Furqaan: Commentary on the Zaman-Heger Debate

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

When Dr. Christoph Heger, an Orientalist scholar with unknown qualifications and disputed credentials, wrote his commentary on the opening verse of Sura’ al-Furqaan in July of 1999, his treatise was soundly responded to by Brother Shibli Zaman, who is quite familiar with the Semitic languages employed in the study. While it is our opinion that Brother Shibli was quite successful in refuting Dr. Heger’s treatise, two small criticisms can be raised.

Firstly, Brother Shibli’s brilliance and command of the relevant Semitic languages caused him to overestimate the ability of his readers to fully understand his argument. If nothing else, his article was meant to serve as a defense against a powerful missionary attack. Unfortunately, not all Muslims on the Internet possess Brother Shibli’s erudition, thus monolingual readers may find portions of his argument impenetrable. Secondly, Dr. Heger called to witness a number of sources that Brother Shibli did not consult. In fact, he complained that the sources were no longer in print, and even resorted to mockery in a discussion on Usenet. While again, it is our opinion that though Brother Shibli’s original response to Dr. Heger’s article was sufficient, we consider that it is important to take a look at the sources that Dr. Heger had cited. We seek to build on the invaluable foundation laid by Brother Shibli, which will not only further explain his argument, but will also examine the sources cited by Dr. Heger that Brother Shibli had ignored.

Brother Shibli states in his article that

“[t]his word is found in Hebrew, Aramaic and even Chaldee as the word ‘PARAAQ’ and not ‘PURQAAN’ as Dr. Heger says in errata.”

This sentence may lead to confusion for those who are not familiar with Arabic, Hebrew, or other Semitic languages. What the Brother is actually doing in this instance is

  • informing readers about the Hebrew equivalent of the tri-lateral root (PRQ/FRQ), and
  • dispute any claim that “purqaan” is a Hebrew word.

To quickly eliminate any claims about “purqaan” or “furqaan” being a Hebrew word, let us consider Yosef Yo’el Rivlin’s Hebrew translation of the Qur’?1]. Rivlin, an esteemed authority in both Hebrew and Arabic, translates Qur’? 25:1 (Sura’ al-Furqaan/Parashat ha-“Furqaan”) as follows:

Yitbarekh (Elohim) asher horid et ha-“Furqaan” al yad abdo, L’ma’an yihyeh mazhir libnei-adam

The translation is:

Blessed be He who sent down the “Furqaan” on His servant that he might be a warner for the worlds.

What is the key here is the fact that Rivlin had left the word “furqaan” untranslated and put it in inverted commas. The translator, who is intimately familiar with both Arabic and Hebrew, simply transliterated the Arabic into Hebrew characters and left it untranslated, signifying that this is a wholly Arabic/Islamic term. From there Rivlin feels the need to explain this term and offers a footnote that says the following:

Ha-Furqaan echad shemot sefer Elohim
“The Furqaan is one of the names for the book of God.”[2]

The sum-total of this Hebrew scholar’s attempt at elucidating the term is to tell readers that it is a reference to the Qur’?

Rivlin, coupled with the sources cited by Brother Shibli, should be enough, but what about Dr. Heger’s sources? The first piece of evidence that Dr. Heger cites is Carl Brockelmann’s article in Lexicon Syriacum. Dr. Heger even supplies us with a scanned image of the relevant page. First, it should be admitted that Heger is partially right, that this very respected Syriac dictionary does say that the Syriac purqaan means “salvation” (salvatio). However, nowhere does the source ever attempts to tie it in with the Arabic furqaan. Biblical verses cited are Genesis 49:17 (actually 18), and Exodus 14:13, and then it admits that the actual word used in the Hebrew is not from the PRQ/FRQ root, rather it is y’shoo’ah (), which is from a completely different root. This eliminates the word as being anything taken from any Judaic sources, as is implied in many of Dr. Heger’s citations. The word being discussed is an archaic Syriac conjugation of the PRQ/FRQ root.

The other source offered on Heger’s page is Smith’s Thesaurus Syriacum. Unfortunately, it never ties the word in with the Hebrew or Arabic renderings, thus establishing this archaic Syriac word as being totally outside the scope of Hebrew or Arabic conjugations of the FRQ root. So if Heger wants to claim that the Syriac word existed, neither of these sources lend weight to any borrowing theory. What is really Heger’s argument? That they sound alike and are from the same root? This is not enough; usage is also needed.

Indeed, usage is actually highly relevant, particularly if we go back to the aforementioned Brockelman. In the Philosophy of Language, there is a notion of “intertranslation salva veritate,” which means translation can be done back and forth without any loss of truth. So, for example, the word “bachelor” has a relationship of mutual intertranslation salva veritate with the phrase “unmarried man.” Does this relationship exist between the Syriac purqaan and the Hebrew y’shoo’ah?

Dr. Heger wants us to believe first that the Arabic furqaan is synonymous with the Syriac purqaan, simply because they sound alike. After that he wants us to believe that purqaan is synonymous with salvation, because the Hebrew word y’shoo’ah (“salvation”) was translated “purqaan” when rendered into Syriac. However, Dr. Heger seemed to neglect his own source (Brockelmann), which itself notes that other Hebrew words, which do not mean salvation, have also been translated as purqaan when rendered into Syriac.

If one reads just below the hi-lited part (within the same column) of the scanned page offered by Dr. Heger[3] they will find that the word in question not only means salvatio (“salvation”), but also secessit (“to separate”). Note the citation of Numbers 16:26, where the Hebrew sur () is also rendered purqaan. Sur means “to depart”, or as the Latin in Brockelmann puts it, recessit, which means “retreat.”

Most ironic of all, in his article on furqaan, Brother Shibli cited Exodus 32:2-3, where people are told to remove their earrings. According to Brockelmann, Syriac translations of those verses also employ purqaan in place of the Hebrew


or “remove,” or the Latin removit. So, if even Dr. Heger’s own source discredits any notion of mutual intertranslation salva veritate between purqaan and y’shoo’ah, there is no reason to assume that this word must be translated “salvation.”

Now that we have plowed right through the sources that Dr. Heger has made available to us, it is time to turn to the citations that he did not make accessible. Brother Shibli wondered aloud why Dr. Heger would fail to quote a single one of these sources. Upon further reflection, it would seem that he either did not really check these sources himself, or was aware of their inconsistencies. First, a question must be asked: How many sources did Heger cite? The list on his page is quite intimidating. He cites such respected authorities as Richard Bell, Montgomery Watt, Joseph Horovitz, Arthur Jeffery, A. J. Wensinck, and of course the legendary Theodor N?ke. Upon closer inspection, however, one realizes that there is a great deal of redundancy. Watt does nothing more than cite Bell. Horovitz calls N?ke and Wensinck as his witness. In the end it seems that Dr. Heger, in all actuality, only cited a couple of sources.

First, let us consider the two sources from Dr. Horovitz. Dr. Heger cites them as Koranische Untersuchungen and “Jewish Proper Names and Derivatives in the Koran”. From the German source, only a single page is cited (p. 76), and that page recommends readers to consider N?ke’s Geschichte des Qorans. As for the English source, an article from Vol. 2 of the Hebrew Union College Annual, it too has some problems. First of all, one wonders why Dr. Heger cited some 82 pages (pp. 145-227) of text, when the portion that discusses Furqaan covers only three pages? It seems highly probable that either

    (a) Dr. Heger preferred anyone who attempted to check his source would drown in the many pages, or
    (b) Dr. Heger himself had not consulted this work, rather he merely lifted the citation from somewhere else.

Horovitz, however, does agree with Dr. Heger that the Arabic Furqaan has been taken from a Jewish or Christian source, but, as was stated above, he mostly just claims such and cites N?ke and Wensinck as proof. Oddly, Horovitz makes the same mistake that so many of these sources make: claiming that the word is foreign while at the same time arguing that it was influenced by the Arabic “FA, RAA, QAAF” tri-lateral root. Sadly, what this boils down to is an arrogance brought on by a combination of a bias in favor of Hebrew (the Bible’s language) and an ignorance of the history of that language’s relationship with Arabic. The FRQ root (“to divide,” “to separate”) is found in both Arabic and Hebrew, and if the word stems from that root in either language, it essentially stems from it in both. This is because the root is exactly the same in both languages, and is probably a cognate that predates both languages. Aside from that point, in the realm of common cognates between Hebrew and Arabic, scholars should (and now do) lean towards the Arabic, since it is the Arabic cognates that often help us understand archaic Hebrew words. As the famous Orientalist Guillaume informs us:

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century there has been a constant recourse to Arabic for the explanation of rare words and forms in Hebrew; for Arabic though more than a thousand years junior as a literary language, is the senior philosophically by countless centuries. Perplexing phenomenon in Hebrew can often be explained as solitary and archaic survivals of the form which are frequent and common in the cognate Arabic. Words and idioms whose precise sense had been lost in Jewish tradition, receive a ready and convincing explanation from the same source. Indeed no serious student of the Old Testament can afford to dispense with a first-hand knowledge in Arabic. The pages of any critical commentary on the Old Testament will illustrate the debt of the Biblical exegesis owes to Arabic.[4]

We also read that

Jews who studied Arabic language and literature, as well as other academic disciplines, learned the new linguistic science and desired to exploit it in their exegesis of the Bible and the analysis of Hebrew grammar. Only those who knew Arabic grammar developed the proper understanding of the Hebrew verb as the stem built upon three consonants.[5]

Horovitz’ (and others) mistake behind us, we should consider the other sources he called to witness that also appeared in Dr. Heger’s list.

First on the list would have to be Theodor N?ke’s very well-known Geschichte des Qorans. All that he has to say on Furqaan is the following:


The translation is:

Well, that is certainly not much! However, N?ke does have a footnote that says:

Das Wort stammt, wie das ?iopische ferqan, von dem aram?chen [purqaana].[7]
Translation: The word comes, like the Ethiopic ferqan, from the Aramaic purqaana.

N?ke claims such without offering any real evidence. However, he does follow with one very revealing statement:

Die Bedeutung “Offenbarung” ist im Aram?chen nicht nachgewiesen. Es ist daher m?ch, da?sie sich erst auf arabischen Sprachgebiete gebildet hat.[8]

Translation: The meaning “revealing” is not known in Aramaic. It is possible therefore that it formed only in areas where Arabic is spoken.

This is an incredible admission on the part of N?ke! We know that there are many different conjugations of the FRQ root common to the Semitic languages – this has been thoroughly demonstrated in Brother Shibli’s article. However, if a usage that is not found in the other languages is present in Arabic, this makes the Arabic word more original, and hurts claims about the word being borrowed. This is a rather simple rule of linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. As one of the greatest Philosophers of Language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it:

Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.[9]
Translation: The meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Of course others could argue that the word was borrowed and then evolved after the fact, but this would have to be demonstrated, not merely asserted. The fact that the cognate exists in Arabic, and is used the same way as in other Semitic languages, hurts the possibility that it had to be borrowed. The word furqaan () is from the root word faraqa, literally meaning “to separate, divide, sever, sunder; to make a distinction, distinguish, differentiate, discriminate”[10]. When the FRQ root is employed in Hebrew to mean “salvation,” it is only in the sense that one is separated from the danger, such as Psalms 136:24 which says God “saved us from our enemies” (YiFRQenu mitsaareinu).

Let us consider A. J. Wensinck’s article. Wensinck, from the start, offers a statement that is almost contradictory:

The word is found in Arabic literature as an original Arabic word and also as one borrowed from the Aramaic.[11]

Is it an original Arabic word or is it borrowed? If it is both, then it is a paradox, because an original word is surely not borrowed. The only argument for borrowing that Wensinck has to offer is in yet another perplexing passage:

In the meaning “salvation” the word is certainly and Aramaic loanword. Thus Sura viii. 42 “…and what we have revealed to our servant on the day of the Furkan, on the day when the two hosts met”. Here the battle of Badr is called “the day of the Furkan”. Some of the commentators on this passage give the meaning al-nasr “victory”. But this is the Aramaic furkana, synonymous with the Hebrew yesha’ “salvation”.[12]

Wensinck feels that the verse (which is actually Qur’?8:41) is making reference to the battle of Badr, and thus the proper interpretation is “salvation”. He has given no valid argument for why readers should take such an interpretation rather than “the day of testing” or “day of discrimination”. The FRQ root means to divide, separate, thus why not see this as the day the believers were separated from God’s enemies? Amazingly, Wensinck offers nothing, and his bibliography includes N?ke!

Richard Bell’s Introduction to The Qur’?makes the same argument as Wensinck, resting almost everything on his own personal interpretation of the verse from Sura’ al-Anfaal. As stated, he writes that the readers might

[…] note that there [i.e. in Sura’ al-Anfaal 8:29] the furqan is associated with absolution from evil deeds and forgiveness.[13]

From there, he writes that

This gives a slight presumption that it was from Christian sources that the word was derived, but Muhammad must have associated it with the Arabic root faraqa, ‘to separate'[.][14]

In passing, he did indeed argue that the word furqaan is originally of an Aramaic root when he notes that the word may be a

derivation either from the Syrian purqana or from the Jewish-Aramaic purqan.[15]

but he ends up appealing to Authur Jeffrey as a source for his reference.

Surely this appeal to one’s own subjective brand of hermeneutics is fallacious, but this is all Bell has to offer. Watt, as was already mentioned, simply parrots Bell and cites him as evidence. He writes the following:

In 8.41/42 ‘the day of the furqan, the day the two parties met’ must be the day of Badr; and furqan, in virtue of its connexion with the Syriac word purqana, ‘salvation’, must mean something like ‘deliverance from the judgement’. This being so the furqan which was given to Moses is doubtless his deliverance when he led his people out of Egypt, and Pharaoh and his hosts were overwhelmed. Similarly, Muhammad’s furqan will be the deliverance given at Badr when the Calamity came upon the Meccans. This was the ‘sign’ which confirmed his prophethood.[16]

It seems that all of Heger’s sources have fallen, save one: Jeffery.

Arthur Jeffery’s Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’?is a very difficult work to navigate through, mainly because every page is littered with Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Ancient Persian and various other scripts. However, the book is a joke. At one point[17] Jeffery even argues that the Arabic salaam (“peace”) is borrowed from the Hebrew shalom. Jeffery notes the Arabic tri-lateral root “FA, RAA, QAAF” is the same root as in Hebrew and Aramaic, but still sees it as foreign. In his own words:

This uncertainty and confusion is difficult to explain if we are dealing with a genuine Arabic word and is sufficient of itself to suggest that it is a borrowed term.[18]

We find the statement by Jeffery above to be rather perplexing. If the word has a root in the language, it is almost certainly not foreign. Why would a speaker need to go outside their language to conjugate a verb-root that is in their language? This is a difficult question to answer, not that Heger or any of his sources attempt to do so. Jeffery simply asserts that it was taken from Christian terminology, and calls to witness Bell, N?ke and Wensinck for support.


It is quite interesting to see that Dr. Heger’s long list of sources, which at first seemed so imposing, is actually quite circular, with everyone citing everyone else, or citing one another. All these citations made reference in some way or another to the Battle of Badr as an appeal to their reason, in the sense that it is a “separation” from danger, and not to “an old Christian hymn” as Dr. Heger tries to assert. Moreover, we have seen that by referring to Rivlin’s Hebrew translation of the Qur’? the word Furqaan is treated as a wholly Arabic word, and hence the theory that Furqaan is a borrowed Hebrew-Syriac word does not hold water.

And only God knows best.


The author would like to thank Abook Alam Riki for the helpful discourse on the linguistics and the observations regarding Brockelmann that were offered.


[1] Yosef Yo’el Rivlin, Alkur’an / tirgem me-`Arvit, Devir, Tel Aviv (1936-1945).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carl Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum, (Hildesheim 1966), p. 606

[4] Alfred Guillaume, The Legacy Of Islam, (Oxford, 1931), p. ix

[5] Barry W Holtz (ed.), Back to the Sources: Reading The Classic Jewish Texts, (Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 222

[6] Theodor N?ke, Geschichte des Qorans, (Leipzig, 1909), p. 34

[7] Ibid., p. 34, n. 1

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wittgenstein, Philophische Untersuchungen, pt. I, sect. 43

[10] J. M. Cowan (ed.), The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, p. 708

[11] A. J. Wensinck, “Furkan,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, (EJ Brill, 1927), Vol. 2, p. 120

[12] Ibid.

[13] Richard Bell, Introduction to the Qur’? p. 137

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 136

[16] W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina (Oxford, 1960), p. 16

[17] Arthur Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’? pp. 174-175

[18] Ibid., p. 226

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