In a London archive, Alexander Bevilacqua found it: a medieval copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Its aging pages, Bevilacqua knew, contained the original source for a highly influential 18th-century English translation of the Quran by George Sale.
Bevilacqua had embarked on a quest to find out how Sale, a self-taught Arabic speaker and amateur scholar in England, came to write such an enduring and unprejudiced translation in 1734, at a time when many Europeans viewed Islam with distrust.
A Ph.D. candidate in history, and fluent in five languages, Bevilacqua studies the ways in which cultures exchange ideas across the ages. His inspiration comes from growing up in Italy, surrounded by Roman ruins and the Musliminfluenced architecture of nearby Spain.
In this interview, Bevilacqua explains the importance of his finding.
Why was George Sale’s English version of the Quran so influential?
Prior to his version, the best information about Islam was available in Latin. Sale included a lengthy preface in which he explained many historical facts about Islam. His efforts undercut the prejudicial notions about Islam that had circulated since medieval times. Sale’s translation remained the standard English version into the 20th century.
How did you come to discover the Arabic manuscript that Sale used?
Sale tells us in his preface that he employed a commentary written by a medieval Arabic scholar named Baydawi, which he had borrowed from the Dutch Church library in London. According to church records, the manuscript was donated in 1633 by a Dutch trader who had purchased it in Istanbul. The book sat in the library for 100 years until Sale borrowed it. I found out that the Dutch Church’s collection had been transferred to the London Metropolitan Archive, which houses city records. Its custodians didn’t quite realize they possessed such a precious book. The first time I visited, I was able to touch it, but after I explained its significance, I was asked to wear gloves.
What influence did the manuscript have on Sale’s translation?
Sale used particular words and phrases that were my smoking gun to show that he was working from this particular copy of the Quran rather than from existing European translations. Sale’s reliance on the commentary that accompanies the text shows us that Europeans of the time wanted to know how Muslims read and understood the Quran.
What have you learned about historical research?
One thing I’ve learned is that knowledge is so often produced in collaboration, or rather, by the efforts of multiple people, sometimes in the same time and place and sometimes over the centuries in different places. Sale consulted both European and Arabic authorities. This kind of discovery also reminds me how much remains to be learned about our past.
“Alex’s finding adds to our understanding of the 18th-century European mind and its openness to using tools from the Arab tradition to understand the Quran,” said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. Bevilacqua’s advisers are Grafton and Michael Cook, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies.
Bevilacqua’s research was funded by the American Historical Association, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Society for French Historical Studies. His article on George Sale’s translation of the Quran, an edition of which is held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library, will appear in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in November 2013.
–By Catherine Zandonella