No more virgins for suicide bombers

"Christoph Luxenberg" is the pseudonymic author of a sensational but scholarly book, which attempts to analyze the language of the Koran (Quran, Qur'an) by considering its probable Syro-Aramaic roots: Die Syro- Aramäische Lesart des Koran. Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache (= The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. A contribution to the de-ciphering of the language of the Koran), first edition Berlin 2000.

Luxenberg’s book has had earth-shattering consequences in the Islamic -- or rather Islamistic -- world. A whole issue of Newsweek, containing a brief article dealing with Luxenberg’s book, was banned in Pakistan in July 2003.

No wonder, because Luxenberg finds, inter alia, that the famed “wide-eyed houris (= virgins)”, promised as a post-mortem sexual reward to the faithful (in suras 44.54, 52.20, 55.72, 54.22), are misinterpretations of "white raisins/grapes" of "crystal clarity", and not at all doe-eyed, ever-willing virgins. Would a prospective suicide-bomber settle for juicy white grapes?

A German scholar or a Lebanese Christian?

The identity behind the German-writing pseudonym “Christoph Luxenberg” is not clear. Some claim that he is a German scholar of Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic languages, writing under a nom-de-guerre because he fears a Salman Rushdie-type scandal and a consequent fatwa of death. Others (e.g. the Arabic scholar François de Blois) are not quite as impressed by his academic knowledge and attribute the authorship to a Lebanese Christian living in Germany, an individual with extensive, but non-academic knowledge of ancient Middle-Eastern languages.

Interpreting the words of the Prophet

Whoever he might turn out to be, his analysis turns out to be fascinating. The Koran, like the Bible, has a far from rectilinear history. According to tradition, it was dictated to Mohammed by God and written down in Arabic by Mohammed –- in itself a miracle, because Mohammed was known to be illiterate. The miracle aside, which Arabic did the Prophet use? At the time of Mohammed, Arabic was not a wide-spread written language. It was rather Syro-Aramaic or Syriac that was the language of written communication in the Near East from the second to the seventh centuries A.D. According to Luxenberg and several other scholars, the Arabic of Mohammed’s time had 70% Syro-Aramaic roots. So in order to be prudent, the Koran should be read with this in mind.

It turns out that prudence is very much called for when reading the Koran. Tabari (Muhammad Ibni Jarir Abu Jafar Al-Tabari, 838-923 AD), the father of Islamic history, made an analysis of the Koranic texts in the 10th century. Tabari came to the conclusion that one fourth of the Koran could not be interpreted, because of diffuse and enigmatic language. But by reading the Koran with Syro-Aramaic eyes and interpreting certain words as Syriac instead of Arabic, “Christoph Luxenberg” claims to have deciphered many of these enigmas, among them the passage about the “wide-eyed virgins” of afterlife. That this approach is an affront to dogmatic mullahs, used to beating people’s heads with “immutable” texts, is rather understandable.

The book:

Hardcover -- Christoph Luxenberg: Die Syro- Aramäische Lesart des Koran. Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache (= The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. A contribution to the de-ciphering of the language of the Koran), (hardcover) Berlin, Germany. Das Arabische Buch, First Edition, 2000.
Paperback -- Schiler Verlag; (February 28, 2002), ISBN 3860932748

Reference:
Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies (book review): http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/Vol6No1/HV6N1PRPhenixHorn.html
François de Blois: Journal of Qur'anic Studies, Vol. V, Issue 1, 2003, pp. 92-97 (book review): http://www.bismikaallahuma.org/Reviews/luxemburg.htm

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