The blog was written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger
1617 Surah of Yusuf, from the Qur’an
Having been the recipient of donations and bequests from several bishops, Salisbury Cathedral’s library understandably hosts a multitude of prayer books, bibles and biblical commentaries amongst its collection. But, rather surprisingly, among the volumes of Christian scripture there is an extract from the Qur’an (the Islamic scriptures, or the recitations to the Prophet Mohammed) printed in Holland and dating back nearly 400 years to 1617.
The book in question (which contains the Surah, or chapter, from the Qur’an) was compiled by Thomas Erpenius, Professor of Arabic at the University of Leiden in Holland, whose scholarly works greatly advanced the knowledge of Arabic in that country and across Europe – including England. The study of Arabic was becoming increasingly important in northern (Protestant) Europe during the 17th century as manuscripts from the East containing valuable scientific and mathematical information was needed to be translated, in addition to the increased opportunity for evangelism in the Ottoman Empire – which had granted generous trade and travel rights to Protestant countries who weren’t at war with the Sultan. Erpenius was well known during his lifetime for writing books for students and novices of Arabic, and his fame can be seen in how Salisbury Cathedral’s library has a copy of his ‘Arabic Language Lessons’ (Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae, 1628) in which Erpenius explains basic Arabic grammar and pronunciation. But for his advanced students, Erpenius needed an Arabic text, preferably a story, in which he could explain complex grammatical points and introduce his pupils to Eastern traditions and culture; transcribing a surah from the Qur’an, with an accompanying translation, was a perfect way of doing both. This was the first time a European Arabic teacher had attempted to translate part of the Islamic scriptures, and it proved a popular teaching method as translated extracts from the Qur’an are still used for students of Arabic to this very day.
The surah Erpenius chose was the Surah of Yusuf, unique in the Qur’an as it is said to have been revealed to the Prophet in its entirety (not in several sittings like other surahs), shown by its coherent narrative and sticking to its central theme throughout. The surah recounts the story of the prophet Yusuf, or Joseph (of technicolour-coat fame), and there are striking similarities between the stories as told in the Bible and in the Qur’an. Both accounts have Joseph/Yusuf being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, seduced by Potiphar’s wife, correctly reading the dreams of his two fellow prisoners and then Pharaoh’s, being made overlord of all Egypt during the years of abundance and famine, and finally revealing his true identity to his brothers when they defend young Benjamin against accusations of stealing the goblet. However, there is an important distinction between the two narratives which echoes the key difference between Judeo-Christian and Islamic understandings of humanity’s relationship with God. In the Bible, Joseph is singled out by God, through periods of immense hardship, to be a doer of great deeds – though Joseph is not fully aware of this until the end of the Biblical narrative when he finally understands his role all along was to resettle the Canaanites in the land of Egypt. In the Qur’an, by contrast, Yusuf is fully aware that the hardships he suffers (as well as the heights he ascends to) are due solely to the will of Allah – there being a reference in almost every verse of the surah harkening to Yusuf’s acceptance of this central tenant of Islamic faith.
Erpenius would have surely gone on to translate more surahs from the Qur’an as he taught more students and his fame increased, but he died prematurely from plague in 1624, aged just 40. The academic links between England and Holland survived, however, and Erpenius’ successor as Arabic Professor in Leiden, Jacob Golius, produced a highly revered Arabic dictionary in 1653 (which Salisbury Cathedral’s library also has an original copy of) and was used as a standard reference work for scholars of Arabic for the next two hundred years.
Please see the accompanying gallery of images of the book.