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Turning Enemies into Disciples: Voltaire's Case

We know that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) during his life had the ability to turn enemies into disciples. The case of Omar bin al-Khattab is a very good example. What we may not know is that he has also won over many enemies after his death. Countless staunch enemies of the Prophet (SAW) became his admirers and defenders while initially studying his life to assail him. Voltaire, the Father of French Enlightenment and ensuing French Revolution, is a fine example of such a drastic change. Initially he attacked the Prophet (SAW) as an imposter and, later in his life, became a defender of Muhammad (SAW).

François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778) was perhaps the most dominant personality of the French Enlightenment. He was the patriarch of European letters, perhaps the writer with most influence on his contemporaries that history has ever seen. He was a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.

Voltaire initially vulgarized the Prophet of Islam in 1740s. He vilified the Prophet as an impostor, a false and cruel religious zealot and a model of barbarism in his play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophete (first staged in 1741). He got impressed by the moral and spiritual teachings of the Prophet (SAW) during his study for the play. Later on he presented the Prophet as a tolerant legislator and sage in contrast to fanatic, intolerant and barbaric Christian Church leaders. Instead of prosecuting the Prophet (SAW) Voltaire became his defender. Voltaire’s treatment of Islam and Muhammad went through a progressive transition over the years. In his later writings he first vindicated Islam and then, closer to his death, exonerated the Prophet of Islam of the typical European stereotypes. Ibn Warraq, one the known contemporary Muslim bashers, notes that Voltaire later on “have regretted what he had written of Muhammad in his scurrilous and – to a Muslim – blasphemous play Mahomet.” Voltaire expressed emphatic remorse when he wrote, “Assuredly, I have made him out to be more evil than he was.”

Voltaire confessed the superior intellectual and rational nature of the Islamic Unitarian monotheism and accepted it as one of the main sources of stunning Islamic conquests. In his Philosophical Dictionary published in 1764, Voltaire wrote that “we cannot condemn his doctrine of one only God. These words of his 122nd sura, "God is one, eternal, neither begetting nor begotten; no-one is like to him." These words had more effect than even his sword in subjugating the East.” He further observed that “It must be acknowledged that he reclaimed nearly the whole of Asia from idolatry. He taught the unity of God, and forcibly declaimed against all those who gave him associates. He forbade usury with foreigners, and commanded the giving of alms. With him prayer was a thing of absolute necessity, and resignation to the eternal decrees the primum mobile of all. A religion so simple and so wise, taught by one who was constantly victorious, could hardly fail to subjugate a portion of the earth. Indeed the Mussulmans have made as many proselytes by their creed as by their swords; they have converted the Indians and the negroes to their religion; even the Turks, who conquered them, submitted to Islamism.” This was a strong vindication of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his Qur’an against all the hateful medieval slurs. The Muslim Abbasid Caliphate was run over by Hulagu Khan’s Mongols and the capital Baghdad was ransacked in 1258. But just a few years later Islam won over Genghis Khan’s grandson Berke Khan (died in 1266) who was the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate. The Mongols who had destroyed the Muslim empire became the protectors of Islam. Voltaire’s reference to this historical reality was a confession of the power and persuasion of the rational Islamic creed. The same creed won over Voltaire to defend Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

Voltaire further observed that unlike the scanty history of Prophet Jesus, Prophet Muhammad’s life was well documented by his immediate followers: “Never was the life of a man written more in detail than his; the most minute particulars were regarded as sacred. We have the name and the numbers of all that belonged to him—nine swords, three lances, three bows, seven cuirasses, three bucklers, twelve wives, one white cock, seven horses, two mules, and four camels, besides the mare Borac, on which he went to heaven… All his sayings have been preserved.”

The Christian Gospels of Matthew and Luke give two different genealogies of Jesus (SAW) with a difference of almost seven to eight generations. Voltaire argues that the genealogy of Prophet Muhammad is free from the confusions. It adds to historical authenticity of the Prophet. “No genealogy… approaches that of Mahomet or Mahommed, the son of Abdallah, the son of Abd’all Montaleb, the son of Ashem; which Mahomet was, in his younger days, groom of the widow Khadijah, then her factor, then her husband, then a prophet of God, then condemned to be hanged, then conqueror and king of Arabia; and who finally died an enviable death, satiated with glory and with love. The German barons do not trace back their origin beyond Witikind; and our modern French marquises can scarcely any of them show deeds and patents of an earlier date than Charlemagne. But the race of Mahomet, or Mohammed, which still exists, has always exhibited a genealogical tree, of which the trunk is Adam, and of which the branches reach from Ishmael down to the nobility and gentry who at the present day bear the high title of cousins of Mahomet. There is no difficulty about this genealogy, no dispute among the learned, no false calculations to be rectified, no contradictions to palliate, no impossibilities to be made possible.”

Voltaire presented Prophet Muhammad as perhaps the most accomplished man: “He is admired for having raised himself from being a camel-driver to be a pontiff, a legislator, and a monarch; for having subdued Arabia, which had never before been subjugated; for having given the first shock to the Roman Empire in the East, and to that of the Persians; and I admire him still more for having kept peace in his house among his wives. He changed the face of part of Europe, one half of Asia, and nearly all Africa; nor was his religion unlikely, at one time, to subjugate the whole earth. On how trivial a circumstance will revolutions sometimes depend! A blow from a stone, a little harder than that which he received in his first battle, might have changed the destiny of the world!”

He portrayed Prophet Muhammad as an able but very humble man and defended his concept of “Paradise” against Christian insults. “He does, it is true, say that all these pleasures of the senses, so necessary to those that are to rise again with senses, will be nothing in comparison with the pleasure of contemplating the Supreme Being. He has the humility to confess that he himself will not enter paradise through his own merits, but purely by the will of God…It is not true that he excludes women from paradise. It is hardly likely that so able a man should have chosen to embroil himself with that half of the human race by which the other half is led. Abulfeda relates that an old lady one day importuned him to tell her what she must do to get into paradise. “My good lady,” said he, “paradise is not for old women.” The good woman began to weep, but the prophet consoled her by saying, “There will be no old women because they will become young again.” This consolatory doctrine is confirmed in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Koran.”

Voltaire defended Muslims in the following words: “We are incessantly writing bad books against them, of which they know nothing. We cry out that their religion has been embraced by so many nations only because it flatters the senses. But where is the sensuality in ordering abstinence from the wine and liquors in which we indulge to such excess; in pronouncing to everyone an indispensable command to give to the poor each year two and a half per cent of his income, to fast with the greatest rigor, to undergo a painful operation in the earliest stage of puberty, to make, over arid sands a pilgrimage of sometimes five hundred leagues, and to pray to God five times a day, even when in the field?”

In his letter of January 20, 1742 to Frederick, the King of Prussia, Voltaire wrote: “It may perhaps be objected to me, that, out of my too abundant zeal, I have made Mahomet in this tragedy guilty of a crime which in reality he was not capable of committing. The count de Boulainvilliers, some time since, wrote the life of this prophet, whom he endeavored to represent as a great man, appointed by Providence to punish the Christian world, and change the face of at least one-half of the globe. Mr. Sale likewise, who has given us an excellent translation of the Koran into English, would persuade us to look upon Mahomet as a Numa or a Theseus. I will readily acknowledge, that we ought to respect him, if born a legitimate prince, or called to government by the voice of the people, he had instituted useful and peaceful laws like Numa, or like Theseus defended his countrymen…”

In December 1767 Voltaire wrote a short play "The Feast of the Count of Boulainvilliers." Voltaire avoided subscription of this play to his name due to its Anti-Christian tone and possible Church persecutions. Islam and Muhammad were defended in the following way.

Abbé Couet: But how could the Christian religion have raised itself so high, if it had been founded upon fanaticism and falsehood?

The Count: And how did Mohammedanism lift itself still higher? At least its lies have been more noble, and its fanaticism more generous. At least Mohammed wrote and went to battle. Jesus was able to neither write nor defend himself. Muhammad had the courage of Alexander the Great with the spirit of Numa; whereas your Jesus sweated blood and water once he had been condemned by his judges. Mohammedanism has never changed, while you people have changed your religion twenty times over. There is more difference between what it is today and what it was in your first times, than between your practices and those of King Dagobert. Miserable Christians. You do not adore your Jesus, you insult him by substituting your laws over his.”

In 1772, Voltaire wrote "Il Faut Prendrer un Parti, ou Le Principe d'Action" (One must choose sides – or The Principle of Action). In this essay Voltaire made a character praise Muhammad. In Section XXIII, "Discours d'un Turc" (Discourse of a Turk), Voltaire's "Turk" is described thus: “When the Jew had finished, a Turk, who had smoked throughout the meeting, washed his mouth, recited the formula “Allah Illah,” and said to me: I have listened to all these dreamers. I have gathered that thou art a dog of a Christian, but thou pleasest me because thou seemest liberal, and art in favour of gratuitous predestination. I believe thou art a sensible man, assuming that thou dost agree with me. Most of thy dogs of Christians have spoken only folly about our Mohammed. A certain Baron de Tott, a man of much ability and geniality, who did us great service in the last war, induced me some time ago to read a book of one of your most learned men, named Grotius, entitled The Truth of the Christian Religion. This Grotius accuses our great Mohammed of forcing men to believe that a pigeon spoke in his ear, that a camel conversed with him during the night, and that he had put half the moon in his sleeve. If the most learned of your Christ-worshippers can write such asinine stuff, what must I think of the others? No, Mohammed did none of these village-miracles, of which people speak only a hundred years after the supposed event. He wrought none of those miracles which Baron de Tott read to me in the Golden Legend, written at Geneva. He wrought none of your miracles in the manner of St. Médard, which have been so much derided in Europe, and at which a French ambassador has laughed so much in our presence. The miracles of Mohammed were victories. God has shown that he was a favourite by subjecting half our hemisphere to him. He was not unknown for two whole centuries. He triumphed as soon as he was persecuted. His religion is wise, severe, chaste, and humane. Wise, because it knows not the folly of giving God associates, and it has no mysteries; severe, because it prohibits games of chance, and wine, and strong drinks, and orders prayer five times a day; chaste, because it reduces to four the prodigious number of spouses who shared the bed of all oriental princes; humane, because it imposes on us almsgiving more rigorously than the journey to Mecca. Add tolerance to all these marks of truth. Reflect that we have in the city of Stamboul alone more than a hundred thousand Christians of all sects, who carry out all the ceremonies of their cults in peace, and live so happily under the shelter of our laws that they never deign to visit you, while you crowd to our imperial gate.”

Here Voltaire is comparing Prophet Muhammad’s mission with Jesus’ ministry as depicted by the Christian Gospels. He chastises Christianity for superstitious miracles while defending Prophet Muhammad’s historical miracle, the swift victories. The amazing success of Islam in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad is pitched against the centuries’ obscurity of Prophet Jesus and Christianity. Islam’s morality and religious tolerance is placed against Christian immoralities and religious persecutions. This has been Voltaire’s scheme throughout his public life. His contempt for Christianity and Judaism and simultaneous praises for Islam and Muslims is sufficient proof of Voltaire’s fascination with Islam. F. M. Grimm was not wrong, while reporting in the January 1, 1754 issue of the Correspondance litteraire he wrote: “The reproach that was leveled at Voltaire in Mercure de France at the time of the Histoire des Croisades will probably be repeated; namely that he has a secret fondness for the religion of the Turks; he sides with them as much as he can, and almost always at the expense of the Christians. Wags say that he will go to get circumcized in Constantinople, and that that will be the end of his this story.”

Voltaire was a champion of eighteenth century deism; a religious ideology which closely resembled the Islamic unitary beliefs. He studied with great enthusiasm George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an and his lengthy introduction to Prophet Muhammad, Islamic law, history and doctrines. Voltaire’s fascination with Sale’s translation can be gauged from his August 14, 1738 letter to Thieriot in which he wrote that “There is a devil of an Englishman who has made a very beautiful translation of the holy Alcoran, preceded by a preface far more beautiful than all the alcorans of the world.” Just two years later he wrote to Frederick II recommending Sale’s translation to him in the following words: “M. Sale, who has given us an excellent translation of the Alcoran into English, wants us to regard Mahomet as a Numa and a Theseus.” Voltaire’s numerous marginal notes on Sale’s Qur’an are sufficient proofs that Voltaire was deeply engaged in the study of Qur’an. Voltaire was a life-long student of Islam and his Prophet and used both of them for his reformative purposes. Ziad Elmarsafy observes that this is an “irrevocable fact that whatever theoretical phase Voltaire was going through – his preoccupation with fanaticism in the 1730s, his coming to grips with universal history in the 1740s and 1750s, his break with the Encyclopedie in the 1770s – his position is always defined with respect to Islam and Muhammad. Indeed, Islam becomes, for Voltaire, not only something that is good to think with, but something that defines him, something without which his witty, incisive parti pris would not be what they are.”

The example of Voltaire is sufficient to prove that the Prophet of Allah has the power and ability to change people’s lives, perspectives and outlooks. Whosoever reads his biography with open mind cannot but accept him as one of the most influential figures in human history.