Furqaan : Com­men­tary on the Zaman-Heger Debate

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

When Dr. Christoph Heger, an Ori­en­tal­ist schol­ar with unknown qual­i­fi­ca­tions and dis­put­ed cre­den­tials, wrote his com­men­tary on the open­ing verse of Sura’ al-Furqaan in July of 1999, his trea­tise was sound­ly respond­ed to by Broth­er Shi­b­li Zaman, who is quite famil­iar with the Semit­ic lan­guages employed in the study. While it is our opin­ion that Broth­er Shi­b­li was quite suc­cess­ful in refut­ing Dr. Heger’s trea­tise, two small crit­i­cisms can be raised.

First­ly, Broth­er Shi­b­li’s bril­liance and com­mand of the rel­e­vant Semit­ic lan­guages caused him to over­es­ti­mate the abil­i­ty of his read­ers to ful­ly under­stand his argu­ment. If noth­ing else, his arti­cle was meant to serve as a defense against a pow­er­ful mis­sion­ary attack. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not all Mus­lims on the Inter­net pos­sess Broth­er Shi­b­li’s eru­di­tion, thus mono­lin­gual read­ers may find por­tions of his argu­ment impen­e­tra­ble. Sec­ond­ly, Dr. Heger called to wit­ness a num­ber of sources that Broth­er Shi­b­li did not con­sult. In fact, he com­plained that the sources were no longer in print, and even resort­ed to mock­ery in a dis­cus­sion on Usenet. While again, it is our opin­ion that though Broth­er Shi­b­li’s orig­i­nal response to Dr. Heger’s arti­cle was suf­fi­cient, we con­sid­er that it is impor­tant to take a look at the sources that Dr. Heger had cit­ed. We seek to build on the invalu­able foun­da­tion laid by Broth­er Shi­b­li, which will not only fur­ther explain his argu­ment, but will also exam­ine the sources cit­ed by Dr. Heger that Broth­er Shi­b­li had ignored.

Broth­er Shi­b­li states in his arti­cle that

[t]his word is found in Hebrew, Ara­ma­ic and even Chaldee as the word PARAAQ’ and not PURQAAN’ as Dr. Heger says in errata.”

This sen­tence may lead to con­fu­sion for those who are not famil­iar with Ara­bic, Hebrew, or oth­er Semit­ic lan­guages. What the Broth­er is actu­al­ly doing in this instance is

  • inform­ing read­ers about the Hebrew equiv­a­lent of the tri-lat­er­al root (PRQ/​FRQ), and 
  • dis­pute any claim that purqaan” is a Hebrew word.

To quick­ly elim­i­nate any claims about purqaan” or furqaan” being a Hebrew word, let us con­sid­er Yosef Yo’el Rivlin’s Hebrew trans­la­tion of the Qur’?1]. Rivlin, an esteemed author­i­ty in both Hebrew and Ara­bic, trans­lates Qur’? 25:1 (Sura’ al-Furqaan/­Parashat ha-“Furqaan”) as follows :

Yit­barekh (Elo­him) ash­er horid et ha-“Furqaan” al yad abdo, L’ma’an yihyeh mazhir libnei-adam

The trans­la­tion is :

Blessed be He who sent down the Furqaan” on His ser­vant that he might be a warn­er for the worlds.

What is the key here is the fact that Rivlin had left the word furqaan” untrans­lat­ed and put it in invert­ed com­mas. The trans­la­tor, who is inti­mate­ly famil­iar with both Ara­bic and Hebrew, sim­ply translit­er­at­ed the Ara­bic into Hebrew char­ac­ters and left it untrans­lat­ed, sig­ni­fy­ing that this is a whol­ly Arabic/​Islamic term. From there Rivlin feels the need to explain this term and offers a foot­note that says the following :

Ha-Furqaan echad she­mot sefer Elohim
The Furqaan is one of the names for the book of God.”[2]

The sum-total of this Hebrew schol­ar’s attempt at elu­ci­dat­ing the term is to tell read­ers that it is a ref­er­ence to the Qur’?

Rivlin, cou­pled with the sources cit­ed by Broth­er Shi­b­li, should be enough, but what about Dr. Heger’s sources ? The first piece of evi­dence that Dr. Heger cites is Carl Brock­el­man­n’s arti­cle in Lex­i­con Syr­i­acum. Dr. Heger even sup­plies us with a scanned image of the rel­e­vant page. First, it should be admit­ted that Heger is par­tial­ly right, that this very respect­ed Syr­i­ac dic­tio­nary does say that the Syr­i­ac purqaan means sal­va­tion” (sal­va­tio). How­ev­er, nowhere does the source ever attempts to tie it in with the Ara­bic furqaan. Bib­li­cal vers­es cit­ed are Gen­e­sis 49:17 (actu­al­ly 18), and Exo­dus 14:13, and then it admits that the actu­al word used in the Hebrew is not from the PRQ/​FRQ root, rather it is y’shoo’ah (), which is from a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent root. This elim­i­nates the word as being any­thing tak­en from any Juda­ic sources, as is implied in many of Dr. Heger’s cita­tions. The word being dis­cussed is an archa­ic Syr­i­ac con­ju­ga­tion of the PRQ/​FRQ root.

The oth­er source offered on Heger’s page is Smith’s The­saurus Syr­i­acum. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it nev­er ties the word in with the Hebrew or Ara­bic ren­der­ings, thus estab­lish­ing this archa­ic Syr­i­ac word as being total­ly out­side the scope of Hebrew or Ara­bic con­ju­ga­tions of the FRQ root. So if Heger wants to claim that the Syr­i­ac word exist­ed, nei­ther of these sources lend weight to any bor­row­ing the­o­ry. What is real­ly Heger’s argu­ment ? That they sound alike and are from the same root ? This is not enough ; usage is also needed.

Indeed, usage is actu­al­ly high­ly rel­e­vant, par­tic­u­lar­ly if we go back to the afore­men­tioned Brock­el­man. In the Phi­los­o­phy of Lan­guage, there is a notion of inter­trans­la­tion sal­va ver­i­tate,” which means trans­la­tion can be done back and forth with­out any loss of truth. So, for exam­ple, the word bach­e­lor” has a rela­tion­ship of mutu­al inter­trans­la­tion sal­va ver­i­tate with the phrase unmar­ried man.” Does this rela­tion­ship exist between the Syr­i­ac purqaan and the Hebrew y’shoo’ah ?

Dr. Heger wants us to believe first that the Ara­bic furqaan is syn­ony­mous with the Syr­i­ac purqaan, sim­ply because they sound alike. After that he wants us to believe that purqaan is syn­ony­mous with sal­va­tion, because the Hebrew word y’shoo’ah (“sal­va­tion”) was trans­lat­ed purqaan” when ren­dered into Syr­i­ac. How­ev­er, Dr. Heger seemed to neglect his own source (Brock­el­mann), which itself notes that oth­er Hebrew words, which do not mean sal­va­tion, have also been trans­lat­ed as purqaan when ren­dered into Syriac.

If one reads just below the hi-lit­ed part (with­in the same col­umn) of the scanned page offered by Dr. Heger[3] they will find that the word in ques­tion not only means sal­va­tio (“sal­va­tion”), but also seces­sit (“to sep­a­rate”). Note the cita­tion of Num­bers 16:26, where the Hebrew sur () is also ren­dered purqaan. Sur means to depart”, or as the Latin in Brock­el­mann puts it, reces­sit, which means retreat.”

Most iron­ic of all, in his arti­cle on furqaan, Broth­er Shi­b­li cit­ed Exo­dus 32:2 – 3, where peo­ple are told to remove their ear­rings. Accord­ing to Brock­el­mann, Syr­i­ac trans­la­tions of those vers­es also employ purqaan in place of the Hebrew


or remove,” or the Latin removit. So, if even Dr. Heger’s own source dis­cred­its any notion of mutu­al inter­trans­la­tion sal­va ver­i­tate between purqaan and y’shoo’ah, there is no rea­son to assume that this word must be trans­lat­ed sal­va­tion.”

Now that we have plowed right through the sources that Dr. Heger has made avail­able to us, it is time to turn to the cita­tions that he did not make acces­si­ble. Broth­er Shi­b­li won­dered aloud why Dr. Heger would fail to quote a sin­gle one of these sources. Upon fur­ther reflec­tion, it would seem that he either did not real­ly check these sources him­self, or was aware of their incon­sis­ten­cies. First, a ques­tion must be asked : How many sources did Heger cite ? The list on his page is quite intim­i­dat­ing. He cites such respect­ed author­i­ties as Richard Bell, Mont­gomery Watt, Joseph Horovitz, Arthur Jef­fery, A. J. Wensinck, and of course the leg­endary Theodor N?ke. Upon clos­er inspec­tion, how­ev­er, one real­izes that there is a great deal of redun­dan­cy. Watt does noth­ing more than cite Bell. Horovitz calls N?ke and Wensinck as his wit­ness. In the end it seems that Dr. Heger, in all actu­al­i­ty, only cit­ed a cou­ple of sources.

First, let us con­sid­er the two sources from Dr. Horovitz. Dr. Heger cites them as Koranis­che Unter­suchun­gen and Jew­ish Prop­er Names and Deriv­a­tives in the Koran”. From the Ger­man source, only a sin­gle page is cit­ed (p. 76), and that page rec­om­mends read­ers to con­sid­er N?ke’s Geschichte des Qorans. As for the Eng­lish source, an arti­cle from Vol. 2 of the Hebrew Union Col­lege Annu­al, it too has some prob­lems. First of all, one won­ders why Dr. Heger cit­ed some 82 pages (pp. 145 – 227) of text, when the por­tion that dis­cuss­es Furqaan cov­ers only three pages ? It seems high­ly prob­a­ble that either

    (a) Dr. Heger pre­ferred any­one who attempt­ed to check his source would drown in the many pages, or
    (b) Dr. Heger him­self had not con­sult­ed this work, rather he mere­ly lift­ed the cita­tion from some­where else. 

Horovitz, how­ev­er, does agree with Dr. Heger that the Ara­bic Furqaan has been tak­en from a Jew­ish or Chris­t­ian source, but, as was stat­ed above, he most­ly just claims such and cites N?ke and Wensinck as proof. Odd­ly, Horovitz makes the same mis­take that so many of these sources make : claim­ing that the word is for­eign while at the same time argu­ing that it was influ­enced by the Ara­bic FA, RAA, QAAF” tri-lat­er­al root. Sad­ly, what this boils down to is an arro­gance brought on by a com­bi­na­tion of a bias in favor of Hebrew (the Bible’s lan­guage) and an igno­rance of the his­to­ry of that lan­guage’s rela­tion­ship with Ara­bic. The FRQ root (“to divide,” to sep­a­rate”) is found in both Ara­bic and Hebrew, and if the word stems from that root in either lan­guage, it essen­tial­ly stems from it in both. This is because the root is exact­ly the same in both lan­guages, and is prob­a­bly a cog­nate that pre­dates both lan­guages. Aside from that point, in the realm of com­mon cog­nates between Hebrew and Ara­bic, schol­ars should (and now do) lean towards the Ara­bic, since it is the Ara­bic cog­nates that often help us under­stand archa­ic Hebrew words. As the famous Ori­en­tal­ist Guil­laume informs us :

Since the begin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry there has been a con­stant recourse to Ara­bic for the expla­na­tion of rare words and forms in Hebrew ; for Ara­bic though more than a thou­sand years junior as a lit­er­ary lan­guage, is the senior philo­soph­i­cal­ly by count­less cen­turies. Per­plex­ing phe­nom­e­non in Hebrew can often be explained as soli­tary and archa­ic sur­vivals of the form which are fre­quent and com­mon in the cog­nate Ara­bic. Words and idioms whose pre­cise sense had been lost in Jew­ish tra­di­tion, receive a ready and con­vinc­ing expla­na­tion from the same source. Indeed no seri­ous stu­dent of the Old Tes­ta­ment can afford to dis­pense with a first-hand knowl­edge in Ara­bic. The pages of any crit­i­cal com­men­tary on the Old Tes­ta­ment will illus­trate the debt of the Bib­li­cal exe­ge­sis owes to Arabic.[4]

We also read that

Jews who stud­ied Ara­bic lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, as well as oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines, learned the new lin­guis­tic sci­ence and desired to exploit it in their exe­ge­sis of the Bible and the analy­sis of Hebrew gram­mar. Only those who knew Ara­bic gram­mar devel­oped the prop­er under­stand­ing of the Hebrew verb as the stem built upon three consonants.[5]

Horovitz’ (and oth­ers) mis­take behind us, we should con­sid­er the oth­er sources he called to wit­ness that also appeared in Dr. Heger’s list.

First on the list would have to be Theodor N?ke’s very well-known Geschichte des Qorans. All that he has to say on Furqaan is the following :


The trans­la­tion is :

Well, that is cer­tain­ly not much ! How­ev­er, N?ke does have a foot­note that says :

Das Wort stammt, wie das ?iopis­che fer­qan, von dem aram?chen [purqaana].[7]
Trans­la­tion : The word comes, like the Ethiopic fer­qan, from the Ara­ma­ic purqaana.

N?ke claims such with­out offer­ing any real evi­dence. How­ev­er, he does fol­low with one very reveal­ing statement :

Die Bedeu­tung Offen­barung” ist im Aram?chen nicht nachgewiesen. Es ist daher m?ch, da?sie sich erst auf ara­bis­chen Sprachge­bi­ete gebildet hat.[8]

Trans­la­tion : The mean­ing reveal­ing” is not known in Ara­ma­ic. It is pos­si­ble there­fore that it formed only in areas where Ara­bic is spoken. 

This is an incred­i­ble admis­sion on the part of N?ke ! We know that there are many dif­fer­ent con­ju­ga­tions of the FRQ root com­mon to the Semit­ic lan­guages — this has been thor­ough­ly demon­strat­ed in Broth­er Shi­b­li’s arti­cle. How­ev­er, if a usage that is not found in the oth­er lan­guages is present in Ara­bic, this makes the Ara­bic word more orig­i­nal, and hurts claims about the word being bor­rowed. This is a rather sim­ple rule of lin­guis­tics and the Phi­los­o­phy of Lan­guage. As one of the great­est Philoso­phers of Lan­guage, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, put it :

Die Bedeu­tung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.[9]
Trans­la­tion : The mean­ing of a word is its use in the language.

Of course oth­ers could argue that the word was bor­rowed and then evolved after the fact, but this would have to be demon­strat­ed, not mere­ly assert­ed. The fact that the cog­nate exists in Ara­bic, and is used the same way as in oth­er Semit­ic lan­guages, hurts the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it had to be bor­rowed. The word furqaan () is from the root word faraqa, lit­er­al­ly mean­ing to sep­a­rate, divide, sev­er, sun­der ; to make a dis­tinc­tion, dis­tin­guish, dif­fer­en­ti­ate, discriminate”[10]. When the FRQ root is employed in Hebrew to mean sal­va­tion,” it is only in the sense that one is sep­a­rat­ed from the dan­ger, such as Psalms 136:24 which says God saved us from our ene­mies” (YiFRQenu mitsaareinu).

Let us con­sid­er A. J. Wensinck­’s arti­cle. Wensinck, from the start, offers a state­ment that is almost contradictory :

The word is found in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture as an orig­i­nal Ara­bic word and also as one bor­rowed from the Aramaic.[11]

Is it an orig­i­nal Ara­bic word or is it bor­rowed ? If it is both, then it is a para­dox, because an orig­i­nal word is sure­ly not bor­rowed. The only argu­ment for bor­row­ing that Wensinck has to offer is in yet anoth­er per­plex­ing passage :

In the mean­ing sal­va­tion” the word is cer­tain­ly and Ara­ma­ic loan­word. Thus Sura viii. 42 “…and what we have revealed to our ser­vant on the day of the Furkan, on the day when the two hosts met”. Here the bat­tle of Badr is called the day of the Furkan”. Some of the com­men­ta­tors on this pas­sage give the mean­ing al-nasr vic­to­ry”. But this is the Ara­ma­ic furkana, syn­ony­mous with the Hebrew yesha’ salvation”.[12]

Wensinck feels that the verse (which is actu­al­ly Qur’?8:41) is mak­ing ref­er­ence to the bat­tle of Badr, and thus the prop­er inter­pre­ta­tion is sal­va­tion”. He has giv­en no valid argu­ment for why read­ers should take such an inter­pre­ta­tion rather than the day of test­ing” or day of dis­crim­i­na­tion”. The FRQ root means to divide, sep­a­rate, thus why not see this as the day the believ­ers were sep­a­rat­ed from God’s ene­mies ? Amaz­ing­ly, Wensinck offers noth­ing, and his bib­li­og­ra­phy includes N?ke !

Richard Bel­l’s Intro­duc­tion to The Qur’?makes the same argu­ment as Wensinck, rest­ing almost every­thing on his own per­son­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the verse from Sura’ al-Anfaal. As stat­ed, he writes that the read­ers might

[…] note that there [i.e. in Sura’ al-Anfaal 8:29] the furqan is asso­ci­at­ed with abso­lu­tion from evil deeds and forgiveness.[13]

From there, he writes that

This gives a slight pre­sump­tion that it was from Chris­t­ian sources that the word was derived, but Muham­mad must have asso­ci­at­ed it with the Ara­bic root faraqa, to separate’[.][14]

In pass­ing, he did indeed argue that the word furqaan is orig­i­nal­ly of an Ara­ma­ic root when he notes that the word may be a

deriva­tion either from the Syr­i­an purqana or from the Jew­ish-Ara­ma­ic purqan.[15]

but he ends up appeal­ing to Authur Jef­frey as a source for his reference.

Sure­ly this appeal to one’s own sub­jec­tive brand of hermeneu­tics is fal­la­cious, but this is all Bell has to offer. Watt, as was already men­tioned, sim­ply par­rots Bell and cites him as evi­dence. He writes the following :

In 8.41÷42 the day of the furqan, the day the two par­ties met’ must be the day of Badr ; and furqan, in virtue of its con­nex­ion with the Syr­i­ac word purqana, sal­va­tion’, must mean some­thing like deliv­er­ance from the judge­ment’. This being so the furqan which was giv­en to Moses is doubt­less his deliv­er­ance when he led his peo­ple out of Egypt, and Pharaoh and his hosts were over­whelmed. Sim­i­lar­ly, Muham­mad’s furqan will be the deliv­er­ance giv­en at Badr when the Calami­ty came upon the Mec­ca­ns. This was the sign’ which con­firmed his prophethood.[16]

It seems that all of Heger’s sources have fall­en, save one : Jeffery.

Arthur Jef­fer­y’s For­eign Vocab­u­lary of the Qur’?is a very dif­fi­cult work to nav­i­gate through, main­ly because every page is lit­tered with Ara­bic, Hebrew, Syr­i­ac, Ethiopic, Armen­ian, Ancient Per­sian and var­i­ous oth­er scripts. How­ev­er, the book is a joke. At one point[17] Jef­fery even argues that the Ara­bic salaam (“peace”) is bor­rowed from the Hebrew shalom. Jef­fery notes the Ara­bic tri-lat­er­al root FA, RAA, QAAF” is the same root as in Hebrew and Ara­ma­ic, but still sees it as for­eign. In his own words :

This uncer­tain­ty and con­fu­sion is dif­fi­cult to explain if we are deal­ing with a gen­uine Ara­bic word and is suf­fi­cient of itself to sug­gest that it is a bor­rowed term.[18]

We find the state­ment by Jef­fery above to be rather per­plex­ing. If the word has a root in the lan­guage, it is almost cer­tain­ly not for­eign. Why would a speak­er need to go out­side their lan­guage to con­ju­gate a verb-root that is in their lan­guage ? This is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion to answer, not that Heger or any of his sources attempt to do so. Jef­fery sim­ply asserts that it was tak­en from Chris­t­ian ter­mi­nol­o­gy, and calls to wit­ness Bell, N?ke and Wensinck for support.


It is quite inter­est­ing to see that Dr. Heger’s long list of sources, which at first seemed so impos­ing, is actu­al­ly quite cir­cu­lar, with every­one cit­ing every­one else, or cit­ing one anoth­er. All these cita­tions made ref­er­ence in some way or anoth­er to the Bat­tle of Badr as an appeal to their rea­son, in the sense that it is a sep­a­ra­tion” from dan­ger, and not to an old Chris­t­ian hymn” as Dr. Heger tries to assert. More­over, we have seen that by refer­ring to Rivlin’s Hebrew trans­la­tion of the Qur’? the word Furqaan is treat­ed as a whol­ly Ara­bic word, and hence the the­o­ry that Furqaan is a bor­rowed Hebrew-Syr­i­ac word does not hold water.

And only God knows best.


The author would like to thank Abook Alam Riki for the help­ful dis­course on the lin­guis­tics and the obser­va­tions regard­ing Brock­el­mann that were offered.


[1] Yosef Yo’el Rivlin, Alkur’an /​tirgem me-‘Arvit, Devir, Tel Aviv (19361945).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carl Brock­el­mann, Lex­i­con Syr­i­acum, (Hildesheim 1966), p. 606

[4] Alfred Guil­laume, The Lega­cy Of Islam, (Oxford, 1931), p. ix

[5] Bar­ry W Holtz (ed.), Back to the Sources : Read­ing The Clas­sic Jew­ish Texts, (Simon and Schus­ter, 1992), p. 222

[6] Theodor N?ke, Geschichte des Qorans, (Leipzig, 1909), p. 34

[7] Ibid., p. 34, n. 1

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wittgen­stein, Philophis­che Unter­suchun­gen, pt. I, sect. 43

[10] J. M. Cow­an (ed.), The Hans Wehr Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Writ­ten Ara­bic, p. 708

[11] A. J. Wensinck, Furkan,” Ency­clopae­dia of Islam, (EJ Brill, 1927), Vol. 2, p. 120

[12] Ibid.

[13] Richard Bell, Intro­duc­tion to the Qur’? p. 137

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 136

[16] W. Mont­gomery Watt, Muham­mad at Med­i­na (Oxford, 1960), p. 16

[17] Arthur Jef­fery, For­eign Vocab­u­lary of the Qur’? pp. 174 – 175

[18] Ibid., p. 226Endmark







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