January 28, 2008
The Intrepid Mr. Luxenberg
The notion of textual criticism of the Koran grabbed my attention last week, and then I was put on to the work of Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonym), who has published an important work on the Qur’an, Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran; Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur’ānsprache (Berlin, Germany: Das Arabische Buch, 2000). In 2007 it appeared in English translation as The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran (Hans Schiler Verlag). There is a brief interview with Luxenberg here] and a NYT’s article here. I thought there was something vaguely familiar about Luxenberg’s thesis, and my hunch proved right: I had read about it in Jim Davila’s Palaeojudaica blog here and here. The best information I’ve found is an informative review of Luxenberg’s book by Robert R. Phenix Jr. and Cornelia B. Horn in Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 6.1, January 2003.
Luxenberg’s book is a sort of interim report on his research, setting out his methods and some of his conclusions. A more complete work is awaited. But the punch line might interest readers of this blog: when he’s done with his textual excavation, beneath the suras of the original Qur’an there emerges what looks like a Syriac Christian lectionary of Old Testament and New Testament readings for the Christian year.
I am deeply ignorant of Qur’anic scholarship. But I am familiar with the kind of textual work and arguments Luxenberg is trading in. More scrupulous individuals would leave this alone, but more scrupulous individuals don't blog. So at the risk of sounding like a journalist, here are some salient points in his argument (mediated by Phenix and Horn):
*The Arabic text of the Qur’an has many difficulties, including lexical, morphological and syntatctical problems, not to speak of apparent inconsistencies and contradictions. One cannot simply “know” modern Arabic and make good sense of the Qur’an. Interpreting it is a specialized discipline with a tradition of exegetical maneuvers that, one senses, might make its biblical corollary look easy.
*In critically studying the text of the Qur’an, Luxenberg asks us to bracket the Islamic traditions of its origin and start afresh. Luxenberg informs us that Arabic did not exist as a written language in the seventh century, when Muslims tell us the Qur’an was written. Whatever Qur’anic text existed at that time was not in Arabic, Luxenberg tells us it was in another language. The language of writing in that part of the world was Syro-Aramaic or Syriac (a derivative of Aramaic), and Syriac was the language of many Christians in the Middle East at that time. Almost all of the extant literature in Syriac is Christian. And it is the language of a well-known translation of the Bible, the Peshitta. Luxenberg argues that the road toward written Arabic runs through Syriac Christian literature. He suggests that the Arabs who created their written language were Christianized Arabs who knew the Syriac liturgy. The Qur’an is apparently the first, or one of the earliest, books in written Arabic.
*The fact that the Qur’an preserves in various ways foreign terms, including ones in Aramaic/Syriac, has apparently been known for some time. But Luxenberg wants to apply the tools of philology and criticism to this phenomenon (again, bracketing any religious claims for the origin of the text). As with biblical Hebrew, Qur’anic Arabic has diacritical vowel markings that were not original to the text, vowel marks that play a stabilizing function for the reading of the originally purely consonantal text. To peel away the interpretive function of the vowels, Luxenberg works with a text without vowels.
*Focusing on passages/words that have created difficulty for interpreters, Luxenberg examines the linguistic possibilities for solution and in many cases finds the most satisfying interpretive solution in an underlying Syriac wording. The thing to keep in mind is that the earliest form of written Arabic was very simple, a sort of shorthand of six letters, eventually supported by diacritical symbols above and below these letters. So the written words were originally quite underdetermined in their meaning. And since I am already in well over my head, I refer you to the review above. But can you see where this is heading?
*Well there’s more. Phenix and Horn tell us that “Luxenberg proceeds . . . to the heart of the matter: an analysis of the word ‘Qur’ān.’ He sets out the argument that qur’ān derives from the Syriac qeryānā, a technical term from the Christian liturgy that means ‘lectionary,’ the fixed biblical readings used at the Divine Liturgy throughout the year.”
*The book (as reviewed by Phenix and Horn) goes on to tackle many difficult readings in the Qur’an and to demonstrate how they are solved by appealing to an underlying Syriac. There are glimmers of Ephraem the Syrian’s language of Paradise showing through at points, as well as Syriac Eucharistic liturgy. If reliable, the interpretive potential of Luxenberg’s method is impressive, even from what little I can grasp of it. As Phenix and Horn conclude, we are perhaps faced with the question of whether a redaction of the Qur’an transformed it from “a book that is more or less harmonious with the New Testament and Syriac Christian liturgy and literature” to one that has the appearance of being of “distinct and independent origin.”
The viability of Luxenberg’s approach and hypothesis is something that no doubt has been, is and will continue to be examined by Islamic and Syriac scholars. There is a very critical review by Francois de Blois in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, likening Luxenberg to a dilettante. And here is a report on a conference on the topic held in Berlin a few years ago.
The thesis is a fascinating one, not least because if it is true, the roots of Islam would be entwined with church history to an extent hitherto not understood or appreciated. From a strictly historical standpoint, that is intriguing enough. For serious Islamic-Christian dialogue, it might open up interesting lines of conversation. Or not.
In my next blog I want to use this book as an example of how a publisher might go about deciding whether or not to publish a radically new thesis such as Luxenberg’s.