Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


If any one be desirous of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the antiquities of Arabia, it may be presumed that he will gain no more information than about those of Auvergne and Poitou. It is, however, certain, that the Arabs were of some consequence long before Mahomet. The Jews themselves say that Moses married an Arabian woman, and his father-in-law Jethro seems to have been a man of great good sense.

Mecca is considered, and not without reason, as one of the most ancient cities in the world. It is, indeed, a proof of its antiquity that nothing but superstition could occasion the building of a town on such a spot, for it is in a sandy desert, where the water is brackish, so that the people die of hunger and thirst. The country a few miles to the east is the most delightful upon earth, the best watered and the most fertile. There the Arabs should have built, and not at Mecca. But it was enough for some charlatan, some false prophet, to give out his reveries, to make of Mecca a sacred spot and the resort of neighboring nations. Thus it was that the temple of Jupiter Ammon was built in the midst of sands.

Arabia extends from northeast to southwest, from the desert of Jerusalem to Aden or Eden, about the fiftieth degree of north latitude. It is an immense country, about three times as large as Germany. It is very likely that its deserts of sand were brought thither by the waters of the ocean, and that its marine gulfs were once fertile lands.

The belief in this nation’s antiquity is favored by the circumstance that no historian speaks of its having been subjugated. It was not subdued even by Alexander, nor by any king of Syria, nor by the Romans. The Arabs, on the contrary, subjugated a hundred nations, from the Indus to the Garonne; and, having afterwards lost their conquests, they retired into their own country and did not mix with any other people.

Having never been subject to nor mixed with other nations it is more than probable that they have preserved their manners and their language. Indeed, Arabic is, in some sense, the mother tongue of all Asia as far as the Indus; or rather the prevailing tongue, for mother tongues have never existed. Their genius has never changed. They still compose their “Nights’ Entertainments,” as they did when they imagined one Bac or Bacchus, who passed through the Red Sea with three millions of men, women, and children; who stopped the sun and moon, and made streams of wine issue forth with a blow of his rod, which, when he chose, he changed into a serpent.

A nation so isolated, and whose blood remains unmixed, cannot change its character. The Arabs of the desert have always been given to robbery, and those inhabiting the towns been fond of fables, poetry, and astronomy. It is said, in the historical preface to the Koran, that when any one of their tribes had a good poet the other tribes never failed to send deputies to that one on which God had vouchsafed to bestow so great a gift.

The tribes assembled every year, by representatives, in an open place named Ocad, where verses were recited, nearly in the same way as is now done at Rome in the garden of the academy of the Arcadii, and this custom continued until the time of Mahomet. In his time, each one posted his verses on the door of the temple of Mecca. Labid, son of Rabia, was regarded as the Homer of Mecca; but, having seen the second chapter of the Koran, which Mahomet had posted, he fell on his knees before him, and said, “O Mahomet, son of Abdallah, son of Motalib, son of Achem, thou art a greater poet than I— thou art doubtless the prophet of God.”

The Arabs of Maden, Naïd, and Sanaa were no less generous than those of the desert were addicted to plunder. Among them, one friend was dishonored if he had refused his assistance to another.

In their collection of verses, entitled “Tograid,” it is related that, “one day, in the temple of Mecca, three Arabs were disputing on generosity and friendship, and could not agree as to which, among those who then set the greatest examples of these virtues, deserved the preference. Some were for Abdallah, son of Giafar, uncle to Mahomet; others for Kais, son of Saad; and others for Arabad, of the tribe of As. After a long dispute they agreed to send a friend of Abdallah to him, a friend of Kais to Kais, and a friend of Arabad to Arabad, to try them all three, and to come and make their report to the assembly.

“Then the friend of Abdallah went and said to him, ‘Son of the uncle of Mahomet, I am on a journey and am destitute of everything.’ Abdallah was mounted on his camel loaded with gold and silk; he dismounted with all speed, gave him his camel, and returned home on foot.

“The second went and made application to his friend Kais, son of Saad. Kais was still asleep, and one of his domestics asked the traveller what he wanted. The traveller answered that he was the friend of Kais, and needed his assistance. The domestic said to him, ‘I will not wake my master; but here are seven thousand pieces of gold, which are all that we at present have in the house. Take also a camel from the stable, and a slave; these will, I think, be sufficient for you until you reach your own house.’ When Kais awoke, he chid the domestic for not having given more.

“The third repaired to his friend Arabad, of the tribe of As. Arabad was blind, and was coming out of his house, leaning on two slaves, to pray to God in the temple of Mecca. As soon as he heard his friend’s voice, he said to him, ‘I possess nothing but my two slaves; I beg that you will take and sell them; I will go to the temple as well as I can, with my stick.’

“The three disputants, having returned to the assembly, faithfully related what had happened. Many praises were bestowed on Abdallah, son of Giafar — on Kais, son of Saad — and on Arabad, of the tribe of As, but the preference was given to Arabad.”

The Arabs have several tales of this kind, but our western nations have none. Our romances are not in this taste. We have, indeed, several which turn upon trick alone, as those of Boccaccio, “Guzman d’Alfarache,” “Gil Blas,” etc.

On Job, the Arab.

It is clear that the Arabs at least possessed noble and exalted ideas. Those who are most conversant with the oriental languages think that the Book of Job, which is of the highest antiquity, was composed by an Arab of Idumæa. The most clear and indubitable proof is that the Hebrew translator has left in his translation more than a hundred Arabic words, which, apparently, he did not understand.

Job, the hero of the piece, could not be a Hebrew, for he says, in the forty-second chapter, that having been restored to his former circumstances, he divided his possessions equally among his sons and daughters, which is directly contrary to the Hebrew law.

It is most likely that, if this book had been composed after the period at which we place Moses, the author — who speaks of so many things and is not sparing of examples — would have mentioned some one of the astonishing prodigies worked by Moses, which were, doubtless, known to all the nations of Asia.

In the very first chapter Satan appears before God and asks permission to tempt Job. Satan was unknown in the Pentateuch; it was a Chaldæan word; a fresh proof that the Arabian author was in the neighborhood of Chaldæa.

It has been thought that he might be a Jew because the Hebrew translator has put Jehovah instead of El, or Bel, or Sadai. But what man of the least information does not know that the word Jehovah was common to the Phœnicians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, and every people of the neighboring countries?

A yet stronger proof — one to which there is no reply — is the knowledge of astronomy which appears in the Book of Job. Mention is here made of the constellations which we call Arcturus, Orion, the Pleiades, and even of those of “the chambers of the south.” Now, the Hebrews had no knowledge of the sphere; they had not even a term to express astronomy; but the Arabs, like the Chaldæans, have always been famed for their skill in this science.

It does, then, seem to be thoroughly proved that the Book of Job cannot have been written by a Jew, and that it was anterior to all the Jewish books, Philo and Josephus were too prudent to count it among those of the Hebrew canon. It is incontestably an Arabian parable or allegory.

This is not all. We derive from it some knowledge of the customs of the ancient world, and especially of Arabia. Here we read of trading with the Indies; a commerce which the Arabs have in all ages carried on, but which the Jews never even heard of.

Here, too, we see that the art of writing was in great cultivation, and that they already made great books.

It cannot be denied that the commentator Calmet, profound as he is, violates all the rules of logic in pretending that Job announces the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, when he says:

“For I know that my Redeemer liveth. And though after my skin — worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. But ye should say, Why persecute we him? — seeing the root of the matter is found in me. Be ye afraid of the sword; for wrath bringeth the punishment of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment.”

Can anything be understood by those words, other than his hope of being cured? The immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the body at the last day, are truths so indubitably announced in the New Testament, and so clearly proved by the fathers and the councils, that there is no need to attribute the first knowledge of them to an Arab. These great mysteries are not explained in any passage of the Hebrew Pentateuch; how then can they be explained in a single verse of Job and that in so obscure a manner? Calmet has no better reason for seeing in the words of Job the immortality of the soul, and the general resurrection, than he would have for discovering a disgraceful disease in the malady with which he was afflicted. Neither physics nor logic take the part of this commentator.

As for this allegorical Book of Job: it being manifestly Arabian, we are at liberty to say that it has neither justness, method, nor precision. Yet it is perhaps the most ancient book that has been written, and the most valuable monument that has been found on this side the Euphrates.

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