The article published in Newsweek ("Challenging the Quran," July 28) defies categorization and hence troubles whoever may like to respond to it. It claims to draw on excerpts from academic research containing "bomb shells" that could produce "a new interpretation of the Quran."
The article claims Professor Luxenberg's is "likely to be the most far reaching scholarly commentary on the Quran's genesis, taking this infant discipline far into uncharted and highly controversial territory." Who is Luxenberg? An unknown scholar writing under a pseudonym. The "scholar" is hiding his name for fear of repercussions, despite the fact that several people have written on the same subject in the past and present without taking such a precaution.
The professor works at an unnamed "leading German university" and his research is acclaimed by "Moudher Sfar" - probably another pseudonymed scholar from Tunisia we've never heard of. So much for academic credibility. Pending availability of the original paper and the author's real name, this is little more than a pseudo-academic piece published in a non-academic magazine. Thus, any response must pick through the bits and pieces scattered on the pages of Newsweek and conduct a point-by-point analysis.
Describing Luxenberg as one of a small but growing group of scholars studying the language and history of the Quran is amazingly wrong. For 1400 years, there have always been groups in the East and West of Muslims and non-Muslims, faithful and skeptical, who wrote volumes about the history and language of the Quran. The unknown author here is neither a pioneer nor a hero. Muslim scholars, including the likes of the Muatazelite school, Imam Zamakhshari, Al-Tabary, and countless scholars (of various readings of the Quran) are hard to count. There are also so many Western scholars and Orientalists who wrote about the subject in abundance that some of them would be restless in their graves if they read the claims in Newsweek.
The article surmises that "translations of the Quran are never considered authentic." Translations are judged as either accurate or inaccurate. No translation is authentic. When you translate Shakespeare to French or Voltaire to English, you may be accurate or not but the work will never be authentic, simply because it is not what was said by the original author. To make this sound like a peculiarity for the Quran or a particular thinking of Muslims lacks academic objectivity.
Luxenberg's chief hypothesis is that the original language of the Quran was not Arabic, but "something close" to Aramaic. What is the meaning of "something close?" What is it? Where is it? Who would understand it? Who will understand something close to English or German? These are questions that any semi-academic mind would ask.
He asserts that Arabic as a language and system of writing was not developed until 150 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad. This strange assertion contradicts the major volume of pre-Islamic poetry, which is used even today to help in understanding and interpreting the Quran.
This poetry includes seven famous pieces that students study in middle schools throughout the Arab world, known as "Al Muallaquat." This refers to poems that were hung on the walls of the Kaaba as exhibitions of the best literary work in the pre-Islamic era. (The Kaaba, a cubic temple, has always been attributed by Arabs to the patriarch prophet, Abraham.) It also contradicts the Encyclopedia of Literature by Merriam-Webster, which states, "The intermittent revelations to Muhammad were first memorized by followers and used in ritual prayers, although verses were later written down during the Prophet's lifetime."
We have in Al-Azhar library a manuscript "explaining the unusual styles in the Quran" written by Imam Sagistani 153 years after the migration to Medina, in perfect classical Arabic. When we look to what is known as Christian Aramaic, we notice that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, while the gospels are written in Greek. It is far fetched that the Gospel would be written in Greek while the Quran would be written in Aramaic.
We notice that Christian Aramaic, "which is actually the Syrian language was the literally language of the City of Edessa (now Urfa in Southeast Turkey) became the tongue of the entire eastern wing of the church from about the third century C.E. down until past the Muslim conquest." Obviously the Muslim conquest was carrying with it the Arabic Quran.
So the process upon which the rereading of the verses in Aramaic is false and as Muslims jurists wisely say, "what is built on fallacy is false."
Then he talks about "houris," which are allegorically symbolic beings of bliss in paradise, as being raisins and fruits. It is his prerogative but this does not provide anything supernatural to look forward to the life of eternity.
It seems that what he was referring to as raisins is "kawaib." He challenges what he claims as the Arabic meaning of "beings with swollen breasts," while if he had known Arabic, he would have understood the term as "beings of distinction." For this translation, we refer him to a real Austrian scholar on the language of the Quran, later known as Muhammad Asad (Review The Message of the Quran).
The claim that the Quran's commandment to women in surah 24 to "snap their scarves over their bags" becomes in Aramaic "snap their belts around their waists." I challenge the professor to show us where he brought this verse of snapping from? Quran is available and surah 24 is easy to read.
In the Newsweek article, Luxenberg writes, "Even more explosive are the readings that strengthen scholars' views that the Quran had Christian origins. Surah 33 calls Muhammad the 'seal of the prophets.' In Aramaic, the word 'seal' means witness so he must be a witness of the Prophets." We really don't need all these acrobatics to prove a meaning that has been mentioned clearly in several areas of the Quran. Muhammad was a witness just as believers are witnesses, and Muhammad followed the good models of other prophets who came to testify for and confirm the truth they brought from God to humanity. So where is the brilliant discovery?
A similar case can be made for the arguments around the word "revelation." The author had to go to Aramaic or what he calls "something closer to Aramaic" to inform us that it actually means "teaching" of the ancient scriptures. He may be referring to the word "wahye" in Arabic, which means teaching, revelation, suggestion, setting instinct, putting the law of order to things, intuitive ideas, outbursts of thoughts and creativity. Wahye described scriptures, the nature of the heavens and earth, the instinct of the bees, the flow of poetry, etc. So there is no new "revelation" that Luxenberg is bringing here. What Newsweek slips in about Egyptian court, Nasre AbuZaid, Fatwa, etc. is opportunistic journalism, not fitting the standard of the magazine.
Dr. Maher Hathout is the senior advisor the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California.