Koran Studies

"What is the Koran?"

Christoph Luxenberg's book on the history of the origins of the Koran has found wide resonance internationally. But scholars of Islam are skeptical about the work. Michael Marx summarizes the results of a Berlin conference on the subject.

​​"What is the Koran?" This seemingly trivial question is at the center of the conference "Historical Probes and Methodological Reflections on the Genesis of the Koran – Paths toward a Reconstruction of the Pre-Canonical Koran" that was held in Berlin at the beginning of this year.

Funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and organized by the Seminar for Semitism and Arabism at the FU Berlin and the Modernity and Islam Working Group at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, the conference was devoted to studies of the origins of the Koran.

The conference was aimed at exploring the paths of the earliest history of the Koran texts. Luxenberg's controversial theses were very present at the conference, even though the author himself could not be. Luxenberg, who wrote the book "Syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran", i.e. "The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran" (Berlin 2000), developed an interpretation of the Koran in which the main hypothesis is that the Koran can be traced to a Christian lectionary written in an Aramaic-Arabic language hybrid.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook developed a thesis that the origin of Islam was in Southern Palestine rather than in Mecca and Medina; they understand the focus on Mecca and Medina as a later Islamic origin myth.

This thesis, as well as John Wansbrough's hypothesis that the Koran was compiled at the beginning of the ninth century, represents radical alternatives to the traditional history of Islamic texts.

Günther Lüling's study on the so-called Ur-Koran, which gained notoriety by offering a new English translation of the text, presented a hypothesis according to which the original Koran of the Prophet was based on Judeo-Christian strophic songs, which the Prophet rearranged and which were modified again in later Islamic tradition.

These three theses seem to have created an argumentative stalemate for Koran research that often threatened to hinder further study of the Koran.

Luxenberg and no end in sight

Luxenberg's counter-thesis on the history of Islamic texts created an even greater sensation among the public and in the field. The verdict on his theses is by no means unanimous, as the Koran conference in Berlin showed.

Public debates began after September 11th, 2001, when the Virgins of Paradise (which are not found in Luxenberg's translation of the Koran) created a stir around this subject. Since then the press has devoted a great number of articles to these new approaches in research on the Koran.

In the meanwhile, the book's reception has developed in unexpected directions. A journal of Shiite theology in Lebanon published the first Arabic review of the book. Al-Hayyat at-tayyiba maintained skepticism, but argued that the influence of Aramaic should be taken seriously.

According to the review, some Koran expressions could be explained by the Aramaic language, and it is thus desirable to continue research in this direction.

Negative reviews such as that by Francois de Blois (London) and contrasting euphoric reviews such as that by Claude Gilliot (Aix-en-Provence) are evidence of the divergent evaluation of Luxenberg's study.

The context of the origins of Islam

Given this continuing debate, the Berlin conference was committed to bringing together German-speaking scholars whose different fields together constitute the pieces that make up the mosaic of different approaches to the origins of the Koran.

A lecture by Barbara Finster (Bamberg) on archeological excavations showed that there is evidence of a Christian presence in all parts of pre-Islamic Arabia. The Kaaba in Mecca can also be typologically connected with Ethiopian temples that often served as churches.

Understanding the Kaaba solely as a church would be a hasty conclusion, as Ernst-Axel Knauf (Bern) has shown. He argues that "heathen" cults can be demonstrated by what is referred to as secondary cults at originally monotheistic sanctuaries.

And descriptions of a picture of the Virgin Mary in the Kaaba, which have been found in some Islamic sources, must not necessarily be understood as an indication of a Christian presence because ancient Arabic cults sometimes took up Christian elements.

No 'jahiliyya'

Caution should be applied in general when identifying presumably established elements. According to Francois de Blois (London), the nasâra that appear in the Koran are not Orthodox Christians but Judeo-Christians, who still existed at the periphery of the Byzantine Empire during late antiquity. Given porous religious borders, Christian factors in the history of the origins of the Koran can not be overlooked.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to conflate the formation of Christianity with the institutionalized forms of the Byzantine or Coptic Church. Beyond archeology and the theological order of the different religious groups, the linguistic situation was also an issue.

The linguistic situation has been characterized by Ernst-Axel Knauf (Bern) as "functional polyglossia." Among the Nabataeans, the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids, a diglossia of Arabic and Aramaic can be assumed.

According to Norbert Nebes (Jena) and Mikhail Bukharin (Jena/Moscow), the geostrategic location of the peninsula can also be seen as relevant to the origins of Islam. Cultural contact with the North and with the Ethiopian West in the pre-Islamic period have been clearly demonstrated. Even the areas of the peninsula that seem remote today had once been connected with international trade routes.

Knowledge of these contexts makes it clear that the Islamic expression "the time of jahiliyya" ("ignorance") can be deceptive because it suggests an Arabia that resembled a white spot on the map of the monotheistic religions.

Back to the manuscripts

For the earliest accessible history of texts, an evaluation of early Koran manuscripts is necessary. The work of Gerd-Rüdiger Puin (Saarbrücken) and Omar Hamdan (Haifa) has shown that it is necessary to understand the orthography system of the oldest manuscripts.

According to the research, the Arabic alphabet can be traced to an Aramaic script that was later made to conform to the needs of the Arabic language. Up until the orthography reform under al-Hajjâj bin Yûsuf (who ruled 694-714), a writing system is manifest in the early manuscripts that differs from the one used today.

Luxenberg put to the test

The Aramaic-Arabic polyglossia on the peninsula is of central importance to the language of the Koran. In the discussions, a consensus seems to have been reached that the interventions Luxenberg makes in the texts must be scrutinized individually.

Rainer Voigt (FU Berlin) and Martin Baasten (Leiden) argued that the research should once again take up the question of the influence of Aramaic on the Arabic of the Koran. Luxenberg's methodology was generally deemed incomplete, despite the fact that some emendation suggestions could be considered viable from a Semitic perspective.

The overall thesis positing a Koran that was translated from the Aramaic into Arabic seems unviable given the current state of research. Because certain suggestions made by Luxenberg seem acceptable, the question arose as to how many single cases are necessary to establish a paradigm change in Koran research.

Back to the Koran and its historical development

Angelika Neuwirth (FU Berlin) presented a research approach that understands the Koran as the result of different discourses documenting the interaction between the Prophet and his followers.

According to this view, the Koran reflects the course of oral communication that stretches over a period of two decades and which underwent change. In order to do justice to the Koran, the discourses developing between a charismatic speaker and an emerging congregation must be taken into account.

Neuwirth cautions against allowing strong skepticism (for example in the approaches articulated by Wansbrough and Cook/Crone) to get in the way of granting the appropriate attention to the text itself as well as well as to its different chronological layers. Even if the question of the influence of foreign languages is relevant, she says, the Koran text itself must still be the focus of the research.

The discussions at the conference resulted in an international research group, led by Andrew Rippin (Victoria, Canada) and Angelika Neuwirth, which met in Berlin at the beginning of March. The group's purpose is to deliberate on how the early history of the Koran texts can best be approached.

A systematic attempt to bring together the earliest manuscripts has still not been undertaken. In order to create a solid grounding for the Koranic texts, the evidence available in the different Koran manuscripts as well as in the canonical and non-canonical interpretations must be compiled.

The Berlin group's ambitions matches that of the Apparatus Criticus project by Bergsträsser and Pretzl, which was discontinued after the Second World War and the demise of which represents a significant gap in debates about the Koran.

Michael Marx

© inamo 37, 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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