The French Translation By André Du Ryer (1647)
Printed in 1647, André Du Ryer’s translation is a historical milestone. Not only is it the first version of the entire Qur’ān published in French, but it is also the first version of the Qur’ān translated from Arabic into a European vernacular language. The text published by Andrea Arrivabene in Italian exactly one century earlier, was in fact based on the Latin translation composed by Robert of Ketton upon the request of Peter the Venerable, and edited by Bibliander in 1543. The German translation by Salomon Schweigger, printed in 1616, was in turn based on Arrivabene’s edition.
Du Ryer and his work before the Alcoran de Mahomet
André Du Ryer was born at the end of the 16th century in Marcigny, in the modern-day French department of Saône-et-Loire. He was the youngest child of a Burgundian family of lower nobility, and apparently had not done any university studies. In addition, Du Ryer did not know Hebrew unlike most Arabists of his time. But his talent for languages was quickly spotted by François Savary de Brèves, Henry IV’s former ambassador in Istanbul, who was a fervent promoter of Oriental studies. De Brèves called for the creation of a new college and founded the first specialized printing house, called the “Typographia Savariana”. Du Ryer’s entire career was placed under his patronage and he followed in his footsteps, when Savary de Brèves died in 1628.
It was Savary de Brèves who sent Du Ryer to Egypt around 1616, to learn Arabic, Turkish, and probably Persian. He stayed there for about five years. De Brèves also named Du Ryer Vice-Consul of Cairo in 1623, a position greatly coveted, as Egypt at the time was one of France’s main trading partners in the Middle East. However, there were many difficulties to face: pirate attacks, arbitrary taxations imposed on Christians by the local powers, and even rivalries between the missionary orders. Du Ryer may have lacked experience as a consul due to his young age, but he was impetuous. The French merchants in Egypt were annoyed by the taxes Du Ryer was compelled to raise due to the dire financial situation of the consulate. Irritated by Du Ryer threats towards them, the merchants managed to have him sent back to Paris in 1626.
His dismissal appeared to be quite painful and twenty years later, Du Ryer added to his translation of the Qur’ān a letter testifying the integrity with which he accomplished his mission as a consul. Still, the Middle East was important to him. In 1627, Du Ryer received the honorary title of “Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher” in Palestine. In fact, Du Ryer had far from fallen into disgrace since, in 1630, he found himself holding the position of Gentleman of the Royal House in Paris. During this same year, Du Ryer’s Turkish grammar – Rudimenta grammatices linguæ turcicæ – was published in Latin and stood as evidence of an exceptional knowledge for the time. Only the German Hieronymus Megiser published Turkish grammar before in 1612, and Du Ryer did not seem to have consulted his work. Despite the mistakes they contained, these Rudimenta would only be surpassed by the fifth volume of the Thesaurus linguarum orientalium published in 1680 by François Mesgnien, also known as Meninski.
In 1631, Du Ryer was named interpreter, secretary and advisor to the new ambassador in Istanbul, Henri de Gournay, Count of Marcheville. The previous ambassador Harlay de Césy’s severe judgements pronounced towards Du Ryer can be considered unfair, as he was quite irritated by his own dismissal. In any case, Du Ryer seemed to have had a great influence over Marcheville, and also benefited from their relationship. The bond of trust he managed to build with Sultan Murad IV convinced the latter to appoint him “Extraordinary Ambassador” (the safe-conduct pertaining to this position is another piece Du Ryer added to his translation of the Qur’ān). But what was the mission of an “Extraordinary Ambassador”? We do not know exactly. Maybe Du Ryer traveled back and forth between Istanbul and Paris to maintain the interests of the two different states. There is little information about when his mission ended. However, it can be assumed that this did not disturb Du Ryer’s activity as a collector, which probably started during his stay in Egypt. He left more than fifty Oriental manuscripts, mostly lexicographical works, Persian literary texts and commentaries of the Qur’ān that he had most likely used for his own writings: there are striking similarities between his work and the books he owned.
But the title of “Extraordinary Ambassador” bestowed by the Sultan was not always advantageous. It raises a doubt concerning Du Ryer’s loyalty to the king of France and to the Christian faith. Savary de Brèves’ fascination with the Orient gave him the reputation of having secretly embraced Islam in his heart. According to Tallemant des Réaux, never short of scandalous anecdotes, Savary de Brèves would have uttered “Allah” just before dying. Generally speaking, the orientalist field was quite heterogeneous. The Catholic activists commonly known as the dévots, persuaded by the legitimacy of missions – and of crusades – stood alongside fervent libertines or simple scholars, who put forward the pretense of missionary objectives to justify the questionable exoticism of their scholarly activities. This demonstrates how the letters of morality mentioned above are not mainly intended to repair a personal wound. In fact, they were indispensable for the publication of the Qur’ān in French, as were the notice “To the reader” (Au lecteur) and the “Summary of the religion of the Turks” (Sommaire de la religion des Turcs) which precede it. The clichéd virulence with which the former attacks Islam, and the way in which the latter reduces it to a series of disjointed rites and beliefs appear to be incompatible with the long years Du Ryer spent in the Middle East, with the knowledge his translations demonstrate, and with the influence of Quranic exegesis, known as tafsīr. But the perpetuation of polemical stereotypes was probably the price to pay in order to legitimize a particularly bold publication, as it follows a quite unordinary career.
In 1634, Du Ryer published “Gulistan or Rose Garden” (Gulistan, ou l’empire des roses) a French translation of the collection of stories and poems of the great Persian storyteller, moralist and mystic, Saadi (13th century AD). By translating this collection, which was very famous in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, Du Ryer reinforced his eminent position in the scholarly field of the time. Even if Oriental studies were encouraged by powerful men of state such as Richelieu, French Orientalists seldom published in comparison with their English and Dutch colleagues, but Du Ryer was not affected by this sort of dilettantism. The only person in France in previous generation capable of translating from the Persian in French was his patron Savary de Brèves. The only available Persian dictionaries were manuscripts.
Du Ryer’s translation was less addressed to scholars than to a public of lettered readers to whom his book revealed a new cultural domain. By doing so, he contributed to starting a fashion for Oriental Literature that would expand during 17th century and even more so during the following century. His choices as a translator suggest that this was Du Ryer’s goal. As he was not entirely sure of his poetic talents, he transposed passages originally written in verse into prose, but his prose was artistic. Du Ryer chose anecdotes from the original texts, avoided stories that were too difficult to adapt and, in order to conform with the genius of the French language as well as with the expectations of his readers, deleted many repetitions in the text. The number of cuts grows as we read, and this last trait is also noticeable in his translation of the Qur’ān. In the latter, the decision to not number the sūrahs might have been taken for aesthetic reasons, but it worth noting that the numeration of sūrahs was not a common practice in the Muslim world at that time. The tendency to paraphrase the more obscure passages could also be an issue of clarity. The abbreviation or omission of verses with images considered as licentious could be of fear of indecency (see for instance verse 10 and 33 from sūrah 78). The “French Academy” (Académie Française) was founded the same year the Gulistan was published, and Du Ryer meets the literary style the newly created institution was developing.
The Alcoran de Mahomet: writing and publication
After the death of his older brother, around 1630, Du Ryer inherited the family domain and that encouraged him to complete his signature by adding the title: “Sieur of La Garde-Malezayr”. At some point in the 1630s, he went back to his property in Burgundy where he started two of his main works. The first one was a manuscript of a Turkish-Latin dictionary of which two copies have been preserved at the “National Library of France” (Bibliothèque Nationale de France). Du Ryer worked on this dictionary until his death in 1672. The second one was the Alcoran de Mahomet, which we present here.
Some of the inaccuracies in the translation may stem from the geographical circumstances in which it was written: for instance, the necessary verifications were easier to do in Paris. However, Du Ryer may have consulted Orientalist friends such as Gilbert Gaulmin, Gabriel Sionita and Abraham Echellensis. Gaulmin, who had been trained as a Hebraist, also knew Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, the language from which he translated the fables of Pilpay. Arabic was the native language of the two others who were Lebanese Christians and were instructed at the Maronite College of Rome. But above all, Du Ryer had access to manuscripts of Quranic exegesis that were then very difficult to obtain and which he appeared to have preferred over European translations.
In Du Ryer’s library, we find the tafsīr al-Ǧalālayn by al-Maḥallī and al-Suyūṭī (15th century AD), as well as the Tanwīr fī l-tafsīr by Ibn Ǧamīl Al-Raba‘ī Al-Tūnisī (14th AD – actually an abbreviated version of the al-Tafsīr al-kabīr by Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī written a century earlier). He also quoted comments from al-Bayḍāwī (Anwār al-tanzīl wa asrār al-ta’wīl, 13th century AD) and a Turkish tafsīr entitled Enfes-ül cevahir, translated from previous Arab commentaries, notably from the tafsīr by al-Ḫāzin, entitled Libāb al-ta’wīl fī maʿānī al-tanzīl (14th century AD). The references he put in the margins of his translation were not always clear nor were they accurate, in the sense that we do not always know which text he was referring to. Besides, Du Ryer’s translations were often influenced with commentaries he had previously consulted, although he did not attach explanatory notes to the verses. Nonetheless, Du Ryer mentioned the debt he owed to the Muslim commentators, something Latin translators before him did not do for instance. This allowed European readers to understand, for the first time, the importance of exegesis in the interpretation of the Quranic text.
Just like the Gulistan, the Alcoran de Mahomet was printed by Antoine de Sommaville, who at the same time printed several Oriental-style texts including Ibrahim ou l’illustre Bassa by Madeleine de Scudéry. Like the Gulistan, the book was dedicated to the Chancellor Pierre Séguier, whose favors Du Ryer had won after the death of his benefactor Savary de Brèves and who succeeded Richelieu as protector of the Académie Française. The man was powerful and happened to also collect Oriental manuscripts. Du Ryer probably took advantage of his own expertise, as we can find his handwriting on the “purple Qur’ān” that was brought back from Tunis by Charles V and that Séguier acquired for his library.
This does not mean that the translation of Qur’ān into French did not meet with strong resistance, and this is proven by the fact that the dedicatory letters were removed from numerous copies, to avoid compromising the patrons. Indeed, the book was submitted to the Council of Conscience which was created by the Cardinal Richelieu and perpetuated by Queen Anne of Austria to oversee the religious affairs in the kingdom. The book faced opposition from St. Vincent de Paul who asked for it to be banned, while Chancellor Séguier supported it. The Alcoran de Mahomet was nevertheless circulated, but in secret. This consequently increased its value in the eyes of buyers. A few months later, the Fronde rebellion broke out: the authorities had more urgent problems to take care of. Yet, this episode demonstrates the extent to which Oriental studies aroused distrust and the missionary pretext they relied on.
In the 17th century France, these signs of distrust mostly came from the dévots. But they could also be found in other periods of history and in other denominational contexts. In 1542, Johann Oporin from Basel was briefly thrown into jail for undertaking the printing of Bibliander’s Latin Qur’ān without the consent of Protestant authorities. In 1570, the Italian translation of the Qur’ān published by the Venetian Arrivabene was burned in public. In 1649, Robert White was arrested for printing the English translation of the Alcoran de Mahomet. In 1670, all the editions of the Qur’ān and their commentaries were blacklisted by Pope Clement X.
These are the reasons why Du Ryer was so cautious in presenting his translation and in making people understand that he had no affinity with Islam. At that time, when hoping to reach a large audience and reveal new fields of study, one must first bypass censorship.
The value of the text
The number of translations and re-editions shows that Du Ryer’s work, despite its obvious flaws, was not devoid of qualities for the time in which it was published.
Admittedly, the comparison with the modern versions available on our website seems to reveal numerous mistakes or approximations. By way of example, in verse 3 of sūrah 100, “who attack in the morning” (fal-muġīrāti ṣubḥan, “فالْمُغِيراتِ صُبْحًا”) becomes “who run gently out of jealousy”: Du Ryer has apparently confused muġīr, muġīra (“مُغِير، مُغِيرَة”), the present participle of the verb aġāra (“أَغَارَ”, to attack), with the noun ġayra (“غَيْرة”, jealousy), which is derived from the verb ġāra (“غَارَ”, to be jealous). Quite often, in order to determine which specific passage Du Ryer tries to translate, one may notice the repetition of a lexical item: even though this lexical item is not present in the Arabic text, the repetition is, thus the translated term can be deduced from it. Similarly, towards the end of the text, Du Ryer unsurprisingly deleted large parts of sūrahs, when their rhetoric rested essentially on anaphora or repetitions, as is the case in sūrah 55. The translator obviously thought that the French readers would find them unbearable and would deem the scansion of the text both stuttering and monotonous. Finally, it is not without reason that certain specific choices of Du Ryer were quickly challenged. In 1721, for instance, David Durand translated Hadrian Reland’s De religione mohammedica into French and regretted that Du Ryer did not draw conclusions from his own commentary on the title of sūrah 72. Why not call it “Of Spirits” rather than “Of Devils”, if that is how Muslims understand it?
However, that latter case could be interpreted as a new attempt to prevent the censor’s objections. Yet, one may notice the strictly philological aspect of the annotations added in the margins by Du Ryer, which contrast with the sensitive polemical vein found in the annotations inserted by Bibliander. More broadly speaking, it is worth challenging the preconceptions circulated about this text, and compare it not with the translations that followed it, but with those that preceded it. Du Ryer hides the division into verses – while indicating the number of verses at the beginning of sūrahs, as is usually the case in Arabic manuscripts – but punctuates his text in such a way that it is possible to understand the division. Frequently, a comma, semicolon or colon corresponds to a transition from one verse to another. Thus the fragmentations and conglomerates, which are very frequent in Latin, Italian and German translations tend to become scarcer. As for the inversions between sūrahs, to which earlier translations frequently resort, they become exceptional in Du Ryer’s work. Finally, some translation choices that one may deem to be arbitrary may actually be only partially so. To return to an example that was deliberately given, some Muslim exegetes sometimes use as quasi-synonyms the verbs aġāra (“أَغَارَ”, to attack) and ġāra (“غَارَ”, to be jealous).
Reception and re-editions
The reception of Du Ryer’s translation was rather uneven among Orientalists at the time and even more so by the following generations. Humphrey Prideaux, author of the very influential Life of Muhammad, in English published in 1697, found Du Ryer’s work is “done as well as can be expected from one who was only a merchant”: a spiteful compliment. Ludovico Marracci, whose translation, published in 1698, marked the beginning of critical editions of the Qur’ān, preferred Du Ryer’s version to Robert of Ketton’s but regretted the inexactitudes which he attributed to unreliable sources. George Sale, whose English translation printed in 1734 combined for the first-time philological rigor and stylistic research, had a very similar opinion, he regretted the lack of explanatory notes. As for Claude-Étienne Savary, who published the second French translation of the Qur’ān in 1783, he criticized Du Ryer for replacing a text divided in verses by a “flowing discourse” (i.e. a prose) transforming the Arabic text into “a dull and flat rhapsody”, incapable of recreating “the perfection of style and the magnificent images” so cherished in the Middle East. This surely does not pay homage to Du Ryer’s literary ambition, whose interventions on the original text sometimes signaled on the contrary a fear of provoking lassitude; but we know how harsh translators and scholars can be with each other.
The public reception of Du Ryer’s work was much more favorable. The Alcoran de Mahomet was re-edited in 1649 (Paris, Sommaville; Amsterdam, Johannes Janssonius; Amsterdam, Lodewijk III Elzevier), 1651 (Paris, Sommaville), 1652 (same place, same publisher, re-edition of the previous version), 1672 (Paris, Sommaville; Amsterdam, Daniel Elzevier), 1683 (The Hague, Adriaan Moetjens), 1685 (same place, same publisher), 1719 (Antwerp, Jean-François Lucas), 1723 (Paris and Antwerp, same publisher, re-edition of the previous version), 1734 (Amsterdam, Pierre Mortier), 1735 (same place, same publisher, re-edition of the previous version), 1746 (same place, same publisher), 1770 (Amsterdam and Leipzig, Arkstée and Merkus), 1775 (same places, same publishers). In 1770 and 1775, the text was accompanied by a French translation of the Preliminary Discourse that George Sale wrote in 1734 for his own English version, an evidence of the latter’s recognized value: Du Ryer was then published only in the hopes of a new French translation, which Claude-Étienne Savary would provide a few years later.
Several versions of the Alcoran de Mahomet were published, which is another sign of its success. We mentioned above its English translation published in 1649. It was printed by Robert White on behalf a bookseller named John Stephenson. The translator remains unknown and specialists are still debating his identity: Hugh Ross or Thomas Ross, but not Alexander Ross, who seems to have written only the caveat. This translation was reissued the same year it was published, then in 1688 and 1718. Even though George Sale’s work was supposed to make it obsolete, it was printed yet again in 1806 in the United States, where it became the first edition of the Qur’ān to ever be published there. In the Netherlands, Du Ryer’s work was translated by Jan Hendrik Glazemaker in 1658. The latter is also known for having rendered into Dutch Descartes and Spinoza, among many other philosophers or writers, both ancient and contemporary. This translation was reprinted at least six times until 1734. It was in turn translated into German by Johann Lange, in 1688, but no reprint is reported in this language. In Russian, L’Alcoran de Mahomet is the subject of two different versions. The first edition, by Petr Vasilyevitch Postnikov, was issued in 1716 at the request of Peter the Great. The second one, written by Mikhail Ivanovitch Verevkin, was published in 1790.
In conclusion: a historical document
Scholars stopped using André Du Ryer’s translation of the Qur’ān as reference for a long time, or only and purely as a historical document. It became outdated in 1698 when Marracci’s work was published. It nevertheless marked a step forward in knowledge of Islam in Europe and – in this respect – represents an important milestone in the history of the translation of the Qur’ān.
For more information
The present text was initially entered by Datactivity. It was then edited and parallelized in 2019 by Ghazi Eljorf and Tristan Vigliano. The XML-TEI encoding was done by Paul Gaillardon. For initial bibliographical reference, please see:
Aoujil (Asmaa), Le Coran en français. André Du Ryer, premier traducteur de l’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647), PhD dissertation, Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier III, 2018.
Bennett (Clinton), “Alexander Ross, Hugh Ross and Thomas Ross”, in Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History [CMR], Northern and Eastern Europe (1600-1700), vol. 8, p. 290-320 [on the English translation of L’Alcoran de Mahomet and the controversial identity of its author].
Carnoy (Dominique), Représentations de l’Islam dans la France du XVIIe siècle. La ville des tentations, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1998, p. 41-46.
Derost (Jean-Baptiste), “Notice sur André Du Ryer”, Bulletin de la Société d’Études du Brionnais, sept.-oct. and nov.-dec. 1935, p. 237-240 and p. 241-252.
Hamilton (Alastair) and Richard (Francis), André Du Ryer and Oriental Studies in Seventeenth-Century France, London / Oxford, The Arcadian Library / The Oxford University Press, 2004 [a reference study on the subject, by which our introductory note is largely inspired].
Hamilton (Alastair), “André Du Ryer”, in CMR, vol. 9, Western and Southern Europe (1600-1700), p. 453-465.
Hanne (Olivier), L’Alcoran : Comment l’Europe a découvert le Coran, Paris, Belin, 2019.
Larzul (Sylvette), “Du Ryer, André”, in Dictionnaire des orientalistes de langue française, ed. François Pouillon, Paris, IISMM / Karthala, 2012, p. 359-360.
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The text in English is the result of a collaborative translation by Claire Gallien, Olivier Justet, Elisabeth Martineau and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.