The Virgins and the Grapes: the Christian Origins of the Koran

A German scholar of ancient languages takes a new look at the sacred 
book of Islam. He maintains that it was created by Syro-Aramaic 
speaking Christians, in order to evangelize the Arabs. And he 
translates it in a new way

by Sandro Magister                                

ROMA - That Aramaic was the lingua franca of a vast area of the 
ancient Middle East is a notion that is by now amply noted by a vast 
public, thanks to Mel Gibson´s film "The Passion of the Christ," 
which everyone watches in that language.

But that Syro-Aramaic was also the root of the Koran, and of the 
Koran of a primitive Christian system, is a more specialized notion, 
an almost clandestine one. And it´s more than a little dangerous. The 
author of the most important book on the subject - a German professor 
of ancient Semitic and Arabic languages - preferred, out of prudence, 
to write under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg. A few years ago, 
one of his colleagues at the University of Nablus in Palestine, 
Suliman Bashear, was thrown out of the window by his scandalized 
Muslim students.

In the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, mangled by the wars of 
religion, scholars of the Bible also used to keep a safe distance 
with pseudonyms. But if, now, the ones doing so are the scholars of 
the Koran, this is a sign that, for the Muslim holy book as well, the 
era of historical, linguistic, and philological re-readings has begun.

This is a promising beginning for many reasons. Gerd-Rüdiger Puin, a 
professor at Saarland University in Germany and another Koran scholar 
on the philological level, maintains that this type of approach to 
Islam´s holy book can help to defeat its fundamentalist and Manichean 
readings, and to bring into a better light its ties with Judaism and 

The book by "Christoph Luxenberg" came out in 2000 in Germany with 
the title "Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran" ("A Syro-Aramaic 
Reading of the Koran"), published in Berlin by Das Arabische Buch. It 
is out of print, and there are no translations in other languages. 
But a new, updated edition (again in German) is about to arrive in 

Here follows an interview with the author, published in Germany in 
the newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and in Italy in "L´espresso," no. 
11, March 12-18, 2004:

>From the Gospel to Islam

An interview with "Christoph Luxenberg" by Alfred Hackensberger 

Q. - Professor, why did you think it useful to conduct this re-
reading of the Koran?

A. - "Because, in the Koran, there are many obscure points that, from 
the beginning, even the Arab commentators were not able to explain. 
Of these passages it is said that only God can comprehend them. 
Western research on the Koran, which has been conducted in a 
systematic manner only since about the middle of the 19th century, 
has always taken as its base the commentaries of the Arab scholars. 
But these have never gone beyond the etymological explanation of some 
terms of foreign origin."

Q. - What makes your method different?

A. - "I began from the idea that the language of the Koran must be 
studied from an historical-linguistic point of view. When the Koran 
was composed, Arabic did not exist as a written language; thus it 
seemed evident to me that it was necessary to take into 
consideration, above all, Aramaic, which at the time, between the 4th 
and 7th centuries, was not only the language of written 
communication, but also the lingua franca of that area of Western 

Q. - Tell us how you proceeded.

A. - "At first I conducted a ´synchronous´ reading. In other words, I 
kept in mind both Arabic and Aramaic. Thanks to this procedure, I was 
able to discover the extent of the previously unsuspected influence 
of Aramaic upon the language of the Koran: in point of fact, much of 
what now passes under the name of ´classical Arabic´ is of Aramaic 

Q. - What do you say, then, about the idea, accepted until now, that 
the Koran was the first book written in Arabic?

A. - "According to Islamic tradition, the Koran dates back to the 7th 
century, while the first examples of Arabic literature in the full 
sense of the phrase are found only two centuries later, at the time 
of the ´Biography of the Prophet´; that is, of the life of Mohammed 
as written by Ibn Hisham, who died in 828. We may thus establish that 
post-Koranic Arabic literature developed by degrees, in the period 
following the work of al-Khalil bin Ahmad, who died in 786, the 
founder of Arabic lexicography (kitab al-ayn), and of Sibawwayh, who 
died in 796, to whom the grammar of classical Arabic is due. Now, if 
we assume that the composition of the Koran was brought to an end in 
the year of the Prophet Mohammed´s death, in 632, we find before us 
an interval of 150 years, during which there is no trace of Arabic 
literature worthy of note."

Q. - So at the time of Mohammed Arabic did not have precise rules, 
and was not used for written communication. Then how did the Koran 
come to be written?

A. - "At that time, there were no Arab schools - except, perhaps, for 
the Christian centers of al-Anbar and al-Hira, in southern 
Mesopotamia, or what is now Iraq. The Arabs of that region had been 
Christianized and instructed by Syrian Christians. Their liturgical 
language was Syro-Aramaic. And this was the vehicle of their culture, 
and more generally the language of written communication."

Q. - What is the relationship between this language of culture and 
the origin of the Koran?

A. - "Beginning in the third century, the Syrian Christians did not 
limit themselves to bringing their evangelical mission to nearby 
countries, like Armenia or Persia. They pressed on toward distant 
territories, all the way to the borders of China and the western 
coast of India, in addition to the entire Arabian peninsula all the 
way to Yemen and Ethiopia. It is thus rather probable that, in order 
to proclaim the Christian message to the Arabic peoples, they would 
have used (among others) the language of the Bedouins, or Arabic. In 
order to spread the Gospel, they necessarily made use of a mishmash 
of languages. But in an era in which Arabic was just an assembly of 
dialects and had no written form, the missionaries had no choice but 
to resort to their own literary language and their own culture; that 
is, to Syro-Aramaic. The result was that the language of the Koran 
was born as a written Arabic language, but one of Arab-Aramaic 

Q. - Do you mean that anyone who does not keep the Syro-Aramaic 
language in mind cannot translate and interpret the Koran correctly? 

A. - "Yes. Anyone who wants to make a thorough study of the Koran 
must have a background in the Syro-Aramaic grammar and literature of 
that period, the 7th century. Only thus can he identify the original 
meaning of Arabic expressions whose semantic interpretation can be 
established definitively only by retranslating them into Syro-

Q. - Let´s come to the misunderstandings. One of the most glaring 
errors you cite is that of the virgins promised, in the Islamic 
paradise, to the suicide bombers.

A. - "We begin from the term ´huri,´ for which the Arabic 
commentators could not find any meaning other than those heavenly 
virgins. But if one keeps in mind the derivations from Syro-Aramaic, 
that expression indicated ´white grapes,´ which is one of the 
symbolic elements of the Christian paradise, recalled in the Last 
Supper of Jesus. There´s another Koranic expression, falsely 
interpreted as ´the children´ or ´the youths´ of paradise: in 
Aramaic: it designates the fruit of the vine, which in the Koran is 
compared to pearls. As for the symbols of paradise, these 
interpretive errors are probably connected to the male monopoly in 
Koranic commentary and interpretation."

Q. - By the way, what do you think about the Islamic veil?

A. - "There is a passage in Sura 24, verse 31, which in Arabic reads, 
´That they should beat their khumurs against their bags.´ It is an 
incomprehensible phrase, for which the following interpretation has 
been sought: ´That they should extend their kerchiefs from their 
heads to their breasts.´ But if this passage is read in the light of 
Syro-Aramaic, it simply means: ´They should fasten their belts around 
their waists.´"

Q. - Does this mean the veil is really a chastity belt?

A. - "Not exactly. It is true that, in the Christian tradition, the 
belt is associated with chastity: Mary is depicted with a belt 
fastened around her waist. But in the gospel account of the Last 
Supper, Christ also ties an apron around his waist before washing the 
Apostles´ feet. There are clearly many parallels with the Christian 

Q. - You have discovered that Sura 97 of the Koran mentions the 
Nativity. And in your translation of the famous Sura of Mary, 
her "birthgiving" is "made legitimate by the Lord." Moreover, the 
text contains the invitation to come to the sacred liturgy, to the 
Mass. Would the Koran, then, be nothing other than an Arabic version 
of the Christian Bible?

A. - "In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, 
with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in 
sacred Christian services. In the second place, one may see in the 
Koran the beginning of a preaching directed toward transmitting the 
belief in the Sacred Scriptures to the pagans of Mecca, in the Arabic 
language. Its socio-political sections, which are not especially 
related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its 
beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new 
religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus 
functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society."

Q. - To many Muslim believers, for whom the Koran is the holy book 
and the only truth, your conclusions could seem blasphemous. What 
reactions have you noticed up until now?

A. - "In Pakistan, the sale of the edition of ´Newsweek´ that 
contained an article on my book was banned. Otherwise, I must say 
that, in my encounters with Muslims, I have not noticed any hostile 
attitudes. On the contrary, they have appreciated the commitment of a 
non-Muslim to studies aimed at an objective comprehension of their 
sacred text. My work could be judged as blasphemous only by those who 
decide to cling to errors in the interpretation of the word of God. 
But in the Koran it is written, ´No one can bring to the right way 
those whom God induces to error.´"

Q. - Aren´t you afraid of a fatwa, a death sentence like the one 
pronounced against Salman Rushdie?

A. - "I am not a Muslim, so I don´t run that risk. Besides, I haven´t 
offended against the Koran"

Q. - But you still preferred to use a pseudonym.

A. - "I did that on the advice of Muslim friends who were afraid that 
some enthusiastic fundamentalist would act of his own initiative, 
without waiting for a fatwa."


Divine Verses

Koran, in Arabic Qur´an, means recitation or reading. It is an 
essential element of the Islamic faith that it was always with God 
and "descended" in its fullness to Mohammed at the moment of his call 
as a prophet, called the "night of destiny." It is in Arabic, and it 
may be ritually recited only in this language. It is divided into 114 
Suras, or chapters, and each Sura is divided into verses. The first 
Sura, called "the unstopping," is a brief prayer that plays an 
important role in worship and everyday life. The following Suras are 
ordered according to length, from longest to shortest. According to 
the tradition, Mohammed gradually communicated to his faithful the 
parts of the Koran revealed to him. The oldest Suras are called 
those "of Mecca"; that later ones, "of Medina." The most ancient 
Suras are of a markedly theological character, while the Suras of 
Medina are more juridical, dictating the ordering of the community. 
For Sunni Islam,.the Koran may not be put to criticism, given its 
divine nature: in any case, the "door of interpretation" of the Koran 
has been closed since the 11th century.

A link to the full text of the Koran, in an English translation:

> The Sacred Koran


An elaborated guide to the new historical-linguistic readings of the 
Koran, on a page of the blog

> "Newsweek" Article About Christoph Luxenberg On Koran Banned In 

And an investigation by Alexander Stille in the "New York Times," 
March 4, 2002:

> Scholars Scrutinize the Koran's Origin


The commentary of professor Gian Maria Vian on the interview 
with "Christoph Luxenberg," printed on Sunday, March 14 in the 
newspaper of the Italian bishops´ conference, "Avvenire":

> I filologi e il Corano

Gian Maria Vian, a professor of patristic philology at Rome´s "La 
Sapienza" university, is the author of an important essay on twenty 
centuries of Christian texts, beginning with Sacred Scripture:

> Quella scrittura che comincia in Galilea (29.8.2001)


In the Muslim world, the view of the Koran peculiar to the Ismailis, 
open to multiple interpretations and to a positive relationship with 
the Jewish and Christian faiths:

> The Other Islam. The Peaceful Revolution of the Ismaili Shiites 


English translation by Matthew Sherry: > [EMAIL PROTECTED] 

Go to the home page of >, to 
access the latest articles and links to other resources.

Sandro Magister´s e-mail address is [EMAIL PROTECTED] 

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