On Christian Strophes in the Koran

In his life's work, German theologian Günter Lüling challenges Islam to a Reformation. Wolfgang Günter Lerch read his book "A Challenge to Islam for Reformation"

In his life’s work, German theologian Günter Lüling challenges Islam to a Reformation. Wolfgang Günter Lerch read his book "A Challenge to Islam for Reformation"

Who would have thought that such a remote and difficult profession such as Koran research would one day become the hottest iron to cast? Complex studies from the pens of Arabists and Semitists previously unknown to the wider public have suddenly come into the line of fire in the era of the "clash of civilizations", which is in reality a "collision" with Islam. The fire comes primarily from Muslims who do not perceive academic insight in this field of endeavor, but rather hostility.

In 2000 the book "Die Syro-aramäische Lesart des Korans" ("The Syro-Aramaic Interpretation of the Koran") by a German Semitist was published under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg.

He claimed that the majority of the Koran passages that are unclear (approximately one-fourth of more than 6000 verses) can be better interpreted if the assumption is that the Koran originally took shape in the Aramaic language or in a hybrid language that was not identical to the high Arabic language, which was fully developed only much later. Luxenberg thus leaves out, among other things, the "huris", i.e. the "virgins of paradise" the Koran promises to the martyrs.

Search for an appropriate interpretation of the Koran

Günter Lüling, a German orientalist and theologian, has not hid himself behind a "nom de plume". For forty years he has strived to find an appropriate interpretation of the Muslims’ holy book. And what he has produced is explosive, in particular for all those who insist on the inviolability of texts and beliefs.

But to date, it has not been Muslims who have made his life difficult, but rather his own colleagues. It is telling that the final version of his life’s work on the Koran has been published in English by an Indian publisher. Even Luxenberg’s approach managed to garner the attention of Arabists and Koran researchers at a conference in Berlin from January 21st-25th. "We still know far too little", was the preliminary conclusion.

The title of Günter Lüling’s book already announces his intentions: "A Challenge to Islam for Reformation." According to Lüling, the Reformation called for in Islam is not only necessary, it is also not possible without a critical look at the holy text in the manner that he, and others, have undertaken.

Koran research has thus also become eminently political. Lüling continues what had already begun at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century: a Koran exegesis with the historical and critical methods of Western science, as done before him by Carlo de Landberg, Martin Hartmann and Karl Vollers. Already at that time it was hypothesized that parts of the Koran were based upon Christian hymns.

Lüling’s dissertation from 1970, which he published in an expanded version as a book with the title "Über den Ur-Koran" ("On the Ur-Koran"), already set out on the path to which he has remained faithful to this day. This path has led him off the academic beaten track and into personal hardship because he has questioned ideas that Muslims have embraced over more than a thousand years, and also because he has contradicted some of the main authorities in Koran research.

Revised "Ur-Koran"

As a reviewer of Lüling’s book, one cannot help but be astounded at the abundance of details and arguments in this work of more than 500 pages; in the end one can only report that it is a stupendous assemblage of erudition.

In contrast to the new Anglo-Saxon school of Koran research (Wansbrough revisionism), which is working on versions of the holy book from two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad (632 A.D.), Lüling believes that essential parts of the Koran existed already before the arrival of the Prophet – i.e. in the form of Christian hymns and strophic poems.

This is his main thesis, which he understands as a "reconstruction" of the "Ur-Koran". If Lüling is right, then much of what Muslims hold to be true would have to be thrown overboard, namely that the Koran as it appears today was revealed in toto to the Prophet and was compiled as a largely reliable text by Caliph Uthman, who ruled between 644 and 656.

It had long occurred to Muslim exegetes that many parts of the holy book were unclear, and seven different interpretations were considered tolerable, but the historical and critical methods of modern science were not available to them.

How does Lüling proceed? He bases his analysis on the extremely defective writing of early Arabic. As in all Semitic languages, in his version Arabic in general yields only consonants and long vowels, the short vowels are left out. Because every letter is important to the interpretation, the Koran has been given vowels with the insertion of signs that appeared only much later.

The same is true of the point notations that determine if a letter is a "b," "t," "th," "n," "s," "sh," "z" or "r," "f" or "q". Over the course of many generations, the Arabic writing used today has developed from a suggestive, quasi stenographic writing system into a "complete" form of writing with the help of diacritical signs, a process that also occurred with Hebrew under the Masorets.

No interest in deconstructing Islam

It is easy to understand why misreadings are possible given the lack of clarity in the writing. Like Luxenberg, Lüling is not interested in deconstructing the Islamic religion. To the contrary, he anticipates that his reconstruction of the Ur-Koran will bring new impulses for Christian-Islamic dialog.

His findings create a bridge between the two religions, a bridge which—seen in the right way—could hardly be wider. Concerning the foundations of Islam, it is standard knowledge—even among Muslims—that biblical and Christian traditions appear in the Koran, that Jesus played an important role as the predecessor of Mohammed, as did Mary and the biblical prophets or patriarchs.

Using many new arguments, Lüling has identified important parts of the Koran as originally Christian hymns (responsories) and has attempted to reconstruct their exact wording. He uses highly academic means for this work, which of course also requires knowledge of pre-Islamic poetry in the Orient, its prosody and the language forms it used.

There were also Christians among the ancient Arabic poets, and an entire complex of pre-Islamic or ancient Arabic Beduin poetry and its language and grammar is among one of the most interesting and particularly controversial topics in this field of research.

Already in the past century Taha Hussain had expressed doubt as to the full authenticity of this poetry as it appears today; he also suspected that there are "metrical compositions" in the Koran dating from the time before Mohammad. Large protests were directed against this work. With his own methods, Lüling approaches texts such as the suras 96, 80 and others.

It would be going too far to quote in detail his reconstructions of certain "misread verb forms", but these new interpretations yield many eschatological points with changes in content that allow for a more insightful alignment with religious tradition than the older interpretations long considered inviolable. They thus create continuity in religious history.

Wolfgang Günter Lerch

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / Qantara.de 2004

The article was previously published in the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung".