- André du Ryer and Oriental Studies in Seventeenth-Century France
André du Ryer (c. 1580–1660) studied Arabic and Turkish in Egypt in the early 1620s when he served as vice-consul for French traders in the eastern Levant. In 1631, he accompanied the French ambassador to Istanbul where they began collecting Oriental manuscripts and antiquities for their "cabinets of wonder," but such pursuits on the part of Europeans were not independent of political goals. As the Thirty Years War raged, European countries turned to the Islamic world for possible alliances against mutual adversaries. The French in Istanbul discussed cooperation with the Turks, as Holland did with Morocco; there were discussions in 1627 of a Franco-Persian alliance against the Ottomans. Europeans also turned to the large Eastern Christian populations in the Ottoman empire for supportand it was in this period that European powers began a process of co-opting these minorities, the disastrous results of which continue to resonate even today.
Whether there was a "pure" interest in the literature and culture of the Muslim (and Christian) peoples of the East is a question that Hamilton and Richard examine carefully. Were the study of Oriental languages, and the subsequent publication of Christian scriptures in Oriental vernaculars, intended to convert the "natives" and thereby win their political allegiance? Or were the scholars committed to the European dissemination of knowledge about Arabic, Turkish, and Persian culture and history? Du Ryer was sufficiently fascinated by the manuscripts he collected that in 1634 he published a translation of Saadi's Gulistan, thereby inaugurating a trend that culminated in the French translation of the Thousand and One Nights three-quarters of a century later. Du Ryer's fame as a translator rests on his daring rendering of the Qur'an into French in 1647. Neither publishers nor clerical (and civil) authorities were in favor of publishing the Qur'an in the vernacular. As Hamilton and Richard make clear, du Ryer feared a hostile reception of his work and thus included anti-Islamic invective in his preface. More interested in making his text accessible to French readers than in its linguistic or structural accuracy, du Ryer moreover made numerous mistakes [End Page 520] in translation and did not divide the text into suras and verses. Still, for the first time in the history of Oriental studies in Europe, the Qur'an was interpreted with reference to the writings of Muslim exegetes; and du Ryer's achievement was so original (and unexpectedly popular) that many of the later translations of the Qur'an into European languages relied on his text.
Painstakingly researched, André du Ryer and Oriental Studies in Seventeenth-Century France is the first (and should long remain the definitive) study of its subject. The bibliography of manuscripts owned and used by du Ryer, which appears at the end of this book, is especially valuable for scholars studying the first phase of Oriental scholarship in Europeand the first phase of Christian-Islamic relations in the early modern Mediterranean.
Nabil Matar, currently British Academy visiting research professor, is the author of Islam in Britain, 1558-1685; Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery; and Barbary and Britain, 1589-1689, as well as editor of In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century.