George Sale’s English translation of the Qur’ān (1734)
The Korân translated by George Sale was published in 1734. It is the second translation of the Quranic text to be printed in English after the translation published by Alexander Ross’ in 1649. It is also the first translation in English to be based directly on the Arabic text. Ross’s edition goes back to the French Alcoran translated by André Du Ryer and published in 1647. Furthermore, this text is arguably the translation of the Qur’ān that exerted the most significant influence on the representations of Islam in modern Europe.
George Sale, son of a London merchant, was born in the last decade of the 17th century. His curriculum consisted solely of law studies he pursued at the Inner Temple, a professional training institute for barristers. He did not attend the two only English higher education institutions of his time: the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
His passion for oriental studies led him in 1726 to join an Anglican missionary association called “Society for Promoting of Christian Knowledge” (SPCK). There he popularized his vast knowledge while occasionally carrying out tasks of a legal nature. He helped to correct the Arabic translation of the New Testament.. This project, launched in 1720 by the SPCK, aimed to produce a version of this text for Christians of the Greek Orthodox Church living in Syria and Palestine. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ was published and shipped to the Levant in 1727. Two Syrian scholars took part in the undertaking: Solomon Negri of Damascus, and Carolus Dadichi of Aleppo. It is likely that Sale learned or at least improved his Arabic through these Christian scholars. This would explain why he mastered it without ever having left England, in contradiction to what Voltaire said about him. After completing the correction of the New Testament, Sale even showed some discomfort with what seemed to him to be a disadvantage: I am but too sensible of the Disadvantages, one who is neither a Native, nor ever was in the Country must lie under, in playing the Critic in so difficult a Language as the Arabic. If anything, this statement seems to suggest that he was self-taught in Arabic.
Despite the scarcity of biographical sources about him, Sale is known to have been particularly interested in ancient and universal history and literature. This is reflected in his collection of manuscripts and prints in Arabic, Turkish and Persian. They include the famous Maqāmāt of al-Harīrī, a prosimetrum written by Abū Muḥammad al-Qāsim ibn ‘Alī al-Ḥarīrī (11th and 12th centuries). In Turkish, Sale owned Cihān-nümā, an unfinished cosmorama composed by the polymath Kātib Çelebī in the 17th century. In Persian, his library contains poems by Hāfiẓ (14th century) and the Gulistan, or the “Rose Garden” by Sa’dī (13th century). Surprisingly, few religious texts relating to the Qur’ān are found in this collection apart from the New Testament and the Qur’ān in Arabic, mystical treatises, a compilation of the sayings of ‘Alī, Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as well as biographies of the most famous Shiite imams.
While still practising within the framework of the SPCK, Sale participated in the writing of articles and chapters on subjects related to history. His work follows a comparative approach that was quite prevalent in the 18th century. He was appointed general editor of the Universal History, a compendium that was relatively close in spirit as well as in ambition to what would become the French Encyclopédie. Sale’s contribution to the project was on the first volume, which was dedicated to cosmology. But his open-mindedness, his suspicion towards prejudices of all kinds and his propensity to analyze history from a global perspective cost him his place. His editorial duties were then entrusted to the Frenchman Georges Psalmanazar, known to posterity as an impostor. In fact, as a young man, Psalmanazar had started his literary career pretending to be the first Formosan (Taiwanese) to visit Europe.
Sale died in 1736, two years after the publication of his translation, which constitutes a turning point in European scholarship on Islam. This work, published in 1734 by John Wilcox, is entitled The Korân, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed: translated into English immediately from the original Arabic; with explanatory notes, taken from the most approved commentators, to which is prefixed a preliminary discourse.
The Korân and its Preliminary Discourse
The first piece in this book is a dedication to the influential English politician Lord John Carteret. Sale defends his project in this dedication: To be acquainted with the various laws and constitutions of civilized nations, especially of those who flourish in our own time, is, perhaps, the most useful part of knowledge. Other more personal motives are also at play: he had to earn enough to support a large family. He also claimed that his profession as a barrister was the reason for the delay in the publication of his work, which “was carried on at leisure times only, and amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession”.
Sale stated at the dedication his intention not to fall into the trap of anti-Muslim polemics, if only for the sake of making his work less suspicious in the eyes of his readers. He proposed to consider Muḥammad and his religion without acrimony, while stating that he understood the reasons why their image is so negative among some Europeans: The remembrance of the calamities brought on so many nations by the conquests of the Arabians, may possibly raise some indignation against him who formed them to empire; but this being equally applicable to all conquerors, could not, of itself, occasion all the detestation with which the name of Mohammed is loaded.
The dedication is followed by a preface addressed to the reader, in which Sale elaborates, among other things, on the counterproductive impact of a polemical approach toward Islam as adopted by his predecessor and fellow countryman Humphrey Prideaux in a book entitled Life of Muhammad. According to Sale, Prideaux’s approach “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”. Instead, he argued that his readers should really study the Muslim faith and treat it with “common decency”, leaving refutation as a distant second step. Moreover, he emphasizes that only Protestants would be able to conduct this refutation because Providence reserved this privilege for them. He advised therefore his co-religionists to follow certain rules in their dialogue with Muslims: avoid coercion; refrain from professing doctrines contrary to common sense, since Muslims are not fools; beware of weak arguments and harsh words; show them humanity; and not to yield on any article of the Christian faith.
The preface is followed by a long introduction of one hundred and eighty-seven pages divided into eight sections. It is entitled “Preliminary Discourse”. Sale describes, in this part, in a scholarly manner the history and geography of 7th century Arabia, the state of Christianity and Judaism before the advent of Islam, the emergence of the latter, and the predication of Muḥammad. Five of the eight sections that compose the “Preliminary Discourse” deal with the Qur’ān: Sale discusses, inter alia, the structure and style of the Muslim holy book as well as its legal precepts. The eighth and final section focuses on the main sects of Islam and the various movements who “have pretended to Prophecy among the Arabs, in or since the time of Mohammed”. This “beautiful” introduction, as Voltaire called it, was an essential source of information about Islam for many 18th century European intellectuals. Its originality is due not only to its undeniable wealth of documentation. It lies above all in Sale’s approach: he is neither content to merely juxtapose translations as others had done before him, nor to just relate facts. Instead, he offers a personal analysis and interpretation of these facts, aiming to contextualize the origins of Islam as well as its relation to the Quranic text.
The “Preliminary Discourse” is followed by the translation of the Qur’ān, which is itself supplemented by a rich “Table of the principal matters contained in the Korân and the Notes thereon”. The one hundred and fourteen sūrahs are presented in five hundred and eight pages. Sale indicates whether they are Meccan or Medinan, except when Muslim sources differ on the place of revelation. He does not deny his admiration for the text he translates and tries to restore its aesthetic dimension while avoiding the pitfalls of excessive literalism; a fault that he finds in the Latin translation of the Qur’ān published in 1698 by Ludovico Marracci. His interventions in the text are indicated by italics. Unlike Marracci, Sale does not number the verses and renders the different sūrahs in continuous prose. However, the number of verses for each sūrah is presented in the table of contents that precedes the translation. He justifies his choice by the divergence among Muslim scholars: Notwithstanding this subdivision is common and well known, yet I have never yet seen any manuscript wherein the verses in each chapter is set down after the title, which we have therefore added in the table of the chapters. And the Mohammedans seem to have some scruple in making an actual distinction in their copies, because the chief disagreement between their several editions of the Korân, consists in the division and number of the verses: and for this reason I have not taken upon me to make any such division. This choice may in fact be related to the absence of verse numbering in the Quranic commentary that Sale quotes most extensively; namely the tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī, which he borrowed from the Austin Friars,. Indeed, one hypothesis to consider is that he prefers to consult the Qur’ān in the version presented in this tafsīr:
Sale points out aǧzā’ (plural of ǧuz’); the thirty parts that Muslims sometimes use to divide the Quranic text with the main aim of facilitating its memorization. He also indicates reading variants in some passages, especially when they affect the meaning of the verse. For instance, commenting on verse 24 of sūrah 81, he explains the hermeneutic implications of replacing a letter with a homophone: in this case, the meaning of the entire verse would be reversed. In his notes he also dwells at length on the Asbāb al-nuzūl of the verses, or their occasions of revelation. The historical information that he takes from Arab Muslim sources is so abundant that one could extract from his work a good part of the biography of Muḥammad, the Sīra. The last sūrahs of the Qur’ān being the shortest, but also the most difficult to understand for a non-specialist readership, are the subject of particularly prolific scholarly notes, sometimes more extensive than the sūrahs themselves. The longer chapters contain verses that have been extensively refuted by Christian polemicists: on these verses, Sale tends to present the full range of diverse Muslim points of view in their diversity. For instance, in verse 3 of sūrah 4, which refers to polygamy but whose meaning is somehow ambiguous, he emphasizes that “the [Muslim] commentators understand this passage differently”. His translation of the verse is as follows: And if ye fear that ye shall not act with equity towards orphans of the female sex, || take in marriage of such other women as please you, two, or three, or four, and not more. But if ye fear that ye cannot act equitably towards so many, marry one only, or the slaves which ye shall have acquired. This will be easier, that ye swerve not from righteousness. The sign || is mine : in this verse it marks two parts whose connection is not completely clear. As is his habit, Sale’s interpolations are in italics. Additions such as “of the female sex” and “other” suggest that the Qur’ān legislated on the specific situation of orphan girls at the time of Muḥammad: polygamy would be allowed only to prevent their guardians from being unfair to them by forcing them into marriage for instance. The second part of the verse is here considered inseparable from the first. But this is only one possible interpretation. Even today, some commentators still believe that the two parts of this verse are not necessarily related to each other and should then be read separately: several modern translations reflect this discontinuity with suspension points. Sale does not retain this alternative interpretation, but he is aware of what some Muslim scholars glossed about the verse, and he mentions it in a note.
Moreover, one should be cautious not to read Sale’s Korân without his notes. This would be contrary to what the translator intended to do. It is almost impossible on the printed edition to read separately these two text areas (the body and the notes). Our digital edition does not require the presence of critical apparatus since it is only accessible with a click. However, this should not encourage a lazy reading of Sale’s work, which would lead inevitably to erroneous interpretation of his rendering.
Sale claims that his work is essentially based on authoritative Muslim commentary: In the Notes my view has been briefly to explain the Text, and especially the difficult and obscure passages, from the most approved commentators, and that generally in their own words, for whose opinions or expressions, where liable to censure, I am not answerable; my province being only fairly to represent their expositions, and the little I have added of my own, or from European writers, being easily discernible. However, this needs to be slightly nuanced.
In 1734, European scholarship on Islam had already made significant progress over previous centuries. I have already mentioned the Latin translation by the Italian clergyman Ludovico Marracci, published in 1698. A French translation by the diplomat André Du Ryer was published in 1647. Both Du Ryer and Marracci, as translators, distinguished themselves from their predecessors by their almost exclusive recourse to Arab and Muslim sources. Marracci was certainly the European scholar of this period who used them the most. His version includes Quranic commentaries, some of which were authoritative in the Ottoman Empire, such as Tafsīr al-qurʾān al-ʿazīz of Ibn Abī Zamanīn’s (10th – 11th c.), al-Kašf wa-l-bayān ʿan tafsīr al-Qurʾān of al-Ṯaʿlabī (11th c.), al-Kaššāf ‘an ḥaqā’iq ġawāmiḍ al-tanzīl of al-Zamaḫšarī (11th – 12th c.), Anwār al-tanzīl wa-asrār al-ta’wīl of al-Bayḍāwī (13th c.), and Tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn co-authored by al-Maḥallī and al-Suyūṭī (15th c.). All these and other sources are cited by Sale three decades later. But there is evidence that he accessed them through Marracci. The tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī seems to be the only one to which he had separate, independent access ; hence the fact that he quotes it with emphasis.
Sale would certainly not have been able to compose his “beautiful” translation if Marracci had not done his pioneering work a few decades earlier. Yet this debt is only timidly acknowledged in the preface: it is apparently difficult for Sale to admit that he does not have direct access to all the commentaries to which he refers. However, this does not undermine his qualities as an Arabist and philologist. He shows his independence by rejecting certain interpretations of his predecessor, which he labels as “groundless”. Moreover, his erudition is evident in his correction of certain mistakes in Arabic made by Marracci, such as in the latter’s rendering of verse 149 of sūrah 7. Sale also makes the best use of the the Eastern and European sources at his disposal. The recourse to the Specimen historiæ Arabum, “A Sample of History of the Arabs” written by the Englishman Edward Pococke, is of great help to him: this book, in contrast to what its title suggests, is full of information regarding Islam. Sale also consults the Bibliothèque orientale, “Oriental library” of the Frenchman Barthélemy d’Herbelot de Moulainville, a vast compilation of “all that concerns the knowledge about the Oriental peoples”. Sale refers to De vita et rebus gestis Mohamedis by another Frenchman named Jean Gagnier: Gagnier translated into Latin the “Brief History of Humanity” composed by the Syrian historian Abū-l-Fidā’ (13th – 14th c.) under the title Tarīḫ al-muḫtaṣar fī aḫbār al-bašar. Sale also quotes critically the “Life of Muhammad” by the aforementioned Humphrey Prideaux, a book in which the prophet of Islam is described as an “impostor”, whereas in the Korân Muḥammad is presented as a “legislator”. Finally, the De religione mohammedica by the Dutchman Adrian Reland is put to good use by Sale: this work, published in 1705, aims to refute the most commonly received ideas about Islam.
Reception and reprints
Sale’s work met with considerable success in Great Britain and later in the rest of Europe. Voltaire is probably one of his most frequent readers and his most influential popularizer among the European public, making the book his main source of information about Islam. The French writer and philosopher’s initial perception of Islam was clearly shaken after he came across the Korân, and the best evidence of this is his Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, “Essay on the morals and spirit of nations”. He confides to his friend Nicolas-Claude Thieriot: “there is a devil of an Englishman who has made a very beautiful translation of the holy Alcoran, preceded by a preface much more beautiful than all the Alcorans in the world”. Sale’s influence on Voltaire is so significant that the latter, without having any knowledge of Arabic, allows himself to quote directly from al-Bayḍāwī as if he had read it first hand. This is evidenced by a response he wrote to the author of an anonymous book entitled Critique de l’Histoire universelle de M. Voltaire, au sujet de Mahomet et du mahométisme, “Critique of Voltaire’s Universal History on the subject of Muhammad and islam”. This contradictor reproaches him for not translating the term al-Qur’ān (القرآن) as l’Alcoran “The Alcoran”: Our Turkish Scaliger charges me with a very just and interesting lawsuit to find out whether we should say the “Koran”, or the “Alcoran”: but he knew that Article al, means the, and that it is only the ignorance of the Arabic language that made him confuse this the with its noun. If he refers to chapter 12 entitled Joseph, he will see these words: “We report an excellent history in this Koran”, that is to say: in this reading that Muhammad makes of chapter 12. Koran therefore means reading; and this is what Albedavi expressly says; this word comes from Karaa, which means to read. Muhammad does not say “in this Alcoran”, he says “in this Koran”. It is a surprise for someone like me to be so good in Arabic; what about you? Do you know Arabic? Voltaire again advises his detractor to consult al-Bayḍāwī to find out the meaning of the term “Islam”: My Turkish scholar read ismamisme for Islamism: but my Turkish scholar read it incorrectly. I advise him to refer to the third chapter of his Koran, or his Alcoran, where it says: “Truly Islam is the only religion in the sight of God: say, if we argue with you, I have resigned myself to God”. If he consults Albedavi, he will see what Islam means, resigning oneself. Needless to say that it is the reading of Sale that provided him with this argument.
Among other admiring readers of Sale is Claude-Étienne Savary. Author of the second French translation of the Qur’ān, published in 1783, he used a French version of the “Preliminary Discourse” published in 1775 to praise his British predecessor: Mr. Sale has recently given an English version of the Qur'an. I don’t know this language well enough to appreciate its merit; but it must be excellent if one can judge by his Historical and Critical Observations on Mahometism put at the head of the last edition of Du Ryer’s translation.
A century later, Albert de Kazimirski, the third translator of the Qur’ān into French, whose work is still authoritative today, was full of praise for Sale’s work: “[h]is translation [...] is certainly the best, the most faithful and the most useful because of the notes taken from Arab commentators”. Even in the second half of the 20th century, Sale was spared by Edward Said in his famous book Orientalism: George Sale’s translation of the Koran and his accompanying preliminary discourse illustrate the change. Unlike his predecessors, Sale tried to deal with Arab history in terms of Arab sources; moreover, he let Muslim commentators on the sacred text speak for themselves.
The 1734 edition is the only one published during the translator’s lifetime, but it was re-edited and reprinted many times until 1984: four times in the 18th century, and more than sixty times in the 19th century. It was reworked and modernized in 1825, featuring a “Sketch of the life of George Sale” by Richard Alfred Davenport. Many of the editions published after this date include additional notes taken from Claude-Étienne Savary’s French translation, published in 1783. The only exception is Elwood Morris Wherry’s 1882-1886 edition, entitled “A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qurán”, which contains almost no further development from the original edition. The 1921 edition is introduced by a scholarly comparative study of the works of Marracci and Sale: penned by Edward Denison Ross, this study highlights the indebtedness of the English lawyer to the Italian clergyman.
The Korân of Sale was put into German by Theodor Arnold in 1764. Goethe drew inspiration from this version when he composed West–östlicher Divan, “The West-Eastern Diwan”, his last poetic collection. Sale’s text was then translated into Russian by Alexei Kolmakov in 1792. It was finally rendered into Hungarian by Istvan Szokoly in 1854. The success of the “Preliminary Discourse” is no less significant. It was first translated into Dutch in Amsterdam in 1742. Then it was put into French and printed in 1751, 1775, 1846 and 1850, respectively in Geneva, Amsterdam, Algiers and Paris: in 1775, it was appended to a new edition of André Du Ryer’s translation. A Swedish version appeared in 1814. In 1891, an Arabic version was even published, entitled Maqālah fi al-Islam, “Essay on Islam”.
Sale’s work continues to be the subject of attention to this day. In 2007 the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, Keith Ellison, was sworn in on a 1764 edition that belonged to former US President Thomas Jefferson. And in 2019 two newly elected Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, made the same gesture.
Sale’s translation is arguably the one that has most profoundly shaped the history of European scholarship on Islam. It has long resisted the passage of time, thanks to the extent to which it is nourished by Muslim sources and its ability to exploit them. It was not dethroned by either of the two English translations of the Qur’ān that were published in the 19th century, by John Medows Rodwell in 1861 and Edward Henry Palmer in 1880. It was not until the 20th century that more modern works gave it the status of a simple historical document.
For more information
The edition presented on our website was entered, edited and parallelized by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé. The latter encoded the text in TEI-XML with the valuable help of Paul Gaillardon and Maud Ingrao. Interventions on the original typography have been reduced to a strict minimum: only the long ſ have been converted into s. Moreover, it is worth knowing that the order of the footnotes in the 1734 edition is alphabetical, with a return to the letter a at the beginning of each page; but despite the absence of pagination in Qur’ān 12-21 online edition, this return to the a is maintained for the sake of philological rigour as well as for easy referencing. For the initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Sale (George), The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed: translated into English immediately from the original Arabic; with explanatory notes, taken from the most approved commentators, to which is prefixed a preliminary discourse, London, J. Wilcox at Virgil’s, 1734 [original edition, the one presented on our website].
Bevilacqua (Alexander), The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press, 2018 [the history of European scholarship on Islam between the 17th and 18th centuries; a reference work to which this introductory note is heavily indebted; for the section on Marracci and Sale, see “The Qur’an in translation”, pp. 44-74].
Bevilacqua (Alexander), “The Qurʾan translations of Marracci and Sale”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 76, 2013, pp. 93-130.
Bobzin (Harmut), « Translations of the Qur’an », in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, ed. by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Leyde, Brill Academic Publishers, 2005, vol. 5, pp. 348.
Elmarsafy (Ziad), The Enlightenment Qur’an: the politics of translation and the construction of Islam, London, Oneworld Publications, 2009 [the influence of translations of the Qur’ān, especially those of Sale and Savary, on the greatest intellectuals and statesmen of the European Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, Napoleon and Goethe; this is the other reference work on which our introductory note draws heavily].
Elmarsafy (Ziad), “Translations of the Qur’an: European Languages”, In Mustafa Shah and Muhammad Abdel Haleem, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Qur’anic Studies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 541-551 .
Tolan (John), Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today, Princeton University Press, 2019 [the different representations of the Muslim prophet in Europe, from the first encounters with Islam to the present day; on Sale, see pp. 160-168].
Vrolijk (Arnoud), “Sale, George (b. in or after 1696?, d. 1736), orientalist”, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2015 (online: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24529, accessed June 21, 2020).
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The English translation was done by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.