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Date updated: 2/10/2023

London Metropolitan Archives and I are an odd couple (writes Dr Alexander Bevilacqua of the Harvard Society of Fellows). When I came to London to do research for my doctoral dissertation, I never expected my path to take me there. My work investigates the European knowledge of Islam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in particular translations from Arabic into European languages. I work primarily with rare books, and with letters and papers penned by the scholars and translators whom I study. Sources like these are more likely to be found in university libraries or in national collections like the British Library than in a city archive. But, of course, research is full of surprises.

The Secrets of a London Solicitor

I was in London on the traces of the author of the first English translation of the Qur’an (or Koran) made directly from Arabic, a young solicitor named George Sale who published his magnum opus in 1734. In spite of its rather unexpected origins, Sale’s elegant and learned Qur’an translation remained the standard English one for two centuries, mediating knowledge of Islam for many Anglophone peoples - both British and North American - into the twentieth century.

Although Sale was hardly wealthy, he nevertheless possessed an impressive collection of Oriental manuscripts. Yet among these volumes, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, he had virtually none that would help to translate the Qur’an. In particular, he lacked any of its Arabic commentaries - the books that explain in what circumstance a given verse was revealed to Muhammad, what its obscure words mean and what legal or theological significance it has. Sale’s Koran is, however, admired precisely because it contains so many references to native Qur’anic commentaries. The puzzle was clear: how did he consult these?

In good part, Sale relied on his Italian predecessor Ludovico Marracci, who in 1698 had published a Latin translation of the Qur’an with extensive notes that Sale largely (and silently) adopted. Marracci’s work was based on the many manuscripts - of the Qur’an and of Arabic commentaries - available to him in the rich libraries of Rome.

An Arabic Book in a Dutch Church

Yet another part of the answer was to be found in the Dutch Church in Austin Friars. This church, founded in 1550, catered to the Dutch community in London. Among its treasured possessions was a Qur’an commentary that a Dutch merchant donated to it in 1633, presumably as a souvenir from his time in Istanbul. The Qur’an - the most famous Arabic book - was a popular object of prestige even for European collectors who had no hope of ever being able to read it. Leaving it to the Dutch Church did make it more likely that one day this copy would find a reader, as indeed happened eventually. Sale himself informs us that he was able to borrow the book thanks to the kindness of a minister of the Dutch Church.

1813 engraving of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars
Dutch Church, Austin Friars, 1813. LPA ref: 316488

The rare books of the Dutch Church were transferred in the 1860s to Guildhall Library, which is fortunate, as the Church itself was completely destroyed by bombing in 1940 and the books would have been pulverized so we are lucky still to have all of the Dutch Church’s historic materials. From the Guildhall, the collection made its way to London Metropolitan Archives in 2009.

A Qur’an and its Handy Commentary

Thus it was that on a sunny day in February 2012 I walked east from the familiar precincts of Bloomsbury to Farringdon. Amid patrons looking at old city maps and conducting genealogical research in the bright reading room at LMA, I was soon handed my Arabic manuscript (CLC/180/MS20185/011). Unprepossessing enough from the outside, this book contained the full text of the Qur’an in red lettering, albeit broken up by what is known as a continuous commentary - a commentary on its every word - written in black ink. Here was the Qur’an and its explanation in one handy volume, an abridgement by the medieval scholar Bayḍāwī, from Persia, of a predecessor’s much lengthier work. This useful (and succinct) book was one of the three most popular Qur’anic commentaries in the Ottoman Empire. It is unsurprising that a Dutch merchant had acquired a copy, both because it would have been easily available and because its popularity would have recommended it.

George Sale’s Koran cites Bayḍāwī’s commentary on virtually every page, so it is uncontroversial to claim that he read it. But there was a second puzzle. One of my advisors, the Islamic scholar Michael Cook, had taught me to identify the different accepted textual traditions of the Qur’an in which a handful of consonants are spelled differently, yielding different meanings of certain words. By Ottoman times, one particular version of the Qur’an had become the standard one. And yet Sale often privileges less familiar readings: why did he do that? The sole Qur’an in his personal possession is, I had found, a garden variety Qur’an. Clearly he was not getting those variant readings from it.

The Solution in the Reading Room

In the end, LMA yielded the answer: those readings are found in the Bayḍāwī commentary on the Qur’an, which preserves in the aspic of its commentary a medieval text of the Qur’an that had become less common in Ottoman times. The fact that Sale used those variants in his translation, indeed preferring them to the standard variants, which he listed in his notes, was my smoking gun. It proved that he had relied on the Dutch Church Qur’an not just for its commentary, but for its text of the Qur’an as well. In other words, he had used it for his translation. It was, of course, an eminently practical thing to do: in a single volume, he could consult both the holy book and an explanation. The convenience that had endeared Bayḍāwī to his Ottoman readers likewise guaranteed him a permanent spot on George Sale’s desk.

What this episode taught me is how seldom intellectual attainments of the past have been achieved by an individual acting alone. Even the very first English translation of the Qur’an from Arabic was achieved with the help of others: not only the Catholic scholar Marracci, who supplied much of Sale’s scholarly apparatus, but likewise the Muslim scholar Bayḍāwī, in whose daily company the London solicitor produced his historic English version.

Important note

The Dutch Church Qur’an consulted by Dr Alexander Bevilacqua is one of a series of 54 books on historical, theological and related subjects held within the archive of the Dutch Church Austin Friars under reference CLC/180/MS20185. Volumes can be ordered individually to view in LMA’s Archive Study Area, but a couple, including the Qur’an commentary, are available only under special conditions with the advance notice of LMA’s Director - LMA’s collections catalogue explains which items are affected.

The books are also listed by K.J. Bostoen, 'de Handschriften in de Dutch Church Library te Londen' in 'Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis' vol.60 (1980) pp.56-89 (Guildhall Library PAM. 14145) which is in Dutch. For a list in English, see 'A Catalogue of books, manuscripts, letters etc. belonging to the Dutch Church of Austin Friars, London ...' (1879) pp. 155-64 (GL SL 19:92).

For further information and details of access, please contact LMA.