- A German scholar contends that the Islamic text has been
mistranscribed and promises raisins, not virgins Newsweek International,
By Stefan Theil, NEWSWEEK INTERNATIONAL
- In a note of encouragement to his fellow hijackers, September
11 ringleader Muhammad Atta cheered their impending "marriage in Paradise"
to the 72 wide-eyed virgins the Qur'an promises to the departed faithful.
Palestinian newspapers have been known to describe the death of a suicide
bomber as a "wedding to the black-eyed in eternal Paradise."
But if a German expert on Middle Eastern languages is correct, these hopes
of sexual reward in the afterlife are based on a terrible misunderstanding.
- Arguing that today's version of the Qur'an has been mistranscribed
from the original text, scholar Christoph Luxenberg says that what are
described as "houris" with "swelling breasts" refer
to nothing more than "white raisins" and "juicy fruits."
- Luxenberg-a pseudonym-is one of a small but growing group
of scholars, most of them working in non-Muslim countries, studying the
language and history of the Qur'an. When his new book is published this
fall, it's likely to be the most far-reaching scholarly commentary on the
Qur'an's early genesis, taking this infant discipline far into uncharted-and
highly controversial-territory. That's because Islamic orthodoxy considers
the holy book to be the verbatim revelation of Allah, speaking to his prophet,
Muhammad, through the Angel Gabriel, in Arabic. Therefore, critical study
of God's undiluted word has been off-limits in much of the Islamic world.
(For the same reason, translations of the Qur'an are never considered authentic.)
Islamic scholars who have dared ignore this taboo have often found themselves
labeled heretics and targeted with death threats and violence. Luxenberg,
a professor of Semitic languages at one of Germany's leading universities,
has chosen to remain anonymous because he fears a fatwa by enraged Islamic
- Luxenberg's chief hypothesis is that the original language
of the Qur'an was not Arabic but something closer to Aramaic. He says the
copy of the Qur'an used today is a mistranscription of the original text
from Muhammad's time, which according to Islamic tradition was destroyed
by the third caliph, Osman, in the seventh century. But Arabic did not
turn up as a written language until 150 years after Muhammad's death, and
most learned Arabs at that time spoke a version of Aramaic. Rereading the
Paradise passage in Aramaic, the mysterious houris turn into raisins and
fruit-much more common components of the Paradise myth.
- The forthcoming book contains plenty of other bombshells.
It claims that the Qur'an's commandment for women to cover themselves is
based on a similar misreading; in Sura 24, the verse that calls for women
to "snap their scarves over their bags" becomes in Aramaic "snap
their belts around their waists." Even more explosive are readings
that strengthen scholars' views that the Qur'an had Christian origins.
Sura 33 calls Muhammad the "seal of the prophets," taken to mean
the final and ultimate prophet of God. But an Aramaic reading, says Luxenberg,
turns Muhammad into a "witness of the prophets"-i.e., someone
who bears witness to the established Judeo-Christian texts. The Qur'an,
in Arabic, talks about the "revelation" of Allah, but in Aramaic
that term turns into "teaching" of the ancient Scriptures. The
original Qur'an, Luxenberg contends, was in fact a Christian liturgical
document-before an expanding Arab empire turned Muhammad's teachings into
the basis for its new religion long after the Prophet's death.
- Such interpretations will undoubtedly draw the ire of
many Muslims-and not just extremists. After all, revisionist scholars have
been persecuted for much less; in 2001, Egypt's Constitutional Court confirmed
the "apostasy" of former University of Cairo scholar Nasr Hamid
Abu-Zayd, for considering the Qur'an a document written by humans.
- Still, Luxenberg may be ushering in a whole new era of
Qur'anic study. "Luxenberg's findings are very relevant and convincing,"
says Mondher Sfar, a Tunisian specialist on the historic origins of the
Qur'an in exile in Paris. "They make possible a new interpretation
of the Qur'an." In the West, questioning the literal veracity of the
Bible was a crucial step in breaking the church's grip on power-and in
developing a modern, secular society. That experience, as much as the questioning
itself, is no doubt what concerns conservative Muslims as they struggle
over the meaning and influence of Islam in the 21st century. But if Luxenberg's
work is any indication, the questioning is just getting underway.
From Nurcahyo Basuki
- Dear Sir,
- Along with this email is an article to respond to the
article "Fruit, Not Females Promised In Islam Afterlife" written
by Dr. Maher Hathout.
- Source: http://www.islamonline.net/english/Contemporary/2003/08/article03.shtml
- Response to "Challenging the Quran" Article
- By: Dr. Maher Hathout
- The article published in Newsweek ("Challenging
the Quran," July 28) defies categorization and hence troubles whoever
may like to respond to it. It claims to draw on excerpts from academic
research containing "bomb shells" that could produce "a
new interpretation of the Quran."
- The article claims Professor Luxenberg's is "likely
to be the most far reaching scholarly commentary on the Quran's genesis,
taking this infant discipline far into uncharted and highly controversial
territory." Who is Luxenberg? An unknown scholar writing under a pseudonym.
The "scholar" is hiding his name for fear of repercussions, despite
the fact that several people have written on the same subject in the past
and present without taking such a precaution.
- The professor works at an unnamed "leading German
university" and his research is acclaimed by "Moudher Sfar"
- probably another pseudonymed scholar from Tunisia we've never heard of.
So much for academic credibility. Pending availability of the original
paper and the author's real name, this is little more than a pseudo-academic
piece published in a non-academic magazine. Thus, any response must pick
through the bits and pieces scattered on the pages of Newsweek and conduct
a point-by-point analysis.
- Describing Luxenberg as one of a small but growing group
of scholars studying the language and history of the Quran is amazingly
wrong. For 1400 years, there have always been groups in the East and West
of Muslims and non-Muslims, faithful and skeptical, who wrote volumes about
the history and language of the Quran. The unknown author here is neither
a pioneer nor a hero. Muslim scholars, including the likes of the Muatazelite
school, Imam Zamakhshari, Al-Tabary, and countless scholars (of various
readings of the Quran) are hard to count. There are also so many Western
scholars and Orientalists who wrote about the subject in abundance that
some of them would be restless in their graves if they read the claims
- The article surmises that "translations of the Quran
are never considered authentic." Translations are judged as either
accurate or inaccurate. No translation is authentic. When you translate
Shakespeare to French or Voltaire to English, you may be accurate or not
but the work will never be authentic, simply because it is not what was
said by the original author. To make this sound like a peculiarity for
the Quran or a particular thinking of Muslims lacks academic objectivity.
- Luxenberg's chief hypothesis is that the original language
of the Quran was not Arabic, but "something close" to Aramaic.
What is the meaning of "something close?" What is it? Where is
it? Who would understand it? Who will understand something close to English
or German? These are questions that any semi-academic mind would ask.
- He asserts that Arabic as a language and system of writing
was not developed until 150 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad.
This strange assertion contradicts the major volume of pre-Islamic poetry,
which is used even today to help in understanding and interpreting the
- This poetry includes seven famous pieces that students
study in middle schools throughout the Arab world, known as "Al Muallaquat."
This refers to poems that were hung on the walls of the Kaaba as exhibitions
of the best literary work in the pre-Islamic era. (The Kaaba, a cubic temple,
has always been attributed by Arabs to the patriarch prophet, Abraham.)
It also contradicts the Encyclopedia of Literature by Merriam-Webster,
which states, "The intermittent revelations to Muhammad were first
memorized by followers and used in ritual prayers, although verses were
later written down during the Prophet's lifetime."
- We have in Al-Azhar library a manuscript "explaining
the unusual styles in the Quran" written by Imam Sagistani 153 years
after the migration to Medina, in perfect classical Arabic. When we look
to what is known as Christian Aramaic, we notice that Jesus spoke in Aramaic,
while the gospels are written in Greek. It is far fetched that the Gospel
would be written in Greek while the Quran would be written in Aramaic.
- We notice that Christian Aramaic, "which is actually
the Syrian language was the literally language of the City of Edessa (now
Urfa in Southeast Turkey) became the tongue of the entire eastern wing
of the church from about the third century C.E. down until past the Muslim
conquest." Obviously the Muslim conquest was carrying with it the
- So the process upon which the rereading of the verses
in Aramaic is false and as Muslims jurists wisely say, "what is built
on fallacy is false."
- Then he talks about "houris," which are allegorically
symbolic beings of bliss in paradise, as being raisins and fruits. It is
his prerogative but this does not provide anything supernatural to look
forward to the life of eternity.
- It seems that what he was referring to as raisins is
"kawaib." He challenges what he claims as the Arabic meaning
of "beings with swollen breasts," while if he had known Arabic,
he would have understood the term as "beings of distinction."
For this translation, we refer him to a real Austrian scholar on the language
of the Quran, later known as Muhammad Asad (Review The Message of the Quran).
- The claim that the Quran's commandment to women in surah
24 to "snap their scarves over their bags" becomes in Aramaic
"snap their belts around their waists." I challenge the professor
to show us where he brought this verse of snapping from? Quran is available
and surah 24 is easy to read.
- In the Newsweek article, Luxenberg writes, "Even
more explosive are the readings that strengthen scholars' views that the
Quran had Christian origins. Surah 33 calls Muhammad the 'seal of the prophets.'
In Aramaic, the word 'seal' means witness so he must be a witness of the
Prophets." We really don't need all these acrobatics to prove a meaning
that has been mentioned clearly in several areas of the Quran. Muhammad
was a witness just as believers are witnesses, and Muhammad followed the
good models of other prophets who came to testify for and confirm the truth
they brought from God to humanity. So where is the brilliant discovery?
- A similar case can be made for the arguments around the
word "revelation." The author had to go to Aramaic or what he
calls "something closer to Aramaic" to inform us that it actually
means "teaching" of the ancient scriptures. He may be referring
to the word "wahye" in Arabic, which means teaching, revelation,
suggestion, setting instinct, putting the law of order to things, intuitive
ideas, outbursts of thoughts and creativity. Wahye described scriptures,
the nature of the heavens and earth, the instinct of the bees, the flow
of poetry, etc. So there is no new "revelation" that Luxenberg
is bringing here. What Newsweek slips in about Egyptian court, Nasre AbuZaid,
Fatwa, etc. is opportunistic journalism, not fitting the standard of the
- Dr. Maher Hathout is the senior advisor the Muslim Public
Affairs Council, and spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California.