Reading the "Qur'an" in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560

By DuBruck, Edelgard E. | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Reading the "Qur'an" in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560


DuBruck, Edelgard E., Fifteenth Century Studies


Burman, Thomas E. Reading the "Qur'än" in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. vi; 317.

In his introduction, Burman reminds us that the Qur'än was a bestseller in medieval and early modern Europe. In fact, the Koran was read by European Christians from the mid-twelfth to the mid-sixteenth centuries and had been translated into Latin four times. About forty Latin and Arabic manuscripts of the holy text have survived to this day, as well as some printed editions. Of the six chapters in Burman's book, we outline three specifically, since they contain the essential development of European Koran scholarship. Except in chapter titles, we are using the European spelling of Qur'än.

How did Latin-Christian intellectuals react when they opened Koran pages? These readers looked especially for passages which could serve Christian polemics and apologetics, strictly on a need-to-know basis, and wrote the following words on the margin, for example: "Muhammed was a lecherous warmonger, Islam is a bellicose and promiscuous religion; the Koran is a fraudulent pseudo-scripture" (2) - at least in the beginning Koran translation and exegesis, in the twelfth century. Working with scholarly care, the first translator/paraphraser was Robert of Ketton (c. 11 10-60).

Our review of Burman's work starts with chapter three, called "Polemic, Philology, and Scholastic Reading in the Earliest Manuscript of Robert of Ketton's Latin QurÏn." Robert's translation had abundant notes, mostly written on the margins of the folios; the annotations "thunder with hostility" (60) against the Islamic "false doctrine" (ibid.) . Scholarly research considered annotations by previous readers as almost more important than a work's text. Thus, the version became a widely read Arab-Christian attack on Muhammed's religion. The Koran was placed within a frame (paraphrased), in order to make it easier to understand - from a Christian point of view.

In fact, Burman devotes chs. three to five to explaining successive frames, after dividing the Koran into easily digestible sections. Robert of Ketton had used scholastic methods for the layout of the book and often transliterated rather than translated the Arabic words. Among the scholastic mechanisms were

running headlines, chapter titles in brightly colored ink, alternating red and blue initials, variation in the size of initials, paragraph markers, tables of contents, cross-references, citations of quoted authors, and elaborate marginal annotations (79),

and other notes placed interlinearly (between the lines of the text).

In chapter four, "New Readers, New Frames: The Later Manuscripts and Printed Versions of Robert of Ketton's Latin Qur'an,'" the author explains that soon, the manuscripts showed how copyists reworked the twelfthc. annotations, offered indexes, and tables of contents. Abridged and excerpted editions of Ketton's work appeared, and polemical readings still resulted. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, authoritatively glossed manuscripts with twelfth-c. layout predominated, while later an interesting diversity could be observed; until the 1400s, the Koran became a Christian textbook with marginal annotations.

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