. ix) that its author has cho­sen not to dis­cuss the whole [sic!] of the rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture’ because this lit­er­a­ture makes hard­ly any con­tri­bu­tion to the new method put for­ward here’ is one that pos­es, from the out­set, ques­tions about its own schol­ar­ly integrity.

But let us look at a few exam­ples of the author’s new method’. Because of the tech­ni­cal lin­guis­tic nature of this dis­cus­sion I will use a con­sis­tent Semi­tist sys­tem of translit­er­a­tion (in bold) and tran­scrip­tion (in ital­ics) for both Syr­i­ac and Ara­bic, a sys­tem dif­fer­ing both from the one used by the author of the book under review and from that oth­er­wise fol­lowed by this journal.

One of the main planks of Lux­en­berg’s the­o­ry of the Ara­ma­ic-Ara­bic mixed lan­guage’ is the con­tention that in a num­ber of Qur’an­ic pas­sages the final aleph of an Ara­bic word stands not for the Ara­bic accusative end­ing “-an”, but for the Ara­ma­ic end­ing of the deter­mi­nate state (-ā in the sin­gu­lar or ‑ē in the plur­al). On p. 30 the author dis­cuss­es Q. 11:24 and Q. 39:29, where the cur­rent Qur’an’ (der heutige Koran’) has hal yastawiyāni math­a­lan”, are the two sim­i­lar as an exam­ple?’, the last word being an accusative of spec­i­fi­ca­tion (tamyīz). The author thinks that the mean­ing is improved if [the Ara­bic] mthl” is tak­en to be a tran­scrip­tion’ of the Syr­i­ac plur­al mtl” (math­lē) and that the sen­tence con­se­quent­ly means Are the exam­ples [plur­al!] sim­i­lar [dual!]?’. Trans­lat­ed into mod­ern Ara­bic’ (ins heutige Ara­bisch über­tra­gen’), the Qur’an­ic sen­tence would then (sup­pos­ed­ly) be hal yastawiyāni l‑mathalāni” Most first-year stu­dents of Ara­bic are sure to know that this is nei­ther clas­si­cal nor mod­ern Ara­bic, but sim­ply wrong. But even with­out this lap­sus, it can hard­ly be claimed that the Syro-Ara­ma­ic read­ing’ offers any improve­ment in the under­stand­ing of the Qur’an­ic passages.

On p. 37 the author dis­cuss­es Q. 6:161 innanā hadānā rab­bī ilā ṣirāṭin mus­taqīmin dīnān qiyā­man,” which, if dīnān qiyā­man” is in fact an accusative of spec­i­fi­ca­tion, would need to be trans­lat­ed by some­thing like ver­i­ly, my Lord has direct­ed me to a straight path in accor­dance with a firm reli­gion’, or, if we assume a mixed con­struc­tion (“hadā” con­strued first with the prepo­si­tion “ ilā” and then with dou­ble accusative), it could mean ‘.…. to a straight path, a firm reli­gion’. Our author’s pro­pos­al is that the syn­tac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ty of the lat­ter ren­der­ing could be alle­vi­at­ed by tak­ing [the Ara­bic] dīn qayy­im” not as an Ara­bic accusative but as Syr­i­ac dyn’ qym’ ” (dīnā kayy­imā), which he trans­lates as a firm belief’ (‘fest­ste­hen­der, beständi­ger Glaube’). But in so doing the author over­looks the fact that, unlike Ara­bic dīnun”, Ara­ma­ic dīnā” does not actu­al­ly mean belief, reli­gion’, but only judge­ment, sen­tence’. Ara­bic dīn, in the mean­ing reli­gion’, is not bor­rowed from Ara­ma­ic but from Mid­dle Per­sian dēn (Aves­tan daēnā-).

On pp. 39ff. the author con­nects the prob­lem­at­ic Qur’an­ic term hanī­fun” with Ara­ma­ic han­pā,” pagan’, and specif­i­cal­ly with the Pauline doc­trine of Abra­ham as the par­a­digm of sal­va­tion for the gen­tiles. I have recent­ly argued along sim­i­lar lines in a lec­ture deliv­ered in the sum­mer of the year 2000 and even­tu­al­ly pub­lished in Bul­letin of the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies 65 (2002), pp. 16 – 25, but dif­fer­ent­ly from Lux­en­berg’ I did not fail to men­tion that the same sug­ges­tion had been made long ago both by Mar­go­liouth and by Ahrens, nor did I com­mit the absur­di­ty of claim­ing (as our author does p. 39) that Ara­bic hanīf” is a Wieder­gabe’ [repro­duc­tion] of Syr­i­ac hnp’, despite the fact that the Ara­bic form has an ‑i-, of which there is no trace in Syriac.

But in the eyes of our author, the Ara­ma­ic suf­fix­es ‑ā and ‑ē are rep­re­sent­ed’ in the Qur’an not only by alif”, but also by hā”. Thus [p. 34] Ara­bic (khalā­fatun) is the pho­net­ic tran­scrip­tion’ of Syr­i­ac hlyp (hlēp). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no rea­sons are giv­en for why, in this pho­net­ic tran­scrip­tion’, the Ara­ma­ic laryn­geal h” is not tran­scribed’ by the pho­net­i­cal­ly iden­ti­cal Ara­bic laryn­geal h”, but by kh”.

On p. 35 the author dis­cuss­es the Qur’an­ic word for angels’ (plur­al), malai­ka” for which the tra­di­tion­al read­ing is malā’ikatun”. The author thinks that this is real­ly the Syr­i­ac word for angels’, which he spells, in Syr­i­ac script, (cor­rect­ly) as ml’k’, and which he tran­scribes (wrong­ly) as malak”; in fact, the cor­rect Syr­i­ac vocal­i­sa­tion is mal’āḵā” (the first aleph being left over from the old­er form mal’ax-). In any case, nei­ther the Syr­i­ac spelling, nor the cor­rect vocal­i­sa­tion, nor even the author’s erro­neous vocal­i­sa­tion explains the ‑y- of the Ara­bic plur­al. The author then goes on to claim that the pos­tu­lat­ed Syro-Ara­ma­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tion’ of the Qur’an­ic plur­al is made cer­tain (‘gesichert’) by the mod­ern Ara­bic of the Near East malā’ikah”. This is a big jum­ble. In fact, the Ara­bic sin­gu­lar mal’akun” or malakun” is in all like­li­hood bor­rowed from Ara­ma­ic mal’ax-” or malax-”, but the plur­al malā’ikatun” is a per­fect­ly reg­u­lar Ara­bic for­ma­tion, and is rep­re­sent­ed graph­i­cal­ly by malai­ka”, with the usu­al Qur’an­ic defec­tive spelling of inter­nal ‑a-. The cit­ed mod­ern Ara­bic’ (more cor­rect­ly Lev­an­tine) form is the expect­ed dialec­tal reflex of the clas­si­cal pausal form malā’ika(h),” with palatal­i­sa­tion (‘imalah) of the final ‑a to ‑e (I see lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the tran­scrip­tion with long ‑e), and has noth­ing to do with the Syr­i­ac plur­al mal’ākā”.

But once the mixed-lan­guage’ sta­tus of the Qur’an has been pos­tu­lat­ed, the author evi­dent­ly thinks it pos­si­ble to take any Ara­bic word that vague­ly resem­bles some­thing in Syr­i­ac and to deter­mine its mean­ing not from the Ara­bic but from the Syr­i­ac lexicon.Thus on pp. 196ff. the very ordi­nary Ara­bic verb dara­ba, to beat,” is quite arbi­trar­i­ly said to derive from the Syr­i­ac verb traf,” which, among oth­er things, means to beat, to move, to shake (wings), etc.’ Brock­el­mann, Lex­i­con Syr­i­acum, p. 290, com­pares the Ara­bic verb tarafa, to repel.” It seems unlike­ly that the Ara­ma­ic root should also have any­thing to do with Ara­bic dara­ba ; the cor­re­spon­dences d/​t and b/p(f) are cer­tain­ly not the norm in Semit­ic cog­nates and would be per­haps even more sur­pris­ing in the case of a loan-word. But this dif­fi­cul­ty does not stop the author from assign­ing the mean­ings of the Syr­i­ac word to the var­i­ous occur­rence of dara­ba in the Qur’an.

Then, on p. 283 the author claims that the Ara­bic verb taga, to rebel, tyran­nise, etc.’ has, apart from the sec­ondary ghayn”, noth­ing Ara­bic about it’, but is a bor­row­ing’ from Syr­i­ac ta</strong>". He then picks out of a Syriac dictionary the meaning 'to forget' and assigns this to the Qur'anic instances of "<em>taga</em>". But the fact that the Arabic root has <em>ghayn</em> where the Aramaic has <em>ayin shows very clear­ly that the Ara­bic word is not bor­rowed from Ara­ma­ic, but that they are good Semit­ic cog­nates. Any­way, the usu­al mean­ing of Syr­i­ac t‘a is to err, to be led into error, etc.’, although it can also mean to for­get’. So even if the Ara­bic verb were a bor­row­ing from Syr­i­ac there would still be noth­ing com­pelling about the new mean­ing assigned to it by our author.

I shall quote one last exam­ple of the author’s Syro-Ara­ma­ic read­ing’ of the Qur’an­ic text. In Q. 96:19 the last word of the sura is (i)qtarib, which has until now always been under­stood to mean draw near’ (imper­a­tive). But our author [p. 296] thinks it means take part in the eucharist’ (‘nimm an der Abendmahlli­turgie teil’), since iqtara­ba is with­out doubt bor­rowed’ (ohne Zweifel .… entlehnt’) from the Syr­i­ac verb ekhkarrab, which besides mean­ing to draw near’, also means more specif­i­cal­ly to (draw near to the altar to) receive the eucharist’. In sup­port of this he quotes (on p. 298, in the wake of some edi­to­r­i­al mishap twice) a pas­sage from the Kitabu l-‘Agani, in which the Ara­bic verb taqarra­ba is used unam­bigu­ous­ly to mean receive the (Chris­t­ian) eucharist’. But this alleged con­fir­ma­tion scup­pers the author’s argu­ment. The (actu­al­ly well-known) Chris­t­ian Ara­bic tech­ni­cal term taqarra­ba is indeed a calque on Syr­i­ac ekhkarrab, with the same stem for­ma­tion, i.e., D‑stem with pre­fix t(a)-. There is no good rea­son to assume that the same Syr­i­ac verb was bor­rowed’ a sec­ond time as the (dif­fer­ent­ly formed) stem iqtara­ba.

The exam­ples that I have quot­ed could be expand­ed many-fold, but they are per­haps enough. They illus­trate what is actu­al­ly the less con­tro­ver­sial, or in any case less fanat­i­cal part of the author’s line of argu­ment, the part, name­ly, in which he applies his Syro-Ara­ma­ic read­ing’ to the actu­al tra­di­tion­al text of the Qur’an. But this book goes a lot fur­ther. Hav­ing estab­lished (as he thinks) that the Qur’an is com­posed in an Ara­ma­ic-Ara­bic mixed lan­guage’ the author pro­ceeds to jug­gle the dia­crit­ic points of the tra­di­tion­al text to cre­ate an entire­ly new Qur’ an which he then attempts to deci­pher with the help of his (as we have observed, often very shaky) knowl­edge of Syr­i­ac. I do not real­ly think that there is very much point in dis­cussing this aspect of the book. There is no doubt that, with­out the dia­crit­i­cal points, the Qur’an is indeed an extreme­ly obscure work and that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of repoint­ing affords vir­tu­al­ly lim­it­less oppor­tu­ni­ties to rein­ter­pret the scrip­ture, in Ara­bic or in any oth­er lan­guage that one choos­es. I think, how­ev­er, that any read­er who wants to take the trou­ble to plough through Lux­en­berg’s new read­ing’ of any of the numer­ous pas­sages dis­cussed in this book will con­cede that the new read­ing’ does not actu­al­ly make bet­ter sense than a straight clas­si­cal Ara­bic read­ing of the tra­di­tion­al text. It is a read­ing that is poten­tial­ly attrac­tive only in its nov­el­ty, or shall I say its per­ver­si­ty, not in that it sheds any light on the mean­ing of the book or on the his­to­ry of Islam.

It is nec­es­sary, in con­clu­sion to say a lit­tle about the author­ship, or rather the non-author­ship, the pseu­do­nymi­ty of this book. An arti­cle pub­lished in the New York Times on 2nd March 2002 (and sub­se­quent­ly broad­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed in the inter­net) referred to this book as the work of Christoph Lux­en­berg, a schol­ar of ancient Semit­ic lan­guages in Ger­many’. It is, I think, suf­fi­cient­ly clear from this review that the per­son in ques­tion is not a schol­ar of ancient Semit­ic lan­guages’. He is some­one who evi­dent­ly speaks some Ara­bic dialect, has a pass­able, but not flaw­less com­mand of clas­si­cal Ara­bic, knows enough Syr­i­ac so as to be able to con­sult a dic­tio­nary, but is inno­cent of any real under­stand­ing of the method­ol­o­gy of com­par­a­tive Semit­ic lin­guis­tics. His book is not a work of schol­ar­ship but of dilettantism.

The NYT arti­cle goes on to state that Christoph Luxeu­berg is a pseu­do­nym’, to com­pare him with Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mah­fouz and Suli­man Bas­hear and to talk about threat­ened vio­lence as well as the wide­spread reluc­tance on Unit­ed States col­lege cam­pus­es to crit­i­cize oth­er cul­tures’. I am not sure what pre­cise­ly the author means with in Ger­many’. Accord­ing to my infor­ma­tion, Christoph Lux­en­berg’ is not a Ger­man but a Lebanese Chris­t­ian. It is thus not a ques­tion of some intre­pid philol­o­gist, pour­ing over dusty books in obscure lan­guages some­where in the provinces of Ger­many and then hav­ing to pub­lish his results under a pseu­do­nym so as to avoid the death threats of rabid Mus­lim extrem­ists, in short an ivory-tow­er Rushdie. Let us not exag­ger­ate the state of aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom in what we still like to call our West­ern democ­ra­cies. No Euro­pean or North Amer­i­can schol­ar of lin­guis­tics, even of Ara­bic lin­guis­tics, needs to con­ceal his (or her) iden­ti­ty, nor does he (or she) real­ly have any right to do so. These mat­ters must be dis­cussed in pub­lic. In the Near East things are, of course, very different.Endmark

Cite this arti­cle as : François Clé­ment de Blois, Book Review : Christoph Lux­en­berg”, The Syro-Ara­­ma­ic Read­ing of the Qur’an : A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Deci­pher­ment of the Qur’an­ic Lan­guage,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 10, 2005, last accessed May 27, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​o​o​k​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​s​/​s​y​r​o​-​a​r​a​m​a​i​c​-​r​e​a​d​i​n​g​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​q​u​r​an/
  1. H. Lam­mens writes : La Mecque sem­ble cor­re­spon­dre à la Macora­ba du géo­graphe grec Ptolémée. Le nom dériverait du sabéen mukar­rib, sanc­tu­aire ; ce qui impli­querait l’an­tiq­ui­té de la Kaba. (L'Islam Croyances Et Institutions, p. 19)
    Translation: Mecca seems to correspond to the Macoraba of the Greek geographer Ptolemy. The name is thought to be derived from the Sabbean "mukarrib," "sanctuary," which would imply the antiquity of the Ka
    ba.[]

1 Comment

  1. It is quite telling that the author of this arti­cle could not stop him­self from a jibe against Lux­en­berg using s pseu­do­nym in order to pre­vent any per­son­al attack on him­self. The arti­cle’s author states No Euro­pean or North Amer­i­can schol­ar of lin­guis­tics, even of Ara­bic lin­guis­tics, needs to con­ceal his (or her) iden­ti­ty, nor does he (or she) real­ly have any right to do so.” This only shows that the arti­cle’s author has no idea of the peo­ple killed in Europe for what some mus­lims’ con­sid­er attacks against Islam. The author claims that C. Lux­en­berg does not know some things he makes com­ments on when the arti­cle’s author clear­ly has no clue as to what has hap­pened in Europe, let alone in the Mid­dle East where sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal aca­d­e­mics of Islam have been phys­i­cal­ly attacked for plac­ing the Koran in a his­tor­i­cal con­text. As for the state­ment nor does he (or she) real­ly have any right to do so.” this also only shows that the arti­cle’s author knowns noth­ing about West­ern legal prin­ci­ples and rights. These two sim­ple exam­ple show that the arti­cle’s author clear­ly has an agen­da of his/​her own to dis­par­age Lux­en­berg’s work at all cost and makes one ques­tion the verac­i­ty of any­thing writ­ten in the article.

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