What is the horizon of Qurʾānic studies in the West? (12ᵗʰ‒18ᵗʰ centuries)

Sana Bou Antoun

PhD student at Paris-IV Sorbonne Université

icon-calendar Tuesday November 10ᵗʰ, 2020

Western studies of the Qurʾān have a very ancient history, dating back to the 12ᵗʰ century, and it is important to study this history in order to better understand the stakes of the current situation. Consisting mainly of translations exercises accompanied by commentaries in which extensive philological remarks and polemical content are intertwined, these Qurʾānic studies bear witness to the ambivalent relationship between West and East, and therefore between European specialists in Semitic languages and the Qurʾān.

Several factors have triggered the interest of scholars in Europe in the Middle Ages for the Qurʾān. Some scholars initially considered that the Arabic language could be used to better understand Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Others had a plan to convert Muslims to Christianity. And finally, others wanted to better understand Islam, which they spontaneously analyzed as a Christian heresy.

If before the 12ᵗʰ century the Qurʾān was known to the West only through the eyes of Eastern Christians, the Latin translation of Robert of Ketton in 1143 provided direct access to the text to Western scholars. Using an elegant Biblical Latin language, and relying on classical commentaries, such as that of al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), the translation of Robert of Ketton is certainly intended to refute the Qurʾān, but by taking it seriously.

The situation changed in the 14ᵗʰ century with the humanist scholars during the Renaissance era, who were in a conflictual relationship with the Ottoman Empire, and who insisted more on the political dimension of the figure of the Prophet Muḥammad than on his ethical and eschatological message. Humanists also relegated Arabic to a second place behind Hebrew. The first translations into European vernacular languages were published in this time.

The anti-clericalism and anti-Christianity of the 17ᵗʰ and 18ᵗʰ centuries in Europe then tended to present Islam as a more rational religion than Christianity. As for the dominant position of Hebrew in Semitic studies, it was reinforced by Protestantism.

As John Tolan writes, Qurʾānic studies in the West have first and foremost been a mirror for the European intellectual tradition, reflecting its own internal questions, concerns and debates on Biblical and religious issues in general.

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