Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We shall see at the article “Certainty” that we ought often to be very uncertain of what we are certain of; and that we may fail in good sense when deciding according to what is called common sense. But what is it that we call believing?

A Turk comes and says to me, “I believe that the angel Gabriel often descended from the empyrean, to bring Mahomet leaves of the Koran, written on blue vellum.”

Well, Mustapha, and on what does thy shaven head found its belief of this incredible thing?

“On this: That there are the greatest probabilities that I have not been deceived in the relation of these improbable prodigies; that Abubeker, the father-in-law, Ali, the son-in-law, Aisha, or Aisse, the daughter, Omar, and Osman, certified the truth of the fact in the presence of fifty thousand men — gathered together all the leaves, read them to the faithful, and attested that not a word had been altered.

“That we have never had but one Koran, which has never been contradicted by another Koran. That God has never permitted the least alteration to be made in this book.

“That its doctrine and precepts are the perfection of reason. Its doctrine consists in the unity of God, for Whom we must live and die; in the immortality of the soul; the eternal rewards of the just and punishments of the wicked; and the mission of our great prophet Mahomet, proved by victories.

“Its precepts are: To be just and valiant; to give alms to the poor; to abstain from that enormous number of women whom the Eastern princes, and in particular the petty Jewish kings, took to themselves without scruple; to renounce the good wines of Engaddi and Tadmor, which those drunken Hebrews have so praised in their books; to pray to God five times a day, etc.

“This sublime religion has been confirmed by the miracle of all others the finest, the most constant, and best verified in the history of the world; that Mahomet, persecuted by the gross and absurd scholastic magistrates who decreed his arrest, and obliged to quit his country, returned victorious; that he made his imbecile and sanguinary enemies his footstool; that he all his life fought the battles of the Lord; that with a small number he always triumphed over the greater number; that he and his successors have converted one-half of the earth; and that, with God’s help, we shall one day convert the other half.”

Nothing can be arrayed in more dazzling colors. Yet Mustapha, while believing so firmly, always feels some small shadows of doubt arising in his soul when he hears any difficulties started respecting the visits of the angel Gabriel; the sura or chapter brought from heaven to declare that the great prophet was not a cuckold; or the mare Borak, which carried him in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem. Mustapha stammers; he makes very bad answers, at which he blushes; yet he not only tells you that he believes, but would also persuade you to believe. You press Mustapha; he still gapes and stares, and at last goes away to wash himself in honor of Allah, beginning his ablution at the elbow and ending with the forefinger.

Is Mustapha really persuaded — convinced of all that he has told us? Is he perfectly sure that Mahomet was sent by God, as he is sure that the city of Stamboul exists? as he is sure that the Empress Catherine II. sent a fleet from the remotest seas of the North to land troops in Peloponnesus — a thing as astonishing as the journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night — and that this fleet destroyed that of the Ottomans in the Dardanelles?

The truth is that Mustapha believes what he does not believe. He has been accustomed to pronounce, with his mollah, certain words which he takes for ideas. To believe is very often to doubt.

“Why do you believe that?” says Harpagon. “I believe it because I believe it,” answers Master Jacques; and most men might return the same answer.

Believe me fully, my dear reader, when I say one must not believe too easily. But what shall we say of those who would persuade others of what they themselves do not believe? and what of the monsters who persecute their brethren in the humble and rational doctrine of doubt and self-distrust?

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