German Orientalism

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    The Koran As Philological Quarry
    A Conversation with Christoph Luxenberg

    Owusu-Ankomah: Mouvement No.39, 2004. From the exhibition Africa Remix, Hayward Gallery, London. Reproduction from the catalogue.Christoph Luxenberg’s book "The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran" triggered an extensive debate about the linguistic status and correct interpretation of the traditional text of the Koran. In this interview, the linguist explains his approach, his academic stance, and his intentions. He respects the Muslim tradition, but would like to discuss sections of the Koran that have to date been inadequately explained from a linguistic point of view.

    Christoph Burgmer:
    Mr Luxenberg, your book, for many laymen cryptically entitled ‘Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran. Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache’ (‘The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to Deciphering the Koranic Language’), has caused a major stir. Newspapers across the world reported on your research findings. There were some violent reactions and discussions, followed by congresses and seminars. All over the world scholars, lay-people, Muslims and non-Muslims are expressing their views, with the side-effect that research into the Koran, for years pursued only in the quiet study-rooms of a few Western and Arab scholars, is suddenly attracting worldwide public attention again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

    Your book is a best-seller, even though it was written and published in German, and even though it is extremely difficult to read and understand. Why did you decide to use linguistic methods to examine the Koran?

    Christoph Luxenberg: It must first be said that Western scholars have known for a long time that many passages in the Koran are incomprehensible. That accords with the interpretations of Arab commentators. However, it is precisely these ‘obscure passages’ in the Koran that are the starting-point for my work.
    Previous attempts at interpreting them were based on speculation rather than being philologically founded. But speculation can never be the basis for a scientific method. I am trying to use philological methods to elucidate and substantiate these passages.


    Christoph Burgmer: What importance does the Koran have for you as a specialist in linguistics?

    Christoph Luxenberg: I believe that the Koran is the first attempt at self-expression in written Arabic. At that time there was no model for the written language. So the initiators of this written Arabic had to call on elements of the language they used for civilised discourse, and it can be assumed that this language was Aramaic, not Arabic.

    Koranic Arabic can thus be viewed as a mixture of Arabic and Aramaic. I wouldn’t go so far as to see it as an experiment similar to Esperanto, but the objective was the same. Like the inventors of Esperanto, the writers of the Koran also wanted to make a common, comprehensible written language accessible to as many people as possible. Dialects were also incorporated and their use was recognised at an early stage by Arab scholar and commentators.

    However, in my view what they believed to be dialect was in fact precisely the combination of Arabic and Aramaic elements, which were complemented by further borrowed words from, for example, Persian or Greek. However, these borrowings only make rare appearances in the Koran, whereas the mingling of Arabic and Aramaic elements decisively shape its language.

    Christoph Burgmer: Has the historio-linguistic diversity characterising the Koran been taken into account in research?

    Christoph Luxenberg: Western research into the Koran first relied on Arab tradition. So scholars attempted to examine the Koran in accordance with that tradition. Beyond that it was of course an achievement that they discovered that many linguistic borrowings are employed in the Koran. There are even collections of these borrowed words and a large number are correctly derived. But there are also some which are wrongly read, misread, and require reinterpretation. However, to start with people sought etymological explanations of borrowed words they recognised. They did not call into question the meaning of passages in the text which had been interpreted in accordance with tradition. They could not imagine that the language employed in the Koran could be anything but consistent Ancient Arabic.

    If a passage still remained incomprehensible even with new explanations of words, that was excused in terms of having to cope with Ancient Arabic which could no longer be understood today down to the last detail. So no one realised that this Arabic was based on Aramaic. People did not recognise the Aramaic elements or thought their influence to be of little importance. They wanted at all costs to view the language of the Koran as being classically Arabic. Doubts had to yield to that. Everything had to appear to be genuine Arabic. It was this absolute wish to see the classical form of Arabic in the Koran that concealed the existence of an Aramaic layer in the text. I hope that my research makes people aware of the relationship between the two languages; and that Semitic Studies once again devotes more attention to Aramaic so as to be able to investigate not only the linguistic but also the complex cultural connection between the two. I can imagine that this will certainly lead in future to some sensational research findings.

    Christoph Burgmer: In your opinion, how large is the percentage of Aramaic in the Koran?

    Christoph Luxenberg: In terms of quantity, about 30% of the Koran will be different. But that figure doesn’t really say very much. There’ll be quite a few qualitative changes. By qualitative I mean that some theological content of the Koran will have to be rethought. This would of course lead to completely different findings. The precondition is Islamic theologians’ readiness to read the Koran with fresh eyes, which means really understanding the Koran as it understood itself, and not as it was interpreted later. I make a clear-cut distinction here between the Koranic text and later Koranic exegesis, since the text of the Koran is a different thing from later interpretation.

    Christoph Burgmer: A number of articles about your way of reading the Koran have already sparked off violent reactions in some countries. In Pakistan an entire issue of Newsweek was pulped because the magazine printed an article about your research. What is your experience to date of Muslim reaction to the new research findings?

    Christoph Luxenberg: My experience up to now is that devout Muslims were always ready to accept this new interpretation. This is with regard to the passages of text whose new reading differs from Islamic tradition. After all, I don’t go so far as to assert that Mohammed or the Koran did not exist. The existence of the Koran is a historical fact. It is now a question of seeing this historical fact in its historical context, which also means seeing it historically and subjecting the text to critical examination from that point of view. But critically does not mean that I want to disparage the Koran. I only want to understand it correctly on the basis of historio-linguistic findings. What people make of my interpretation is beyond my influence. That depends entirely on Muslim theologians. In many passages the Koran is immutable, and thus it is also the word of God. I never claim that it is not the word of God. Nevertheless, one must reach the conclusion that in the course of history this word of God was changed – particularly through misreadings and the wrongly-placed diacritic signs. So it is not the word of God itself that was changed; it was erroneously interpreted by human beings.

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