Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Koran

The Koran

When the first reviews of Luxenberg's Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache appeared, it seemed like an intriguing and potentially revolutionary work. I didn't have the expertise to know whether Luxenberg's claims were valid or not--and some of the negative reviews, because of both location and tone, made me suspect that some of the hostility was driven more by the general pro-Islamic tone of much of the academic world.

Since I am teaching Western Civilization this semester, and Islam is most definitely part of that class, I thought I would go ahead and read the English translation: The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. This is probably the most exhausting book that I have read since calculus. Whoever translated it from German either was not a native speaker of English, or was trying to capture the fussy, pedantic nature of how I would expect a book like this written in German to be.

Regardless of style or tone, this is intrinsically a demanding book to read--not light entertainment, by any means! It must have been a proofreader's nightmare, because it includes not only sections in Arabic (as well as transliterations into English), but also in Syro-Aramaic. This is another Semitic language, written in Kufic script--in which the very oldest manuscripts of the Koran are also written. In addition, Luxenberg highlights the problems of how to read the standard Arabic version of the Koran by showing how various scholars have translated particularly troublesome passages into English, German, and French.

Now, let me start out by saying that I don't know Arabic, I don't know Syro-Aramaic, and I have no intention of learning either. There is no chance that I will become sufficiently fluent in both languages to know whether Luxenberg is right about his claims. Still, he makes a rather clever solution to what seems to be a very real problem: the Koran is full of bizarre contradictions.

For example, the Koran says that Islamic paradise will have couches with perpetual, black-eyed virgins--and it also says that paradise has "boys of perpetual freshness" or in some translations "boys of eternal youth." (The count of 72 perpetual virgins, while traditional, seems to be extra-Koranic.) Nothing in the Koran says that the boys are there for the sexual use of Islamic men in paradise--but you would have to be blind to the context to not figure that this is reason that the boys are perpetually "fresh." If Islam were reasonably tolerant of homosexuality, this wouldn't be too shocking--but Islam is at least as hostile to homosexuality as Judaism and Christianity used to be.

According to Luxenberg, since at least the 10th century A.D., Muslim scholars have been wrestling over problems with the Koran's text, including words that don't seem to be of Arabic origin, and that do not appear elsewhere in Arabic. Complicating this matter is that there is very little written Arabic before the Koran is traditionally written down in the 7th century (Luxenberg, 23).

One of the core problems is that the earliest Koranic text lacks written vowels—as did other Semitic languages in their earliest forms. The use of diacritical marks solves the problem—but these marks are very easily damaged during copying—and Luxenberg argues that the Koran’s text was perhaps written at least partly in Syro-Aramaic. Trying to read Syro-Aramaic as Arabic produced some of these contradictory verses.

As an example, imagine if Icelandic and Danish were both written with consonants, and only little dots to indicate what the vowels should be. Now, imagine that someone gave an Icelander some Danish text with only funny little vowel dots—and told him, “This is Icelandic.” He would find a lot of words that are the same (because these languages are in fact, quite close). He would find a lot of words that had the same consonants, and some of the vowels would match, and some would not (for example, for fish and bread). It would not take long, however, before the subtle differences would produce something that did not make much sense—and the Icelander would start to modify those vowel dots, and change some consonants to fix the original text’s “mistakes.”

Luxenberg argues that if read as Syro-Aramaic, the Koran’s paradise is not perpetual virgins, but grapes (a symbol of Heaven commonly used in Syrian Christian writings of the time), and not “boys of perpetual freshness,” but iced fruits—which seems like an apt metaphor for paradise if you live in a desert. (Luxenberg, 272-288)

Perhaps most astonishing of all is that Luxenberg argues that much of the text of the Koran appears to have been written as a Christian missionary text aimed at the pagan Arabs of the desert. I find myself wondering if, a century or more later, it was misread, perhaps intentionally, as a method of providing a unifying text for Arab nationalism. (There is considerable scholarly agreement that the Koran’s final text was not codified for at least a century after Mohammed.)

As I said at the beginning, I don’t have the expertise to know whether Luxenberg is right or wrong. But I do know that there are parts of the Koran that are shockingly contradictory—and Luxenberg’s theory is certainly thought provoking. If Luxenberg is right, Islam is built on at best a severe misreading—and at worst, a cynical manipulation by Arab political leaders more than a thousand years ago. It would certainly force a great many Muslims to rethink their faith—and wonder if Mohammed was actually trying to Christianize the polytheistic desert dwellers of Arabia.

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