The Oldest Reference to the Qur’an from Non-Muslim Sources

Answered by Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti

Question :The Oldest Reference to the Qur’an
from Non-Muslim Sources

Al-hamdulillah wa-l-salat wa-l-salam ‘ala Rasulillah.

Answer : A non-Muslim wrote the following: I could go to Barnes and Noble and buy one of several Qur’an. Each is generally much like the other. What is the earliest existing copy of a similar Qur’an? Did any existing Roman document refer to the Qur’an and, if so, what was the date? Did any existing Chinese document refer to the Qur’an and, if so, what was the date?
Do you have any idea, or how one would even go about looking for this? I assume that any evidence from non-Muslim sources will do.”
It was in the course of the first Abbasid century, roughly 750-850, that Christians, living under Muslim rule began to compose theological works in Syriac and Arabic to counter the religious challenges of Islam (including polemical works against the Qur’an, for instance). These texts were intended for a Christian audience, many of whom had by this time adopted the Arabic language, not only for day-to-day purposes in the new cultural milieu, but even as an ecclesiastical language. So by the end of the first Abbasid century, major writers in Arabic had appeared in the principle denominations, whose patristic and liturgical heritage had been Syriac and even Greek. The earliest known ‘Christian defender’ was the Melkite, Theodore Abu Qurrah who wrote a series of works in Arabic (as well as Syriac and translated into Greek – for the Byzantium), intended to defend the credibility of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, and the claim that Christianity alone is the true religion.
I assume what you meant by ‘Roman documents’ are documents of the Byzantine Empire; they being the successors of the Roman Empire, since by the time of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace!) from this world, the Roman Emperors who used to rule from Rome had virtually ceased to exist in the West as an empire. It goes without saying, that since the defeat of the Byzantine forces in Yarmuk from 637, there were contacts between the two sides, and that it stands to reason that the Christians in this period and place would have heard and talked about the Qur’an. The subsequent final fall of some of the most important capitals of Byzantium also opened up contacts between Christians and Muslims. Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem were the three major principalities of Byzantium, in which Christian Patriarchs were respectively based. One of them, in Jerusalem, was Patriarch Sophronicus, a major Orthodox theologian and Christian scholar, who it was said, would only surrender to the caliph (and it was then, the only time that Caliph ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him!) left Medina to grant the wishes of this famous Christian Patriarch). (Incidentally, this Greek Patriarch continued to live and work as a Christian scholar in Jerusalem and died there, alongside the new populace of Jerusalem, the Muslims.) With the fall of the capital Edessa and the headquarters of the Emperor Heraclius, the Emperor finally abandoned Syria and Egypt. As any Byzantinists today would be able to confirm from the primary sources of this period, it was during this period that we find the earliest references to the Qur’an in Byzantine Greek and Syriac sources, both in government as well as scholarly documents (albeit in scholarly documents, the motives like that with Theodore, above, are mostly concerned with polemics against the Muslim Holy Book). One of the earliest documents which is still extant, is the Chronicle by the Christian ecclesiastical scholar, Eutychius of Alexandria.
Unless you mean the ‘Roman document’ to be Latin, then, it was not until the High Middle Ages that we find, for example, the first translation of the Qur’an into Latin. (It is still not known today, on account of insufficient primary source material, whether the Byzantinists had attempted to translate the Qur’an; it could well have been attempted and might even have succeeded at doing so, but as of yet, no known manuscript has survived.) In 1143, the first Latin translation (in fact, a paraphrase, really) of the Qur’an was done by Robert of Ketton (fl. 1136-57) in 1143; exactly four centuries later, this very translation (which included a refutation) of the Qur’an was printed in Basel at the instigation of Martin Luther. (From there came the translations of the Qur’an into the vernacular European languages: first in Italian, then German, then Dutch, and only then in English by George Sale in 1734, which was, a translation that is very different from Ketton’s – free from polemical motives and was more accurate, textually). There was another early Latin translation of the Qur’an, and it was produced by Mark of Toledo (fl. 1193-1216) in 1211; although more literal than Ketton’s, it was much less widely known. Both of these medieval ‘translations’ were produced at the instigation of the various archbishops (including Peter the Venerable) who thought it would be useful to Latin Christians attempting to convert Muslims as part of the mobilization of arms and opinion, following the Christian Reconquest of Muslim Spain.
As for Chinese documents referring to the Qur’an, I find myself at a loss, being unfamiliar with primary sources in medieval Chinese. However, from scholarly sources, we understand that in pre-Islamic times there were already established trade routes and contacts between the Chinese and the Persians. It stands to reason, therefore, that after the defeat of the Persian Empire, these links and contacts were still kept; hence knowledge about the Qur’an must have come through these early contacts. This is especially likely, given the Muslims’ own fascination with China (it being the land of the unknown and mysterious, into which only the boldest might venture) as the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace!) himself said to his followers: “Seek knowledge even as far as China!” That is why it is not surprising that we have numerous accurate accounts (on the Arabic side that I am familiar with, such as from historians like al-Mas’udi and al-Tabari) of the relations between the Islamic world and China. I’m afraid the best or closest to Chinese primary source that I could rely on is the 19th century sinologist, Gabriel Dev�ria, who collated the traditions and stories of the early Muslim contacts with China, from Chinese sources. It is said, that in these sources, Islam (and knowledge of the Qur’an) is brought to China by land, by Muslim envoys. Furthermore, it is also said that as a result of the dream of the Emperor Taizong (d. 649), an exchange of around 3000 Muslim and Chinese soldiers was carried out. As far as I know, the earliest ‘translation’ of the Qur’an into Chinese is dated around 1800; a manuscript in SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London) confirms this. However, as Muslim scholars are very familiar with the following principle of: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” the fact that so far, another translation has not been found should not preclude the existence of an even earlier translation. After all, Muslims are well aware of the fact that during the middle ages, the Qur’an has been ‘translated’ into most of the languages of Asia (such as Sindi), Africa (such as Berber), and Europe. In fact, the earliest ‘translation’ of the Qur’an is said to be the one in Persian, produced by the companion of the Prophet, Salman al-Farisi (may Allah be pleased with him!) during the time of Khulafa’ al-Rashidin – the first four Caliphs, after the death of the Prophet from this world; but none of these are known to survive today.
Wallahu wa-rasulu a’lam bi-s-sawab!
May this be of help.
Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti ©
14 Rabi’ I 1424
16 V 2003
Select Bibliography:
On primary sources from Byzantium, see:
Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai [Constatinople in the Early Eighth Century]. Edited by Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin. Leiden: Brill, 1984. [Greek; passim, esp. in reference to Muslims or ‘Saracens’].
Chronicon Anonymum ad Annum Christi 1234 pertinens. Edited by J. B. Chabot. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Scriptores Syri, no. 36. Paris: Gabalda, 1920. [Syriac; p. 255 on the meeting of ‘Umar and Sophronicus].
On Eutychius’ Chronicle (with a German translation), see:
Breydy, M. Das Annalenwerk des Eutychios von Alexandrien. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, nos. 471-472, vols. 44-45. Louvain: Peeters, 1985.
On Theodore Abu Qurrah, see:
Sidney H. Griffith. “Muslim and Church Councils: the Apology of Theodore Abu Qurrah.” Studia Patristica 25 (1993): 270-299.
On the first known translation of the Qur’an into a Western language, i.e., that of Robert of Ketton’s, see:
Burman, Thomas E. “Tafsir and Translation: Traditional Arabic Qur’an Exegesis and the Latin Qur’ans of Robert of Ketton and Mark of Toledo.” Speculum 73 (1998): 703-732.
On Pre-Islamic Middle East with China connections, see:
Watson, W. “Iran and China.” In The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968-1991.
On early Sino-Muslim contacts, see:
Chen Da-sheng. Islamic Inscriptions in Quanzhou [Zaytun]. Translated by Chen En-ming and Zhrng De-chao. Ningxia, 1984. [Translation of Fujian sheng Quanzhou hai wai jiao tong shi bo wu guan].
Dev�ria, Gabriel. Origine de l’Islamisme en Chine. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1895.
Serjeant, R. B. “Yemenis in Mediaeval Quanzhou [Canton].” New Arabian Studies 1 (1993): 231-234.