Library Spotlight: 1674 Book of Common Prayer in Arabic | Salisbury Cathedral

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Library Spotlight: 1674 Book of Common Prayer in Arabic

The Book of Common Prayer in Arabic, 1674

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Library Spotlight: 1674 Book of Common Prayer in Arabic

Posted By : Guest Blogger Wednesday 3rd December 2014

The Book of Common Prayer in Arabic, 1674

This blog posting was written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger, based on his own research.

The Salisbury Cathedral's library is home to manuscripts written in many different languages, but this Book of Common Prayer (BCP) from 1674 stands out for being the only book in the library’s collection to be printed entirely in Arabic. Knowledge of Arabic in 17th century England was almost non-existent, limited to the few academics (notably Physicians, Astronomers and Mathematicians) who found use in being able to read ancient Arabic texts of a scientific nature, and so even though this BCP was printed in England, it was not intended for an English audience. To understand why this Arabic BCP came into being, we must look East to the sprawling Ottoman Empire, whose vast territory included nearly all Arabic-speaking lands and a sizeable number of indigenous, mainly Eastern Orthodox, Arabic-speaking Christians which Western Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, wanted to bring into their respective folds. Hence the need for translated Western Christian prayer books, and for English missionaries, the need for a Book of Common Prayer in Arabic to counter Catholic evangelising efforts in the Middle East.


The book itself is slightly larger than a standard 1662 BCP, hardbound and printed on thick, good quality paper, and follows the general layout of the 1662 BCP but with glaring omissions (for example, not including the Psalms) respecting the reality that indigenous Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East were already very familiar with the scriptures in their own language. BCPs like this would have been ‘smuggled’ into the Ottoman Empire on cargo ships bound for the shared European trading ports that had been long established across the region, and as these books were printed entirely in Arabic they would have raised little suspicion when passing through Ottoman customs inspection. Once on land, they would have passed into the hands of English merchants who had contacts with Protestant Christian missionaries who would have in turn dispensed them among the local churches of Christian towns and villages – in the hope of fulfilling the greater aim of the Anglican Communion in the 17th century of an eventual unification with the Orthodox Christian Church. History shows, however, that this venture was not very successful.


But other than the odd bit of wear and tear to its cover, the BCP in the Cathedral library is in pristine condition – showing that it was little, if ever, read and most certainly had not left the country. This copy, at least, had an intended audience of only one: Seth Ward. Bishop of Salisbury in the late 17th century, Ward amassed a multitude of books during his lifetime and on his death in 1688 he left a great many of these to the Cathedral library – including this Arabic BCP. One can be easily mistaken for thinking it to be a work of Bishop Ward’s because his name is quite clearly hand-written on the front page. But as Arabic script is written from right to left, the book is printed ‘backwards’ (so to speak) and so the front page in an English sense is in actual fact the back page of this BCP. Upon turning the book over and opening the real front page we find the true author, printed in Latin (the language of academia at the time): Edward Pococke.


Before the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Bishop Ward was professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford where his contemporary, Edward Pococke, was professor of Arabic. Their shared academic interest in the language of Arabic would have brought them into regular contact, and it can be surmised that the two were close friends given that the Cathedral library owns a copy of every one of Pococke’s academic books – all from Bishop Ward’s private collection. Pococke, one of the leading Arabic scholars of his day, was commissioned to translate the Book of Common Prayer by contacts he had made while working for the Levant Company (a multi-national Anglo-Ottoman trading corporation) before he became professor of Arabic at Oxford. Not a great many of these BCPs were printed and of the few that survive today, the copy in the Cathedral library is entirely unique for having a hand-written personal dedication to Bishop Ward (again, in Latin) which reads: ‘Seth Sarum, Donum Tralatoris, Mar.1.74’ or in English: To Bishop Seth, A gift from the translator, 1st March 1674.  

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