An Introduction to the History of the Translations of the Koran

THERE is surely no need to-day to insist on the importance of a close study of the Koran for all who would comprehend the many vital problems connected with the Islamic World; and yet few of us, I imagine, among the many who possess translations of this book have been at pains to read it through. It must, however, be borne in mind that the Koran plays a far greater role among the Muhammadans than does the Bible in Christianity in that it provides not only the canon of their faith, but also the textbook of their ritual and the principles of their Civil Law.

It was the Great Crusades that first brought the West into close touch with Islam, but between the years 1096 and 1270 we only hear of one attempt to make known to Europe the Sacred Book of the Moslems, namely, the Latin version made in 1143, by Robert of Retina (who, Sale tells us, was an Englishman), and Hermann of Dalmatia, on the initiative of Petrus Venerabilis, the Abbot of Clugny, which version was ultimately printed by T. Bibliander in Basel in 1543, nearly a hundred years after the fall of Constantinople.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several translations appeared both in Latin and in French, and one of the latter, by Andre du Ryer, was translated into English by Alexander Ross in 1649. But by far the most important work on the Koran was that of Luigi Marracci which was published in Padua in 1698.

George Sale's translation first appeared in November, 1734, in a quarto volume; in 1764 it was first printed in medium octavo, and the reprint of 1825 contained the sketch of Sale's life by Richard Alfred Davenant which has been utilized in the article on Sale in the Dictionary of National Bibliography. The Chandos Classics edition in crown octavo was first issued in 1877.

Soon after the death of the Prophet, early Muhammadan theologians began to discuss, not only the correct reading of the text itself, but also to work out on the basis of first-hand reports the story connected with the revelation of each chapter. As the book at present stands in its original form the chapters are arranged more or less according to their respective length, beginning with the longest; except in the case of the opening chapter, which holds a place by itself, not only in the sacred book of Islam, corresponding as it does in a manner to our Pater Noster, but also in its important ceremonial usages. The presumed order in which the various chapters were revealed is given in the tabular list of Contents, but it may be mentioned that neither Muhammadan theologians, nor, in more recent times, European scholars, are in entire agreement upon the exact chronological position of all the chapters.

It is well for all who study the Koran to realize that the actual text is never the composition of the Prophet, but is the word of God addressed to the Prophet; and that in quoting the Koran the formula is "He (may he be exalted) said" or some such phrase. The Prophet himself is of course quoted by Muhammadan theologians, but such quotations refer to his traditional sayings known as "Hadis," which have been handed down from mouth to mouth with the strictest regard to genealogical continuity.

It would probably be impossible for any Arabic scholar to produce a translation of the Koran which would defy criticism, but this much may be said of Sale's version: just as, when it first appeared, it had no rival in the field, it may be fairly claimed to-day that it has been superseded by no subsequent translations. Equally remarkable with his translation is the famous Preliminary Discourse which constitutes a tour de force when we consider how little critical work had been done in his day in the field of Islamic research. Practically the only works of first-class importance were Dr. Pocock's Specimen Historio Arabum, to which, in his original Address to the Reader, Sale acknowledges his great indebtedness, and Maracci's Koran.

In spite of the vast number of eminent scholars who have worked in the same field since the days of George Sale, his Preliminary Discourse still remains the best Introduction in any European language to the study of the religion promulgated by the Prophet of Arabia; but as Wherry says: "Whilst reading the Preliminary Discourse as a most masterly, and on the whole reliable, presentation of the peculiar doctrines, rites, ceremonies, customs, and institutions of Islam, we recognize the fact that modern research has brought to light many things concerning the history of the ancient Arabs which greatly modify the statements made in the early paragraphs."

For many centuries the acquaintance which the majority of Europeans possessed of Muhammadanism was based almost entirely on distorted reports of fanatical Christians which led to the dissemination of a multitude of gross calumnies. What was good in Muhammadanism was entirely ignored, and what was not good, in the eyes of Europe, was exaggerated or misinterpreted.

It must not, however, be forgotten that the central doctrine preached by Muhammad to his contemporaries in Arabia, who worshipped the Stars; to the Persians, who acknowledged Ormuz and Ahriman; the Indians, who worshipped idols; and the Turks, who had no particular worship, was the unity of God, and that the simplicity of his creed was probably a more potent factor in the spread of Islam than the sword of the Ghazis.

Islam, although seriously affecting the Christian world, brought a spiritual religion to one half of Asia, and it is an amazing circumstance that the Turks, who on several occasions let loose their Central Asian hordes over India, and the Middle East, though irresistible in the onslaught of their arms, were all conquered in their turn by the Faith of Islam, and founded Muhammadan dynasties.

The Mongols of the thirteenth century did their best to wipe out all traces of Islam when they sacked Baghdad, but though the Caliphate was relegated to obscurity in Egypt the newly founded Empires quickly became Muhammadan states, until finally it was a Turk who took the title of Caliph which has been held by the house of Othman ever since.

Thus through all the vicissitudes of thirteen hundred years the Koran has remained the sacred book of all the Turks and Persians and of nearly a quarter of the population of India. Surely such a book as this deserves to be widely read in the West, more especially in these days when space and time have been almost annihilated by modern invention, and when public interest embraces the whole world.

It is difficult to decide to what extent Sale's citations in the notes represent first-hand use of the Arabic commentators, but I fear that the result of a close inquiry only points to very little original research on his part. He says himself in his Address to the Reader: "As I have no opportunity of consulting public libraries, the manuscripts of which I have made use throughout the whole work have been such as I had in my own study, except only the Commentary of Al Baidh‚wi" . . . which "belongs to the library of the Dutch Church in Austin Friars."

Now with regard to these manuscripts which Sale had in his "own study" we happen to possess first-hand information, for a list of them was printed by the executor of his will under the following title: "A choice collection of most curious and inestimable manuscripts in the Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages from the library of the late learned and ingenious Mr. George Sale. Which books are now in the possession of Mr. William Hammerton Merchant in Lothbury where they may be seen on Wednesdays and Fridays till either they are sold or sent abroad. N.B. These MSS. are to be sold together and not separately." They were purchased in the first instance by the Rev. Thomas Hunt of Oxford for the Radcliffe Library, and they are now permanently housed in the Bodleian Library.

The British Museum possesses a copy of this list which is drawn up in English and French on opposite pages and comprises eighty-six works in all. The list contains very few Arabic works of first-rate importance, but is rich in Turkish and Persian Histories. What is most significant, however, is the fact that it contains hardly any of the Arabic works and none of the Commentaries which are referred to on every page of Sale's translation of the Koran.

I have therefore been forced to the conclusion that with the exception of Al-Baidh‚wi, Sale's sources were all consulted at second hand; and an examination of Marracci's great work makes the whole matter perfectly clear. Sale says of Marracci's translation that it is "generally speaking very exact; but adheres to the Arabic idiom too literally to be easily understood . . . by those who are not versed in the Muhammadan learning. The notes he has added are indeed of great use; but his refutations, which swell the work to a large volume, are of little or none at all, being often unsatisfactory, and sometimes impertinent. The work, however, with all its faults is very valuable, and I should be guilty of ingratitude, did I not acknowledge myself much obliged thereto; but still being in Latin it can be of no use to those who understand not that tongue."

Such is Sale's own confession of his obligation to Marracci--but it does not go nearly far enough. A comparison of the two versions shows that so much had been achieved by Marracci that Sale's work might almost have been performed with a knowledge of Latin alone, as far as regards the quotations from Arabic authors. I do not wish to imply that Sale did not know Arabic, but I do maintain that his work as it stands gives a misleading estimate of his original researches, and that his tribute to Marracci falls far short of his actual indebtedness.

It must be mentioned that Marracci not only reproduced the whole of the Arabic text of the Koran but furthermore gives the original text and the translation of all his quotations from Arabic writers. It is indeed a profoundly learned work and has never received the recognition it deserves. Marracci had at his disposal rich collections of MSS. belonging to the Libraries of Italy. How he learnt his Arabic we do not know. Voltaire says he was never in the East. He was confessor to Pope Innocent XI, and his work which appeared in Padua in 1698 is dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. By way of Introduction to his Koran Marracci published a companion folio volume called Prodromus which contains practically all that was known in his day regarding Muhammad and the Religion of Islam.

It may in any case be claimed that the present work presents to the Western student all the essentials of a preliminary study of Islam: for Sale's translation and footnotes will give him as clear an idea as can be obtained, without laborious years of study in Arabic, of what is regarded by so many millions of men from Fez to the Far East as the revealed word of God and the unshakable basis of their faith.

George Sale was born about 1697 and died in 1736. Every biography calls attention to the statement made by Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique to the effect that Sale spent over twenty years among the Arabs. I think this must have been a lapsus calami on Voltaire's part, because it is unlikely that he would have invented such a story. Sale must also have been well versed in Hebrew, both biblical and post-biblical, as his numerous allusions to Rabbinical writings testify.

Two years after the publication of his great work Sale died in Surrey Street, Strand, his age being then under forty. In 1720 he had been admitted a student of the Inner Temple--son of Samuel Sale, citizen and merchant of London--and the same year the Patriarch of Antioch had sent Solomon Negri (Suleiman Alsadi) to London from Damascus to urge the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, then established in the Middle Temple, to issue an Arabic New Testament for the Syrian Christians. It is surmised that Negri was Sale's first instructor in Arabic, though Dadichi, the King's Interpreter, a learned Greek of Aleppo, guided him, we are told, "through the labyrinth of oriental dialects."

Whatever Sale may have known before--and he certainly had the gift of languages--it is on the Society's records that on August 30, 1726, he offered his services as one of the correctors of the Arabic New Testament and soon became the chief worker on it, besides being the Society's solicitor and holding other honorary offices. That translation of the New Testament into Arabic was followed by the translation of the Koran into English.

In this edition the proper names have been left for the most part as in the original, but the reader must understand that in Sale's day there was a freedom in regard to oriental orthography that allowed of many variations. In spite, however, of the want of a scientific system, Sale's transcription is on the whole clear, and far less confusing than those adopted by contemporary Anglo--Indian scholars, who utterly distorted Muhammadan names--including place names in India--by rendering the short a by u and so forth. As a few examples of names spelled in more than one way, the correct modern way being given first, we have Al-Qor'an, Coran, Koran, etc.; Muhammad, Mohammed, Mahomet, etc.; Al-Baidh‚wi, Al-Beid‚wi; Muttalib, Motalleb, Motaleb, etc.; Jal‚l ud-Din, Jall‚lo'ddin; Anas, Ans; Khalifa, Caliph, Khalif, etc.

It is only within quite recent times that scholars have troubled to render each letter of the Arabic alphabet by an equivalent and distinct letter of the Roman alphabet--and although no particular system has been universally adopted by European orientalists, every writer has some system by which any reader with a knowledge of Arabic is able to turn back every name into the original script. The chief advantage of any such system is that a distinction is made between the two varieties of s, k, and t, and the presence of the illusive Arabic letter 'ayn is always indicated.


Sir Edward Denison Ross C.I.E., Ph.D., ETC.

[Written apparently sometime after 1877]



I IMAGINE it almost needless either to make an apology for publishing the following translation, or to go about to prove it a work of use as well as curiosity. They must have a mean opinion of the Christian religion, or be but ill grounded therein, who can apprehend any danger from so manifest a forgery: and if the religious and civil institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so; whether we consider their extensive obtaining, or our frequent intercourse with those who are governed thereby. I shall not here inquire into the reasons why the law of Mohammed has met with so unexampled a reception in the world (for they are greatly deceived who imagine it to have been propagated by the sword alone), or by what means it came to be embraced by nations which never felt the force of the Mohammedan arms, and even by those which stripped the Arabians of their conquests, and put an end to the sovereignty and very being of their Khalifs: yet it seems as if there was something more than what is vulgarly imagined in a religion which has made so surprising a progress. But whatever use an impartial version of the Koran may be of in other respects, it is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favourable an opinion of the original, and also to enable us effectually to expose the imposture; none of those who have hitherto undertaken that province, not excepting Dr. Prideaux himself, having succeeded to the satisfaction of the judicious, for want of being complete masters of the controversy.

The writers of the Romish communion, in particular, are so far from having done any service in their refutations of Mohammedism, that by endeavouring to defend their idolatry and other superstitions, they have rather contributed to the increase of that aversion which the Mohammedans in general have to the Christian religion, and given them great advantages in the dispute. The Protestants alone are able to attack the Koran with success; and for them, I trust, Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow. In the meantime, if I might presume to lay down rules to be observed by those who attempt the conversion of the Mohammedans, they should be the same which the learned and worthy Bishop Kidder[1] has prescribed for the conversion of the Jews, and which may, mutatis mutandis, be equally applied to the former, notwithstanding the despicable opinion that writer, for want of being better acquainted with them, entertained of those people, judging them scarce fit to be argued with. The first of these rules is, To avoid compulsion; which, though it be not in our power to employ at present, I hope will not be made use of when it is. The second is, To avoid teaching doctrines against common sense; the Mohammedans not being such fools (whatever we may think of them) as to be gained over in this case. The worshipping of images and the doctrine of transubstantiation are great stumbling-blocks to the Mohammedans, and the Church which teacheth them is very unfit to bring those people over. The third is, To avoid weak arguments: for the Mohammedans are not to be converted with these, or hard words. We must use them with humanity, and dispute against them with arguments that are proper and cogent.

It is certain that many Christians, who have written against them, have been very defective this way: many have used arguments that have no force, and advanced propositions that are void of truth. This method is so far from convincing, that it rather serves to harden them. The Mohammedans will be apt to conclude we have little to say, when we urge them with arguments that are trifling or untrue. We do but lose ground when we do this; and instead of gaining them, we expose ourselves and our cause also. We must not give them ill words neither; but must avoid all reproachful language, all that is sarcastical and biting: this never did good from pulpit or press. The softest words will make the deepest impression; and if we think it a fault in them to give ill language, we cannot be excused when we imitate them. The fourth rule is, Not to quit any article of the Christian faith to gain the Mohammedans. It is a fond conceit of the Socinians, that we shall upon their principles be most like to prevail upon the Mohammedans: it is not true in matter of fact. We must not give up any article to gain them: but then the Church of Rome ought to part with many practices and some doctrines. We are not to design to gain the Mohammedans over to a system of dogma, but to the ancient and primitive faith. I believe nobody will deny but that the rules here laid down are just: the latter part of the third, which alone my design has given me occasion to practise, I think so reasonable, that I have not, in speaking of Mohammed or his Koran, allowed myself to use those opprobrious appellations, and unmannerly expressions, which seem to be the strongest arguments of several who have written against them.

On the contrary, I have thought myself to treat both with common decency, and even to approve suchparticulars as seemed to me to deserve approbation: for how criminal soever Mohammed may have been in imposing a false religion on mankind, the praises due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him; nor can I do otherwise than applaud the candour of the pious and learned Spanhemius, who, though he owned him to have been a wicked impostor, yet acknowledged him to have been richly furnished with natural endowments, beautiful in his person, of a subtle wit, agreeable behaviour, showing liberality to the poor, courtesy to every one, fortitude against his enemies, and above all a high reverence for the name of GOD; severe against the perjured, adulterers, murderers, slanderers, prodigals, covetous, false witnesses, &c., a great preacher of patience, charity, mercy, beneficence, gratitude, honouring of parents and superiors, and a frequent celebrator of the divine praises.[2]

[1] In his Demonstr. of the Messias, Part III. chap. 2.

[2] Id certum, naturalibus egregie dotibus instructum Muhammedera, forma praestanti, ingenio calido, moribus facetis, ac prae se ferentem liberalitatem in egenos. comitatem in singulos, fortitudinem in hostes, ac prae caeteris reverentiam divini nominis.--Severus fuit in perjuros, adulteros, homicidas, obtrectatores, prodigos, avaros, falsos testes, &c. Magnus idem patientiae, charitatis, misericordiae, beneficentiae, gratitudinis, honoris in parentes ac superiores praeco, ut et divinarum laudum. Hist. Eccles. Sec. VII. c. 7, lem. 5 and 7.

Of the several translations of the Koran now extant, there is but one which tolerably represents the sense of the original; and that being in Latin, a new version became necessary, at least to an English reader. What Bibliander published for a Latin translation of that book deserves not the name of a translation; the unaccountable liberties therein taken and the numberless faults, both of omission and commission, leaving scarce any resemblance of the original. It was made near six hundred years ago, being finished in 1143, by Robertus Retenensis, an Englishman, with the assistance of Hermannus Dalmata, at the request of Peter, Abbot of Clugny, who paid them well for their pains.

From this Latin version was taken the Italian of Andrea Arrivabene, notwithstanding the pretences in his dedication of its being done immediately from the Arabic;[3] wherefore it is no wonder if the transcript be yet more faulty and absurd than the copy.[4]

[3] His words are: Questo libro, che gia havevo a commune utilita di molti fatto dal proprio testo Arabo tradurre nella nostra volgar lingua Italiana, &c. And afterwards; Questo e l'Alcorano di Macometto, il quale, come ho gia detto, ho fatto dal suo idioma tradurre, &c.

[4] Vide Jos. Scalig. Epist. 361 et 362; et Selden. de Success. ad Leges Ebraeor. p. 9.

About the end of the fifteenth century, Johannes Andreas, a native of Xativa in the kingdom of Valencia, who from a Mohammedan doctor became a Christian priest, translated not only the Koran, but also its glosses, and the seven books of the Sonna, out of Arabic into the Arragonian tongue, at the command of Martin Garcia[5], Bishop of Barcelona and Inquisitor of Arragon. Whether this translation were ever published or not I am wholly ignorant: but it may be presumed to have been the better done for being the work of one bred up in the Mohammedan religion and learning; though his refutation of that religion, which has had several editions, gives no great idea of his abilities.

[5] J. Andreas, in Praef. ad Tractat. suum de Confusione Sectae Mahometanae.

Some years within the last century, Andrew du Ryer, who had been consul of the French nation in Egypt, and was tolerably skilled in the Turkish and Arabic languages, took the pains to translate the Koran into his own tongue: but his performance, though it be beyond comparison preferable to that of Retenensis, is far from being a just translation; there being mistakes in every page, besides frequent transpositions, omissions, and additions,[6] faults unpardonable in a work of this nature. And what renders it still more incomplete is, the want of Notes to explain a vast number of passages, some of which are difficult, and others impossible to be understood, without proper explications, were they translated ever so exactly; which the author is so sensible of that he often refers his reader to the Arabic commentators.

[6] Vide Windet. de Vit‚ Functorum statu, Sect. IX.

The English version is no other than a translation of Du Ryer's, and that a very bad one; for Alexander Ross, who did it, being utterly unacquainted with the Arabic, and no great master of the French, has added a number of fresh mistakes of his own to those of Du Ryer; not to mention the meanness of his language, which would make a better book ridiculous.

In 1698, a Latin translation of the Koran, made by Father Lewis Marracci, who had been confessor to Pope Innocent XI., was published at Padua, together with the original text, accompanied by explanatory notes and a refutation. This translation of Marracci's, generally speaking, is very exact; but adheres to the Arabic idiom too literally to be easily understood, unless I am much deceived, by those who are not versed in the Mohammedan learning. The notes he has added are indeed of great use; but his refutations, which swell the work to a large volume, are of little or none at all, being often unsatisfactory, and sometimes impertinent. The work, however, with all its faults, is very valuable, and I should be guilty of ingratitude, did I not acknowledge myself much obliged thereto; but still, being in Latin, it can be of no use to those who understand not that tongue.

Having therefore undertaken a new translation, I have endeavoured to do the original impartial justice; not having, to the best of my knowledge, represented it, in any one instance, either better or worse than it really is. I have thought myself obliged, indeed, in a piece which pretends to be the Word of GOD, to keep somewhat scrupulously close to the text; by which means the language may, in some places, seem to express the Arabic a little too literally to be elegant English: but this, I hope, has not happened often; and I flatter myself that the style I have made use of will not only give a more genuine idea of the original than if I had taken more liberty (which would have been much more for my ease), but will soon become familiar: for we must not expect to read a version of so extraordinary a book with the same ease and pleasure as a modern composition.

In the Notes my view has been briefly to explain the text, and especially the difficult and obscure passages, from the most approved commentators, and that generally in their own words, for whose opinions or expressions, where liable to censure, I am not answerable; my province being only fairly to represent their expositions, and the little I have added of my own, or from European writers, being easily discernible. Where I met with any circumstance which I imagined might be curious or entertaining, I have not failed to produce it.

The Preliminary Discourse will acquaint the reader with the most material particulars proper to be known previously to the entering on the Koran itself, and which could not so conveniently have been thrown into the Notes. And I have taken care, both in the Preliminary Discourse and the Notes, constantly to quote my authorities and the writers to whom I have been beholden; but to none have I been more so than to the learned Dr. Pocock, whose Specimen Historiae Arabum is the most useful and accurate work that has been hitherto published concerning the antiquities of that nation, and ought to be read by every curious inquirer into them.

As I have had no opportunity of consulting public libraries, the manuscripts of which I have made use throughout the whole work have been such as I had in my own study, except only the Commentary of al Beid‚wi and the Gospel of St. Barnabas. The first belongs to the library of the Dutch church in Austin Friars, and for the use of it I have been chiefly indebted to the Reverend Dr. Bolten, one of the ministers of that church: the other was very obligingly lent me by the Reverend Dr. Holme, Rector of Hedley in Hampshire; and I take this opportunity of returning both those gentlemen my thanks for their favours. The merit of al Beid‚wi's commentary will appear from the frequent quotations I have made thence; but of the Gospel of St. Barnabas (which I had not seen when the little I have said of it in the Preliminary Discourse,[7] and the extract I had borrowed from M. de la Monnoye and M. Toland,[8] were printed off), I must beg leave to give some further account.

[7] Sect. IV. p. 58.

[8] In not. ad cap. 3, p. 38

The book is a moderate quarto, in Spanish, written in a very legible hand, but a little damaged towards the latter end. It contains two hundred and twenty-two chapters of unequal length, and four hundred and twenty pages; and is said, in the front, to be translated from the Italian, by an Arragonian Moslem, named Mostafa de Aranda. There is a preface prefixed to it, wherein the discoverer of the original MS., who was a Christian monk, called Fra Marino, tells us that having accidentally met with a writing of Irenaeus (among others), wherein he speaks against St. Paul, alleging, for his authority, the Gospel of St. Barnabas, he became exceeding desirous to find this gospel; and that GOD, of His mercy, having made him very intimate with Pope Sixtus V., one day, as they were together in that Pope's library, his Holiness fell asleep, and he, to employ himself, reaching down a book to read, the first he laid his hand on proved to be the very gospel he wanted: overjoyed at the discovery, he scrupled not to hide his prize in his sleeve, and on the Pope's awaking, took leave of him, carrying with him that celestial treasure, by reading of which he became a convert to Mohammedism.

This Gospel of Barnabas contains a complete history of Jesus Christ from His birth to His ascension; and most of the circumstances in the four real Gospels are to be found therein, but many of them turned, and some artfully enough, to favour the Mohammedan system. From the design of the whole, and the frequent interpolations of stories and passages wherein Mohammed is spoken of and foretold by name, as the messenger of God, and the great prophet who was to perfect the dispensation of Jesus, it appears to be a most barefaced forgery. One particular I observe therein induces me to believe it to have been dressed up by a renegade Christian, slightly instructed in his new religion, and not educated a Mohammedan (unless the fault be imputed to the Spanish, or perhaps the Italian translator, and not to the original compiler); I mean the giving to Mohammed the title of Messiah, and that not once or twice only, but in several places; whereas the title of the Messiah, or, as the Arabs write it, al Masih, i.e., Christ, is appropriated to Jesus in the Koran, and is constantly applied by the Mohammedans to Him, and never to their own prophet. The passages produced from the Italian MS. by M. de la Monnoye are to be seen in this Spanish version almost word for word.

But to return to the following work. Though I have freely censured the former translations of the Koran, I would not therefore be suspected of a design to make my own pass as free from faults: I am very sensible it is not; and I make no doubt that the few who are able to discern them, and know the difficulty of the undertaking, will give me fair quarter. I likewise flatter myself that they, and all considerate persons, will excuse the delay which has happened in the publication of this work, when they are informed that it was carried on at leisure times only, and amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession.