The Quran: The long journey into British life

Today the Quran is a best-seller in Britain. Copies can be found in the UK’s 1,500 mosques, in the homes of nearly 2.7 million Muslims and in the collections of libraries, museums and many other British institutions.

But the journey of the Quran into British life has been far from easy. Along the way it has been banned, burned and badmouthed. It has gone from outright condemnation to suspicion to becoming an accepted part of modern British life.

610 - 632

The spoken word of God

Muslims believe the words of the Quran were first spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Over the next 22 years, Gabriel revealed the words of God to Muhammad who preached them to others. When Muhammad died in 632CE, his followers kept the words alive by memorising and reciting them. The rhythm and metre of the language, as well as the content, is said to affect the listener, and is an important part of its message. This oral tradition of the Quran, which literally means ‘the recitation’, remains paramount for Muslims today.

Rageh Omaah describes the role of the Prophet Muhammad in revealing the Quran. Clip from The Life of Muhammad (BBC Two).


The first written version

Many who had memorised the revelations died during the Ridda wars of 632-34. The survival of the words Muhammad had passed on was in peril.

The Third Caliph, Uthman, Muhammad’s political successor, realised the words needed to be preserved. He set up a committee to compile and standardise the revelations. The Quran became the first written Arabic text. It wasn’t done to replace recitation, it was intended as a prompt for memory. One copy was kept in Medina and others were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus and Mecca. Within 100 years, copies had travelled as far as India and China, North Africa, Spain and France.

Take a close-up look at an early Quran. Clip from The Hidden Art of Islam (BBC Four).


A distinctive art form emerges

In the 10th and 11th Centuries, the craftsmanship involved in creating copies of the Quran became an art form.

Artistic creativity flourished, not just in the presentation of the written word but also in the geometric and floral decoration of the manuscripts. The styles of calligraphy developed during this period, which incorporated classical ideas about proportion and dimension as well as the inclusion of the now-familiar Arabic diacritics, quickly became canonical. These dots did far more than just look good – they provided essential information about how the words should be spoken aloud.

Find out about the three fundamental aspects to Islamic art. Clip from The Hidden Art of Islam (BBC Four).


The Crusades

Christians had long denied the divine origins of the Quran, and in 1095 Pope Urban declared Christians had a religious duty to reclaim the holy land.

During the Crusades, as the series of conflicts became known, many Europeans came face to face with the Quran and the wider cultural and intellectual achievements of the Islamic world. Many crusaders returned to England having learned some Arabic, and other Middle Eastern customs such as the use of perfume became more commonplace. It is thought that several Arabic words entered the English language at this point, particularly mathematical and scientific words such as ‘algebra’ and ‘algorithm’.

The Crusades began in 1095 and a succession of conflicts continued for nearly 200 years, ending in 1291


The first printed copies of the Quran

The first Quran was printed in Venice in 1537. It contained many errors and few copies survive.

Canny Venetian businessmen may have had an eye on two markets – the Ottoman Turks who had strong trade links with Venice, and Christian scholars keen to understand the book in order to refute the Quran’s teachings and claims of divine origin. However, many Muslims were resistant to printed versions given the importance of calligraphy to the manuscript, and Christians objected to it too. Pope Paul III ordered copies to be burnt, as he considered it dissemination of heresy.

Probably the first printed copy of the Quran, the 1537 edition by Fratelli Paganino


Hostility in Elizabethan England

By the 16th Century, trade with Mediterranean Islam was big business. After encountering Muslims abroad, many English seamen converted to Islam.

The conversion of English subjects to Islam caused concern for Queen Elizabeth I. It came at a time when increasing numbers of men in Cornwall and Devon were being kidnapped by Ottoman Turks to be slaves – and forced to convert to Islam. Polemics against Islam increased. Christopher Marlowe’s 1588 play Tamburlaine the Great refers to Mohammed being "not worthy to be worshipped" and contains a scene in which the Quran is burned.

Elizabeth I presided over a growing empire in the late 1500s


Britain’s first Arabist

Over the next century, interest in Islamic culture grew. In 1636, Oxford University employed a full-time chair of Arabic, Edward Pococke.

Pococke was the first famous Arabist in the country. A clergyman, he believed the Quran was false but was critical of earlier Christian scholarship about Islam because it was based on poor translations. He advocated a rational, historical approach to the study of Islam. He was a friend of the philosopher John Locke and taught him some Arabic. There is some speculation that Locke’s rationalist approach to religion may have been influenced by Pococke.

Arabist Edward Pococke and philosopher John Locke became friends at Christ Church, Oxford. Pococke taught Locke some Arabic during this time.


The first English translation

The first full translation of the Quran into English was made by George Sale, a lawyer and languages enthusiast from Kent.

Sale’s edition was translated straight from Arabic and was hugely influential, if littered with mistakes. In Britain, the Quran was still seen as Christian heresy and Sale’s motivation for translating the book was to provide Christians with an easier way of accessing the words of the Quran in order to create informed criticism of the its teachings. However, Sale was at pains to point out, “it must not be supposed the translation comes up to the dignity of the original.”

In 2007, Keith Ellison was the first Muslim elected to the US Congress. He was sworn in using Thomas Jefferson’s 1764 edition of Sale’s Quran.


The Quran in court

As Britain’s Empire spread across the globe, it faced a greater need to accommodate the different faiths of the people within it.

Non-Christians were known as infidels and weren’t allowed to swear on the Bible in an English court. This was put to the test in a case against the governor of Gibraltar in 1738. “A Moor was produced as a witness and sworn upon the Quran. I made no objection to it,” said the chief justice. It would take another 240 years for the Quran to be given equal status with the Bible in English court as part of the Oaths Act of 1978.

A legal case against the governor of Gibraltar in 1738 was the first time a Muslim had sworn an oath on the Quran in an English court


Beginning to find a champion

Increasing exposure to foreign cultures that were now part of the Empire led to a rise in interest in Islam and the Quran among some Britons.

In 1869, Lord Stanley became the first Muslim convert to be admitted to the House of Lords. Twenty years later, a lawyer called William Henry Quilliam opened the Liverpool Muslim Institute and helped to convert over 600 people to Islam. He also attempted to translate the Quran, which he serialised in his weekly newspaper the Crescent. Quilliam was keen to correct the mistakes made in George Sale’s edition. 1889 also saw the country’s first purpose-built mosque unveiled in Woking, Surrey.

Find out how William Quilliam tackled Victorian prejudice against Islam. Clip from Great British Islam (BBC One).


Standard issue in the British Army

During the First World War the British Army enlisted over 500,000 Indian soldiers. More than a quarter were thought to be Muslim.

They fought against the Turks, fellow Muslims, in the Mesopotamia campaign. Ever since the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British establishment had been keen to appear sensitive to their needs. And respecting the Quran had effectively been written into the British Army’s handbook: “The religious customs and prejudices of Indians are to be respected. Officers will take special care that no act of theirs, or their subordinates, violates the sanctity of any place held sacred by the Indians.”

Indian troops serving with the British Army pray outside the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey, 1916


The English translation that changed it all

The biggest shift in British understanding of the Quran is arguably down to one man: Marmaduke Pickthall, a celebrated novelist and a Muslim convert.

Having travelled across the Islamic world and become fluent in Arabic, he was seen as an insider, less likely to criticise Islam. He translated directly from the 1924 Egyptian Royal Tradition edition, acknowledged to be the official modern version of the Quran. His version was to influence another – by Yusuf Ali in 1938 – which became the dominant English translation, accepted by Saudi Arabia.

Find out why Marmaduke Pickthall's translation was so highly regarded. Clip from Great British Islam (BBC One).


First reading of the Quran on BBC radio

On 6 October, words from the Quran were broadcast on British radio for the first time, in a BBC programme called The Sphinx.

Recorded in Cairo, the programme featured the voice of Sheikh Mohammed Rifat who was famous throughout the Arabic world because of his style of delivery. His ability to correlate melody to meaning led to him being regarded by many as the finest Quranic reciter of the 20th Century. For most Britons, this would have been the first time they had heard words from the Quran being spoken aloud.

An image from the front cover of the Radio Times, 4 October 1935


A London home for the Quran

During the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill approved plans to secure a site in London for a mosque and an Islamic cultural centre.

This gesture was a tribute to the thousands of Indian Muslim soldiers who had died defending the British Empire. By 1944, a Mosque Committee was created and officially opened by King George V but it would be another 30 years before building work would start. English architect Sir Frederick Gibberd’s work was finally unveiled in 1978. The London Central Mosque, often known as Regent’s Park Mosque, can hold over 5,000 worshippers and includes an extensive library and study centre.

The London Central Mosque cost £6.5m to build and was completed in 1977


The World of Islam Festival

Queen Elizabeth II opened the World of Islam Festival in London. It was the largest celebration of Islamic culture yet seen in Britain.

The festival featured exhibits in most of Britain’s major museums and galleries. In the King’s Library at the British Museum, over 140 Quranic manuscripts representing every period and region of Islam were put on display. In April, the BBC broadcast a six-part television series covering the festival, introducing audiences to the basic ideas of Islam and profiling Islamic civilisations around the world.

Over 140 Qurans were displayed in the King's Gallery at the British Museum


The Satanic Verses controversy

When British author Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses its interpretation of the Quran caused controversy.

Some Muslims condemned the novel for its blasphemous interpretation of parts of the Quran. There were protests in Britain, with a copy of Rushdie’s book burnt in Bradford. A case was brought against Rushdie at the High Court in London for blasphemy but he was never tried. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa recommending Muslims kill Rushdie. In many ways, the controversy set back British perceptions of the Quran, which became associated with medieval polemics.

Salman Rushdie was put under police protection in 1989 after a fatwa was issued


The Quran in the House of Commons

In the 1997 general election, Muhammad Sarwar became the first British Muslim to be elected as an MP.

Using the terms outlined in the 1978 Oaths Act, he became the first person to swear his Oath of Allegiance on the Quran in the House of Commons. He held it aloft, much like the custom is with the Bible, except the book was enclosed in an envelope to avoid it being touched by a non-Muslim. In the 2015 general election, 13 Muslim MPs were elected to the Commons.

Mohammad Sarwar was elected as MP for Glasgow Govan in the 1997 general election


The word at your fingertips

The advent of digital publishing has meant the many aspects of the Quran can be brought together in one package.

The oral recitations and written calligraphic manuscripts can sit side by side, and are often supplemented with commentary and guidance making the experience both rich and accessible. Many digital versions of the Quran have some sort of stamp or certificate of authority from reciters and calligraphers. The origins of the Quran as an aural and visual experience are still very much alive today.

British Muslims are increasingly turning to smartphones to learn the Quran

July 2015

World’s oldest Quran fragments found in Britain

On 21 July 2015, the University of Birmingham announced it had found Quran fragments thought to date back to at least 645 in its collection.

The manuscript had been in the university library for almost a century as part of its collection of ancient manuscripts – and the full significance not realised – until a researcher ran a carbon dating test on it. The revelation offers evidence that contemporaries of the Prophet Muhammad recorded verses of the holy text near the time of his death in 632 – or even when he was still alive. The story of the Quran’s journey into British life continues to unfold.

This Quran fragment in the University of Birmingham's collection is believed to date back to at least 645

Learn more about this topic:

Inside the Mosque: What do you need to know?
Sunnis and Shias: What's the story?
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