Not a mission to explain

A few ill-informed writings on Orientalism have dated the serious beginnings of Arabic studies to 1312, when the Council of Vienne decreed that Arabic should be taught at the universities of Avignon, Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca. But the necessary funding was not made available, so the decree was a dead letter. Serious engagement with Arabic began in the sixteenth century, with the researches of the amiably barmy scholar Guillaume Postel, and was taken further in the seventeenth century by more sober linguists, some of whom were based at the University of Leiden. Alastair Hamilton’s Arabs and Arabists, a collection of previously published articles, concentrates on the seventeenth century with only a few remarks on the subsequent decline of Arabic studies. Thomas Erpenius in his inaugural lecture at Leiden in 1613 had suggested that Arabic studies deserved to be assistance because it would be of encouragement to merchants and other travellers, there is little evidence that the work produced by Erpenius, William Bedwell, Jacob Golius, Franciscus Raphelengius, Edward Pococke and Ludovico Marracci was of much use to those hypothetical travellers. Instead, those who studied Arabic took it for granted that the study of classical Arabic should be subordinated to a Christian religious aim.

But that still left open the question of what that aim should be. Early on in the seventeenth century, some optimists believed that careful study of the Qur’an and Muslim beliefs more generally would assist Christian missionaries to convert Muslims. As hopes of that dwindled, Catholic and Protestant scholars suggested that the Eastern Christians might be converted to a Western version of the faith. Though the Maronites had entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, attempts to reach out to the Copts and other Eastern Christians were less successful. But if the Eastern Christians were not easily persuaded to convert, then at least their doctrines and practices might provide support in a debate in the West about transubstantiation. Protestant ministers claimed that the Greek and Armenian Christians did not share the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. The Catholic Jansenists “took up the challenge with enthusiasm” and, as Hamilton remarks, “For this there were many reasons. First of all it allowed them to indulge in their favorite pursuit – polemic. This, their refusal to let any argument drop, to continue their discussions way beyond the point of exhaustion, was to be one of the causes of their undoing.” All the same, it must have felt better to be attacking Protestants, instead of their usual target, the Jesuits.

In those days, Hebrew was believed to be the mother of all languages. The idea that the study of Arabic was chiefly valuable for the light it could shed on Hebrew words and hence on the meaning of certain passages in the Bible was widespread, and the study of Arabic suffered greatly from its subordination to Hebrew. For example, though there was no consensus about the ordering of the Arabic alphabet, many scholars thought that it would be best to match it to that of corresponding letters in Hebrew. But this was not particularly useful, especially since Arabic has more letters than Hebrew. Arabists were slow to adopt the more rational hija’ ordering, in which the alphabetical order of the Arabic letters is determined by their shapes (this is the order used in dictionaries and other reference works today). Looking at the study of Arabic from another angle, the grammar and vocabulary of Hebrew was at first thought to be the best guide to the translation of Arabic. It took time to realize that Persian–Arabic or Turkish–Arabic dictionaries or, better yet, the vast monolingual Arabic dictionaries (which had been primarily compiled to assist medieval Arab poets) were much more useful. Then there was widespread agreement that the Qur’an should be studied, so that it could be refuted. But then the question arose, should the Qur’an be studied for what it actually said or for what Muslims believed that it said?

One might imagine that the pious and somewhat recherché fields of Qur’an studies and translations in the early modern period would have been tranquil and risk free. This was not entirely the case, and quite a few of the scholars involved died early. Hamilton notes that “the Germans all died relatively young, and thus gave rise to the rumour that anyone who meddled with the Qur’an would be punished with an early death”. Obtaining the relevant manuscripts and the letters for the Arabic typeface was such a lengthy prelude to getting started on some study in the language that posthumous publication became almost the norm. Raphelengius’s dictionary was posthumously published, as was Marracci’s work on the Qur’an and Barthélémy d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale. Henry Sike, who thought the Qur’an “the most elegant and rational book in the world” and who worked on a (lost) translation, hanged himself in his rooms at Trinity, Cambridge, in 1712. A priest based in Rome, Ludovico Marracci (1612–1700), was able to produce a text, translation and copious commentary on the Qur’an that was to command the subject in Europe in part simply because he was so long lived.

I like to fantasize that some of the erudite gentlemen for whose careers Hamilton has provided biographies, many of which are pioneering, could just as well feature in an early international version of the Newgate Calendar. For example, Henri de Gournay de Marcheville, who went on an ill-fated diplomatic mission to Constantinople that was also intended to double as a sweeping search for Arabic manuscripts, created such a bad impression after he arrived that he narrowly escaped being murdered on the orders of the Sultan Murad IV. Then again, the scholarly imperial dragoman based in Constantinople, Michel D’Asquier, plotted the death of a rival dragoman, but died of dropsy before criminal proceedings could be brought against him.

For all its intellectual confusion and scholarly rancour, the seventeenth century was a premature golden age for Arabic studies. Things declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Edward Gibbon and later Richard Burton discovered when they tried to study Arabic at Oxford. Hamilton’s articles are full of challenging interpretations and arcane information which may certainly be appreciated by monoglot readers, but those wishing to get full value from this important contribution to the history of early modern scholarship should ideally have a reading knowledge of Latin, Dutch, German, French and Arabic.

Robert Irwin‘s books include Ibn Khaldun: An intellectual biography2018

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post Not a mission to explain appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment