Probing the Roots of Islam, Part 2

Ibn Warraq

In the previous issue of Free Inquiry, I began my report on a conference, “The Qur’an in Its Historical Context,” held at the University of Notre Dame in April 2009. That conference featured, among others, the controversial scholar Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonym). I noted that the papers offered by many of the presenters were exciting precisely because the work of previous Islamologists of the last hundred years had been flawed by 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, and (4) place the Qur’an in its proper linguistic setting (overlooking especially the Semitic background).

In my view, the paper that broke through all the taboos enumerated above in a devastating but thoroughly scholarly way was presented by David Powers of Cornell University. I think its importance will shine through even for nonspecialists if explicated in some detail.

Powers discusses Sura IV, the first part of which deals with women, orphans, inheritance, marriage, and family rights; the principles laid down here have permanently influenced Islamic law and social practice. The last five or so lines of Sura IV, verse 12 have been the source of much controversy among Muslim commentators, including the celebrated al-Tabari (died 923 c.e.), who devotes seven pages to these few lines. As Powers, who has been wrestling with these verses for over thirty years, has written: “Almost every word in the opening line of the verse is subject to dispute, and there may be as many as four or five different opinions, espoused by an even greater number of authorities, for every point in question.” Powers shows that the precise meaning of the key word kalala, which appears only twice in the Qur’an—once at Sura IV, verse 12 and again at Sura IV, verse 176—also remains a subject of controversy, with al-Tabari citing twenty-seven separate definitions by various exegetes. It is not clear if this word kalala refers, in the context of inheritance laws, to the deceased himself (al-mawru–th) or to the heirs of the deceased (al–waratha). The answer has practical consequences for various Islamic laws of inheritance and even for the institution of adoption, which is forbidden under Sharia; thus the uncertainties of meaning and the obscurities in the Qur’an are not a trivial matter. Powers himself gives his own novel interpretation, arguing that kalala was originally a kinship term referring to a female in-law.

Powers begins by showing that there are “semantic and syntactical difficulties inherent in the opening line of Sura IV, verse 12b when that verse is read and understood in the traditional manner.” Furthermore, the traditional meaning attached to the first instance of kalala at IV.12b contradicts the traditional meaning attached to the second occurrence of kalala at IV.176. First, according to fourteen early Muslim scholars, the word at IV.12b signifies “one who leaves neither parent nor child,” so that it refers to the deceased. According to twelve other early authorities, it signifies “all those except the parent and child,” so that it refers to heirs. Second, the word kalala appears in the accusative, and no scholar has satisfactorily explained why. Third, as Powers explains, “the ‘man . . . or woman’ mentioned at the outset of the verse are later referred to by a third-person masculine singular pronoun, wa-lahu. Normally, one would expect the dual pronominal phrase wa-lahuma. Indeed, in the continuation of the verse we encounter just such a phrase, minhuma, referring back to the compound subject ‘brother or sister.’”

Translations into English gloss over the difficulties of the original Arabic and, in the interests of fluid and idiomatic English, sacrifice faithfulness to the Arabic, changing word order and so on.

Powers has recourse to other Semitic languages to elucidate the word kalala. As he explained, “The root k-l-l occurs in several Semitic languages besides Arabic, including Akkadian, Aramaic, Syriac, and Hebrew. In all four of these languages, the word corresponding to the Arabic kalala functions as a female kinship term. The Akkadian kallatu, which occurs in numerous legal inscriptions, refers to a young woman acquired by the master of a household as a wife for his son living in this household, hence a ‘daughter-in-law.’ Under certain circumstances, the word also signifies a ‘sister-in-law.’ The Aramaic and Syriac kallta and the Hebrew kallah refer to a ‘daughter-in-law’’ and also to a ‘bride.’”

All the letters of the Arabic alphabet represent consonants; short vowels eventually came to be represented by three orthographical signs, taking the form of a slightly slanting dash—placed below or above the line—or a comma placed above the line. Using different vowels, of course, gives different readings. Powers goes back to the original consonantal Arabic text of Sura IV and suggests an alternative vocalization—that is, the insertion of different vowel points, which is perfectly unobjectionable from the standpoint of syntax; in fact, it immediately resolves all the syntactical problems faced by the classical Muslim commentators on the Qur’an. The new reading radically changes the meaning of Sura IV, verse 12b, which “now refers not only to the award of fractional share of the estate to siblings but also to the designation of a daughter-in-law (kalala) or wife as heir!” Now we can see the reason this alternative reading proposed by Powers was unacceptable to Muslims. “The designation of a wife as one’s heir’ is inconceivable within the framework of the Islamic law of inheritance, which imposes compulsory rules for the division of property.” Therefore, Powers notes, the alternative reading was totally suppressed; “No scholar, Sunni or Shi‘ite, Muslim or non-Muslim, has ever considered even the possibility of such a reading.”

Professor Powers had already arrived at these conclusions in the 1980s and presented them in his 1986 book, Studies in Qur’an and Hadith: The Formation of the Islamic Law of Inheritance (Berkeley); all the above quotes are from this volume. But what was dramatic at the Notre Dame conference—even devastating—was the way Powers, after compressing the above thesis into a fifteen-minute talk, clinched the argument by showing us a page from a manuscript housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, numbered 328a: a Qur’an codex written in the Hijazi script sometime in the second half of the first Islamic century, sometime between 672 and 722. Ultraviolet examination of this manuscript revealed the underlying original Arabic text, where it was clear that the original word kalla had been revised or altered to read kalala. Powers’ paper was a tour de force of scholarly arguments and totally convincing.

If Powers is correct, then the full consequences of his conclusion are yet to be drawn. A moment’s reflection throws up disturbing questions. At the least, Powers’s demonstration suggests that the alteration of IV.12b (from the original kalla to kalala, as we have it in the present Qur’an) necessitated the new revelation of IV.176, which must have been added to the original text after the alterations to IV.12b. So we are talking of two alterations to the Holy Text in this case.

More generally we may summarize the significance of variants in the followin
g manner:

  1. Manuscript variants show that the Qur’an, like any other text, has a history, a history significantly different from the traditional Islamic account of its compilation.
  2. Those variants that were invoked served many purposes, one of them being doctrinal. The variants reflected the ideologies of groups that wished to argue for their own viewpoint, to establish a legal ruling, and to settle conflicts among sources.
  3. The existence of variants casts doubt on the existence of an oral tradition. Skepticism of an oral tradition has been expressed by Fritz Krenkow, Andrew Rippin, Christoph Luxenberg, Gerd –R.Puin, and Gunter Lüling.
  4. This thesis leads to the conclusion that the redactor (or redactors) of the Qur’an was (or were) working on the basis of the written text in the absence of a parallel oral tradition.

We who live in the free West and enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inquiry should encourage such rational discussion of Islam, and that includes submitting the Qur’an to objective analysis.

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—far too uncritically, according to the revisionists.

Though the entire conference was conducted with exemplary decorum and scholarly courtesy to differing and dissenting points of view, it was clear that some of the twenty-two speakers were traditionalists and therefore resistant to Christoph Luxenberg’s theories. However, others evidently found Luxenberg’s ideas very stimulating, establishing a methodology that could bear fruit in years to come. There was criticism of some aspects of Luxenberg’s work. Some critics said that he saw Syriac everywhere when a wider look at other Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Akkadian could potentially unlock many of the mysteries of the foreign vocabulary of the Qur’an. Others felt that Ancient South Arabian languages also merited attention, among them such scholars as Munther Younes of Cornell, the Jordanian Hani Hayajneh, and the German Semiticist Manfred Kropp. But even those, including Fr. Sidney Griffith of the Catholic University of America, who did not accept the details of Luxenberg’s analysis or his actual interpretation of certain chapters in the Qur’an, acknowledged that his work has opened up new ways of looking at Islam’s Holy Book.

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.


In the previous issue of Free Inquiry, I began my report on a conference, “The Qur’an in Its Historical Context,” held at the University of Notre Dame in April 2009. That conference featured, among others, the controversial scholar Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonym). I noted that the papers offered by many of the presenters were exciting …

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