Over it are neither nineteen nor seventeen
An especially meritorious reconstruction by Günter Lüling, A Challenge to Islam for Reformation. The Rediscovery and Reliable Reconstruction of a Comprehensive Pre-Islamic Christian Hymnal hidden in the Koran under the Earliest Islamic Reinterpretation, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2003 (ISNB: 81-208-1952-7), a translation and considerable reworking of the Günter Lüling, Über den Ur-Koran, Erlangen 11974, 21993, is surah 74:30:
عَلَيْهَا تِسَةَ عَشَرَ, `alayhâ tis`ata `ašara,
which is translated verbatim: "Above it (are) nineteen."
As is well-known, this verse has been the origin of a lot of numerological phantasies concerning some magic behind the Koran.
The current Islamic understanding says that the verse (“ayah”) refers to 19 angels guarding the gates to hell.
After all, this understanding of verse 74:30 admittedly is stipulated by verse 74:31:
“And We have set none but angels as guardians of the Fire; and We have fixed their number only as a trial for Unbelievers, in order that the People of the Book may arrive at certainty, and the Believers may increase in Faith, and that no doubts may be left for the People of the Book and the Believers, and that those in whose hearts is a disease and the Unbelievers may say, 'What symbol doth Allah intend by this?' Thus doth Allah leave to stray whom He pleaseth; and guide whom He pleaseth; and none can know the forces of thy Lord, except He. And this is no other than a warning to mankind.”
It is however common view of Islamic and orientalist scholarship that verse 74:31 was inserted/revealed later. Indeed, already its enormous length in comparison with the verses of its context is striking. Verse 74:31 obviously was thought as kind of comment or admonition to cling exactly on to this understanding that "above it (are) 19" means: 19 angels guarding the hell.
If we duly discard this understanding forced upon verse 74:30, how might we understand it? Nineteen what? We are to answer this question in two steps.
Firstly, instead of the usually given Arabic text "`alayhâ tis`ata `ašara" Muslim tradition knows also the version
عَلَيْهَا سَبْعَةَ عَشَرَ, `alayhâ sab`ata `ašara,
"Above it (are) seventeen."
(Ibn Hišam, Kitâb sîrat rasûli llâh, ed. Ferdinand Wuestenfeld, Goettingen 1860, reprint Frankfurt/Main 1961, II, 67, 4-16). These two Arabic figures, 17 and 19, even if written in words, are actually indistinguishable if the writer wrote, as usual, the "water waves" of the Arabic script with equal spaces and didn't set the diacritical point or the two diacritical points, resp., at the crucial places.
Referring to 17 angels guarding the gates to hell, of course, is nothing better than to 19 ones.
Secondly, Lüling proposed to read:
عَلَيْهَا سَبْعَةَ أَشْعُرٍ, `alayhâ sab`atu aš`urin,
an emendation which presupposes in the rasm (= script apart from diacritical points and vowel marks, which are later inventions) the metathesis of the "ش, š" (šîn) with the "ع, `" (`ain) and an additional "ا, '" (alif) in front of the rasm "š-`-r".
Such metatheses are rather common in Semitic etymology, and due to the structure of the Arabic script it is even no big affair to interchange a "س, s" (sîn) with an "ع, `" (`ain) – or in a script without diacritical points a "ش, š" (šîn) with an "ع, `" (`ain).
For this reading "aš`urin",
including the additional alif, we have documental evidence:
Some of the
oldest Qur'an codices read "tis`ata a`šurin" (Arthur Jeffery, Materials for
History of the Text of the Qur'an. The Old Codices,
Already in the 9th century AD, when Islamic orthodoxy consolidated, Muslim scholarship did not know what to make of this reading. Abû Hâti as-Sijistânî (+ 864) e.g. is reported (G. Bergstraesser, Nichtkanonische Koranlesarten im MuHtasab des Ibn Ginnî, Muenchen 1933, p. 73,5ff) to have said about this odd variant: "It makes no recognizable sense except that 'tis`ata a`šurin' could mean the plural of 'ten' [i.e. a`šurin in a nonsensical way understood as plural of `ašr/`ašarah, leading to "nine tens" = 90; Ch.H.] or something else apart from what just occurred to our minds."
In addition one may remember that "Brother Mark" in his "A `Perfect' Qur'an …" has shown that in the oldest Koran manuscripts with their older orthography more alifs were present, which later were omitted in many cases.
Whereas a plural "a`šur"
of "`ašara" – like "tens" of "ten" –
certainly is nonsense, a plural "as`
Eventually we arrive at the reconstruction of surah 74:30 as
عَلَيْهَا سَبْعَةَ أَسْعُرٍ, `alayhâ sab`atu as`urin,
"To it (are) seven gates."
The assertion that hell has seven gates or bolts is very apt to the context of surah 74:30. And this topic of hell having seven gates is not only a very familiar one from Old-Orient times, but is present also in the Qur'an, namely in surah 15:44:
لَهَا سَبَةَ أَبْوَابٍ, lahâ sab`atu abwâbin,
"To it (are) seven gates."