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an unveiling
July 29, 2003 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Qur’an in Aramaic? Virgins become raisins, veils become belts. "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."
posted by four panels (16 comments total)

 
it's a joke right?
posted by carfilhiot at 10:05 AM on July 29, 2003


Arabic did not turn up as a written language until 150 years after Muhammad’s death

Ah hahahahaha! Excuse me. "The earliest inscription that has been found that is identifiably Arabic is one in Sinai that dates from about A.D. 300." Other sources say Arabic inscriptions date from the late centuries B.C. At any rate, the cited statement is ridiculous, and I suspect the same is true of the theory as a whole, though I don't know enough about it to have any confidence in my opinion.

And what is this obsession with the raisins? They were prominently featured in a NY Times story (not a NYT link, no reg. req.) over a year ago (and brought up on MeFi at the time, as I recall). As a textual/editorial problem, it's intriguing, but it has about as much relevance to today's problems as Koestler's pathetic attempt to get rid of anti-Semitism by "proving" that the Jews aren't actually Semites.
posted by languagehat at 10:15 AM on July 29, 2003


And one day in the future it will be blasphemous to dispute the word of Prophet 'Harold of the Pot'...
posted by hellinskira at 10:20 AM on July 29, 2003


Interesting posit that the original Koran was a Christian liturgical document.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2003


"Figure 7.7: Inscription from Jabal Ramm (near Aqba), late fourth century NEW; the oldest Arabic inscription so far discovered.
"With the advent of Islam (622 NEW), Arabic experienced an explosion of writing. Tradition holds that Mohammed himself was illiterate and dictated the Qur'an, the Islamic sacred text, to scribes. By 650 NEW, his writings had been collected and published."
From Writing systems: a linguistic approach by Henry Rogers, p.7.21. *

"Arabic did not turn up as a written language until 150 years after Muhammed's death."

Muhammad (or Muhammed), c.570-632. Arab prophet and founder of Islam: from the Oxford.

In short, disagreeing with msnbc and agreeing with languagehat

(*NEW is Rogers' term for A.D./C.E.; likewise OLD for B.C./B.C.E.)
posted by philfromhavelock at 10:40 AM on July 29, 2003


Languagehat has the goods again. This distinctly goes against what I was taught in college and available evidence. Aramaic and Arabic were already distinct languages by the 7th century. Most likely, the Jews with whom Mohammed and his followers mingled during their migration spoke Aramaic, but there's no doubt that Mohammed and company spoke Arabic. According to Andrew Dalby's Dictionary of Languages, there are documented proto-Arabic inscriptions dating from before 1000 B.C.

Arabic was certainly in very localized use before the rise of Islam, but all of the non-Ethiopian branches of the Semitic family were old and written before the 7th century. If I'm not mistaken, there are surviving portions of the works of Mohammed's literary ancestors-- he got the idea of writing in verse from established traditions and there are existing fragments.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:45 AM on July 29, 2003


The article is very poorly written and doesn't seem to make much sense. For example when it talks about translations of Sura 24, there is no textual evidence to support the translation that the article claims is the 'standard' reading.

Furthermore, the article seems to think there is a huge difference between the "seal" of prophets, and witness to prophets. It's quite clear in the Qu'ran that Mohammed is both the witness to prophets, and the seal of all prophets. And there is no attempt in the Qu'ran to deny the Christian antecedants of Islam, in fact it is stressed that the teachings of Mohammed are the continuation of Judaism and Christianity, and a clarification of those earlier teachings.

I wonder if it's the German scholar, or MSNBC that is making these many mistakes. I would bet that it's the latter misunderstanding the scholar's remarks, because there are too many basic points that are missed, unless the scholar is a total fraud.
posted by cell divide at 10:58 AM on July 29, 2003


perhaps Luxenburg has chosen to remain anonymous because he fears a fatwa by enraged intellectuals and historians and college grads...
posted by dabitch at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2003


or, what cell divide said, he sounds like a fraud.
posted by dabitch at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2003


The Guardian's Ibn Warraq writes about the book in question:

Christoph Luxenberg's book, Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran, available only in German, came out just over a year ago, but has already had an enthusiastic reception, particularly among those scholars with a knowledge of several Semitic languages at Princeton, Yale, Berlin, Potsdam, Erlangen, Aix-en-Provence, and the Oriental Institute in Beirut.

There is also no mention in the Guardian story about the "150 years after Muhammed's death" nonsense -- however, it's important to note that Warraq is a rather public opponent of religious Islam himself. There's a closer (and rather confusing) look at Luxenberg's methods at Warraq's site, which promotes the secularisation of Islamic society.

Languagehat: As a textual/editorial problem, it's intriguing, but it has about as much relevance to today's problems as Koestler's pathetic attempt to get rid of anti-Semitism by "proving" that the Jews aren't actually Semites.

Isn't that what typically happens when the mainstream media gets hold of academic or scientific research and tries to make it into a headline? Nevertheless, this isn't just any text, and theories about its origin and textual evolution are important to a rather large number of people. Additionally, Koestler isn't a perfect analogy, given than a critical element of fundamentalist belief has to do with the literal veracity and divine origin of the text. So while the linguistic puzzle won't solve any social problems, it certainly does have bearing on the larger issue of the interpretation of the Koran.

The NY Times article languagehat mentioned also mentions specific professors at Princeton and Georgetown who have indicated their tacit support of Luxenberg's work, and is an interesting read on various "revisionist" approaches to the Koran's development, sensationalist journalism aside.
posted by blissbat at 11:48 AM on July 29, 2003


So I guess somewhere in hell there's a group of guys wearing t-shirts that say "I Hijacked An Airplane And All I Got Was This Lousy Box Of Raisins."
posted by spilon at 12:27 PM on July 29, 2003


spilon: Robin Williams said it, more or less, in his last HBO special.
posted by Songdog at 12:36 PM on July 29, 2003


Och well, it's all bollocks anyway. As is the bible. Yes, I am an atheist.
posted by jamespake at 1:18 PM on July 29, 2003


So I guess somewhere in hell there's a group of guys wearing t-shirts that say "I Hijacked An Airplane And All I Got Was This Lousy Box Of Raisins."

yep, it's called american propoganda. along the lines of : look what absolute fools these hijackers were. they thought they were going to get 72 virigns but we've got news for them, they're actually getting 72 *raisins*. hahahahah. guess who the last laughs on now!
posted by carfilhiot at 2:22 PM on July 29, 2003


Last time there was discussion on MeFi about the possible non-divine origin of the Quran, the thread disappeared....
posted by reality at 3:36 PM on July 29, 2003


Aramaic and Arabic were already distinct languages by the 7th century. Most likely, the Jews with whom Mohammed and his followers mingled during their migration spoke Aramaic, but there's no doubt that Mohammed and company spoke Arabic.

I think the point that was trying to be made was that while "Mohammed & Co." spoke Arabic, Aramaic was the "lingua franca" of the region-- which is to say, the common spoken and written language of trade, commerce, and inter-region communication. Most educated people in the Arabian peninsula who expended the effort and expense to learn to read and write would have learned Aramaic.

As for the idea that written Arabic didn't appear for "150 years" after Mohammed's death, this claim sounds like a typically journalistic simplification of an academically subtle argument. The 7th century is an extraordinarily poorly documented period. Arabic was not a lingua franca at the time, anything writing not carved into stone was easily lost, and there was no organized, educated civilization producing any consistent written output until well into the establishment of the Muslim empire. As a consequence, there is no written literature from this period. The only writing even attributed to this period was the Quran. However, obviously, as the testimony of the recognizably Arabic inscriptions testify, Arabic started to have a recognizably Arabic writing system based on the Nabataean writing system from a century or two before the Quran.
posted by deanc at 11:08 PM on July 29, 2003


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