Thanks to a generous gift, the Mennonite Historical Library added an unusual edition of the Koran to its collection.The edition, the first Dutch translation, was completed by a Mennonite and published in 1658. Timothy and Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, of Harrisonburg, Va., made it possible for MHL to purchase the book from a Dutch bookseller.
Aside from the text of the Koran itself, the book “includes a detailed description of Muslim theology…and a fairly lengthy biography of Muhammad,” said Professor John D. Roth, director of the Mennonite Historical Library and head of the history department.
In 1657, Mennonite scholar Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker translated the Koran from French to Dutch. He sold it through a bookstore owned by fellow Mennonite Jan Rieuwertsz called “At the Sign of the Martyr Book.” It was the first Dutch translation of the Koran and sold so well that it went through a second printing the following year.
Glazemaker had a deep interest in theology and philosophy. He translated nearly 70 works during his career, including books by Seneca, Homer, Marco Polo and Descartes.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Netherlands experienced a flourishing of culture known as the Dutch Golden Age. During this time many Mennonites became actively involved in the culture as merchants, engineers, historians, artists and doctors. Dutch Mennonites also had a keen interest in books and book printing and were open to dialogue with a wide range of diverse perspectives.
“As a minority religion who had experienced deep persecution, (Mennonites) were very interested in religious freedom and liberty,” said Roth. Besides having experienced it themselves, Dutch Mennonites in the 17th century were actively extending aid to Anabaptists in Switzerland who still suffered persecution at that time.
Though aware of differences, Dutch Mennonites showed an openness to and eagerness towards other ways of thought. They were “open to talking to people who were non-trinitarians,” Roth said. Some were closely connected to the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
“It doesn’t mean they embraced all of these diverse perspectives,” Roth said. In fact, the preface to the 1658 Dutch edition of the Koran refers to Mohammad as a “false prophet.”
But Mennonites also “realized that they needed to give space for the conversations,” Roth said. “The fact that a Mennonite translated the Koran is a great symbol of their commitment to religious liberty and their desire to respect all people, even those beyond the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.”
Roth said he or a staff person would be glad to show the Koran to anyone interested in seeing it. The Mennonite Historical Library is located on the third floor of the Good Library and is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.