Mohammedis Imposturae: that is, a discovery of the manifold forgeries, falsehood, and horrible impieties of the blasphemous seducer Mohammed

by Dr Derek Dunne, Trinity College Dublin

Mohammedis Imposturae: that is, a discovery of the manifold forgeries, falsehood, and horrible impieties of the blasphemous seducer Mohammed

This early seventeenth-century text was translated by William Bedwell (1563-1632), and printed by Richard Field in 1615, based on an Arabic text printed in Rome during the 1570s (the original author is unknown). As the title suggests, Bedwell’s translation into English of Mohammedis Imposturæ is largely unsympathetic in its view of Islam and its prophet Mohammed. Yet Bedwell’s pious disapproval of the Muslim faith is clearly in conflict with his love of the Arabic tongue, a contradiction that continually makes its presence felt between the lines of these three texts. Appended to the translation of three supposed dialogues ‘betweene two Mohametans’ is Bedwell’s own Arabian Trudgman, which is a basic dictionary of Arabic terms and nomenclature, as well as an index to the chapters of the Koran, designed to facilitate further study.

Bedwell himself was one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Arabic studies in early modern England. As G. J. Toomer succinctly puts it:

"Bedwell’s own attainments in Arabic were modest, but his contributions to the promotion of the study of the language and its literature, especially in England, were substantial."

In undertaking to translate Mohammedis Imposturæ, Bedwell brings together his translation skills with the more polemical purpose of discovering the ‘manyfold forgeries, falshoods, and horrible impieties of the blasphemous seducer Mohammed’. Even Bedwell’s index to the Koran is described in oppositional terms, as its purpose is to facilitate ‘the vnderstanding of the confutations of that booke’, according to the title page.

In the preface ‘To the Christian Reader’, the tone is somewhat apologetic for its subject matter of Islam – ‘that fond and foolish religion’ – as if Bedwell feels the need to justify the book’s publication. In the process he gives a short history of Arabic studies up until this point, in order to show ‘what presidents I have, for that which is done’ (A3r-v). The exact provenance of the dialogues is questionable, as Bedwell himself admits: ‘It was first written, as the Author himselfe seemeth to intimate, about 600 years since. Who he was, and what, I dare not for certaine affirme’ (A2r). The chapters of each dialogue are numbered, so that students of the language can compare Bedwell’s English copy to the Arabic original. Before looking at these dialogues in more depth, I will deal briefly with the two other, much shorter components of the text, the Arabian Trudgman and the Index.

Bedwell wrote the Arabian Trudgeman as an aid to other Arabists who might have difficulty with the names of honour in the Arabic tongue, as well as the titles of the chapters of the Alkoran, ‘two things oft times to trouble euen those that would seeme to bee great Schollers’ (K4r). Bedwell’s impulse to teach is evident in the preface:

"For the better vnderstanding therefore not onely of this present Treatise of ours, but generally of all histories of the Saracens, Persians, Indians, Turks, & Africans: as also of all bookes and treatises written of their superstition and ceremonies. (K4r)"

The short dictionary contains important sites in Islamic religion, titles of honour within the Arab-speaking world, and other useful terms. Many entries give variant spellings, for example ‘Alkoran’, ‘Choran’, or ‘Korran’. Bedwell tries not only to translate but also to elucidate, making the Arabic terms relevant and accessible to an English audience. For example at one point he compares Ramadan to Lent (N3v), he equates a district called a ‘Beld’ with ‘our English word shire’ (Mr), and in describing the meaning of ‘Alhage’, one who has completed the Haj to Mecca, he says it is ‘answerable to that degree to knighthood amongst the Christians which they call Sancti sepulchri’ (L3r). Even within the Trudgman he cannot stop himself from castigating the Islamic religion on occasion; for the entry on ‘Alesalem’ as ‘the law of saluation, or the law of God’, Bedwell interjects ‘If he had said, the law of damnation, and of the diuell, he had said well’ (L2v). Other examples of such vitriol can be found in the entries for ‘Mohammed’ and ‘Sarraceni’. It can be noted in passing that the Arabian Trudgeman contains an entry for the word ‘Trudgman’ itself, which ‘signifieth, an interpretor’ (Or); this is particularly apt considering Bedwell’s own role in Arabic studies at this time.

The Index is just that, an index of the chapters of the Koran, which Bedwell tells us he includes ‘at the request of M.Th. Erpenius of Gorchom in Holland, a zealous louer of these studies’ (O3r). Bedwell also gives an explanation for the variance between copies in the number of chapters (‘sura’) in the Koran. Each of the Koran’s chapters are then numbered, with their names given in Roman alphabet, alongside Latin translations. The purpose of the Index is again largely pedagogic.

As for the dialogues themselves, it should be noted that they do not aim at naturalism. We are introduced to the more senior Sheich Sinod and Doctor Ahmed as they return from the pilgrimage to Mecca, with the former saying: ‘I desire to go with thee, that we may always be conferring together of some spirituall matter or other’ (B2r). This puts the text firmly in the tradition of learned dialogues – almost Socratic in their method – stretching back to Thomas More’s Utopia, or Christopher St. German’s Doctor and Student. The interlocutors appear to be devout Muslims, returning as they are from their pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet in the course of the dialogues Ahmed raises many questions and inconsistencies within the teachings of Mohammed, which the Sheich has difficulty in answering: ‘In this place I do know no other answer, but that our Prophet hath so commanded’ (C3v); ‘And in my vnderstanding, silence is best in such a case’ (C3v). At the same time, the Muslims’ attitude towards Christianity is particularly deferential, for example in Sheich Sinod’s description of Christ’s coming: ‘That he, like the direct & true beames of the Sunne, in a moment dispelled out of the world, those clouds of darkness’ (Cv). Compare this to Ahmed’s own depiction of the prophet Mohammed in the second dialogue, in particular in his advocacy for bigamy: ‘Now seeing that our Prophet did not onely write that he had many wiues: but he writeth also that he loued his maide, and lay with her’, and later, ‘And wherfore did God dispense with him, that he might haue the wife of Zeid; seeing that this is not matrimonie, but fornication, adulterie, and iniquity?’ (Gv-r). These sentiments sound more Christian than Muslim, raising the question of exactly who the imposter is in these dialogues.

Frequently when Ahmed raises a point of doctrine with the Sheich, such as Mohammed’s miracle of separating and uniting the two halves of the moon, the holy man’s answers are evasive: ‘Thy reasons and doubts are good, and they seeme to proceede from good vnderstanding; but I know no other answer then that our prophet hath so said’ (C3v). This attachment to dogma appears to be a major stumbling block for the Muslim faith, which elsewhere is described in largely positive terms. When asked about Mohammed’s description of a paradise with many wives and rich apparel, thus contradicting the notion of heaven as a place without want or desire, the Sheich is again reduced to the platitude, ‘Thou saist true; and we do know it to be so: But thus our Prophet hath written: And therefore we must say nothing’ (D4r).

The dialogues are highly selective in their treatment of Islamic doctrine, in one place questioning the veracity of Mohammed’s miracle with the moon, while in others affirming ‘[f]or he himselfe doth confesse, that God did not giue him the gift of miracles: but the knowledge and skill of warre onely’ (G4r). Thus the text progresses by setting up a number of straw-men which, while they are never fully demolished, are made to appear highly dubious. This is compounded by the fact that the source of such doubt is supposedly Muslims themselves, raising doubts in the reader’s mind regarding the truthfulness of the teaching of Islam. In several places the pair remind us that Mohammed himself admits that not all the teachings of the Koran are to be believed: ‘thou wouldest haue all things that our Prophet hath written to be sound, and yet he himselfe saith, I haue spoken 12000 sayings and sentences; of which 3000 onely are true: the rest are grosse absurdities’ (F4v). This leads Ahmed to object that this is unworthy of the Koran: ‘That booke, where the law and the commandements of God are written, ought to record nothing but such things as are high and diuine’ (Kr). Furthermore he even doubts whether Mohammed’s account is to be believed: ‘For we haue no witnesses nor confirmation from the liuing; but he onely doth speake, and record, and also write so of him selfe’ (Hv). These doubts are left largely unchallenged by the Sheich, who ends the second dialogue with the following:

"I do desire by all meanes, that we leaue this communication, speech, conference, or arguments, vntill another time and place. For I do study the Alkoran and other bookes seriously and diligently, and I finde many absurd things, without sence, and also such as are not confirmed by miracles. (H2v)"
It is clear from statements such as this one that the holy man’s defence of Islam is not as convincing as the various objections raised by Doctor Ahmed.

In the final dialogue, the two return again to the question of salvation: ‘Truly it were a good thing, that all the world with one mouth would beleeue and confesse, That as God is one, so also the way whereby we come vnto him is one; not many, as men do say and determine’ (Ir). There is a great deal of respect shown for other religions in the teachings of Mohammed, and the Christian faith is once again singled out for praise by the Musselmen: ‘This reioycing and this power, which is in the soules of the Christians, in the midst of miserie and tentation in this world, is demonstrated from that glory and the blessednesse, which God will giue them for euer, that is, Paradise’ (I4v). Mohammed’s endorsement of the Gospels is used to raise doubts about the need for the Koran at all in order to achieve salvation, while he also bemoans the fact that the Bible is not translated into Arabic: ‘Now I do not know why we do not translate them: seeing that it is a great danger to our soules’ (Kr). An undercurrent of proselytizing runs throughout the dialogues, consistently questioning points of faith in Islamic doctrine while elevating the position of Christ and the Bible in the salvation of one’s soul:

"for there was no need of any other Prophet, when Iesus was come, which was the Prophet of Prophets, and their Lord: And seeing that in him all the sayings of the Prophets are accomplished, there shall come onely in the last time, Antichrist. (I2v)"

Bedwell’s text is riven with the paradox of encouraging the study of Arabic while abhorring Islam. The text itself is a small inexpensive book designed to facilitate study, as is evident from the numbered chapters, the Trudgman and the Index. The book was re-issued with a different title page (Mahomet Unmasked) in 1624, indicating some level of popularity, and it had a part to play in the growth of Arabic studies in the seventeenth century. Bedwell had hoped to publish the first Arabic-English dictionary, but this never came to fruition; he bequeathed his notes, along with a set of damaged Arabic type acquired in Leiden, to Cambridge University on condition that they publish the dictionary, but this was never to happen. The year of Bedwell’s death, 1632, saw the founding of the first chair of Arabic Studies at Cambridge Unviersity, while two years later Edward Pococke (who had been a student of Bedwell’s) became the first to hold the equivalent chair at Oxford, thanks to the patronage of Archbishop Laud. Thus, while Bedwell’s dictionary was never published, his scholarship did have a lasting effect on Arabic studies in early modern England.

This text can be found in Dublin in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy, Marsh’s Library, and Trinity College Library, Department of Early Printed Books. It should be noted that the Trinity copy contains the title page to the Index, but not the Index itself.

To see the catalogue entry for Mohammedis Imposturæ click here.