The Importance of Language: How a couple of marks on a page can make the difference between virgins and grapes
“The Qur’an”, a one-off television programme produced by Channel 4 in 2008 (UK) opened with:
“In 2001 a German study caused such outrage that all mention of it was banned in some Islamic counties, the author published under pseudonym and will only speak if his identity can remain concealed.” This is referring to the work by Christoph Luxenberg “The Syro-Aramaic reading of the Koran” (English, 2007).
His basic premise is that over a fifth of the Koran contains unintelligible words or words which don’t make real sense. This, he believes, can be reduced, with a knowledge of Syriac (Syro-Aramaic), to around 5%. Syriac was the dominant language of Christian liturgy by 3rd century, and by time of Muhammad, Syriac was the major written and cultural language of the whole region, whereas written Arabic was in its infancy. There are pre Islamic inscriptions in Arabic but the first real book in the language is Koran.
The issue is not the tracing of other languages in the Koran, as Muslim scholars have always done this e.g. in the 10th Century al-Tabari identified Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Persian, Abyssinian and Syriac. The difference is that Luxenberg is claiming new meanings never before suggested.
His method involves loosely:
Starting from those passages that are unclear to the Western commentators, first check if there is a plausible explanation in Tabarī that the Western commentators overlooked. If not, then check if there are any records of a meaning unknown to Tabarī and his earlier sources. If this turns up nothing, check if the Arabic expression has a homonymous root in Syriac with a different meaning which fits the context. If these steps do not avail, then see if changing one or more diacritical marks results in an Arabic expression that makes more sense. If not, then change the diacritical point(s) and then check if there is a homonymous Syriac root with a plausible meaning.
An example of how he uses this process is the Koranic verse from Gabriel to Mary after giving birth to Jesus: “Be not sad, your Lord has placed a little river beneath you.” Which Luxenberg renders: “Be not sad, your lord has made your delivery legitimate.” This illustrates a big criticism of Luxenberg, which is that he seems to be coming from a very Christian-Centric viewpoint.
In his book he describes how by an interesting process the Koranic Verse “and We have paired them with dark-, wide-eyed (maidens) [wa-zawwağnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn]…” becomes “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes) [wa-rawwahnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn].”
In the first section, he “proves” that Arabic scholars have misread zawwağnāhum by placing two erroneous unnecessary dialectical markings… with these removed it now reads rawwahnāhum – “we will let them rest” as opposed to “to marry.” He believes this mistake was made because the second (“correct”) reading does not fit with their erroneous reading of the next preposition “bi.”
Looking at “bi” in Syriac, Luxenberg notes 22 different functions of this preposition and chooses number 20 “between, under” as being the correct one (although he does not tell us why) rendering the sentence “We will let them rest under ḥūr ‘īn” or roughly “We will make them comfortable under ḥūr ‘īn.”
“ḥūr” according to Luxenberg has been correctly understood as meaning white, and comes before a feminine word. The problem is with ‘īn, which has always been seen by Arabic scholars as meaning “eye.” There is never any mention of virgins, this has just been inferred. Luxenberg argues against this firstly because white eyed was never a term used to describe beauty (this was always dark-eyed) but to actually describe someone who was blind. Through some complicated reasoning, and looking at various Syriac Christian sources, and other uses of fruit and particularly grapes in paradise imagery and earthly gardens in the Koran he reaches his conclusion that the verse should be: “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes).”
Luxenberg believes this gives a more reasonable rendition of the verse because Christian-Oriental notions of paradise finding their expression in the Koran – “helps the Koran to achieve its original inner coherence.” It also fits with all the other imagery of the gardens of paradise, especially as the grapevine “is an essential component of the earthly garden.” (p. 257)
For example, this picture comes from a 5th century Egyptian monastery, where we see archangels receiving souls in paradise, grape in one hand, cradling departed souls who are refreshed with grapes. Grapes are also a very prominent motif in the vestments of the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
In Luxenberg’s words:
“It was not, say, that the prophet had misunderstood Christian illustrations of Paradise, but rather that the later Islamic exegesis had misinterpreted the Koranic paraphrase of Christian Syriac hymns containing analogous descriptions of Paradise under the influence of Persian conceptions of the mythological virgins of Paradise.” (249)
He also (p. 250) cites Koran 4:82 “Were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture [the OT & NT]) many differences (inconsistencies).” Therefore, according to Luxenberg, it makes little sense for there to be these wide eyed virgins… but “The Koran is right. For the Koran is not to blame if, out of ignorance, people have read it so falsely and projected onto it their subjective, and all too earthly daydreams.” The grape motif fits much better with the Christian notion of paradise and Luxenberg believes that this makes it much more likely.
Whilst there are the obvious extreme reactions to writing of this nature, and a very obvious Christian bias in his writing, it has received a more positive reaction from some Muslims. Dr Taj Hargey (Muslim Educational Centre, Oxford) says that Luxenberg’s work doesn’t undermine anyy of the tenets, teachings or principles of Islam. It provides interesting questions for thinking, 21st century Muslims who should look at what he is providing and not just condemn. Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University) acknowledges that it really doesn’t matter if Luxenberg is right or not as the Koranic descriptions should be taken as symbolic – we have to go beyond the images – they are just a description of what is going to be beautiful beyond our imagination.
Whilst many academics have been critical of Luxenberg, a number of academics have stated that Luxenberg’s work is valid, if only because it has focused attention on various deficiencies in contemporary Koranic studies.
I trust that it is fairly obvious that whilst I support the spirit of Luxenberg’s enterprise, I have insufficient knowledge to evaluate his conclusions (especially regarding the virgins versus the grapes). I would be somewhat sceptical regarding his methodology, and believe that traditional interpretations have to be taken in to account. There must be a reason that things have become traditional in the first place.
P.S. I began this post using “Qur’an” to designate this particular book, and then proceeded to utilise “Koran”. This is because Luxenberg himself uses “Koran” throughout his book, although I would personally prefer to use “Qur’an”. Either are acceptable academically, yet Qur’an is generally deemed to be somewhat closer to the Arabic.