Near the bottom of the pit of hell, Dante encounters a man walking with his torso split from chin to groin, his guts and other organs spilling out. “See how I tear myself!” the man shrieks. “See how Mahomet is deformed and torn!” For us, the scene is not only gruesome but surprising, for Dante is not in a circle of false religion but in a circle reserved for those who tear the body of Christ. Like many medieval Christians, Dante views Islam less as a rival religion than as a schismatic form of Christianity.
A handful of Western scholars now think there is considerable historical truth to Dantes view. According to the standard Muslim account, the Quran contains revelations that Allah delivered to Mohammed through the angel Jibril between 609 and 632. They were fixed in written form under the third Caliph in the mid seventh century. Islamic scholar Christoph Luxenberg doubts most of this. In 2000, he published the German edition of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, whose restrained title and dispassionate tone belie its explosive arguments-explosive enough for the author to hide behind a pseudonym. The book has been banned in several Islamic countries.
One of Luxenbergs central arguments is that the Quran is an Arabic translation of an original Syriac/Aramaic text. Luxenberg is able to resolve oddities in the Arabic text by treating them as erroneous Arabic translations of an original Syriac text. Words that have no Arabic source turn out to be garbled versions of common Syriac terms. Luxenberg even finds evidence in the Quran itself for treating it as a translation. By his rendering, Sura 44:58 says “we have translated [the Koran] into your language so that they may allow themselves to be reminded.”
Luxenberg has become notorious for challenging the common translation of huri, usually understood as the hot-bodied virgins with whom faithful Islamic men hope to be rewarded in paradise. According to Luxenberg, they arent wide-eyed virgins, but white grapes, “juicy fruits hanging down,” ready for picking (Sura 38:52). Its a vision of paradise similar to that of the fourth-century Christian poet, Ephrem the Syrian: “He who abstained from the wine here below, for him yearn the grapevines of Paradise. Each of them extends him a drooping cluster.”
That reference to Ephrem is not accidental, for Luxenberg argues that the Quran derives from a Syriac Christian lectionary. Again, the evidence is hiding in plain sight. It has become commonplace among scholars of Islam to recognize that the word Quran means lectionarium, but few draw the controversial conclusion: “If Koran . . . really means lectionary, then one can assume that the Koran intended itself first of all to be understood as nothing more than a liturgical book with selected texts from the Scriptures (the Old and New Testament) and not at all as a substitute for the Scriptures . . . as an independent Scripture.”
The contributors to The Hidden Origins of Islam (2010) push Luxenbergs revisionism further. The books editor, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, reminds readers that most of the biographical information we have about Mohammed doesnt come from the Quran but from texts written fully two centuries after Mohammeds death. Its not until the ninth century that Muslim writers claim that the Quran contains the revelations given to Mohammed. The year 622-which Muslims mark as the year Mohammed and his followers made the Hijira, a fateful journey from Mecca to Medina-was not originally connected with Mohammed at all. Before there is any record of Muslims dating time from the Hijra, Arabic Christians dated the beginning of the Arabic era to 622, when they gained independence from Persias Sassanian empire.
Other early Islamic texts support the notion that Islam emerged not as a new religion but as a novel development within a Syriac Christian milieu. In his contribution to Hidden Origins, Luxenberg applies his method to the inscription on the Dome of the Rock, which seems to contain a straightforward Islamic confession: “There is no god but God alone . . . Mohammed the servant of God and messenger.” Luxenberg points out that Mohammed, usually understood as a proper name, means “exalted be” or “praised be,” and also notes that Syriac Christians, who were skeptical of the Nicene doctrine of Jesus divine sonship, preferred Isaiahs title “Servant” for Jesus. He contends that the inscription should read: “There is no god but God alone . . . Praised be the servant of God and his messenger.” This makes better sense of the sequel, which explicitly identifies “Messiah Jesus, son of Mary” as “the messenger of God and his Word.” An inscription about Jesus was later reinterpreted as a confession of a different faith entirely.
When the Quran is placed in the context of Syrian Christianity and the debates over Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite Christology that wracked eastern Christianity in these centuries, its debt to Christianity becomes plausible. The Quran includes passages, for example, that reflect Syrian attacks on Monophysite Christology. Ohlig claims in his concluding essay to Hidden Origins that “most of the theological statements in the Quran-for example, the conception of God, Christology, and eschatology-arose from Syrian traditions of Christianity.”
These are today minority views, even maverick. If they prove right, they might open the possibility of fresh efforts to disentangle the knotted history of Christian-Muslim relations.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Karl-Heinz Ohlig, The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History
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