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The Study of Islam in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century England

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

Medieval misrepresentations of Islam as a farrago of beliefs promulgated by a false prophet in the Qur'an were still current in seventeenth-century England. The pioneer of a more scholarly and objective view was Edward Pococke, the first Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford. His Specimen historiae Arabum (1650), written in Latin, and based on his wide reading and personal knowledge of the Muslim Near East, was influential in creating a new image of Islam for the Europeans. A wider readership was addressed by Simon Ockley, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, whose work, The History of the Saracens (1708, 1718), dealt with the Arab conquests and the early caliphs. The publication (1734) by George Sale of a sound English translation of the Qur'an, accompanied by a long and scholarly Preliminary Discourse, formed a landmark in Islamic studies, but the old polemical spirit lived on. The true nature of imposture fully display'd in the life of Mahomet (1697) by Humphrey Prideaux was a two-handed engine, smiting both Islam and contemporary Christian heresy. This example was followed nearly a century later by Joseph White (another Laudian Professor), whose Bampton Lectures, A comparison of Mahometism and Christianity (1784), constituted a work of apologetics rather than scholarship.

Affiliations: 1: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


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