- Category: Occidentalogy
- Written by Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah
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Throughout his stay in Egypt Napoleon used the Qur’anic verses and Ahadith (Prophetic reports) in his proclamations to the Egyptians. “Tell your people that since the beginning of time God has decreed the destruction of the enemies of Islam and the breaking of the crosses by my hand. Moreover He decreed from eternity that I shall come from the West to the Land of Egypt for the purpose of destroying those who have acted tyrannically in it and to carry out the tasks which He set upon me. And no sensible man will doubt that all this is by virtue of God’s decree and will. Also tell your people that the many verses of the glorious Qur’an announce the occurrence of events which have occurred and indicate others which are to occur in the future…” Napoleon used the Muslim apocalyptic vocabulary and tradition to convey his political motives. Ziad observes that the “use of the Qur’an and Sunna in the remaining proclamations serves to consolidate further the image of Napoleon as not only a follower of Muhammad, but a Mahdi destined to conquer that region.” Napoleon truly infused his declarations with “an unprecedented degree of Qur’anic allusion and auto-deification. No longer a mere exporter of the Enlightenment, Napoleon is now the arm of God…”
Napoleon formed a “Directory”comprised of French officials, Cairo elites and Muslim clergy. He patronized mosques and the madrassas, the centers of Qura’nic studies programs. He participated and presided over the Muslim festivals and Egyptian holidays and “even tried converting the French army to Islam legally without undergoing the Muslim practice of circumcision and imposing the wine-drinking prohibition… Marriages between Frenchmen and Muslims women were common, accompanied by formal conversion to Islam. Indeed, French general Jacques Manou, governor of Rosetta, married a notable Egyptian woman of the Sharif cast and changed his name to“Abdullah” (Servant of Allah).” Manuo was a senior French general. He married Zubayda in the spring of 1799. “The adoption of an almost Catholic discourse of piety in an Islamic guise by a French officer in Egypt could scarcely have been foreseen by the Jacobins on the Directory and in the legislature who urged the invasion.”
Such a widespread conversion of French officers to Islam was not a blot out of the blue. Many of them had already lost faith in Christianity. Just before the French Revolution Baron d‟Holbach could write about Jesus and his Christianity in the following words: “A poor Jew, who pretended to be descended from the royal house of David, after being long unknown in his own country, emerges from obscurity, and goes forth to make proselytes. He succeeded amongst some of the most ignorant part of the populace. To them he preached his doctrines, and taught them that he was the son of God, the deliverer of his oppressed nation, and the Messiah announced by the prophets. His disciples, being either imposters or themselves deceived, rendered a clamorous testimony of his power, and declared that his mission had been proved by miracles without number. The only prodigy that he was incapable of effecting, was that of convincing the Jews, who, far from being touched by his beneficent and marvelous works, caused him to suffer an ignominious death. Thus the Son of God died in the sight of all Jerusalem; but his followers declare that he was secretly resuscitated three days after his death. Visible to them alone, and invisible to the nation which he came to enlighten and convert to his doctrine, Jesus, after his resurrection, say they, conversed some time with his disciples, and then ascended into heaven, where, having again become the equal to God the Father, he shares with him the adorations and homages of the sectaries of his law. These sectaries, by accumulating superstitions, inventing impostures, and fabricating dogmas and mysteries, have, little by little, heaped up a distorted and unconnected system of religion which is called Christianity, after the name of Christ its founder.”
The French Revolution ushered an era of de-Christianization of the French populace in general and the French elites in particular. From 1789 to the Concordat of 1801, the Catholic Church, its lands, properties, educational institutions, monasteries, churches, bishops and priests were all the victims of the revolutionaries. The Church which owned almost everything that was not owned by the monarchy in France was stripped of its lands, churches, schools, seminaries and all privileges. The crosses, bells, statues, plates and every sign of Christianity including its iconography were removed from the churches. On October 21, 1793, a law was passed that made all clergy and those who harbored them liable to death on sight. Religion, which in the pre modern old regime Europe meant Christianity with its multifarious branches and Churches, was itself the target. The famous Notre Dame Cathedral was turned into the temple of the goddess “Reason” on November 10, 1793.
Consequently, many French officers and soldiers by the time they put their foot on the Egyptian soil were already de-Christianized deists or atheists. Juan Cole explains that “Many French in the age of the Revolution had become deists, that is, they believed that God, if he existed at all, was a cosmic clockmaker who had set the universe in motion but did not any longer intervene in its affairs. Most deists did not consider themselves Christians any longer and looked down on Middle Eastern Christians as priest-ridden and backward.” They believed in a Supreme Being who imparted laws to the nature and let it run its course in conformity with those laws without intervention. This meant that Nature was rational and not irrational. Such a rational outlook at the cosmos was antithetical to the traditional Christian cosmology. The Christian God intervened and interfered in the cosmos at will and was supposedly persuaded by the Christian priests, his agents upon the earth. The deistic notions of divinity in reality were expressions of absolute anticlericalism, the hallmark of French society after the Revolution. Moreover, the deists of the eighteenth century imagined Muhammad as “earlier and more radical reformer than Luther.” The French Jacobins like their deists comrades believed that “Mahometans” were “closer to“the standard of reason” than the Christians…”
Therefore, it was not too difficult for Napoleon to ask his soldiers to convert to Islam. Some notable French thinkers, as discussed above, had already “tried to show how close Europeans could be to Islamic practice, without knowing it, as a way of critiquing religion.” They had already employed Islamic ideas to root out the priestcraft. Therefore, Napoleon was reaping the fruits of a long strand of French radical enlightenment where Islam and Muhammad were the known commodities. Bonaparte’s personal deistic disposition and the overall French propensity towards hatred of organized Christianity and its irrational dogmas combined with simultaneous appreciation of Islamic rational monotheism and medieval Islamic civilization were truly at play in Egypt. The political expediency added to the already existent seeds of the French radical enlightenment and caused them to flourish in a congenial Muslim Egyptian environment. The French were not accepting a new religion. They were accepting a reformed version of their deeply held religious convictions, something already present in their religious outlook.
There were some exceptions though. Some of them clearly disdained this supposed Islamization drama but kept quite so as not to offend their powerful and persuasive general, Ali Bonaparte. They went along with their admired general’s Islamization strategies.
Bonaparte dressed in Islamic attire, promoted Islamic art and sciences, and greatly emphasized the “affinity between the French egalitarian principles and Shari’a law. The political ideal of liberty, equality, and fraternity was fused with a hermitically tinged Islamic messianism, which, in a time of change and uncertainty, temporarily served as the de facto state idiom of France between 1798 and 1999.” Like Voltaire, Bayle and Encyclopedie, Napoleon praised the Muslim Abbasid Caliphs of eighth and ninth centuries for patronizing the arts, sciences and translation of Greek and Latin works to Arabic. He pinpointed Europe’s indebtedness to this Arab-Greco legacy. The Egyptian scholars, in their letter to the Sharif of Mecca and Madinah, wrote the following about Bonaparte. “He has assured us that he recognizes the unity of God, that the French honor our Prophet, as well as the Qur’an, and that they regard the Muslim religion as the best religion. The French have proved their love for Islam in freeing the Muslim prisoners detained in Malta, in destroying churches and breaking crosses in the city of Venice, and in pursuing the pope, who commanded the Christians to kill the Muslims and who had represented that act as a religious duty.” Napoleon’s public conversion to Islam was more significant for the Egyptians than any of his other policies.