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Sale, Georgelocked

(b. in or after 1696?, d. 1736)
  • Arnoud Vrolijk

Sale, George (b. in or after 1696?, d. 1736), orientalist, was the son of Samuel Sale (d. in or before 1737), a London merchant, who may have been originally from Kent; his mother was Elizabeth, née Nodes (1668–1737), of Shephall, Hertfordshire. The precise date of George Sale's birth is unknown. Richard Alfred Davenport, his biographer, states that he was under forty at his death, which would place the time of his birth in or after 1696. However, he may have been the George Sale, son of Samuel, merchant, baptized at St Mary Colechurch, London, on 28 November 1692. On 24 October 1720 he started his study of the law at the Inner Temple, London. He was a solicitor by profession, but his practice never flourished due to his scholarly activities as an orientalist.

In 1720 the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), whose offices were in the Middle Temple, took the initiative to publish an Arabic translation of the New Testament for the benefit of the Arab Greek Orthodox community of Syria and Palestine. Two Arab Christians were involved in the translation project: Solomon Negri from Damascus and, to a lesser extent, Carolus Dadichi from Aleppo. Most likely, George Sale received instruction in the Arabic language from these two scholars. On 30 August 1726 he consented at the SPCK's request to contribute to the project as a corrector. In 1727 the translation was published under the title Al-'Ahd al-jadid li-rabbina Yasu' al-Masih ('The New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ'), the original of Sale's Arabic calligraphy of the title-page being preserved in the SPCK papers at the Cambridge University Library. About this time he married Marianne d'Argent (d. after 1736), of French extraction, and their eldest son was born in 1728; the couple had six more children, three of whom died young. On 3 November 1726 Sale was elected a corresponding member of the SPCK and took an active part in the society's work through his attendance at the weekly general meetings of its standing committee. Occasionally he assisted in preparing the society's financial accounts and rendered various other services, mostly of a legal nature.

Translation of the Koran

George Sale is best-known for his English translation of the Koran, which was published in London in 1734 under the title The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed: translated into English immediately from the original Arabic; with explanatory notes, taken from the most approved commentators, to which is prefixed a preliminary discourse. Sale made this translation 'at leisure times only, and amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession', thereby doubtless referring to his regular work as solicitor (Sale, xii). To this translation he added a long 'preliminary discourse', a compendium of all that was known about the religion of Islam. The 1734 edition was the only one that was published during his lifetime, but the translation was reprinted in 1746, 1764, and many times afterward, most recently in 1984 (a list of mainly pre-1956 editions can be found in Binark and others). In 1746 a German retranslation was published in Lemgo by Theodor Arnold. Sale's 'preliminary discourse' was separately translated into several languages, first Dutch under the title Verhandeling over de historie, stammen, zeden en godsdienst der Arabieren ('Treatise on the history, tribes, traditions, and religion of the Arabs', 1742), and then French (Observations historiques et critiques sur le Mahométisme, 1751). Another, later translation of the discourse that deserves to be mentioned is the Arabic Maqalah fi al-Islam ('Essay on Islam', 1891).

Sale's translation of the Koran was only the second English version of the work, the previous one being the work of Alexander Ross (1649), itself based on a French version (1647) by André du Ryer, the French consul in Alexandria. Shortly before the turn of the century, in 1698, a Latin translation had been published in Padua by Ludovico Marracci, confessor to Pope Innocent XI. The title of this work, Refutatio alcorani ('Refutation of the Koran'), left no doubt as to the intentions of the translator. The work of the early twentieth-century orientalist Edward Denison Ross and after him G. J. Toomer have shown the extent of Sale's indebtedness to this latter translation, which goes much further than his own statement that he was 'much obliged' to Marracci's work. Sale used Marracci's numerous references to Arab commentaries on the Koran, and added to them by using a comparable exegesis by 'Abdallah b. 'Umar al-Baydawi (d. c.1286), the manuscript of which Sale borrowed from the Dutch Reformed church in Austin Friars, London. Sale's other references lead mainly to Latin translations of Arab historiographical works. Other frequently cited sources are Barthélemy d'Herbelot's Bibliothèque orientale (1697) and De religione Mohammedica ('On the Muhammadan religion') by Adriaan Reland (1705). Writing at a time when Europe no longer felt the military threat of Islam, Reland was the first scholar to refute Marracci's heavy-handed and controversial style by arguing that, if so many obviously reasonable and intelligent people had embraced a religion, it could not possibly be regarded as an easily detectable lie. In the same manner, Sale was convinced of the sincerity of Muhammad's intentions:

His original design of bringing the pagan Arabs to the knowledge of the true God was certainly noble, and highly to be commended. … Mohammed was, no doubt, fully satisfied in his conscience of the truth of his grand point, the unity of God.

Sale, Preliminary discourse, 46

Even so, Sale remained eager to secure the conversion of the Muslims to protestant Christianity: 'The Protestants alone are able to attack the Korân with success; and for them, I trust, Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow' (ibid., iv).

Sale's presumed partiality to Islam earned him the criticism of his contemporaries. James Porter, ambassador to the Ottoman empire from 1746 to 1762, praised his translation but was 'sorry to say, that he frequently discovers an inclination to apologize for it [i.e. the Koran]; and rather endeavours to reconcile and palliate the numerous absurdities he meets with, than to expose them in the light they deserve' (Observations on the Religion, Law, Government and Manners of the Turks, 2nd edn, 1771, 55). However, his work found a more appreciative readership among the scholars and philosophers of the British and continental Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, who knew no oriental languages, used Sale's translation and 'preliminary discourse' alongside Marracci's translation in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), mainly in chapter 50, covering the history of the Arabian peninsula and the religion of Islam until the year 632 ad. While making ample use of Sale's work, Gibbon did not hesitate to call him 'half a Musulman'. Voltaire possessed a copy of the original 1734 edition of Sale's translation and the French version of the discourse. In his Questions sur l'Encyclopédie par des amateurs (1770–72) Voltaire referred to the work of 'Salles' in the articles 'Alcoran, ou le Koran' (1.127–35) and 'Arot et Marot' (2.172–84), in which he expressed his appreciation of the translation as 'une traduction fidelle de l'Alcoran' and 'une préface la plus instructive'. Although Sale never left his home country, Voltaire believed that he had 'lived for twenty-five years among the Arabs', or had 'lived twenty-four years near Arabia'. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing declared that:

we possessed no true knowledge [about Muhammad and his teachings] previous to the works of a Reland or a Sale; from which we have learned first and foremost that Muhammad is no senseless fraud and that his religion is not an entangled web of incoherent lies.

K. Lachmann, ed., Rettung des Cardan. Sämtliche Schriften, 3rd edn, vol. 5, 1890, 325

Sale's careful and unemotional approach in both his preliminary discourse and translation secured the fame of his work well into the twentieth century. In 1921 Edward Denison Ross claimed that Sale's version had not been superseded by any subsequent translation, and that his discourse still remained the best introduction in any European language to the study of Islam. More than fifty years later Sale's objectivity still guarded him from criticism in Edward Said's Orientalism (1978).

Although Sale's intentions were quite honourable from an orthodox protestant point of view, it is likely that his Koran translation influenced his relations with the SPCK, after all a Christian missionary society. No criticism of George Sale or his ideas can be found in the papers of the SPCK, but it is possible that they, like so many others, regarded his work as propaganda for the faith of Islam. After April 1733 the number of his visits to the society dropped dramatically, and he stopped attending its general meetings altogether after 10 September 1734. Thereafter his contacts with the society seem to have been limited to the occasional exchange of letters.

Sale's other scholarly activities were in the fields of ancient and oriental history and biography. Until his death he contributed the articles on oriental history to Thomas Birch's General Dictionary, Historical and Critical (10 vols., 1734–41), an encyclopaedia based on Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). For An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time (7 vols., 1736–44) Sale wrote the first chapters on the creation (in 4004 bc, according to Archbishop James Ussher's chronology) and most of the history of the world until the flood (in 2348 bc). Rumours about Sale's orthodoxy are reflected in the French study Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne (begun in 1811 under Napoleon but finished in 1825 under the restoration), which states that the shareholders (actionnaires) of the Universal History, fearing Sale's heterodoxy and its effect upon the number of subscriptions, transferred its editorship from Sale to another contributor, George Psalmanazar (40.140–41). Sale's authorship of The Lives and Memorable Actions of many Illustrious Persons of the Eastern Nations, published posthumously in 1739, remains contested. Likewise it is improbable that the name Abdulla Mahumed Omar, the author of 'A defence of Mahomet, written in Arabick: a paradox' in Miscellanea aurea (1720, 165–88), is really the pseudonym of George Sale, as the British Library catalogue has it. Sale's manuscript memoranda and notebook, consisting mainly of oriental biographical material, are kept in the Victoria Art Gallery and Municipal Libraries of Bath.

Manuscript collection

In the course of his life George Sale acquired a collection of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts, comprising eighty-seven items. About half of this collection is in Arabic, the other half being divided between Persian and Turkish. In contrast to the claim in the Dictionary of National Biography that he 'doubtless purchased [these] of the distressed orientals in London, whom he constantly recommended for employment or relief to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge', it is more probable that Sale used his contacts with Negri and Dadichi to acquire manuscripts. Besides, if charity had been Sale's only motive, his collection would not have been as coherent as it actually is, revealing the tastes and interests of a determined collector. The collection contains a number of texts by Ottoman historiographers; the fact that some of these were copied in Sale's own time suggests that they were specially made to order. The Mirءat ül-kaءinat ('Mirror of the universe') by Nishancızade Mehmet, for instance, was copied as late as 1727. The Persian texts in his collection belong mainly to the established literary canon, but his Arabic manuscripts betray the eye of the connoisseur, many of them containing post-classical poetry of the lightest possible kind, often humorous or sexually explicit, such as the autograph of the Nuzhat al-nufus wa-mudhik al-'abus ('The recreation of the mind, bringing a laugh to a scowling face') by the fifteenth-century Egyptian author Ali ibn Sudun (Bodl. Oxf., MS Sale 13). The complete absence of religious texts, except for a Koran and a New Testament in Arabic, has been noted by Edward Denison Ross.

Not long before his death Sale was engaged in the establishment of a society for the encouragement of learning, whose aim was to subsidize the printing of books. One of the founders, he sat on the first executive committee. However, he did not live to see the results of this undertaking. Davenport describes Sale as having had a healthy constitution; none the less he contracted a fever and died at his home in Surrey Street, the Strand, London, on 13 November 1736, after an illness of only eight days. He was buried at the nearby church of St Clement Danes on 16 November. Moved by charity, the general meeting of the SPCK agreed to present his wife and children with 20 guineas as a benefit on the return of the society's Bible and lexicon.

After Sale's death his widow, Marianne, arranged for his manuscripts and books to be sold by William Hamerton, a London merchant. Hamerton printed a list of Sale's manuscripts under the title A choice collection of most curious and inestimable manuscripts, in the Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages, from the library of the late learned and ingenious Mr. George Sale (n.d.). In 1760 the complete collection was acquired by Thomas Hunt, Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford, for the sum of £157 10s. They were at first placed in the Radcliffe Library, but in 1872 the collection was moved to Oxford's Bodleian Library. Sale's Persian and Turkish manuscripts were described in Sachau's and Ethé's Catalogue of the Persian, Turkish, Hindûstânî, and Pushtû manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (3 vols., 1889–1954), but there is no printed catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts other than Hamerton's list.


  • G. Sale, The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed, translated from the original Arabic, with explanatory notes … to which is prefixed a preliminary discourse, 2 vols., new edn (1836)
  • R. A. Davenport, ‘A sketch of the life of George Sale’, in G. Sale, The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed, new edn (1857)
  • E. D. Ross, The preliminary discourse to the Korân by George Sale, with an introduction [1921]
  • P. M. Holt, ‘The treatment of Arab history by Prideaux, Ockley and Sale’, Historians of the Middle East, ed. B. Lewis and P. M. Holt (1962)
  • I. Binark, H. Eren, and E. Ihsanoglu, eds., World bibliography of translations of the meanings of ‘The Holy Qur'an’: printed translations, 1515–1980 (1986)
  • parish registers, St Mary Colechurch, GL
  • R. Clutterbuck, ed., The history and antiquities of the county of Hertford, 3 vols. (1815–27) [tomb inscription for Elizabeth Sale, mother, St Mary's Church, Stephall]
  • private information (2012) [P. Henderson]


  • Bath Central Library, memoranda and notebook
  • CUL, papers of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK)

Wealth at Death

‘seems to have left his wife and children in necessitous circumstances’: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge MSS, CUL, general meetings, 30 Nov 1736

Guildhall Library, London
Cambridge University Library