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Thomas E. Burman



"Qur’an Study and Qur’an Translation in 16th Century Europe"

Thomas E. Burman, University of Tennessee

 

Just as it had been for three centuries previously, the Qur'an was a widely read text in Christian Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Though there are a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of its readers encountered it in various Latin translations.  Two medieval translations--Robert of Ketton's from the mid-twelfth and by Mark of Toledo's from the early thirteenth century--continued to be read, copied, and, in Robert's case, printed.  But the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed new attempts to make the Qur'an's Arabic speak Latin, and while these early modern attempts never gained a wide readership, they illustrate the variety of motives for Qur'an study in Christian Europe in this period, as well as the profound difficulties involved in Qur'an translation.  The converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, produced a rather dubious version of two surahs of the Qur'an in the 1480s that exemplifies, more than anything else, how the Qur'an could be presented and valued as the sort of exotic, beautiful book that one wanted in ones library of expensive, illuminated, but not necessarily read, volumes.  A translation of the whole Qur'an commissioned by Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo presented Islam's holy book in the format of polyglot Bible, complete with facing- page Arabic text, transliteration into Latin characters and erudite notes based directly on Arabic Qur'an commentaries.  Here was a profoundly learned version of the Qur'an intended for scholars, a product of the dense culture of translation that had long existed in Iberia where it was made.  Guillaume Postel's attempt at translating the first and parts of the second surah, undertaken in Paris, exemplifies the difficulties of translating this difficult text outside of Iberia where Arabic speakers and Arabic books were still fairly common.  Though Postel struggles mightily with the Qur'anic Arabic he really was not up to the task, his Latin Qur'an a poorer product by far than either of the medieval versions or Egidio da Viterbo's bi-lingual version.

 
 
Thomas E. Burman is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and Head of the Department of History at the University of Tennessee.  A scholar of medieval and early-modern Christian-Muslim relations in Spain and Europe more broadly, he is the author of Religious Polemic and the Intellectual History of the Mozarabs, c. 1050-1200 (1994), and Reading the Qur'an in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560 (2007).  He is currently at work on a book about Dominican intellectuals and Islam in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and his essay entitled "The Cultures and Dynamics of Translation into Medieval Latin," is forthcoming the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin, ed. David Townsend and Ralph Hexter.

 



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