So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.
In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.
Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.
The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.