To what extent does the Koran contain Syriac words? I’ve been reading a review of Christoph Luxenberg’s book about the Koran by Martin F. J. Baasten in Aramaic Studies 2.2 (2004), pp. 268-272 (here), and finding it rather excellent. It has been claimed — he cautiously states — that 80% of all loan-words in the Koran are from Syriac.
Luxenberg has asked whether some passages in the Koran, which are difficult to understand, make more sense if you strip off the vowel-markings, thereby discarding the standard understanding of the text, and imagine that they contain Syriac loan words.
During the first century of the Arabic period, texts were written without all the marks above and below the line which indicate vowels, and indeed distinguish some consonants. As Baasten rightly remarks, Arabic is a seriously defective script in this respect; worse than Syriac, where only two letters can be so affected. Only seven Arabic letters — the rasm — are unique without some dotting.
Apparently some passages really do make much more sense if you do this. Baasten gives a single example.
The implications of this for the transmission of the Koran are considerable. If this can be proven, then it means that the Koran did not initially circulate orally, but passed through an early stage in written form, without vowel markings. Only such a stage can account this symptom.
This would not be unreasonable. There is no real reason to suppose that early followers of Mohammed memorised the new document, which was dribbling out chapter by chapter anyway. It is likely that writing was used. Thus we have the situation where early Korans differed, and a recension had to be created by the early Caliph Othman. This situation also indicates that a good many people did NOT know the Koran orally, and relied on a written form of the text.
It seems that Luxenberg has overstated his thesis, however, and derived far more than this from Syriac sources, and much more tendentiously. This is unfortunate, as it tends to undermine the credibility of his work. But thus far, it would seem likely that he has indeed discovered something solid.