EASTERN TEXTS MEETING WESTERN QUILLS – THE FIRST ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE QURAN

By: Lubaaba Amatullah

Source: http://muslimmatters.org

When asking fellow Muslims about the first English Qur’an, the response is frequently a reference to the 1930 translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Less frequently an excited voice speaks of the George Sale Qur’an of 1734. However, British Islamic – and Quranic – history extends long beyond that.

The first rendering of the Qur’an into a European Western language, Latin, was completed by the English scholar Robertus Retenensis. It was entitled ‘Lex Mahumet Pseudoprophete’ (‘The Law of Mahomet the False Prophet’) and was completed in 1143. The translation enjoyed popularity and wide circulation, later to become the main basis for further contemporary translations into Italian, German and Dutch.[1] Between 1480 and 1481, not long after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the first bilingual translation into Latin, with accompanying Arabic, appeared composed by the Jewish convert to Christianity, Flavius Mithridates.[2] In 1647, Andrew Du Ryer produced the first French translation in Paris. This first translation directly from Arabic since the Middle Ages[3] was a marked improvement from those produced over the years since 1143.

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From Du Ryer’s translation, the first English translation was produced in 1649: ‘The Alcoran of Mahomet'[4] by Alexander Ross. It was rendered from the French rather than the Arabic, making it an indirect translation with associated problems. Nonetheless, the Ross translation is important as the first complete print of an English Qur’an and it became  significant for the time in which it was produced.

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The early modern period endured a time of upheaval in Christian Europe in both religious and national identity. In addition to the tensions created by increasing sectarian conflicts between Christians, the expanding Ottoman Empire placed considerable pressure on Christendom. Islam was expanding demographically and geographically[5], through the superior military might of the Ottomans and the conversions of European Christians to Islam.[6]

Richard Knolles, an early modern English historian and author of The Generall Historie of the Turkes, the first major text on the Ottoman Empire in the English language, commented in it on the impossibility to ‘set downe the bounds and limits’ upon the Ottomans who accept ‘no other limits than the uttermost bounds of the earth’.

Christianity lost ground in Eastern and Central Europe due to the expansion of Islam in this period. The Islamic faith simultaneously threatened and attracted Europe as both conflict and conversion flourished. The Ottoman threat made the translation and dissemination of the Qur’an a matter of urgency to inform the public of the ‘true’ Qur’an (according to how the polemical translations would portray it), prevent further conversions and educate people on how to draw Muslims to Christianity[7]. The threat was particularly real for Britons who suffered from conversions, piracy, and the general military might and economic superiority of the Islamic Empires.

With external troubles from the Ottoman faith, Britain was also undergoing significant upheavals from within. The English Civil War was underway with 1649 seeing the conclusion of the second war, the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of the short-lived English Republic. That this year produced the first English translation of the Qur’an, merely four months after the fall of the monarch, and by Ross who was a known Royalist[8] and beneficiary of Charles I,[9] is no coincidence.

The publication of the Qur’an at this central moment in the re-defining of Britain’s identity and national dynamics is a historical moment whose significance appears to have been neglected. To argue that the Ross Qur’an was minor and coincidental would be a mistake. The translation enjoyed popularity during the seventeenth century, subsequently overriding the George Sale Qur’an (1734) to become the first translation printed in the United States in 1806[10].

Published four months after the regicide of Charles I and the establishment of the English Republic, under which serious upheavals at the Church of England was experienced, the translation was arguably a response to a government Ross, a previous chaplain to the deceased King, considered heretical and sinful for executing their divinely anointed monarch and restructuring the holy Church. Here the translation of the Muslim holy book entailed an attack upon a despised government through comparison to a rejected faith, Islam. In the introduction and appendices, the authorities are accused of ‘instability in religion'[11] and compared unfavourably to the heretical Muslim Turks. However, even as the authorities are faulted for being ‘too like Turks’, soon after Ross admiringly describes the Muslims:

‘how zealous they are in the works of devotion, piety, and charity, how devout, cleanly, and reverend in their Mosques, how obedient to their Priests, that even the great Turk himself will attempt nothing without consulting his mufti….'[12]

While the Turk may be heretical, the authorities were heretical and immoral; in character, the Muslims were better. In one breath they were condemned for being Turk, in another condemned for not. The instability of British identity and the struggles to frame it in this difficult moment is evident. Through the internal conflict of civil war, where a sense of the English self was destabilised, the English Qur’an became a medium through which to turn to the stable Turk as a balancing figure in the process of self-negotiation; one to compare against and, in spite of the Christian reflex against an infidel, emulate.

Significantly, this attitude towards the Ottomans is also portrayed by the Parliamentarians. The 1649 Secretary for Foreign Tongues and poet, John Milton, praised the Muslims for their ability to ‘enlarge their empire as much by the study of liberal arts as by force of arms.'[13] Like Ross, the authorities were torn between rejection and admiration of the Muslims, employing this heathen other as a balancing figure in understanding English identity and projecting aspirational paths of political advancement.

Ultimately, Ross’ translation became not only the first English Qur’an, but a text of the English Civil War and an important tool in its political struggle and negotiation of a national identity. Through the turbulence of conflict, the Islamic holy text found itself transported and adopted in a new realm, one that was experiencing the pangs of its rebirth, and impacting at the very roots of the conflict. The Qur’an became a symbol of the ideological struggles of the revolution, leaving its indelible mark on British identity and history.

 

 

Lubaaba Amatullah is joint Editor-in-Chief of The Platform (www.the-platform.org.uk). When not consuming tea or waxing lyrical on the glories of British chocolate, she pursues a PhD in English Literature on England’s early encounters with the Islamic world.

 

 

 

[1] Abdul-Raof, Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis[Routeledge, London, 2001],  p. 19

[2] Ziad Elmarsafy, The Enlightenment Qur’an [Oneworld, Oxford, 2009], p. 3

[3] Elmarsafy, p. xi

[4] Alexander Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet Newly translated out of Arabique into French by the Sier Du Ryer, Lord of Malezair, and Resident for the King of France, at Alexandria. And Newly Englished for the satisfaction of all who wish to look into the Turkish Vanities [London, 1649] All references to the Alcoran are drawn from http://www.archive.org/details/alcoranofmahomet00dury  

[5] Nabil Matar, Islam in Britain: 1558-1685 [CUP, Cambridge, 1998], p. 17

[6] Matar, Islam in Britain, p. 19

[7] Elmarsafy, p. 4

[8] Nabil Matar, “Alexander Ross and the First English Translation of the Qur’an,” The Muslim World, Vol. 88 [1998], p. 84

[9] Matar, Alexander Ross and the First English Translation of the Qur’an, p. 82

[10] Elmarsafy, p. 9

[11] Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet: A Needful Caveat

[12] Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet: A Needful Caveat

[13] John Milton, ‘Prolusion 7’ in Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 7 vols., gen. Ed. Don M. Wolfe [New Haven London: Yale University Press, 1953-1983], vol. 1, p. 299

About Akhi Soufyan

If you see goodness from me, then that goodness is from The Creator. You should be thankful to The Creator for all of that. Cause I'm not the architect of that. I'm only the...the recipient. If you see weakness or shortcoming in me it's from my own weakness or shortcoming. And I ask The Creator and the people to forgive me for that. _______________________________ Website eigenaar voor een betere wereld en doel, niet gericht op verdiensten van geld maar goede daden. In de naam van Allah, de Barmhartige. Als je goedheid van mij ziet, dan is dat de goedheid van de Schepper (God). Wees De Schepper dankbaar voor dat. Want ik ben daar niet de architect van, ik ben alleen de ontvanger.

Posted on August 24, 2014, in ARTICLES and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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