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Monday, July 2, 2012

DEFENDING THE QUR'AN [Response to 2003 Newsweek article]

Copyright 2003 Newsweek

July 28, 2003, International Edition
LENGTH: 752 words
HEADLINE: Challenging the Qur'an
BYLINE: By Stefan Theil

HIGHLIGHT:A German scholar contends that the Islamic text has been mistranscribed and promises raisins, not virgins


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 extremists.

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 mis-transcription 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.

          To: / Editor
          Re:    July 28, 2003 Int’l Edition “Newsweek” Article
by Stefan Theil titled: “Challenging the Qur’an”

Response by: Jonathan M.A. Ghaffar (2,882 words)

          Newsweek writer Stefan Theil begins his article “Challenging the Qur’an” with a reference to Sept.11 ringleader Muhammad Atta exhorting his fellow terrorists and future martyrs with the (supposedly) Qur’anic promise of 72 virgins in Paradise -- this as a lead-in to a piece on the purported crumbling bedrock of validity to the Qur’an’s 1400-year claim of being God’s perfect and complete Divinely-revealed Holy Scripture in Arabic. One wonders if Newsweek will now preface every future piece on scholarly investigations of ancient Christian texts with an insightful recap of David Koresh’s or Jim Jones’ Biblical exhortations to their followers, as if either the Muslim or Christian ringleaders cited are in any way representative of the true teachings of their respective faiths. Most Christians would, naturally, become indignant, offended and even angry when such allusions are ascribed to them and the teachings of Jesus (peace be on him). Should it be surprising when Muslims react similarly when such associations are made with regard to Islam, its teachings or its Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him)?
Then we come to rest of the article… My initial take on reading such a tabloid-esque, factually emaciated, essentially source-less piece of Islam-bashing in “Newsweek” was one of disappointment. Where was the probing, journalistic inquisitiveness as to the veracity of the claims made by the pseudonymous German scholar Christoph Luxenberg? Analyzing the true merit of the charges made by “Mr. Luxenberg” -- an unknown person with unlisted evidence and sources -- becomes an exercise in deductive reasoning. Since I’m sure Mr. Luxenberg wants us to buy his forthcoming book to examine his claims and the evidence for them in detail, all we can do at this point is try to fathom his motivation for making them. This, actually, is not too difficult, once we view the whole “debate on the origin of the Qur’an” in the light of the one “group” who has the most reasons and interest in discrediting the Qur’an: the politically conservative, fundamentalist Christian rightwing – in this country, typified by a nebulous mixture of TV evangelists, think-tank “experts” and the public-at-large. Let’s examine the points raised by “Mr. Luxenberg”…

Point One: The Qur’an was mistranscribed from its original, pseudo-Aramaic language into Arabic, with the original text then destroyed by Islam’s 3rd Caliph, Osman (Uthman), presumably to hide the evidence of its Christian source and validation of Biblical teachings. Ironically, the Arabic Qur’an that all Muslims have been reading for the past 14 centuries regularly validates the truth inherent in the Bible, only with the caveat that both the Jews and Christians either discarded, changed and/or ‘mistranscribed’ many of the pure Divine teachings they were originally given for their own worldly, selfish purposes. Because of this tampering with, and corruption of, the Bible – something no credible Biblical scholar denies – it became unreliable, full of doubts and contradictions evident in any translation you choose to look at. The Qur’an states clearly that its purpose is to complete and fulfill the earlier scriptures, to restore God’s Divine Message and bring mankind to the final level of its spiritual development – complete and fulfilling union with God.
Mr. Luxenberg charges that the Qur’an was ‘mistranscribed.’ To the non-Muslim reader whose only understanding of the preservation of a religious text may be with the practice of Church scribes copying scriptural texts by hand, this charge may seem to have some weight. After all, examination of Biblical texts ranging across several centuries demonstrates the fairly common habit of Church scholars first annotating passages with explanations and clarifications of meaning by writing in the margins of the text, and then having copyists later incorporate these margin notes directly into the body of the text as they did the transcription for a new edition.
The principle difference between the Christian texts and the Qur’anic text is that, apart from memorization of Biblical texts by monks for purposes of liturgical chanting, Christians never committed their entire Holy Book to memory. The Qur’an, however, was always memorized first as a matter of course – something fairly common and easy-to-do for even the average Arab. Also, at the time of each revelation, Muhammad (pbuh) had his followers who could write, transcribe the revelation and read it back to him to verify it was identical with what he’d received. The Qur’an was thus recorded in up to seven dialects of Arabic, depending on who was doing the transcribing, with the Quraish dialect being the one Muhammad spoke, the one his chief scribe Zaid bin Thabit spoke, thereby becoming the preferred one at the time of the initial collection of the Qur’an in Book form shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. The Islamic traditions clearly detail this collection of the Qur’an in written Arabic not Aramaic or Syriac as it was called, as well as confirming that the Qur’an was revealed over 23 years, and that the completion of its revelation to Muhammad (pbuh) occurred nearly two years before his death, and that by the end of his life, not only Muhammad but literally thousands upon thousands of his devout followers had memorized the entire Qur’an in Arabic.
Mr. Luxenberg can claim that “learned Arabs” spoke a form of Aramaic now extinct which was the original language of the Qur’an, but this conflicts with the fact that thousands of Muhammad’s followers, all living amongst him, learned and recited the same Arabic revelation of the Qur’an which speakers of Arabic today have essentially no trouble reading or understanding in spoken form.
Mr. Luxenberg claims the 3rd Caliph, Osman, translated the Aramaic version of the Qur’an into Arabic, implying he took out or changed what he didn’t like, and the result is the Qur’an we have today. Osman then destroyed the Aramaic version. (This begs the obvious question: if the original Aramaic version was destroyed, what is Mr. Luxenberg using as a source text? The article states that it’s Luxenberg’s hypothesis that an original Aramaic version existed. Is he then translating the Arabic text we now have into Aramaic and presenting what he gets as the “proof” for his hypothesis?) If Osman had, in fact, destroyed the recognized version of Muhammad’s revelation from God, why was there not an outraged revolt by the entire Muslim community, tens of thousands of whom would have memorized and been reciting the Aramaic version and would have certainly never tolerated anyone changing what they all considered the direct revealed Word of God as received by the Holy Prophet!
But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that it did happen as Mr. Luxenberg seems to posit. Osman would somehow have to placate and/or silence every hostile Muslim critic and then convince these same critics to now memorize his new Arabic version. Surely, someone would have recorded for posterity their coercion and would have written down the Aramaic version of the Qur’an and preserved it in secret for future generations. Remember – tens of thousands had it in their memories, so writing it back down would be a fairly easy procedure for a literate scribe. But there isn’t a single copy of the Qur’an in Aramaic, nor any Muslim who recites it in Aramaic.
And speaking of Aramaic, the Eastern Orthodox, or Syriac, Christian Church has an Aramaic Bible called the Peshitta which most Christians in the West have probably never seen, read or even heard of. It was only translated into English during the first quarter of the 20th century. You would think English-speaking Christians would want to read their own Holy Book translated directly from the language Jesus (pbuh) spoke, rather than accepting second, third or even fourth-hand translations through Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Instead, Mr. Luxenberg spends his energies trying to discredit the Arabic Qur’an by saying Muslims stole it from Aramaic Biblical texts Christians don’t even read themselves.
Point Two: Luxenberg states that Arabic did not turn up as a written language until 150 years after Muhammad's death. Curious. One wonders how Osman could have had the Qur’an rewritten in Arabic about 20 years after the Prophet’s death (two examples of which still exist today) if the written language wasn’t due to “turn up” for another 130 years.
While I haven’t seen Luxenberg’s book to see if he shows examples of the Aramaic of the 7th century AD, I have seen what Biblical Aramaic looks like, in examples spanning several centuries starting from the 1st century AD, and it demonstrates a very gradual evolution in style. He claims the Aramaic of the original Qur’an was a variant form of Arabic. But while Arabic, in whatever style or script you examine it, is essentially like cursive English -- mostly connected letters forming words and even multiple words -- Aramaic, as shown in examples in Llamas’ English translation of the Peshitta (circa. mid-1930s), more closely resembles Hebrew with its single, non-connected letters composed of short strokes and dots. This does not mean that Aramaic was not the basis for written Arabic (the evidence clearly shows that it was) but the only Arabic-looking style of Aramaic is Nabatean Aramaic, making it the only credible candidate for the source of written Arabic, if for no other reason than Aramaic was the Lingua Franca of that whole region until it was replaced by Arabic after the advent and rapid spread of Islam from the 7th century onward. What needs to be remembered is that Arabic was not a written language for most of its pre-Islamic history because the Arabs were, for the most part, non-literate traders and nomads. This does not mean that their later adoption and reinterpretation of a related language’s alphabet (Nabatean Aramaic) meant that the Aramaic meanings of words replaced their Arabic meanings any more than the adoption by Slavic language speakers of Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet changed the meanings of Slavic words into Russian. 
Point three: the examples cited by Luxenberg of mistranslations – at least the ones listed in the Newsweek article – all deal with verses that make Islam and Muslims appear sex-crazed, misogynistic or philosophically subservient and indebted to the Bible. The very nature of this selection of verses seems to tell a lot about Luxenberg’s agenda. For instance, the first subject in the article is about the supposed 72 black-eyed “houris” or virgins awaiting future Islamic martyrs in Paradise. According to Luxenberg, the word ‘houris’ should really be ‘white raisins.’ Can you imagine a Muslim soldier at the time of Muhammad getting all revved up over 72 raisins? Even if the actual meaning of ‘houri’ was sexual in nature -- which it isn’t -- I can’t see any sane guy choosing to hang out in Paradise with a bunch of raisins over a bunch of beautiful women. Certainly not as an incentive to go die in battle.
In all seriousness, I’ve checked every single Qur’anic reference to Jihad and martyrdom and the rewards to be gained thereby, and there’s not a single reference to 72 ‘houris’ as a reward or 72 of anything for that matter. It does say on numerous occasions that the Believers in Paradise will be given ‘dark-eyed companions of equal age, perpetually chaste and righteous.’ Perpetually chaste is not the same as perpetually chased. I know it’s easy to confuse the two when you hear them, but only the first definition applies to ‘houris’ and it means there won’t be any hanky-hanky going on in the Hereafter.
It’s interesting to note that in almost all references to the rewards that Believers will get in the next life, (1) the word ‘believer’ is used, either singular or plural, which is gender-neutral; and (2) the words describing their promised companions are usually ‘pure mates’ or ‘pure spouses’ – in either case, the Arabic word for ‘mate/spouse’ is not ‘houri’ but ‘azwaj’ which, again, is gender-neutral. Just because Osama bin Laden and similarly ignorant Muslims say something is in the Qur’an, doesn’t mean it really is. Suicide, for instance, as well as terrorism or fomenting violent civil unrest, is expressly forbidden in the Qur’an.
In the next example cited in the article, Luxenberg’s book “claims 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."…”
First off, the English translation of the Arabic is not only atrocious, but it’s just one fragment of a verse that talks on the subject at length. Here’s a good English translation…

Sura 24, verse 31: And say to the believing women that they
                              restrain their looks and guard their chastity,
                              and that they display not their beauty or their
                              embellishment except that which is apparent
 thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings
                              over their bosoms, and that they display not
 their beauty or their embellishment save to
 their husbands, or to their fathers, or to…

It continues listing the various family relations it’s OK for a woman to be around “and let her hair down with,” so to speak. But clearly, the verse goes on at length about the type of modesty expected of a God-fearing Muslim woman. Men, too, in the preceding verse, are given similar instructions on guarding their chastity and acting modestly, but since most men don’t have ‘bosoms’ or luxuriously long Herbal Essence hair-do’s, there’s not much of a need for them to cover themselves with a scarf.
          The final examples in the article deal with the threat Christianity feels from the rapid spread of Islam, especially in the West. It is these examples that most clearly demonstrate the agenda that seems to motivate Luxenberg’s scholarship, as well as the general approach that many Christian evangelists and scholars are taking in their attempt to represent Islam in an unflattering light. Notice the verses deemed to be ‘mistranslated’ and therefore incorrect all have something to do with the veracity of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This hardly seems like a random accident.
          In the article, it states:
          “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.”

One almost need not comment, so obvious is the bias against Islam, the mission of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and the message of the Qur’an. But the comment about Islam as a religion being created ‘long after the Prophet’s death’ as a result of the expanding Islamic empire coming in contact with Christianity flies in the face of all recorded historical evidences – many of them Western. If Christianity is, ultimately, the basis for all Islamic rituals and doctrines and ‘revelations’ from God, why is it that Islam as a religious culture differs so markedly from that of Christianity?

In Islam there is no concept of the incarnation of God as a human being for the purpose of his murder / suicide for the vicarious expiation of the sins of all mankind.

In Christianity there is no idea of the supreme, abiding, indivisible Oneness of God, no annual pilgrimage to a central shrine that Christians face in prayer fives times a day, no annual month-long daylight fast for spiritual purification and reunification with God, no dress code or social ordinances that shape Western Christian-populated societies for the protection of the moral fabric of society, no prohibitions against the destructive vices of gambling and drinking.

If this is Luxenberg’s idea of an improvement on the Qur’an and its teachings, I’ll stick with the Arabic version of Islam. He can keep the Aramaic version. I have a strong hunch that all those people throughout the ages since the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who became Muslim and left Christianity, Judaism or some other religion because it wasn’t working for them, wouldn’t have changed their minds if Luxenberg’s supposed “long-lost Aramaic Qur’an” had turned up 1400 years ago, anymore than Muslims will today, and for probably the very same reasons outlined above. Islam needs reformation, there is no doubt, and that reformation is taking place. Sadly, the West seems completely blind to it and unwilling to help it along. It seems intent on crushing it like something feared and hated.

And it’s a sure bet that more accusations and claims made in books like Luxenberg’s will continue – focusing solely on the types of controversial or theologically challenging verses dealt with in Luxenberg’s book -- all those verses which directly represent a threat to the primacy of Biblical doctrines or the hegemony of the nations that purport themselves to be Judeo-Christian. In their fear and mistrust, they only shut out the true healing power of the Love of God which is clear, ever-present and waiting to redeem them in the Holy Qur’an and the true example of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). All Praise belongs to God alone, the Lord of all the worlds.

[ Archived at - Aug. 2003 ]

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