Our guest-essayist El Cid returns with the first installment of a three-part account of the linguistic origins of the Koran. According to his analysis, not only is the Koran not quite what everybody thinks it is, but it is also written in a different language than is commonly assumed.
God Does Not Speak Arabic!
The Evolution and Origin of the Language of the Koran
Part One: Love Me Because I Am Arab
By El Cid
I remember many years ago, when I started to learn Arabic at university, our professor wrote on the blackboard this famous Hadith, attributed to Mohammed the Prophet of Islam. It was one of the first phrases I learned to read and write in Arabic, and my first encounter with Muslim attitudes of supremacy, linguistic dominance, and the crucial link between the purity of Arabic and the claim of a superior origin for Islam.
“Love the Arabs for three reasons:
because I am Arab,
because the Qur’an is in Arabic
and because the inhabitants of Paradise speak Arabic.”
This Hadith, collected by the esteemed Islamic Scholar Al-Tabrizi, neatly expresses the roots of Arab supremacy. To Muslims, Islam is a gift in the form of a revelation from God’s lips, that commands non-believers to love and submit. No other faith is so intertwined with a sacred language. No other faith is so linked to a holy book in just one tongue. No other faith rests so much authority upon linking its language to the a claim that it is the language of God.
Koranic Arabic is the cement that holds Islam together, and is both its strength and its fatal weakness. A weakness, because according to Christoph Luxenberg, once the flaws and inconsistencies of the strange Arabic of the Koran are revealed, the Muslims’ false claim that it is God’s perfect and incorruptible language is exposed to reveal the truth that it is not. Not only is it not perfect, it is of human and not divine origin. The overwhelming evidence suggests that it is not even pure Arabic, but a “patois” or a mixture of Aramaic and the Arabic dialect of Mecca!
I have several copies of the Koran in my library, a few in English, some in Spanish, but most in Arabic. One very ornate Koran with the following words on its cover written in a complicated enigmatic Arabic script boldly and confidently proclaims that it is “The Guidance for Mankind.”
For Muslims the Koran is truly an enigma, and when read in prayer the rhythm and cadence of its words have a narcotic effect on their senses and mind. A recitation of the Koran rolls off one’s tongue with the rhythmic simplicity of modern a day “rap” song. For millions of Muslims who have no clue about its language and memorize it word for word, this is all they have. Its narcotic affect permeates the believer in much the same way a child is comforted with repetitive and familiar sounds he does not understand.
The first line of the Koran is a good example of this. This and hundreds of other lines are read over and over again by young Muslims who don’t even understand their meaning, and many of whom are illiterate in their own native tongues. Such is the grip that these so-called “God words” have on a quarter of humanity.
bismi-llāhi r-rahmāni r-rahīm
“In the name of Allah (the Muslim God) the most gracious the most kind”
The reliance upon simple rhythmic cadence and the intimate effect it has on Muslim ears indicates that the Koran was conceived as oratory, meant to be heard first and explained later. This was the oratory that Mohammed recited to his followers. This is also the reason why even in his lifetime there was great confusion about what was said and how to recite it. So much reverence for something of such dubious pedigree and murky origin!
Islamic scholars cannot show with clarity its origin and evolution. For most of its history they have not even cared to ask the most basic questions. Where did it come from? When was it written? These are things that Muslims cannot explain. The standard answer is that it is the literal word of God in his language, pure and uncontaminated by man, and any further questions will be settled by my sword.
To find out in the language in which it was first uttered and later written, there is no better source than the pages of the Koran itself. Clues are everywhere; they are embedded in the very words and language of the Koran, even in the signs of error and mistranslation. They point conclusively not to some supposed pure proto-Arabic from the time of the Islamic Prophet, but instead amazingly to the language of the conquered Aramaic speaking “peoples of the Book.” These same people helped Muslims gain legitimacy with a book of their own and gave the then illiterate and nomadic faith an existing language in which to settle.
Traces of these first Aramaic scribes are present only as a ghostly layer of etymology and meaning. They hint of a Koran less violent then the one we know today. This Aramaic Koran is at times very different from what Muslims venerate. Unlocking this true Koran can liberate millions of Muslims from the worst of their faith and give the Counterjihad a powerful new tool with which to fight. In his erudite and bold book The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A contribution to the decoding of the language of the Koran, Christoph Luxenberg shatters the myth of Koranic purity and reveals what we know as the Koran to be a book fraught with linguistic confusion and errors.
Muslims have preached since the beginning of their faith that their holy book is written/spoken/recited in the actual words of God, and that he communicated them through the Angel Gabriel to his Prophet Mohammed in God’s only language, Arabic. They further claim that the Koran can not be understood in any other language but Arabic. They tell us confidently that it is “God’s final communication to mankind.”
No other religious book, especially one that makes such grandiose declarations, has received so little scrutiny and critical study until now. Considering the fear of violent retribution, this is understandable. This has been the norm in the Muslim world for most of its history, and except for a brief period of analysis and critical thought by a few Greek-influenced Koranic Scholars in the first centuries of the Muslim epoch, no one has dared state the obvious: much of the Koran makes no sense! If one accepts that the Koran is the literal word of God, as most Muslims do, then reading Mr. Luxenberg’s book will convince all but the strongest believers in Islamic Dogma that this God of the Koran does not speak pure Arabic, but a confused speech permeated with Aramaic words instead.
Until recently few have put their scholarly expertise behind an open and critical analysis of the legitimacy and origins of the Koran. Mr. Luxenberg, an expert in both ancient Arabic and Aramaic, has done just that. He has scrutinized the Arabic texts of the Koran itself and compared its words and grammatical structure with the only existing common language in universal use among Semitic speakers — including Jews, Christians and the then-illiterate Arab tribes — of the time. This lingua franca was the Aramaic language. He found that the confused language of the Koran with its garbled words, nonsensical sentences, and strange non-Arabic verbs suddenly became clear and understandable when read with the knowledge of Aramaic. This is clear proof that much of what Muslims accept as their holy book was either put into written form by Aramaic-speaking scribes, or that a text originally written in a kind of Aramaic-Arabic hybrid was later transcribed into the accepted Koran that Muslims blindly venerate today.
Mr. Luxenberg published his book under a pen name for fear that the Islamic world would seek his death. His legitimate concerns for the potential of violence seem prophetic, and even more so since his great work appeared just one year before 9-11. No other work has such a potential to demolish the accepted Islamic belief about the purity of the Koran’s language. It has left many renowned Muslim scholars dumbfounded and still struggling to find a way to refute it. It has the potential to shake Islam to its very foundations by exposing with conclusive evidence that much of the Koran is not in Arabic, and much of it is incomprehensible, not because it contains some deep inscrutable meaning, but because it simply is written in a language other then pure Arabic.
This knowledge together with an analysis and forensic study of two ancient copies of the Koran, one found by an archeologist in the Sana’a mosque, allows the myths and origins of the Koran to finally be exposed.
If, according to Muslim belief and the Koran, God communicated to Mohammed his words in Arabic, then why is this message partially written in Aramaic? If, as Arabs believe, God only speaks Arabic, then why are the majority of the words in the Koran non-Arabic words? According to professor Luxenberg, up to 70% of the words are from an Syriac-Aramaic lexicon and are close to the language of the Christian Palestinians from the times of the Islamic conquest.
As a student of Arabic, one of the first things that I encountered when I began my studies was the variety and types of Arabic one could learn. When I asked which was the real version of Arabic, the Arabic found in the Koran, the Arabic taught in school and used for educated writing and speech, or the Amiya or local Arabic in actual use by people in their daily lives, I was told to look at the Koran. It is amazing that even Rosetta Stone uses a version of Koranic Arabic, not Basic Standard, in the Arabic version of its popular software. In daily life Arabs must speak three languages, the language of everyday life, the language of the academy, and the one in the Koran.
In most world languages the gap between the language of everyday use and the language of the academy is small. Learning book Spanish with a little effort, for instance, perfectly allows one to understand the language of the street.
Not so with Arabic! In addition to Modern Standard Arabic, a student must learn one of over a dozen different local dialects. The distance between the so-called dialects and Modern Standard is large, but the distance between them and Koranic Arabic is even greater. While early on in my studies I was told by my professors that the roots of proper Arabic are in the Koran, I soon came to realize the this Arabic was the most inconsistent of them all. Luxenberg explains that Arabic linguists have been aware of the odd Arabic in the Koran since the Koran took its present form, with its current cursive script, sometime in 10th century.
“Generations of renowned Koran scholars have devoted their lives to the meritorious exercise of clarifying the text of the Koran grammatically and semantically, word for word. In spite of all these efforts one would not be far from the truth if one were to estimate the proportion of the Koran that is still considered unexplained today at about a quarter.”
But what is so odd about the Arabic in the Koran? What are the words and phrases that cannot be explained, and why in spite of its inconsistent spellings and grammar do many Arabic linguists still insist that it is the fountainhead of pure Arabic? The Muslim world believes that it is the first book written in Arabic — the Arabic that the Angel Gabriel forced Mohammed to recite. Islamic Arabic scholars believe it is where the language of Allah was preserved. It exists in heaven in a pure state, and its words cannot be altered under the pain of death. If this is to be believed then one can understand their sensitivity to any thought that its language is flawed, as indeed it is.
Upon discovery of the one of the oldest copies of the Koran in a Mosque in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, one of the scholars studying the text, said, “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history, too”
Where did written Arabic come from? Arabian culture in the time of Mohammed was illiterate. No written forms of Arabic existed except for a few grave markers in the Nabatean script. Not only could Mohammed not read or write in his own Qurays dialect spoken by his clan from Mecca, but Arab society as whole could not either; it relied on an oral tradition of storytelling and recitations. For this reason there exists not one book or testimony in written form from the Islamic conquest. Arabic literacy would have to wait two hundred years or more for its alphabet to be invented and grammars to be fixed.
According to Muslim traditions, the prophet of Islam knew the Koran by heart, hundreds and hundreds of suras (chapters). He could recite them in his own language, the Arabic dialect of his tribe. The Koran tells as much. Sura 14:41: “We have never sent an apostle except in the language of his people.” Of course, this means that since God sent an angel only to the Qurays tribe of Mohammed and not any other group, then God could only communicate in the language they spoke.
This was very lucky indeed for Mohammed, but what if his tribe did not speak proper Arabic but a variant heavy influenced by Aramaic? Could the messenger of Allah still be able to receive the sacred message?
Nicholas Ostler, who studied at Oxford and has a PhD in Linguistics, says, “This caused some philological problems, since Mohammed’s dialect of Arabic was slightly nonstandard : it lacked the (all-important) glottal stop known as the Hamza.” The Hamza is an important consonant in the Arabic alphabet and key to the comprehension of words. It is common in Arabic but less so in Aramaic, which is interesting, considering that the city of Mecca may have been founded by Aramaic speakers based on the linguistic origin of its name — the word “Mecca” comes from the Syro-Aramaic root “ma-ch-ta”( low-lying area or valley). If, as Mr. Luxenberg contends, the people of Mecca spoke a language that was a hybrid of Aramaic and Arabic, perhaps it was more than “slightly nonstandard.” Whatever it was, it was not what even modern-day Arabic scholars would call pure Arabic. While Arabs may not have been literate in their own language — more properly dialects of Arabic — living among them were many settled peoples, both Jews and Christians, who were. These same Arabs were surrounded by other literate peoples, most of whom spoke the related Semitic language and lingua franca of its day, Syro-Aramaic.
Muslims explain the origin of the Koran in this fashion: Allah sent the Angel Gabriel to command Mohammed to speak or recite the words with which Allah had filled his head. Not all at once, but over a span of twenty-two years in dribs and drabs of one sura after another. These groups of suras (chapters) remained in his memory throughout his life. Different pieces of this “Koran” were also memorized and written down by his companions.
What language would they have been written in? Muslims don’t say, but since written Arabic did not exist yet, they must have been written in one of the existing languages of the day. Of these, the closest would have been Aramaic, which happened to be the most popular written language in Arabia. In addition to what they claim was written down on many pieces of paper, bone and parchments, many of the companions also memorized portions of it. Eventually the Caliph Uthman gathered all of this and had Christian and Jewish scribes write it down. It was he who would decide what would be accepted as the true Koran.
It is assumed by most Arabs that Mohammed spoke something close to the language that is contained in the Koran. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mohammed is known to have spoken a dialect of Arabic, that of his ancestral home, the city of Mecca. Did a standard form of Arabic exist at the dawn of the Islamic age in the Hijaz — the group of settlements along central Arabian coast facing the Red Sea? Considering that the Arab tribes of the area lived independently of one another with no written language or cultural base to fix a set of standard rules, it is not surprising that in fact there were many types of Arabic, all with common characteristics, but with widely varying pronunciations and grammars.
Even in Mohammed’s lifetime there was disagreement about over the correct way to write the Koran. Al-Tabrizi reveals the level of disagreement about how to recite the Koran among the Companions. Mohammed’s strange and aloof approach to resolving these disputes and differences in reading is highlighted in this Hadith by Al-Tabrizi:
Ubayy and two other companions approached Mohammed with this argument.
“Prophet of God, we are in disagreement over a verse in the Koran and each of us maintains that you taught us to read it so and so. ”
Whereupon he spoke to one of them:
“Read it out to me,” and this one read it out to him. Whereupon the Prophet of God said; “Correct!”
Then he asked the other to read it out to him, and this one read it out differently than his friend had read it out. To this the Prophet said: “Correct!”
Then he spoke to Ubayy : “Read it out yourself as well,” and Ubayy read it out differently than both. Yet to him too the Prophet said; “Correct!”
Ubayy reported : “This gave rise to such a doubt in me with regard to the messenger of God as that of heathens!” And he continued : “However, because the messenger of God noticed from my face what was occurring in me, he raised his hand and struck me on the breast and said: ‘Pray to God for protection from the accursed Satan!’” At this Ubayy broke into a sweat.
This rather confused response by the Prophet is understandable if one considers that as a merchant who had traveled to Syria he may have spoken several dialects of Arabic as well as Aramaic. The three different interpretations would have been correct if one concludes that Mohammed had spoken to each man not in God’s language but in the individual varieties that they spoke. Oral preservation of the Koranic recitations by his companions would have been in their native variety of Arabic, and a source of the disagreement.
These disagreements over how to recite the Koran were clearly evident even in Mohammed’s lifetime. There was considerable confusion about the different meanings of the different recitations. The Muslim claim of a perfect oral conservation of Allah’s words is flawed indeed. No doubt the different followers of Islam, speaking not one standard Arabic, but many different variants of Arabic, would come into conflict, as the Prophet’s words would have different meanings and pronunciations for people who may have had difficulty understanding among themselves. The Hadiths tell of seven different readings that the Caliph Uthman shrewdly consolidated into one. Fear that the new faith, without scriptures or a book of its own, would descend into civil war over the reciting of Allah’s words motivated Uthman to fix the Koran in writing.
Between the revelation in the desert by the Angel Gabriel to the claim of guidance to mankind is the strange evolutionary path of the Koran. Scholars can prove the following forensic trail: Mecca and Medina were Aramaic settlements with a mixed population of Arabs, Jews, and a few Christians. Mecca’s language, the language of the Qureshy, Mohammed’s tribe, was a mixture of an Aramaic and an Arabic tongue. The surrounding Bedouin Arab tribes from which the companions came spoke various different types of Arabic, and their memories of the prophet Mohammed’s revelations would have been preserved in the Aramaic script, the only means of writing at the time. All these varied sources would have been combined by the third Caliph and again written with Aramaic characters in a combination of Arabic dialects.
The reform of the Muslim world, the liberation of its people, especially its women, and the start of the path towards prosperity for the Middle East, can only begin when Muslims realize that there are errors in the Koran. Scattered among the incomprehensible words, mistranslations, and errors is much truth. Commingled with the war verses and opportunistic revelations uttered by the Prophet of Islam is a message of peace from the sacred texts of Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.
The Aramaic-speaking scribes who were commanded by the third Caliph Uthman, years after Mohammed’s death, to give his new faith legitimacy and respect among the more literate conquered peoples, added to the prophet’s words an earlier message of peace from the pages of the Old and New testaments.
Perhaps Muslims have been right all along in their assertion that they share much with the traditions and beliefs of Jews and Christians, except with one tremendous error: they are the ones who have confused the message. In reality the messenger of Allah was the one who received the wrong transmission, and it is the Koran that has mistranslated the truth out of sheer ignorance, and because of the Arab people’s initial inability to read and write.
Next: Part Two, Lost in Translation
Note: I struggled to get the Arabic text in the post above to go from right to left, but it wouldn’t work. The tag I have used previously for that purpose didn’t help. Either the new template overrides the text-direction attribute, or something else has gone screwy.
For the time being, we’ll just have to make do with mirror-image Arabic.
Previous posts by El Cid:
|2010||Feb||27||The Martyrs of Cordoba|