- Category: Occidentalogy
- Written by Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah
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Napoleon’s conversion to Islam was highlighted by the known newspapers both in France and England. In England, the“Copies of Original Letters from the Army of General Bonaparte” was published in a total of eight editions to implicate “a Franco-Ottoman conspiracy to eradicate Christianity.” The publicity and importance given to Napoleon’s proclamation was geared towards “supplying indisputable evidence of French admiration of Islam”, and identifying a “Jacobin-Mahometan plot to undermine British national interests at home and abroad.” The alliance between the Islamic Egypt and French republicanism was the source of English paranoia that resulted in a grand scale polemical works against Islam culminating in a new biography of Muhammad, the professed model of Napoleon Bonaparte. Humphrey Prideux’s famous biography “The Life of Mahomet, or the history of that Imposter, which was begun, carried on, and finally established him in Arabia…To which is added, an account of Egypt” was published in London in the year 1799. The books multiple editions over a short span of time, the enthusiastic support it generated both from the Church of England and English monarchy and its widespread distribution over the European continent in different languages reflect the levels of anxiety, alarm, suspicion and fears caused by a perceived alliance between the Islamic and French republicanisms.
This famous eighteenth century demeaning biography of Muhammad “speaks more to Bonaparte, the deist “imposter”of Egypt, than to Mahomet, the false prophet of Arabia. It is prepared throughout with political allusions to the Egyptian campaign, invoking an anti-Christian Jacobin-Mahometan plot.” H. Prideaux argued that “I have heard that in France there are no less than fifty thousand avowed atheists, divided into different clubs and societies throughout the extensive republic, which I believe as firmly as that there are fifty thousand devils around the throne of God; but supposing it were true, and by no means a piece of British manufacture, I do boldly assert that their united endeavors, though assisted by four hundred thousand libertines, atheists, and deists from England, will neither keep Mahometanism from the grave of oblivion, nor the HEALER OF THE NATIONS from universal triumph.”
Prideaux’s claims of hundreds of thousands of hidden “Mahometans” both in France and England highlight the extent of cross cultural pollination of Islamic ideas during the eighteenth century Europe. While scolding the Mahometan policies of Bonaparte, Prideaux also wanted to incite the British public against the radical enlighteners at home, like Henry Stubbe, John Toland, Blount, Tindal etc., who, like Bonaparte, subscribed to the Islamic republicanism. The egalitarian republicanism of the radical enlighteners both in France and England was depicted as the “corrupt political theology imported from the Muslim world.” The Christian Europe’s divine right monarchy and ecclesiastical authority were in a chaos due to Islamic ideas foreign to Christian Europe. Napoleon’s supposed conversion to Islam had really caused a public paranoia about an Islamic conspiracy to overtake Europe. Napoleon was completely identified with Islam and Muhammad.
As noted above, many scholars have argued that Napoleon’s Muslim garb was a cynical attempt to serve his political agenda. He manipulated Egyptians’ religious sentiments to win their hearts and avoid their resistance. Juan Cole, on the other hand contends that “Although Bonaparte and his defender, Bourrienne, prefaced this account by saying that Bonaparte never converted, never went to mosque, and never prayed in the Muslim way, all of that is immaterial. It is quite clear that he was attempting to find a way for French deists to be declared Muslims for purposes of statecraft. This strategy is of a piece with the one used in his initial Arabic proclamation, in which he maintained that the French army, being without any particular religion and rejecting Trinitarianism, was already “muslim” with a small “m.” Islam was less important to him, of course, than legitimacy. Without legitimacy, the French could not hope to hold Egypt in the long run, and being declared some sort of strange Muslim was the shortcut that appealed to Bonaparte.”
A systematic study of his ideas over the later years of his life substantiates the fact that he was a true admirer of Prophet Muhammad and his religion. Juan Cole admits that “Bonaparte’s admiration for the Prophet Muhammad, in contrast, was genuine.” Napoleon expressed the same positive sentiments about Muhammad and Qur’an while leaving Egypt after his failed attempt to control it. In 1799 on his way back to France he left specific instructions to French administrators in Egypt. He strongly urged them to respect the Qur’an and love the Prophet, "one must take great care to persuade the Muslims that we love the Qur'an and that we venerate the prophet. One thoughtless word or action can destroy the work of many years." Napoleon showed the same respect towards the Prophet in the last years of his life while living in captivity on a tiny Island in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, Saint Helene, without any hope of political power or gain. One can easily see that in conformity with the French Enlightenment ideals Napoleon truly believed that Prophet Muhammad’s concept of God was genuinely sublime and that the Prophet was a model lawmaker. That is what he said in St. Helene:“Arabia was idolatrous when Muhammad, seven centuries after Jesus Christ, introduced the cult of the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Moses and Jesus Christ. The Arians and other sects that had troubled the tranquility of the Orient had raised questions concerning the nature of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Muhammad declared that there was one unique God who had neither father nor son; that the trinity implied idolatry. He wrote on the frontispiece of the Qur'an: "There is no other god than God."
Muhammad spoke to people according to their background and turned the illiterate desert dwellers into builders of civilizations. “He addressed savage, poor peoples, who lacked everything and were very ignorant; had he spoken to their spirit, they would not have listened to him. In the midst of abundance in Greece, the spiritual pleasures of contemplation were a necessity; but in the midst of the deserts, where the Arab ceaselessly sighed for a spring of water, for the shade of a palm where he could take refuge from the rays of the burning tropical sun, it was necessary to promise to the chosen, as a reward, inexhaustible rivers of milk, sweet-smelling woods where they could relax in eternal shade, in the arms of divine houris with white skin and black eyes. The Bedouins were impassioned by the promise of such an enchanting abode; they exposed themselves to every danger to reach it; they became heroes.”
Muhammad’s lack of resources and greatness of accomplishments make him the super hero. His fifteen years of achievements surpass fifteen centuries accomplishment of the Jews and Christians. “Muhammad was a prince; he rallied his compatriots around him. In a few years, his Muslims conquered half the world. They plucked more souls from the false gods, knocked down more idols, razed more pagan temples in fifteen years, than the followers of Moses and Jesus Christ did in fifteen centuries. Muhammad was a great man. He would indeed have been a god, if the revolution that he had performed had not been prepared by the circumstances.”
General Baron Guidaud reports that Napoleon said, "Mohammed appeared at a moment when all men were anxious to be authorized to believe in but one God. It is possible that Arabia had before that been convulsed by civil wars, the only way to train men of courage. After Bender we find Mohammed a hero! A man can be only a man, but sometimes as a man he can accomplish great things. He is often like a spark among inflammable material. I do not think that Mohammed would at the present time succeed in Arabia. But in his own day his religion in ten years conquered half the known world, whilst it took three centuries for the religion of Christ firmly to establish itself.” Napoleon identified himself with Muhammad. "Mohammed's case was like mine. I found all the elements ready at hand to found an empire. Europe was weary of anarchy. Men wanted to make an end of it.”