Another example of the methodology followed in Luxenberg’s book is the interpretation of verse 24 of Sūrat MaryamThen one called out to her from beneath her: Grieve not, surely your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you.


AT THE BEGINNING of his commentary, Luxenberg refers to al-Suyūṭī (1445-1505 CE), who mentions Abū al-Qāsim in his Languages of the Qur’ān and al-Kirmānī in his work The Wonders that the word for ‘beneath’ تحت (taḥt) in the above passage is Nabataean (that is, the Syriac Nabataean language or a combination of Arabic and Syriac) and means ‘belly’ (in its Syriac sense of ‘foetus’ ܒܛܢܐ baṭnā). Orientalists did not pay attention to this explanation, considering that the word taḥtin Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Ethiopic does not differ from its Arabic meaning in any way. 

According to the interpretation of al-Ṯabarī there was no doubt about the meaning of taḥt other than some question as to whether the one who called out to Mary from beneath her was Jibrīl or Jesus, while commentators were divided on how to interpret سَرِيًّا sariyya (‘stream’).  Al-Ṯabarī considered it to mean a stream of water, supporting it by the Almighty’s command two verses later to ‘drink’.[1]  

Western commentators supported this by referring to a passage from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in which it is stated that when Jesus fled with his mother Mary to Egypt he asked the palm tree, under which they had sheltered to rest while crossing the desert, to open its roots and produce water to quench his mother’s thirst.[2] Western commentators considered this narrative – identical to what was stated in the Qur’ān – to be proof of the word sariyya meaning ‘stream’.

According to Luxenberg, commentators both eastern and western failed in their attempts to explain this verse on the one hand due to their reliance exclusively upon the later Arabic language and on the other hand their citation of a text that is strongly at odds with what the Qur’ānic text was intending.

Commentators failed in their attempts to explain due to their reliance exclusively upon the later Arabic language

In his detailed explanation of the word taḥt Luxenberg points out that its origin was not Arabic but derives from the Syriac verb ܢܚܬ   nḥeṯ meaning ‘descend’, ‘decline’. The Arabic verb نحت  naḥat corresponding to this form carries the concept of ‘carving’ stone to smoothen it or polish it.  In the Syriac form it denotes removing accretions to a thing, hence cast-offs, what remains from the chisel after sculpting. This expression appears in a figurative sense in a verse by the poet al-Khirniq, the sister of the poet Ṭarafa (circa 538-564), which reads:

الخالِطِين نَحِيتَهمْ بِنُضَارِهم، … وَذَوِي الغِنى مِنْهُمْ بِذِي الفَقْرِ

Who brought their lowly among them together with their nobles, and the wealthy among them with the needy

Luxenberg notes that the Lisān al-‘Arab dictionary erred by explaining the meaning of نحيتهم  naḥītahum as ‘their interlopers’ or ‘strangers’ among the people because it did not understand the Syriac origin of the word naḥt in its figurative sense, while the expression niḍār ‘choice, select ones’ in the word بِنُضَارِهم  bi-nuḍārihim (‘with their nobles’) indicates a meaning opposite to naḥīt, which in Syriac means ‘of lowly origin’, ‘of little account or lineage’, as evidenced by this poem’s contrasting the mixing of the rich with the poor.

As for reading the spelling taḥtihā and taḥtaki in the Qur’ānic verse in the sense of ‘foetus’ attributed to Nabataean according to al-Suyūṭī and his quoting of Abū al-Qāsim and al-Kirmānī, Luxenberg refutes this. Instead he sees it explainable by reading the word taḥtaki as the Syriac nḥāṯak in the sense of ‘thy bearing’ (of a child), ‘thy delivery’.[3] As proof of this meaning Luxenberg explains that we must understand the word min in the above Qur’ānic phrase min taḥtihā (‘from beneath her’) not as a preposition of direction or location, but as a temporal adverb in the Syriac usage of ‘from that point in time’, that is ‘instantly’, – min nuḥātihā. ‘immediately after her delivery’ (ܢܚܬܐ nḥāṯā). Supporting this temporal use of the word min is the way it is used in colloquial Arabic, such as min wuṣlatī qultuluh, that is ‘as soon as I arrived I told him’.

To clarify his explanation of the expression nuḥāt in the sense of ‘birth’ or ‘delivery’, Luxenberg notes that while this concept does not specifically appear in the Syriac sources, there is a synonym for it in the Aramaic word נפל nṕalmeaning ‘to fall’[4] with the sense of ‘drop’, ‘give birth’ in an abnormal or supernatural way. Given that the Qur’ān only uses the terms walada or waḍa‘a for ‘giving birth’ naturally, Luxernberge calls attention to the importance of the expression nuḥāt – which only appears in the Qur’an in this verse – expressing the extra-natural or supernatural birth of Jesus, to distinguish it from the birth of any other creature. The true meaning of the word nuḥāt is ‘causing to descend, possibly indicating the sends of ‘causing to descend from above’. 

Luxenberg sees in this passage of Sūrat Maryam, and in particular in this expression used, a theological term of paramount importance for the history of religion. For based on the above, the meaning of the said passage would be:

Then he called to her immediately after her giving birth:  Grieve not!

To clarify the disputed meaning of sariyya, Luxenberg proceeds to refute what commentators in the East and West have sought to understand by it as ‘a stream of water’. He points out that Westerners’ recourse to the aforementioned Pseudo-Matthew Gospel passage fails to take into account the Qur’ānic text. When the child Jesus ordered the palm tree to issue water to quench his mother’s thirst, as this Gospel has it, it was due to the interruption of water sources in the neighbouring desert. But in the Qur’ānic text the situation is quite different. Mary’s exclamation Oh, would that I had died before this, and had been a thing quite forgotten! (verse 23) did not come from her fear of dying of thirst, but rather from her despair at being indirectly accused of an unlawful pregnancy, as is evident from verse 28: 

O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot.

and for this reason she was cast out of her family’s home according to verse 16: 

And make mention of Mary in the Scripture, when she had withdrawn from her people to a chamber looking East.

Luxenberg explains that the verb انتبذت intabadhat (‘she had withdrawn’) is a passive formation, ‘she had been expelled’, and this was in line with Syriac grammar which allows the use of a passive verb for an active sense, in contradistinction to Arabic, whose grammatical rules were established later by non-Arabs unfamiliar with the origins of the source-language of the Qur’ān.

The author also refers to others passages in the Qur’ān where a passive verb is given with an active sense by the addition of the word min (’by’). He notes that the Qur’ān does not conform to later rules of Arabic grammar and that the researcher needs to take into account Syriac grammatical rules, which open up new dimensions for understanding the language of the Qur’ān and grasping its meanings.

The Qur’ān does not conform to later rules of Arabic grammar and the researcher needs to take into account Syriac grammatical rules

Luxenberg then proceeds to re-interpret the accusation against Mary, arguing that it is hardly reasonable to expect that the first words of consolation her son spoke to her when he was born to relieve her despair were about a stream of water that her Lord had placed beneath her. More to be expected from his words was a consolation to counteract accusations of her committing something forbidden, to remove her sense of shame. Since the opposite of ibn al-ḥarām, to use the street expression still current today, is ibn al-ḥalāl, Luxenberg confirms, from Syriac sources, that the Qur’ānic spelling sariyya derives from the Syriac verb ܫܪܝܐ  sharyā (‘lawful’, ‘legitimate’). The verse is then to be read as follows:

Then he called to her immediately after her delivery, do not grieve, your Lord has made your delivery legitimate’.


In this abstract only a few examples of Qur’ānic  obscurities are presented to illustrate Luxenberg’s approach in his 330-plus page study. In the introduction the author argues that his study is only part of a wider research on the language of the Qur’ān which he hopes will yield results to be published later. By citing linguistic research that appeared in the West since the mid 19th century, Luxenberg points out that this endeavour was limited to explaining the derivation of a limited number of non-Arabic words in the Qur’ān, without changing their meanings. His own study, on the other hand, uncovers new concepts far removed from earlier interpretations of words and passages in the Qur’ānic text that were not of little significance.

Among the concepts that have become an integral part of Islamic doctrine concerning paradise is his new interpretation of what the Islamic tradition has unanimously termed the ‘ḥūrīs of heaven’ – the ‘ḥūr al-‘ayn. By means of an in depth philological analysis all the verses related to this, Luxenberg dedicates 40 pages to explaining how both eastern and western scholars misinterpreted Qur’ānic expressions due to their reliance on post-Sibawayh Arabic rules of grammar. He explains linguistically and objectively how these expressions derive from Syriac texts known as Mīmrē composed ‘On Paradise’ by Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD) in the 4th century. [5]The conclusion of his study is that the word ḥūr is in fact a Syriac adjective for white grapes and that the word ‘ayn is a nominal adjective expressing the purity and lustre of precious gems to which the Qur’ān compares the purity of these white grapes, in that they are like unto hidden pearls.

When the Qur’ān speaks of al-wildān al-mukhalladūn (‘immortal boys’)[6] in the same context, it is clear that what is meant by wildān, according to a Syriac synonym, is ܝܠܕܐ  yalda ‘newborn’, figuratively as in ‘newborn fruit’.[7] One should also read the word mukhalladūn as mujalladūn,[8] meaning that the fruits of Paradise may be eaten chilled (mujallad) as opposed to the fate of those in Hellfire who

most surely eat of a tree of Zaqqūm … and drink thereon of boiling water[9]

All of which would yield a proper reading of the Qur’ānic passages as:

Chilled fruits pass around among them; to see them, you would think they were loose pearls  (for Qur’ān LXXVI (al-Insān), 19: And round about them shall go youths never altering in age; when you see them you will think them to be scattered pearls);

Among them circle fruits that are as if they were pearls still enclosed in their shells (for Qur’ān LII (al-Ṭūr), 24: And round them shall go boys for them as if they were hidden pearls);

White ones (grapes) like pearls that are still enclosed in their shells (for Qur’ān LVI (al-Wāqi‘a), 22-23: Fair ones with wide, lovely eyes, Like unto hidden pearls).

Luxenberg concludes from his linguistic analysis that the language in which the Qur’ān was revealed can only be understood by referring to the source language of the Qur’ān taken in its historical sense, and that the secret to understanding this language lies in harmonising elements from both the Arabic and Syriac languages.

[1] Qur’ān XIX (Maryam), 24-26: Then one called out to her from beneath her: Grieve not, surely your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you. And shake towards you the trunk of the palmtree, it will drop on you fresh ripe dates: So eat and drink and be consoled. 

[2] The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew is is one of a genre of ‘Infancy gospels’ that seek to fill out the details of the life of Jesus as a child. It was likely composed in the early 7th century, the earliest manuscript dates from the ninth century and the text is extant only in Latin. The text of this passage runs: Tunc infantulus Jesus laeto vultu in sinu matris suae residens ait ad palmam: flectere, arbor, et de fructibus tuis refice matrem meam … aperi autem ex radicibus tuis venam, quae absconsa est in terra, et fluant ex ea aquae ad satietatem nostram (‘Thereupon spoke the Infant Jesus, of joyful countenance sitting in his mother’s lap, to the palm tree: Bend over, tree, and refresh my mother from your fruits … further open out of your roots a vein that lies hidden in the earth, and let waters stream out upon us to quench our thirst’). (Ed.)

[3] Luxenberg also appends the note that the verb ܢܚܬ nḥeṯ is given in the lexicon as ‘sprang from’, ‘descended from’. See Christoph Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran, Verlag Hans Schiler. p.128 (note 172). (Ed.)

[4] There is also a colloquial Arabic usage of al-nafl, meaning ‘windfall’, the fruit of an orchard that has fallen from the tree. (Ed.)

[5] On this see in the Almuslih Library Theodore Janiszewski, Paradise in the Qur’an and Ephrem the Syrian.

[6] Qur’ān LVI (al-Wāqi‘a), 17: Round about them shall go youths never altering in age.

[7] Luxenberg adduces the Syriac usage of ̰ܠܕܐ ܕܓܦܬܐ  yalda ḏa-ḡphettā ‘child of the vine’ to illustrate this. (Ed.)

[8] The words مخلدون mukhalladūn andمجلدون  mujalladūn are differentiated in Arabic script only by the position of a single diacritical dot at the letter حإ  . (Ed.)

[9] Qur’ān LVI (al-Wāqi‘a), 52,54. Zaqqūm is a tree in Hell whose fruit is extremely bitter.

See Part One of this essay here

St. Ephrem, author of the Hymns on Paradise