By Nathan Hood

Editor’s Note: The Christian-Muslim Studies Network aims to support critical scholarship in the field from a variety of disciplines. While not all such encounters are irenic, as with this historical example, even study of polemical encounters can offer useful fodder for scholarship. This post is a scholarly contribution from Nathan Hood, a current PhD candidate in Theology and History, whose research emphasis is in Early Modern Scotland.

The first English translation of the Qur’an was produced by a seventeenth- century, Reformed Scotsman, Alexander Ross (1591-1654). He was a man who appears to have ended up on the wrong side of intellectual history. Born, raised and educated in Aberdeen, Ross became a Doctor of Divinity at either King’s or Marischal College. For unknown reasons he moved to England and in time he became, with the help of William Laud (future Archbishop of Canterbury whose ecclesiastical policies provoked the prayer book riots of 1637 and National Covenant of 1638), one of Charles I’s chaplains and minister of All Saints’ in Southampton.

Though Episcopalian, Ross, like most Protestants in Scotland and England prior to the Wars of Three Kingdoms, was theologically Calvinist, having views similar to those put forward by the internationally renowned Aberdeen theologian Robert Barron. He was an avid contributor to the significant philosophical debates of his day, defending Aristotelian scholasticism against attack in a series of publications. He robustly, rudely and rambunctiously argued against the cosmological theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, Harvey’s revolutionary theory that blood circulates the body, the philosophy and methodology of Descartes, Spinoza, and Ramus and the political vision of Hobbes. Following his own deposition from his ministry and the defeat of Charles I at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, Ross continued to write conservative philosophical works, likely in London. He died in 1654 a wealthy man, leaving substantial legacies to the universities in Aberdeen and his former charges.[1]

‘I thought good to bring it to their colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou mayst the better prepare to encounter and I hope overcome them’.

Alexander Ross, first translator of the Qur’an into English (1591-1654)

Ross’s translation of the Qur’an was, like so much of his work, a public rebuttal of intellectual positions emerging within the English public sphere. Nabil Matar has suggested that Ross was responding to the Arabist John Gregory, an Oxford University graduate. Gregory had argued that the New Testament was a less reliable document than the Qur’an because the latter had less canonical issues and had fewer issues surrounding textual transmission.[2]

A few years later, Ross had published his translation of the Qur’an in 1649. Not knowing Arabic, he based his work on the French translation by Andrew du Ryer (c. 1580-1660), whose 1647 translation was derived from the original Arabic. Ross, in the preface to the reader in his The Alcoran of Mahomet stated the rationale for the publication forcibly: ‘I thought good to bring it (the Qur’an) to their colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou mayst the better prepare to encounter and I hope overcome them’.[3] Likely responding to Gregory’s claim that the Qur’an has a superior literary style and reliability to that of the New Testament, Ross declared to his reader, ‘Thou shalt find it so rude, and incongruous… so faced with contradictions, obscene speeches, and ridiculous fables’, so much so that some more ‘rational’ Muslims have disavowed most of the Islamic Scriptures.[4]

Ross concluded the preface by saying that he saw his translation of the Qur’an into English as an ‘antidote’ to the ‘poyson’ of Islam.[5] His rationale seems to have been that by enabling more people to read the Qur’an for themselves, the text’s ‘evident’ falsity and aesthetic ugliness would be more widely known, preserving and strengthening Protestantism within England.

However, Ross’s diatribe against Islam was also a vehicle for a polemical attack upon the Cromwellian regime of his day. Prior to the publication of the text, the Council of State issued a warrant, at the behest of Colonel Anthony Weldon, to search the press to seize the publication. Later, they apprehended the printer and Ross was summoned to ‘give an account for the printing of the Alcoran.’[6] Nevertheless, the document eventually went to publication. Ross’s preface and an additional supplement added to his translation responded virulently to the Cromwellian regime’s fears concerning the Qur’an’s publication. In his preface, Ross responds to those who were ‘unwilling this should see the press’, suggesting that they were afraid that the publication of the Qur’an would lead many of its readers to convert to Islam. Pointedly, Ross argued that those of this persuasion had already ‘abandoned the Sun of the Gospel’ and might indeed ‘wander as far into utter darkness’.[7] By contrast, Ross was confident that those who upholders of ‘orthodox Religion’ will not be ‘hurt’ by reading this text.

Ross used his translation of the Qur’an as a means of employing diatribe against both Islam and the Cromwellian regime.

Elaborating in ‘A needfull Caveat or Admonition’, Ross recognised that some considered the Qur’an’s publication as ‘dangerous and scandalous’, especially the ‘higher powers’. In retort, he suggested that it was only dangerous to ‘such as like reeds are shaken’, but to ‘solid Christians, the reading of Mahomets Heresies wilbe no more dangerous’ than reading of doctrinal error in the Bible.[8] He continued that the Qur’an, as a ‘mishapen and deformed piece’, confirms Christians in the truth of the New Testament and that those who follow the Qur’an do so out of fear of ‘the Sword’.[9] Moreover, by exposing the errors of the Qur’an, England will be able to ‘cut off the head’ of this heresy and ‘laugh at it’, better protecting Christianity by understanding the superstitions, contradictions, blasphemies, fables and lies of its foes.[10]

However, at the end of the text, Ross iterates that only those who are ‘weak, ignorant, inconstant, and disaffected minds to the truth’ should not read his translation, while the ‘intelligent, judicious, learned and thoroughly grounded in piety, and principles of Christianity’ are able to engage with his text.[11] As Ross had already claimed the Cromwellians should not read the Qur’an as they do not have a solid Christian faith, it appears he is also claiming that they are not as intellectually gifted as he and the Episcopalian, royalist party. Thus, Ross used his translation of the Qur’an as a means of employing diatribe against both Islam and the Cromwellian regime.

[1] David Allan, ‘Ross, Alexander (1591–1654), Church of England clergyman and writer on philosophy.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 8 Nov. 2019.

[2] Nabil Matar, ‘Alexander Ross and the First English Translation of the Qur an.’ The Muslim World 88, no. 1 (01, 1998): 81-92. 81-82

[3] Alexander Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet, (London, 1649) A2r

[4] Ross, Alcoran, A2v

[5] Ross, Alcoran, A3r

[6] Matar, ‘Alexander Ross’, 83

[7] Ross, Alcoran, A3r

[8] Alexander Ross, ‘A needfull Caveat or Admonition.’ in The Alcoran of Mahomet (London, 1649)2

[9] Ross, ‘Caveat’, 3-4

[10] Ross, ‘Caveat’, 7, 10-15

[11] Ross, ‘Caveat’, 15