There is a controversy surrounding the work of the philologist of Syriac (that is, the Aramaic used in and around Edessa), Christoph Luxenberg. He suggests that the best way to clear up the approximately 20% of the Qur’an that does not make sense, or that contains a meaning that is only guessed at, is to posit an Ur-text, in Aramaic, or rather in Syriac, a text that begins as a Christian lectionary.
Muslims have done what they can to ignore the book and to try to get it ignored by others. But among those Western students of the early Qur’an — and there are not many qualified to review Luxenberg’s book, for they would need to have a native or near-native command of Arabic as well as his command of Aramaic — some have been greatly impressed. Others have been less impressed at first but have begun to come round, others less impressed and refusing to come round. When it comes to such matters, fear plays a part — that is, outright physical fear, but also, and from the most surprising sources, simply a fear of antagonizing one’s Muslim colleagues. It is an absurd situation.
Luxenberg did not appear out of nowhere. There was Alphonse Mingana, in the teens of the last century. There was Arthur Jeffrey’s study of foreign loan-words in the Qur’an (the very idea that the Qur’an might be written in something other than the purest of classical Arabic, untainted by words from outside, disturbs many). This book was published in a sumptuous edition, with typefaces in a half-dozen languages, by the tolerant and intelligent man who was then Gaekwar of Baroda.
One may consult the new, English-language edition of Luxenberg’s “Die Syro-aramaische Lesart des Koran” which, I assume, is based on the latest, that is the third, edition of his book in German. He has also written, incidentally, a study of the Arabic, but not, he argues, Qur’anic, inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock — a study that suggests the Dome of the Rock may not be quite the Muslim structure everyone has always assumed it to be.
As for the Hadith and the Sira, the best guide to these matters is that tireless writer, scholar, and compiler and prompter of others’ scholarship, Ibn Warraq.
See his “What the Koran Really Says” and “The Origins of the Koran” and “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad.” And google a few names: Alfred-Louis De Premare, Gerd Puin, Andrew Rippin should get one going to an area that is not easy going.
The work of Luxenburg, and of others working on the origins of early Islam — including the redoubtable Patricia Crone at the Institute for Advanced Study — is not intended to be a weapon of self-defense by Infidels. But weapon such scholarship is, for Islam itself, which requires all Muslims to be literalists, and relies on claims that the Qur’an is the immutable word of God, as dictated by the Angel Gabriel to an illiterate Arab, Muhammad (and from the Qur’an were spun the tales of the hadith, by several generations of pious but highly-imaginative storytellers), will not be able to withstand, as Christianity and Judaism withstood, the scrutiny and analysis of the Higher Biblical Criticism. Crone and others have already, with a wide variety of evidence, suggested the non-Hijazi origins of Islam; there is no evidence for the existence of “Mecca” in the Hijaz as an entrepot, or even as a village, in the period ascribed to it in Islam; there is, however, archeological and other evidence for a different place of origin. Luxenberg’s evidence for the Aramaic words in the Qur’an, and his demonstration that many of the otherwise incomprehensible passages in the Qur’an make sense when we read the words as Syriac, not Arabic, is formidable and convincing. There is also doubt, among the handful of serious Western scholars capable of working in this area, even as to the existence of the “historical Muhammad”; we who are Infidels can permit ourselves the luxury of studying the matter in freedom; Muslims cannot, or will not, for if they are not frightened for their physical safety, they are enslaved by their own mind-forged manacles; they cannot allow themselves, save for a few brave exceptions, to examine or analyze the origins of early Islam as is by now routine for Christians and Jews to study the origins, over time, of Judaism and of Christianity.
It is maddening that so many of the Irwin Coreys of this world (Corey, a comic who billed himself as “the world’s greatest authorities”) make pronouncements on Islam without having studied it seriously. They would not make such pronouncements on elementary particle physics; what makes them think they know, really know, what the tenets of Islam are, and the origins of the belief-system, and how it spread, and what its peculiar appeal may be, and what its intellectual, political, and economic weaknesses are, and how it might be intelligently undercut and at least some of its followers persuaded that the Qur’an is NOT the literal word of God and must be understood historically. Unless they are prepared to spend a solid year or two on the serious scholarship (not the Espositos and Armstrongs and Saids, but the real scholars), perhaps by first acquiring a CD of the Index Islamicus, they should be a bit more hesitant about sounding off on “Islam” in the New York Times or elsewhere.
Luxenburg’s work is of tremendous interest, to scholars and even, let it be said, to policymakers — if only they had their wits fully about them — all over the Infidel world. Luxenburg’s astonishing philological work deserves attention. He deserves to be protected, and supported to the fullest. And the world of Infidels should understand that the implications of his work, and that of others, are shattering. One can imagine that somewhere — in the depths of the British Museum, or the Cairo Museum, or even in the rubble of the Baghdad Museum, deep in some sanctum sanctorum, there exists an early Qur’anic text written in — yes, Syriac — with quotations from Efrem the Syrian. Or perhaps such a text long ago made its way into the collection of a freethinking, fabulously rich Kuwaiti, who naturally keeps the text not in Kuwait, but in one of his many homes (let us say, in a fire-proof safe, in an innocuous-looking house on his estate in Kent, or Surrey), and shows it to a handful of fellow Arab freethinkers sworn, on pain of death, to secrecy. They know what such a text would imply not only for the history of early Islam, and for Believers today. If publicly known, if analyzed, it would shake the foundations of Muslim belief, or at least the beliefs of that small, but significant, number of Muslims who retain the capacity for independent thought.