A European Muhammad? Between history and memory, polemics and praise
English historian Edward Gibbon devoted a long chapter of his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols., 1776-89) to the rise of Islam, and in particular to the career of the prophet Muhammad. Gibbon presents him as a charismatic leader, wise ruler, loved and respected by his followers. Above all, Muhammad brought his people to the unsullied worship of the One God: “The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the Author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection. These sublime truths, thus announced in the language of the prophet, are firmly held by his disciples, and defined with metaphysical precision by the interpreters of the Koran. A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans; a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties”.
Gibbon’s chapter is full of frank praise and admiration for the prophet of Islam, one of the towering figures of history, a man who against considerable odds managed to reform the Arabs religiously, ethically and politically, unite them under the banner of Islam and under his leadership, and to launch what would subsequently prove to be the conquest of half the world. But clearly this praise of Muhammad and of Islam also has a polemical edge: it is a barely-veiled critique of 18th-century Christianity in Europe, and particular in England. For Gibbon, as for other eighteenth-century authors in England, France and elsewhere, Muhammad is an anti-clerical hero, smashing superstition and abolishing the power of priests.
Over a century earlier, Henry Stubbe, in his Originall & progress of Mahometanism (1671) describes the Muslim prophet as a great reformer who fought the superstition and illegitimate power of Christian clergy and sought to return to a pure, unsullied monotheism. Stubbe’s Mahomet is a religious reformer, beloved and admired ruler, and sage legislator. Stubbe is followed by others, in England and on the continent. These authors portray Muhammad as visionary reformer who eradicates superstition and combats the power of the clergy. This is the strategy of Henri de Boulainvillers in his Vie de Mahomed (1730), and the perspective of George Sale in the “preliminary discourse” to his English translation of the Qur’ān (1734). Voltaire, thanks in part to his reading of Sale, depicts Mahomet as a reformer and great statesman in his Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756). Gibbon has read these authors and echoes their judgments: Muhammad is a great man largely because he abolished superstitious and irrational doctrines and put an end to the power and influence of a corrupt and grasping clergy. Christian kings should follow his lead.
Such sentiments drew sharp opposition, of course, and casting them as praise for the seventh-century prophet of Islam was less dangerous than proclaiming them as a political program. But in some ways, this was all the more irksome to churchmen: not only were their own prerogatives being called into question, this was being done through the excessive praise of a man whom they saw as one of the great traditional enemies of Christendom. Christian writers from the eighth century forward had denounced Muhammad as a false prophet who had hoodwinked the Arabs into embracing a heresy, a deviant, irrational corruption of true Christian doctrine and practice.
Churchmen continued to proffer this vision of the Muslim prophet against those who praised him. Anglican priest Henry Prideaux, a fellow student with Stubbe in Oxford, in 1697 published his The true nature of imposture fully display’d in the life of Mahomet, in order to show that Muhammad was an impostor and to defend Anglican Christianity. In France and Italy, Catholic scholars similarly defended the Church by reiterating the classic vision of Muhammad as a heretic, false prophet and impostor.
Gibbon was a public intellectual and a member of parliament. Fully conscious of the political import of what he wrote, he also knew that his political opponents would be closely reading his work and ready to pounce on anything they saw as scandalous. After the appearance of the first volume of the Decline and Fall in 1776, some had chided Gibbon for presenting Christianity as one of the causes of the decline of the Empire and for his positive portrayal of Roman paganism.
Hence he words his praise of Muhammad carefully, to avoid giving traction to his clerical opponents. He affirms that to Muhammad’s rational mind the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation seemed irrational; Gibbon carefully avoids affirming himself that these doctrines are irrational or should be rejected, even if he suggests so. Where other Europeans denigrated Arabs as uncivilized and Islam as irrational, for Gibbon as we have seen Islam is pure rational monotheism and the “interpreters of the Koran” work “with metaphysical precision”.
Indeed, he suggests that these Muslim theologians are more rational than Gibbon’s critics, 18th-century Anglicans. Islam is close to what a “philosophic theist” might believe in. It is “a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties”. In other words, he is telling his critics, if you do not understand that Islam is a superior form of rational monotheism, that is because your intellectual facilities (unlike those of the interpreters of the Qur’an) are insufficient. A resounding attack on his intellectual and political opponents, but phrased in a way as to give no handhold for those who wish to counter-attack.
The Romantic movement embraced the cult of the “great men”, figures who towered over the common mortals, and Muhamad was clearly one of them for the writers who sang his praise, including Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Washington Irving, and Alphonse de Lamartine. Napoleon Bonaparte’s admiration for Muhammad was boundless: he saw him as a charismatic leader, sage lawgiver, and brilliant general: all that Napoleon himself strove to be (but of course more successful, as the ex-emperor ruefully lamented from his island exile in St. Helena).
Things looked a bit different for 19th-century European Jews like Abraham Geiger, rabbi and leader of a movement for Jewish reform. He presented Muhammad as a brilliant reformer who had learned his monotheism from Talmudic scholars and who subsequently adapted it to his Arab audience. Geiger’s Muhammad was in essence a Jewish reformer (as was Jesus, he affirmed): not strictly a Jew, in Muhammad’s case, but nonetheless a better Jew than Geiger’s Orthodox Jewish critics. Other Jewish scholars (in particular, Gustav Weil and Ignác Goldziher) embraced and refined this image of the Muslim prophet as a model for Jewish reform.
Each of these writers, from Stubbe in 1671 to Goldziher in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shows a keen interest in Muhammad and early Islam. Yet each of them is a product of his times, and is arguably more interested in making a point with Muhammad (against the Catholic or Anglican Church, against chauvinists and anti-Semites, or whatever) than in the prophet of Islam himself. What do their visions, polemical or praiseful, have to do with the real man of seventh-century Arabia? Here the historian faces the same problem as those who seek to grasp the “historical Jesus”: it is difficult, often impossible, to distinguish historical fact from pious legend, biography from hagiography. Jews, Christians, Muslims and others have, for almost fourteen centuries, portrayed the prophet in a great variety of ways.
The historian may struggle to perceive the historical man of seventh-century Arabia behind the many thousands of texts and images that portray him. But no-one, Muslim or not, may plausibly claim to have a monopoly of truth about the prophet of Islam. The sheer variety and diversity of portraits of Muhammad have become both major fields of research and important elements in the dialogue of religions and cultures.
Much has been written about the innumerable Muslim portraits of the prophet, who appears in differing lights in different historical and cultural circumstances. One could write about the Iranian Muhammad, the Ottoman Muhammad, the Maghrebi Muhammad, the Wahhabi Muhammad, etc.; each of these would be comprised of multiple and diverse portraits, each telling us more about the cultures and individuals that produced those portraits than about the man of seventh-century Arabia. The same holds true for the portrayals by European writers, for whom the prophet of Islam appears as a mirror, expressing their fears, hopes and ambitions. He is an integral part of “Western” culture, an object of fascination and speculation for writers and artists for centuries: A European Muhammad.