Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

This book governs with despotic sway the whole of northern Africa, from Mount Atlas to the desert of Barca, the whole of Egypt, the coasts of the Ethiopian Sea to the extent of six hundred leagues, Syria, Asia Minor, all the countries round the Black and the Caspian seas (excepting the kingdom of Astrakhan), the whole empire of Hindostan, all Persia, a great part of Tartary; and in Europe, Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Servia, Bosnia, Greece, Epirus, and nearly all the islands as far as the little strait of Otranto, which terminates these possessions.

In this prodigious extent of country there is not a single Mahometan who has the happiness of reading our sacred books; and very few of our literati are acquainted with the Koran, of which we always form a ridiculous idea, notwithstanding the researches of our really learned men.

The first lines of this book are as follows: “Praise to God, the sovereign of all worlds, to the God of mercy, the sovereign of the day of justice? Thee we adore! to Thee only do we look for protection. Lead us in the right way — in the way of those whom Thou hast loaded with Thy graces, and not in the way of the objects of Thy wrath — of them who have gone astray.”

Such is the introduction. Then come three letters, A, L, M, which, according to the learned Sale, are not understood, for each commentator explains them in his own way; but the most common opinion is that they signify Ali, Latif, Magid — God, Grace, Glory.

God himself then speaks to Mahomet in these words: “This book admitteth not of doubt. It is for the direction of the just, who believe in the depths of the faith, who observe the times of prayer, who distribute in alms what it has pleased Me to give them, who believe in the revelation which hath descended to thee, and was delivered to the prophets before thee. Let the faithful have a firm assurance in the life to come; let them be directed by their Lord; and they shall be happy.

“As for unbelievers, it mattereth not whether thou callest them or no: they do not believe; the seal of unbelief is on their hearts and on their ears; a terrible punishment awaiteth them. There are some who say, ‘We believe in God and in the Last Day,’ but in their hearts they are unbelievers. They think to deceive the Eternal; they deceive themselves without knowing it. Infirmity is in their hearts, and God himself increaseth this infirmity,” etc.

These words are said to have incomparably more energy in Arabic. Indeed, the Koran still passes for the most elegant and most sublime book that has been written in that language. We have imputed to the Koran a great number of foolish things which it never contained. It was chiefly against the Turks, who had become Mahometans, that our monks wrote so many books, at a time when no other opposition was of much service against the conquerors of Constantinople. Our authors, much more numerous than the janissaries, had no great difficulty in ranging our women on their side; they persuaded them that Mahomet looked upon them merely as intelligent animals; that, by the laws of the Koran, they were all slaves, having no property in this world, nor any share in the paradise of the next. The falsehood of all this is evident; yet it has all been firmly believed.

It was, however, only necessary in order to discover the deception to have read the fourth sura or chapter of the Koran, in which would have been found the following laws, translated in the same manner by Du Ryer, who resided for a long time at Constantinople; by Maracci, who never went there; and by Sale, who lived twenty-five years among the Arabs:

Mahomet’s Regulations with Respect to Wives.
  1. Never marry idolatrous women, unless they will become believers. A Mussulman servant is better than an idolatrous woman, though of the highest rank.
  2. They who, having wives, wish to make a vow of chastity, shall wait four months before they decide. Wives shall conduct themselves towards their husbands as their husbands conduct themselves towards them.
  3. You may separate yourself from your wife twice; but if you divorce her a third time, it must be forever; you must either keep her humanely or put her away kindly. You are not permitted to keep anything from her that you have given to her.
  4. Good wives are obedient and attentive, even in the absence of their husbands. If your wife is prudent be careful not to have any quarrel with her; but if one should happen, let an arbiter be chosen from your own family, and one from hers.
  5. Take one wife, or two, or three, or four, but never more. But if you doubt your ability to act equitably towards several, take only one. Give them a suitable dowry, take care of them, and speak to them always like a friend.
  6. You are not permitted to inherit from your wife against her will; nor to prevent her from marrying another after her divorce, in order to possess yourself of her dower, unless she has been declared guilty of some crime. When you choose to separate yourself from your wife and take another, you must not, though you have even given her a talent at your marriage, take anything from her.
  7. You are permitted to marry a slave, but it is better that you should not do so.
  8. A repudiated wife is obliged to suckle her child until it is two years old, during which time the father is obliged to maintain them according to his condition. If the infant is weaned at an earlier period, it must be with the consent of both father and mother. If you are obliged to entrust it to a strange nurse, you shall make her a reasonable allowance.

Here, then, is sufficient to reconcile the women to Mahomet, who has not used them so hardly as he is said to have done. We do not pretend to justify either his ignorance or his imposture; but we cannot condemn his doctrine of one only God. These words of his 122d 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.

Still his Koran is a collection of ridiculous revelations and vague and incoherent predictions, combined with laws that were very good for the country in which he lived, and all which continue to be followed, without having been changed or weakened, either by Mahometan interpreters or by new decrees. The poets of Mecca were hostile to Mahomet, but above all the doctors. These raised the magistracy against him, and a warrant was issued for his apprehension as only duly accused and convicted of having said that God must be adored, and not the stars. This, it is known, was the source of his greatness. When it was seen that he could not be put down, and that his writings were becoming popular, it was given out in the city that he was not the author of them, or that at least he was assisted in their composition by a learned Jew, and sometimes by a learned Christian — supposing that there were at that time learned Jews and learned Christians.

So, in our days, more than one prelate has been reproached with having set monks to compose his sermons and funeral orations. There was one Father Hercules (Père Hercule) who made sermons for a certain bishop, and when people went to hear him preach, they used to say, “Let us go and hear the labors of Hercules.”

To this charge Mahomet gives an answer in his 16th chapter, occasioned by a gross blunder he had made in the pulpit, about which a great deal had been said. He gets out of the scrape thus: “When thou readest the Koran, address thyself to God, that He may preserve thee from the machinations of Satan. He has power only over those who have chosen Him for their Master, and who give associates unto God.

“When I substitute one verse for another in the Koran (the reason for which changes is known to God) some unbelievers cry out, ‘Thou hast forged those verses’; but they know not how to distinguish truth from falsehood. Say rather that the Holy Spirit brought those verses of truth to me from God. Others say, still more malignantly, There is a certain man who labors with him in composing the Koran. But how can this man, to whom they attribute my works, have taught me, speaking as he does, a foreign language, while the Koran is written in the purest Arabic?”

He who, it was pretended, assisted Mahomet, was a Jew named Bensalen or Bensalon. It is not very likely that a Jew should have lent his assistance to Mahomet in writing against the Jews; yet the thing is not impossible. The monk who was said to have contributed to the Koran was by some called Bohaira, by others Sergius. There is something pleasant in this monk’s having had both a Latin and an Arabic name. As for the fine theological disputes which have arisen among the Mussulmans, I have no concern with them; I leave them to the decision of the mufti.

In “The Triumph of the Cross” (“Le Triomphe de la Croix”) the Koran is said to be Arian, Sabellian, Carpocratian, Cardonician, Manichæan, Donatistic, Origenian, Macedonian, and Ebionitish. Mahomet, however, was nothing of all this; he was rather a Jansenist, for the foundation of his doctrine is the absolute degree of gratuitous predestination.

§ II.

This Mahomet, son of Abdallah, was a bold and sublime charlatan. He says in his tenth chapter, “Who but God can have composed the Koran? Mahomet, you say, has forged this book. Well; try then to write one chapter resembling it and call to your aid whomsoever you please.” In the seventeenth he exclaims, “Praise be to Him who in one night transported His servant from the sacred temple of Mecca to that of Jerusalem!”

This was a very fine journey, but nothing like that which he took the very same night from planet to planet. He pretended that it was five hundred years’ journey from one to another, and that he cleft the moon in twain. His disciples who, after his death, collected, in a solemn manner, the verses of this Koran, suppressed this celestial journey, for they dreaded raillery and philosophy. After all, they had too much delicacy; they might have trusted to the commentators, who would have found no difficulty whatever in explaining the itinerary. Mahomet’s friends should have known by experience that the marvellous is the reason of the multitude; the wise contradict in silence, which the multitude prevent them from breaking. But while the itinerary of the planets was suppressed, a few words were retained about the adventure of the moon. One cannot be always on one’s guard.

The Koran is a rhapsody, without connection, without order, and without art. This tedious book is, nevertheless, said to be a very fine production, at least by the Arabs, who assert that it is written with an elegance and purity that no later work has equalled. It is a poem, or sort of rhymed prose, consisting of three thousand verses. No poem ever advanced the fortune of its author so much as the Koran. It was disputed among the Mussulmans whether it was eternal or God had created it in order to dictate it to Mahomet. The doctors decided that it was eternal, and they were right; this eternity is a much finer opinion than the other, for with the vulgar we must always adopt that which is the most incredible.

The monks who have attacked Mahomet, and said so many silly things about him, have asserted that he could not write. But how can we imagine that a man who had been a merchant, a poet, a legislator, and a sovereign, did not know how to sign his name? If his book is bad for our times and for us, it was very good for his contemporaries, and his religion was still better. 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.

Mahomet allowed many things to remain in his law which he had found established among the Arabs — as circumcision, fasting, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which was instituted four thousand years before his time; ablutions, so necessary to health and cleanliness in a burning country, where linen was unknown; and the idea of a last judgment, which the magi had always inculcated, and which had reached the inhabitants of Arabia. It is said that on his announcing that we should rise again quite naked, his wife, Aishca, expressed her opinion that the thing would be immodest and dangerous. “Do not be alarmed, my dear,” said he, “no one will then feel any inclination to laugh.” According to the Koran, an angel will weigh both men and women in a great balance; this idea, too, is taken from the magi. He also stole from them their narrow bridge which must be passed over after death; and their elysium, where the Mussulmans elect will find baths, well-furnished apartments good beds, and houris with great black eyes. 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. Through this same pure Divine will he orders that a fifth part of the spoil shall always be reserved for the prophet.

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.

He forbade wine because some of his followers once went intoxicated to prayers. He permitted a plurality of wives, conforming in this point to the immemorial usage of the orientals.

In short, his civil laws are good; his doctrine is admirable in all which it has in common with ours; but his means are shocking — villainy and murder!

He is excused by some, on the first of these charges, because, say they, the Arabs had a hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets before him, and there could be no great harm in the appearance of one more; men, it is added, require to be deceived. But how are we to justify a man who says, “Believe that I have conversed with the angel Gabriel, or pay me tribute!”

How superior is Confucius — the first of mortals who have not been favored with revelations! He employs neither falsehood nor the sword, but only reason. The viceroy of a great province, he causes the laws to be observed and morality to flourish; disgraced and poor, he teaches them. He practises them alike in greatness and in humiliation; he renders virtue amiable; and has for his disciples the most ancient and wisest people on the earth.

In vain does Count de Boulainvilliers, who had some respect for Mahomet, extol the Arabs. Notwithstanding all his boastings, they were a nation of banditti. They robbed before Mahomet, when they adored the stars; they robbed under Mahomet in the name of God. They had, say you, the simplicity of the heroic ages; but what were these heroic ages? — times when men cut one another’s throats for a well or a cistern, as they now do for a province?

The first Mussulmans were animated by Mahomet with the rage of enthusiasm. Nothing is more terrible than a people who, having nothing to lose, fight in the united spirit of rapine and of religion.

It is true there was not much art in their proceedings. The contract of marriage between Mahomet and his first wife expresses that, while Cadisha loves him, and he in like manner loves Cadisha, it is thought meet to join them. But is there the same simplicity in having composed a genealogy which makes him descend in a right line from Adam, as several Spanish and Scotch families have been made to descend?

The great prophet experienced the disgrace common to so many husbands, after which no one should complain. The name of him who received the favors of his second wife was Assam. The behavior of Mahomet, on this occasion, was even more lofty than that of Cæsar, who put away his wife, saying, “The wife of Cæsar ought not to be suspected.” The prophet would not suspect his. He sent to heaven for a chapter of the Koran, affirming that his wife was faithful. This chapter, like all the others, had been written from all eternity.

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!

His son-in-law Ali asserted that when the prophet was about to be inhumed, he was found in a situation not very common to the dead. The words of the Roman sovereign might be well applied in this case: “Decet imperatorem stantem mori.”

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. But this last he had only borrowed; it was the property of the angel Gabriel.

All his sayings have been preserved. One was that the enjoyment of women made him more fervent in prayer. Besides all his other knowledge he is said to have been a great physician; so that he wanted none of the qualifications for deceiving mankind.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01