In the year 2000, a radically dissenting view of the language of the Qur’ân and Classical Arabic was propounded by Christoph Luxenberg. (For reasons of his or her security, this scholar used a pseudonym.) Most of his theses were not wholly original, but he argued them more radically than his predecessors in Western Islamic and Arabic linguistic circles. Luxenberg emphasized that Syriac was the lingua franca for the whole Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula before the Arabs imposed their language gradually after the seventh century. When the Qur’ân came into being, Arabic was not a commonly written language yet. The educated Arabs that could read and write at all were mostly Christians who were used to writing religious texts in Syriac. Luxenberg argued that it is inconceivable that those who were involved in the writing of the Qur’ân did not naturally integrate elements from their Christian and Syriac background in its language.(1)
As Mekka was an early Aramaic settlement, the language spoken in that city was a mixture of Syriac and Arabic at the time of the writing of the Qur’ân, according to Luxenberg.(2) He argued that the earliest versions of the Qur’ân were written in that mixture of languages in a sort of Syriac-Arabic shorthand that consisted of six symbols, without vowels and diacritical marks to differentiate between the letters. The present ‘authorized version’ of the Qur’ân developed during the few centuries after the inception of Islam, as the process of creating and deciding about diacritical points and some other symbols to stipulate pronunciation took time. According to Luxenberg, the grammarians made many mistakes in this process, as they were no longer aware of the original Syriac impact on the language of the Qur’ân. They assumed the text was written in the Classical Arabic that had developed in the eighth and ninth century. In order to uphold this historical construction, Luxenberg had to assume that the oral tradition of Qur’ânic pronunciation and explanation during the first few centuries of Islam was ‘purely legendary’.(3)
The most respected Muslim exegete of the Qur’ân during the tenth century, Ja‘far Muhammad bin Jarîr al-Tabarî, admitted in his exegesis (tafsîr) that many verses and parts of the Qur’ân were hard to explain. Luxenberg focused in his book on those parts of the Qur’ân that were considered philologically problematic by al-Tabarî. In those cases, Luxenberg endeavored to explain the text by first considering other Arabic punctuation, and if that did not work, he assumed a Syriac background. By doing so, he was often able to propose a more contextually consistent and understandable reading of the text. He also argued that the grammatical deviations from Classical Arabic in the Qur’ân could be explained as correct applications of Syriac grammar.(4)
The Arabic word Qur’ân itself stems from the Syriac Qeryânâ, Luxenberg argued. That word was used in the Syriac churches of pre-Islamic and early-Islamic times to designate the Lectionary of Bible texts used in the liturgy.(5) Traditionally, most Arab scholars related the word Qur’ân to the Arabic verb qara’a (to recite). It is difficult to conceive how Qur’ân n might have developed grammatically from that verb.(6)
Luxenberg explained how the Qur’ânic chapter al-Kawthar (Abundance) was based on parts of the Syriac liturgy that reflected 1 Peter 5:8-9 from the New Testament, and how the chapter al-‘Alaq (Blood Clot) had the character of the introduction in the Syriac liturgy to the celebration of holy communion. He translated the last verse of al-‘Alaq as ‘celebrate (your) worship (more often) and participate in Holy Communion’.(7) In an interview, Luxenberg summarized his view of the Qur’ân:
In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services. In the second place, one may see in the Koran the beginning of a preaching directed toward transmitting the belief in the Sacred Scriptures to the pagans of Makkah, in the Arabic language. […] At the beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society.(8)
It was predictable that Luxenberg would be vilified by Muslim scholars as he radically disturbed the traditional Islamic view of the Qur’ân, Arabic language and early Islamic history. Western scholarship has also been very guarded if not downright negative in its initial response. In 2004 the German Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin held an academic conference focusing on Luxenberg's thesis and an international working group was formed to continue the discussion. Many of the conference discussions were critical of Luxenberg, and blamed him for serious methodological flaws and sensationalist generalizations.(9) However, even his critics agreed that his work has at least had the merit of showing that Qur’ânic scholars have not so far accorded the literature of Syriac Christianity the attention it deserves as an important resource for reconstructing the Qur’ânic milieu, and no Western scholar studying the Qur’ân, Islam, Arabic language and history can circumvent Luxenberg’s suggested new direction in studying the Qur’ân and its context.
(1) Christoph Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramaeische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache (Berlin, 2004, first edition 2000), pp. 9-11.
(2) Ibid., pp. 334-7.
(3) Ibid., p. 341.
(4) Ibid., p. 238.
(5) Ibid., pp. 81, 111.
(6) Another suggestion is that the word is related to qarâ’in (comparisons). The Arabic linguist Muhammad ‘Ali bin ‘Ali bin Muhammad al-Tahûnî (died 1157) said that the word Qur’ân was in fact a proper name. That indicates the difficulty to relate the word to any Arabic root. See al- al-Tahûnî’s encyclopedia Kashf Islahât al-Fanûn Vol. III (Beirut, 1998), p. 381.
(7) Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramaeische Lesart des Koran, pp. 310, 330-1. Translation of Luxenberg’s German: ‘Verrichte (vielmehr) (deinen) Gottesdienst und nimm an der Abend-mahlliturgie teil’.
(8) Alfred Hackensberger, ‘Der Fuchs und die süssen Trauben des Paradieses’ [The Fox and the Sweet Grapes of Paradise], in Süddeutsche Zeitung (24 February 2004).
(9) Luxenberg’s views were hotly debated, for instance, by a congress in Berlin from 21-25 January 2004, on ‘Historical soundings and methodical reflections to the development of the Qur’an - ways to the reconstruction of the pre-canonical Qur’an’. For a description of the attitudes toward Luxenberg’s thesis, see Michael Marx and Nicolai Sinai, ‘Historische Sondierungen und methodische Reflexionen zur Korangenese - Wege zur Rekonstruktion des vorkanonischen Koran’ (Berlin, 25 February 2004), found on www.wissenschaftskolleg.de (20 February 2006).