How Europe Learned about the Quran

L’Alcoran de Mahomet traduit d’Arabe en François, par le Sieur du Ryer, Sieur de la Garde Malezair.

Published by Adrian Moetjens, La Haye (= The Hague), 1685.

In 1647, the first translation of the Quran into a modern Western vernacular was published. The person who wrote it wasn’t one of the numerous scholars who had been exchanging letters for decades about the need to finally translate the Quran. Instead, it was a member of the lower French provincial nobility. André du Ryer was Lord of La Garde-Malezair, a small estate in the middle of Burgundy. The income the estate generated was probably nowhere near what would have been necessary to support a noble family in a way that would at least halfway have befitted their rank.

Map of Constantinople, i.e. Istanbul, drawn by the Ottoman geographer Piri Reis.

Therefore, the young man with a talent for languages went to Turkey to make his fortune. He travelled to Constantinople, then a booming trading city. Industrious and resourceful men were sought there, especially if they were multilingual like du Ryer. André du Ryer was a linguistic talent. In addition to French, his mother tongue, and the scholarly language of Latin, he was proficient in Turkish, Arabic and Persian. This wasn’t common, even in Constantinople. Therefore, the French ambassador hired the young André du Ryer as an interpreter.

The Tight Bond between France and the Ottoman Empire

It may come as a surprise that the French already had a permanent ambassador at the Sublime Porte before the end of the Great Turkish War.

The tomb of Nicholas, Count of Salm, who commanded Vienna’s defence in 1529. The tomb depicts scenes of the siege. Photo: KW.

But when it came down to politics, power and influence, the faith of one’s ally was of little interest.

The good relationship between the French and the Ottomans dates back to the wars fought over Italy. In 1525, King Francis I lost the Battle of Pavia. And what’s even worse: he fell into captivity of the Habsburg Charles V. The mother of the French king was desperate for allies and approached the Ottoman sultan. The latter would have loved to expand his empire further towards the west. This made him a natural competitor of the Habsburgs, who were expanding eastwards.

We don’t know if it was actually the French Queen Mother’s cry for help that prompted Suleiman the Magnificent to besiege Vienna in 1529. After all, the Treaty of Cambrai had been concluded between Charles V and Francis I on 5 August 1529, about six weeks before the Ottomans surrounded Vienna to besiege the city.

Since then, the French and the Ottomans had repeatedly made pacts to keep the Habsburgs at bay, in line with motto: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Although a fragile peace prevailed between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans in the middle of the 17th century, it was to be expected that this situation could change at any time. French diplomacy took advantage of this – and was in need of intelligent interpreters who could understand what their allies said.

The Rise of André du Ryer

As a fruit of his studies, André du Ryer published the first Turkish grammar to be printed in Europe in 1630. It was written in Latin and made learning Turkish much easier. In the same year, King Louis XIII appointed du Ryer Royal Secretary and Interpreter of Oriental Languages. This included a fixed salary, but no fixed working hours or duties. Du Ryer’s services were employed as needed. Therefore, King Louis XIII sent him on a diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Murat IV in 1632.

His position ensured du Ryer’s livelihood while allowing for enough time to continue his linguistic studies. In 1634, he published a French translation of the “Rose Garden” by the poet Saadi, who was very renowned in Persia. To this day, this cultural achievement is reverently remembered in Iran. This is proven, among other things, by the fact that the Persian entry on du Ryer is the longest one on Wikipedia.

Du Ryer made a career in the diplomatic service. He had made it to the position of French consul in Alexandria, Egypt, when he presented his translation of the Quran in 1647. This was the very Quran translation that the MoneyMuseum was able to acquire in the form of a 1685 edition.

Much More than Just a Translation

André du Ryer wrote much more than a simple translation of the kind that had already been available, even if such translations were written in the scholarly languages of Latin and Greek. Du Ryer did ground-breaking work by creating a translation from the Arabic point of view. In fact, he did not base his work on the Latin and Greek translations of his medieval predecessors but worked to understand the text by reading Arabic commentaries on the Quran. In this way, he wanted to understand the text in its cultural context and directly translated it from Arabic into French.

In addition, du Ryer provided a small but very insightful overview of the religious practices of the Turks. He mentioned fasting in the month of Ramadan, circumcision, the importance of the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina as well as the Sufi brotherhoods, which were native to Constantinople at the time. The latter were to capture the imagination of his countrymen for a long time to come due to the practice of whirling dervishes.

Moreover, du Ryer explained to his compatriots that Muslims recognized the existence of Jesus too, although they considered him a prophet, not the Son of God. This meant that there was common ground for Christianity and Islam.

Although the introduction contains a few pious passages, which were probably necessary to obtain the permission to print, du Ryer’s language is free of polemics. Therefore, his book provided a fresh perspective on Islam.

Why du Ryer’s Quran Almost Would Not Have Been Printed

For us, it is a matter of course that any book can be published today. In the 17th century this still required an official permission from the royal censor. After all, every king claimed the right to check every book and make sure that its messages weren’t dangerous to the state.

When it came to religious books, the chief censor consulted with the Conseil des Conscience (= Council of Conscience), a body that Cardinal Richelieu had created. Eventually, the king had the final say in all ecclesiastical matters. To be sure of the clergy’s support, the king provided some of their leading (and carefully selected) representatives with the opportunity to voice any objections in the Conseil des Conscience.

Algerian slave market. From the Histoire van Barbaryen, published 1684 in Amsterdam. Photo: KW.

The problem was that in 1647, 66-year-old Vincent de Paul was a member of this council. He was a well-known founder of an order and had also close ties with the French royal court. After all, the Queen Mother Anne of Austria trusted him as her spiritual guide. Vincent de Paul said about himself – today’s researchers are not sure if this story is true – that he had been captured by Muslim corsairs and sold into slavery in his youth. He claimed that these events shaped his way of thinking and feeling. Therefore, Vincent de Paul was horrified that a translation of the Quran was to appear with royal permission. He advocated against the project with all his authority. Thus, the religious advisory council was decidedly against the publication of du Ryer’s translation.

Nevertheless, the royal censor decided that the book could be printed and published. This is remarkable, especially when you keep in mind how many Christian works were banned at the time due to unorthodox statements.

The Quran: A Bestseller of the Early Enlightenment

It’s just as remarkable how incredibly successful du Ryer’s translation turned out to be. A new edition was published as soon as two years later. In the same year, an English translation was published. Translations into Dutch, German and even Russian followed. Between 1647 and 1685, i.e., the year of our edition, 24 different editions were published. An incredible success for a religious book that spread a different, non-Christian truth!

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You can access the 1685 edition online.

We bought this book at Antiquariat Canicio in Heidelberg.