The Nativity of Jesus,
Blesséd be He,
in the Koran
Andre du Ryer
Part 1 - Andre du Ryer - translation 1647
The first rendering of the Koran into a western language was made by the English scholar Robertus Retenensis in the twelfth century, at the instance of Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny; it was completed in 1143, and enjoyed a considerable circulation in manuscript. Exactly four centuries later this mediaeval Latin version was published at Basle, the editor being Theodor Bibliander (Buchmann) of Zurich. It abounds in inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and was inspired by hostile intention; nevertheless it served as the foundation of the earliest translations into modem European idioms.
In 1647 Andre du Ryer, a gentleman of France trading in the Levant, published a French translation which took matters little farther. Two years later an English version of this appeared, with the following curious title-page:
‘The Alcoran of Mahomet, Translated out of Arabick into French. By the Sieur du Ryer, Lord of Malezair, and Resident for the French King, at ALEXANDRIA. And Newly Englished, for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish Vanities. To which is prefixed, the Life of Mahomet, the Prophet of the Turks, and Author of the Alcoran. With a Needful Caveat, or Admonition, for them who desire to know what Use may be made of, or if there be danger in Reading the ALCORAN.'
Such was the somewhat inglorious beginning of the English interpretation of the Holy Book of Islam. A quotation or two from the translator's address ‘to the Christian Reader’ will help to illustrate the spirit in which this version was offered:
'There being so many Sects and Heresies banded together against the Truth, finding that of Mahomet wanting to the Muster, I thought good to bring it to their Colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou maist the better prepare to encounter, and I hope overcome them. It may happily startle thee, to find him so to speak English, as if he had made some Conquest on the Nation; but thou wilt soon reject that fear, If' thou consider that this his Alcoran (the Ground‑work of the Turkish Religion ), hath been already translated into almost all Languages in Christendom (at least, the most general, as the Latin, Italian, French, &c.), yet never gained any Proselyte, where the Sword, its most forcible, and strongest argument hath riot prevailed.... Thou shalt find it of so rude, and incongruous a composure, so farced with contradictions, blasphemies, obscene speeches, and ridiculous fables, that some modest, and more rational Mahometans have thus excused it; that their Prophet wrote an hundred and twenty thousand sayings, whereof three thousand only are good, the residue (as the impossibility of the Moons falling into his sleeve, the Conversion and Salvation of the Devils, and the like) are false and ridiculous. Yet is the whole esteemed so sacred, that upon the Cover thereof is inscribed – Let none touch it but he who is clean. Nor are the vulgar permitted to read it, but live and die in an implicite faith of what their Priests deliver.... Therefore (Christian Reader) though some, conscious of their own instability in Religion, and of theirs (too like Turks in this) whose prosperity and opinions they follow, were unwilling this should see the Press, yet am I confident, if thou hast been so true a votary to orthodox Religion, as to keep thy self untainted of their follies, this shall not hurt thee; And as for those of that Batch, having once abandoned the Sun of the Gospel, I believe they will wander as far into utter darkness, by following strange lights, as by this Ignis Fatuus of the Alcoran. Such as it is, I present it to thee, having taken the pains only to translate it out of French, not doubting, though it hath been a poyson, that hath infected a very great, but Most unsound part of the Universe, it may prove an Antidote, to confirm in thee the health of Christianity.'
Such being the translator's estimate of the merits of the Koran, it is hardly surprising that his version is very far from perfect. For instance, this is what he made of the passage (Sura XII, 23‑29) telling of the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar's wife:
'His Masters Wife became amorous of his Beauty, she one day shut him into her Chamber, and solicited him with love; God defend me (said he) to betray my Master, and be unchaste (he was in the number of the righteous) and fled to the Door; his Mistress ran after him, and to stay him, tore his Shirt through the back: She met her Husband behind the Door, to whom she said, what other thing doth he merit, who would dishonour thine house, than to be imprisoned, and severely chastised? Lord, said Joseph, she sollicited me, that Infant which is in the Cradle, and of thy Parentage shall be witness: Then the Infant in the Cradle said, if Joseph's Shirt be torn before, she hath spoken truth, and Joseph is a Lyar; if the Shirt be rent behind, Joseph hath delivered the truth, and she a lyar: then her Husband beheld Joseph's Shirt torn behind, and knew that it was extream malice, and said to Joseph, take heed to thy self, and beware this act be not divulged, do thou, speaking to his Wife, implore pardon for thy fault, thou art truly guilty.'
A second specimen is this rendering of the beautiful account of the birth of Jesus (Sura XIX, 16‑34):
'Remember thou what is written of Mary, she retired towards the East, into a place far remote from her Kindred, and took a Vail to cover her, we sent her our Spirit in form of a man; she was afraid, and said, God will preserve me from thee, if thou have his fear before thine eyes; he said, Oh Mary! I am the Messenger of God thy Lord, who shall give thee a Son, active, and prudent: She answered, How shall I have a Son without the touch of man? I desire not to be unchaste; he said, The thing shall be as I have told thee, it is facile to thy Lord; thy Son shall be a token of the Omnipotency of God, and of his special grace towards such as shall believe in his Divine Majesty; she became with Child, and retired some time into a place remote from People, where she sustained the dolours of Child‑birth, at the foot of a Date‑tree, and said, Why am I not dead? Wherefore am I not in the number of persons forgotten? The Angel said to her, Afflict not thy self; God hath placed a brook under thee, shake the foot of this Palm, and the Dates shall fall, gather them up, eat and drink, and wash thine eyes; say unto them that thou shall meet, that thou fastest, and hast made a Vow not to speak to any one, until the fast be accomplished. Her Parents met her while she bare the Infant, and said unto her, Oh Mary! behold a strange thing; Oh Sister of Aaron! thy Father did not command thee to do evil, neither was thy Mother unchaste; she made signs to her Infant to answer them; they said, How shall the Infant in the Cradle speak? Then her infant spake, and said, I am the Servant of God, he hath taught me the Scripture, hath made me a Prophet, blessed me in all places, and commanded me to pray unto him; he hath recommended to me purity through the whole course of my life, and to honour my Father and Mother; he hath not made me either violent or malicious, praised shall be the day of my birth, the day that I shall die, and the day of my resurrection.'
The Koran Interpreted - A Translation by A. J. Arberry, A Touchstone Book published by Simon & Schuster