Robert of Ketton’s Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete(The Religion of Mahumet, the Pseudo Prophet) was the one of the earliest Latin translation of the Qur’an, done under the aegis of Peter the Venerable (d. 1156). It became the standard text, getting circulated and printed through the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Islam was long considered a Christian heresy but Ketton’s translation (the first complete one) cemented the fullest pictures of this “death-dealing” religion for all Christendom.
The flowering of the panic about Islam in Europe, however, arrived after Vienna was besieged by the Ottomans in 1529. The Turks, made known in widely circulated genre pamphlets called Türkenbüchlein were known to be kidnappers, rapists, murderers and determined to forcefully convert Christians to Islam. Though the Türkenbüchlein were in circulation long before the siege of Vienna, they reached their bestseller-hood only in 1529 when Martin Luther wrote two, Vom Kriege wider die Türken and Eine Heer predigt wider den Türken. In them the Turks, and Islam, were God’s punishment from without (as the Pope was the devil within) who were heralding the end of days. The Latin translations of the Koran played a central role in this genre of books, feeding tiny bits of de-contextualized, glossed verses to build the case against Islam (It was a religion of blood-thirsty invaders intent on taking over the known world). Ketton’s (and Mark of Toledo’s) translations of the Koran made brisk printing business throughout the 1530s and 40s – even though they skirted the law against publishing heretical materials. One such case, for printing banned material, was made against the printer Oporinus in 1541, and to whose defense Martin Luther wrote a letter:
It has struck me that one is able to do nothing more grievous to Mohammad or the Turks, nor more to bring them to harm (more than with all weaponry) that to bring their Koran to Christians in the light of day, that they may see therein, how entirely cursed, abominable, and desperate a book it is, full of lies, fables and all abominations that the Turks conceal and gloss over. They are reluctant to see the Koran translated into other languages, for they probably feel that it would bring about apostasy in all sensible hearts.1
Luther goes on to argue that despite the authorities concern about spreading heresy, the Christian cannot “take steps against its secret poison, preached on corners, and warn and protect the church”.
I know that in popular parlance it is the Muslim societies which are “stuck” in Medieval Times ® (see The Daily Show‘s hilarious segment on Iran from a day or so ago) but can you tell me what exactly is the difference between Martin Luther’s take on Islam versus what is coming out of Sarah Palin or Florida Pastor Dude’s mouth? I hate it when a “few bad apples” spoil modernity for the rest of us.———
- Harry Clark, “The Publication of the Koran in Latin a Reformation Dilemma”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 3-12 [↩]