Notre Dame Conference Probes the Roots of Islam; Part 1

Ibn Warraq

The Catholic Notre Dame University of South Bend, Indiana, does not eschew controversy. In 2004, the university offered the Swiss Muslim Islamicist Tariq Ramadan a tenured position at its Institute for International Peace Studies. To the disappointment of his many supporters, Ramadan never took up his position because his visa was revoked by the State Department. More recently, Notre Dame found itself at the center of a row when it invited President Barack Obama to speak at its commencement on May 17, 2009. Given the president’s stance on issues sensitive to Catholics such as embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and abortion, many Notre Dame faculty and staff members thought this decision strange.

This past April, the university welcomed the less well known but no less controversial scholar Christoph Luxenberg (a necessary pseudonym). Luxenberg argues that many obscurities of the Qur’an disappear if we read certain words in Syriac and not Arabic. Syriac was the language of the Christian city of Edessa (till the thirteenth century c.e.); it is still the liturgical language of the Nestorian and Jacobite Christian churches. Edessa was an important center of early Christianity in Mesopotamia. (These early Christians gave the Greek name Syriac to the Aramaic dialect they spoke after Aramaic acquired the connotation of “pagan” or “heathen.”) Edessene Syriac rapidly became the literary language of all non-Greek eastern Christianity and was instrumental in the Christianization of large parts of central and south-central Asia. Despite the fifth-century schism between the Monophysite Jacobite church in Syria and the Nestorian Church of the East, Syriac remained the liturgical and theological language of both these national churches. Syriac is still the classical tongue of the Nestorians and Chaldeans of Iran and Iraq and the liturgical language of the Jacobites of Eastern Anatolia and the Maronites of Greater Syria. Missionary activity spread the Syriac language and script to India and Mongolia. Rather surprisingly, even the Mongolian script, though written vertically, is derived from Syriac script.

The importance of Syriac literature for our understanding of the rise of Islam has been discussed by many scholars prior to Luxenberg, including Alphonse Mingana for one. Syriac also played an important role as an intermediary through which Greek learning and thought passed into the emerging Islamic civilization. It was Syriac-speaking scholars who first translated late Hellenistic science and philosophy from Syriac into Arabic in Baghdad.

Luxenberg’s presence at Notre Dame was largely due to the energy and commitment of Professor Gabriel Said Reynolds of the theology faculty, who hosted a four-day international conference in early April, “The Qur’an in Its Historical Context.” The conference brought together academics and experts on the theories, controversies, and discoveries in the field of Qur’anic studies. It was a valuable occasion for scholars to put forward original but rigorous interpretations of hitherto obscure passages in the Qur’an, that most opaque of texts. There were also discussions of the historical circumstances in which the Qur’an was formed and of its relationship to earlier literature—and to the Old and New Testaments, particularly the Syriac versions of the latter. At present, Islamologists are broadly divided between two groups: the revisionists and the traditionalists. The so-called revisionists are skeptical of our knowledge of the rise of Islam and do not accept the traditional Muslim account of the life of Muhammad, the collection of the Qur’an, and early histories of the Islamic conquests. The traditionalists (who have their adherents among the faculties of Western universities) accept the Arabic sources—uncritically, in the revisionist view.

One cannot appreciate the true import of such a conference and the courage of dedicated scholars such as Luxenberg unless one understands that the kind of analysis to which Western scholars have submitted the Bible has never been applied to the Qur’an. One of the scholars present at Notre Dame, Andrew Rippin of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, has observed:

I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam…. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naïve historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candor.

In the words of Professor Nasr Hamid Abu-Zavd, who gave the keynote speech:

It is imperative that we affirm that the state of the original sacred text is a metaphysical one about which we can know nothing except that which the text itself mentions and which always comes to us via a historically changing humanity.

Furthermore, far from increasing our understanding of the contents, as devout Muslims would have us believe, examination of the Qur’an in the original Arabic can only increase our confusion. As yet another Notre Dame participant, Professor Gerd-R. Puin of the University of Saarlandes, pointed out: “The Qur’an claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen’ or ‘clear.’ But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Qur’anic text is just incomprehensible….”

And it is exactly here that Luxenberg makes his triumphant entrance. Luxenberg believes that many verses of the Qur’an once formed a part of some Syriac text that was badly translated into Arabic. In order to elucidate passages in the Qur’an that had baffled generations of scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, Luxenberg applied the following method:

  1. He went carefully through the great commentary on the Qur’an by at-Tabari (died 923 c.e.) and also consulted Ibn al-Manzur’s celebrated dictionary of the Arabic language, Lisan al-Arab (completed 1190 c.e.), in order to see if Western scholars of the Qur’an might have overlooked any of the plausible explanations proposed by Muslim commentators and philologists. If this preliminary search did not yield any solutions, he replaced the obscure Arabic word in a phrase or sentence that had hitherto mystified Muslim commentators or which had resulted in unconvincing, strained, or far-fetched explantions with a Syriac homonym that had a different meaning but which made more sense in the context. If this step did not yield a comprehensible sentence, then….
  2. He proceeded to the first round of changes of the diacritical points that, according to Luxenberg’s theory, must have been badly placed by the Arabic readers (or whoever was the original redactor or copier of the Qur’an), resulting in the obscurity of the Qur’anic passage concerned. In this way, he hoped to obtain another more logical reading of the Arabic. If this also failed to give any results….
  3. He then proceeded to the second round of changes of the diacritical points in order to eventually obtain a more coherent Syriac reading and not an Arabic one. If all these attempts still did not yield any positive results….
  4. He tried to decipher the real meaning of the Arabic word, which did not make any sense in its pres
    ent context, by retranslating it into Syriac to deduce from the semantic contents of the Syriac root the meaning best suited to the Qur’anic context.


In this way, Luxenberg was able to explain not only the so-called obscure passages but also a certain number of passages that he considers misunderstood and whose meaning up to now no one had doubted. He was also able explain certain orthographic and grammatical anomalies that abound in the Qur’an.

More sensationally, Luxenberg, to the probable horror of all Muslim males dreaming of sexual bliss in the Muslim hereafter, conjures away the wide-eyed houris promised to the faithful in suras XLIV. 54; LII. 20; LV. 72; and LVI. 22. Luxenberg’s new analysis, leaning on the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, yields “white raisins” of “crystal clarity” rather than doe-eyed, ever-willing virgins of Islamic tradition—the houris. Luxenberg claims that the context makes it clear that it is food and drink that is being offered and not unsullied maidens. In Syriac, the word hur is a feminine plural adjective meaning white, with the word raisin understood implicitly. Similarly, the immortal, pearl-like ephebes or youths of suras such as LXXVI. 19 are really a misreading of a Syriac expression meaning “chilled raisins (or drinks)” that the just will have the pleasure of tasting, in contrast to the “boiling drinks” promised for the unfaithful and the damned.

That such a conference could not have been held in the Islamic world was underscored by the personal history of one keynote speaker, Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, now a visiting professor of Islamic Studies at Leiden University. In 1995, a court of appeal in Cairo ruled that Abu-Zayd had insulted Islam in his writings and ordered that he divorce his wife, a professor of French literature, on the grounds that because she was a faithful Muslim, she should not remain married to an apostate. After the ruling was upheld in 1996, the couple fled first to Madrid, then to the Netherlands. Abu Zayd is a formidable scholar who has tried to bring to the study of the Qur’an modern literary and philosophical techniques that place texts in their historical context. One of Zayd’s key arguments “is the idea that, once the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, it entered history and became subject to historical and sociological laws or regularities [qawanin]. Irreversibly rent from its divine origins, the text became humanized [muta’annas], embodying the particular cultural, political, and ideological elements of seventh-century Arabian society.”

Only an understanding of the shortcomings of the Islamologists of the last hundred years will explain the excitement generated by many of the papers presented at Notre Dame; shortcomings such as their reluctance to

  1. emend the text of the Qur’an
  2. look at Qur’anic manuscripts
  3. look at epigraphical material
  4. place the Qur’an in its proper linguistic setting (overlooking especially the Semitic background)


These serious oversights explain the importance of the papers by David Powers of Cornell University; Gerd-R. Puin; Claire Wilde of Georgetown University; Hani Hayajneh of Al-Hussein Bin Talal University, Petra, Jordan; and others.


Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.

The Catholic Notre Dame University of South Bend, Indiana, does not eschew controversy. In 2004, the university offered the Swiss Muslim Islamicist Tariq Ramadan a tenured position at its Institute for International Peace Studies. To the disappointment of his many supporters, Ramadan never took up his position because his visa was revoked by the State …

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