The KoranThe Nativity of Jesus,

Blesséd be He,

in the Koran

Koran Index

 

English Translations

 

Andre du Ryer

George Sale

Rev. J. M. Rodwell

Edward Henry Palmer Marmaduke Pickthall

Dr. Richard Bell

A. J. Arberry

 

Festivals of Light

 

Part 2 - George Sale - translation 1734

 

Such was the version of the Koran with which the English public had to be content for nearly a century; and it is small wonder that they were not impressed. Meanwhile in 1694 the Arabic text of the Koran was at last printed and published in full at Hamburg under the careful editorship of Abraham Hinckelmann. This edition was available to the worthy lawyer George Sale, when he set himself the task of replacing Alexander Ross's translation of Du Ryer; he also had at his disposal a new Latin rendering made by Father Maracci, which appeared at Padua in 1698. Though Sale approached his labour better qualified and better supplied than his predecessor, he was not troubled by motives of scholarly impartiality. He states his position clearly enough in the first pages of his justly celebrated version, first published in 1734 and reprinted many times since: 

‘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.... 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.... The writers of the Romish communion, in particular, are so far from having done any service in their refutations of Mohammedanism, 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.’

Sale's translation was not supplanted for some 150 years. Its influence was thus enormous; this was the Koran for all English readers almost to the end of the nineteenth century; many even now living have never looked into any other version. No other rendering was in the hands of Edward Gibbon when he wrote: ‘In the spirit of enthusiasm or vanity, the prophet rests the truth of his mission on the merit of his book; audaciously challenges both men and angels to imitate the beauties of a single page; and presumes to assert that God alone could dictate this incomparable performance. This argument is most powerfully addressed to a devout Arabian, whose mind is attuned to faith and rapture; whose ear is delighted by the music of sounds; and whose ignorance is incapable of comparing the productions of human genius. The harmony and copiousness of style will not reach, in a version, the European infidel: he will peruse with impatience the endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds. The divine attributes exalt the fancy of the Arabian missionary; but his loftiest strains must yield to the sublime simplicity of the book of Job, composed in a remote age, in the same country, and in the same language. If the composition of the Koran exceeds the faculties of a man, to what superior intelligence should we ascribe the Iliad of Homer, or the Pbilippics of Demosthenes?’ It was on the basis of Sale's version that Thomas Carlyle commented: ‘It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused Jumble, crude, incondite. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.’ And Gibbon and Carlyle were in their times remarkable for the liberality of their attitude towards Islam.

Yet the superiority of Sale to Ross is evident in every line; not only bad he a good grasp of the Arabic language, which his forerunner lacked totally, but his English style is more elegant and mature. The incident of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is rendered thus by Sale: 

‘And she, in whose house he was, desired him to lie with her; and she shut the doors and said, Come hither. He answered, God forbid! verily my lord hath made my dwelling with him easy; and the ungrateful shall not prosper. But she resolved within herself to enjoy him, and he would have resolved to enjoy her, had lie not seen the evident demonstration of his Lord. So we turned away evil and filthiness from him, because he was one of our sincere servants. And they ran to get one before the other to the door; and she rent his inner garment behind. And they met her lord at the door. She said, What shall be the reward of him who seeketh to commit evil in thy family, but imprisonment, and a painful punishment? And Joseph said, She asked me to lie with her. And a witness of her family bore witness, saying, If his garment be rent before, she speaketh truth, and he is a liar; but if his garment be rent behind, she lieth, and he is a speaker of truth. And when her husband saw that his garment was torn behind, he said, This is a cunning contrivance of your sex; for surely your cunning is great. 0 Joseph, take no farther notice of this affair: and thou, O woman, ask pardon for thy crime, for thou art a guilty person.’ 

This is how Sale translates the story of the Nativity, his carefully italicized ‘supplies’ being intentionally reminiscent of the Authorized Version of the Bible: 

 

The Koran

‘And remember in the book of the Koran the story of Mary; when she retired from her family to a place towards the east, and took a veil to conceal herself from them; and we sent our spirit Gabriel unto her, and he appeared unto her in the shape of a perfect man. She said, I fly for refuge unto the merciful God, that he may defend me from thee: if thou fearest him, thou wilt not approach me. He answered, Verily I am the messenger of thy Lord, and am sent to give thee a holy son. She said, How shall I have a son, seeing a man hath not touched me, and I am no harlot? Gabriel replied, So shall it be: thy Lord saith, This is easy with me; and we will perform it, that we may ordain him a sign unto men, and a mercy from us: for it is a thing which is decreed. Wherefore she conceived him: and she retired aside with him in her womb to a distant place; and the pains of childbirth came upon her near the trunk of a palm‑tree. She said, Would to God I had died before this, and had become a thing forgotten, and lost in oblivion! And he who was beneath her called to her, saying, Be not grieved: now hath God provided a rivulet under thee; and do thou shake the body of the palm‑tree, and it shall let fall ripe dates upon thee, ready gathered. And eat, and drink, and calm thy mind. Moreover if thou see any man, and he question thee, say, Verily, I have vowed a fast unto the Merciful; wherefore I will by no means speak to a man this day. So she brought the child to her people, carrying him in her arms. And they said unto her, O Mary, now hast thou done a strange thing: O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a bad man, neither was thy mother a harlot. But she made signs unto the child to answer them; and they said, How shall we speak to him, who is an infant in the cradle? Whereupon the child said, Verily I am the servant of God; he hath given me the book of the gospel, and hath appointed me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed, wheresoever I shall be; and hath commanded me to observe prayer, and to give alms, so long as I shall live; and he hath made me dutiful towards my mother, and hath not made me proud, or unhappy. And peace be on me the day whereon I was born, and the day whereon I shall die, and the day whereon I shall be raised to life.’

 

Such was the voice of the Koran to eighteenth century England; a somewhat monotonous and humdrum voice, it may be thought, but at least an honest voice. So matters remained for well over a hundred years. But with the nineteenth century came the rise of oriental studies in the scientific meaning of the term; and the interpretation of the Koran inevitably engaged the interest of scholars eager to apply the methods of the higher criticism to this as yet virgin field of research. Thus it came to pass that in the next translation of the Koran to appear, the work of the Rev J. M. Rodwell, the order of the Suras – the chapters of which the Koran is composed‑was completely changed, with the object of reconstituting the historical sequence of its original composition. Rodwell gives the following justification of this somewhat arbitrary procedure: 

‘The arrangement of the Suras in this translation is based partly upon the traditions of the Muhammadans themselves, with reference especially to the ancient chronological list printed by Weil in his Mohammed der Prophet, as well as upon a careful consideration of the subject matter of each separate Sura and its probable connection with the sequence of events in the life of Muhammad. Great attention has been paid to this subject by Dr Weil in the work just mentioned; by Mr Muir in his Life of Mahomet, who also publishes a chronological list of Suras, 21 however of which he admits have "not yet been carefully fixed"; and especially by Noeldeke, in his Geschichte des Qorâns, a work to which public honours were awarded in 1859 by the Paris Academy of Inscriptions. From the arrangement of this author I see no reason to depart in regard to the later Suras. It is based upon a searching criticism and minute analysis of the component verses of each, and may be safely taken as a standard, which ought not to be departed from without weighty reasons.’ 

The result is that in order to find a particular Sura in Rodwell’s version, first published in 1861 and taken up by Everyman’s Library in 1909, it is necessary first to consult a comparative table of contents, a laborious and irritating preliminary. Since this translation has enjoyed a very wide circulation indeed, and has been regarded by many as the standard English version, it is interesting to consider the spirit that animated its author. It is a far cry indeed from the intolerant hostility of the seventeenth century, the urbane superiority of the eighteenth. Certainly Rodwell does not doubt that the Koran was the product of Muhammad's own imagination; but his estimate of Muhammad's character is not lacking in charity and even admiration: 

‘In close connection with the above remarks, stands the question of Muhammad’s sincerity and honesty of purpose in coming forward as a messenger from God. For if he was indeed the illiterate person the Muslims represent him to have been, then it will be hard to escape their inference that the Koran is, as they assert it to be, a standing miracle. But if, on the other hand, it was a Book carefully concocted from various sources, and with much extraneous aid, and published as a divine oracle, then it would seem that the author is at once open to the charge of the grossest imposture, and even of impious blasphemy. The evidence rather shews, that in all he did and wrote, Muhammed was actuated by a sincere desire to deliver his countrymen from the grossness of its debasing idolatries – that he was urged on by an intense desire to proclaim that great truth of the Unity of the Godhead which had taken full possession of his own soul – that the end to be attained justified to his mind the means be adopted in the production of his Suras – that he worked himself up into a belief that he had received a divine call – and that he was carried on by the force of circumstances, and by gradually increasing successes, to believe himself the accredited messenger of Heaven. The earnestness of those convictions which at Mecca sustained him under persecution, and which perhaps led him, at any price as it were, and by any means, not even excluding deceit and falsehood, to endeavour to rescue his countrymen from idolatry, – naturally stiffened at Medina into tyranny and unscrupulous violence. At the same time, he was probably, more or less, throughout his whole career, the victim of a certain amount of self‑deception. A cataleptic subject from his early youth, born – according to the traditions – of a highly nervous and excitable mother, he would be peculiarly liable to morbid and fantastic hallucinations, and alternations of excitement and depression, which would win for him, in the eyes of his ignorant countrymen, the credit of being inspired.... Still, Muhammad’s career is a wonderful instance of the force and life that resides in him who possesses an intense Faith in God and in the unseen world; and whatever deductions may be made – and they are many and serious‑from the noble and truthful in his character, he will always be regarded as one of those who have had that influence over the faith, morals, and whole earthly life of their fellow‑men, which none but a really great man ever did, or can, exercise; and as one of those, whose efforts to propagate some great verity will prosper, in spite of manifold personal errors and defects, both of principle and character. The more insight we obtain, from undoubted historical sources, into the actual charac­ter of Muhammad, the less reason do we find to justify the strong vituperative language poured out upon his head by Maracci, Prideaux, and others, in recent days, one of whom has found, in the Byzantine “Maometis”, the number of the Beast! It is nearer to the truth to say that he was a great though im­perfect character, an earnest though mistaken teacher, and that many of his mistakes and imperfections were the result of cir­cumstances, of temperament, and constitution; and that there must be elements both of truth and goodness in the system of which he was the main author, to account for the world‑wide phenomenon, that whatever may be the intellectual inferiority (if such is, indeed, the fact) of the Muslim races, the influence of his teaching, aided, it is true, by the vast impulse given to it by the victorious arms of his followers, has now lasted for nearly thirteen centuries, and embraces more than one hundred millions of our race‑more than one‑tenth part of the inhabitants of the globe.’

 

The Koran Interpreted - A Translation by A. J. Arberry, A Touchstone Book published by Simon & Schuster

Continuing... Part 3