Voltaire's "Mahomet": Still Controversial After All These Years

by ADRIAN MORGAN August 31, 2010
In February 1778 when Voltaire returned to Paris after an absence of several years, he wanted to see that the performance of his play, Irène, went smoothly. This was to be performed by the Comédie-Française and the actors were falling out with each other. He knew he was dying, but his concern for the play’s success caused him to attend rehearsals, even though he was so ill that at one stage a confessor was called. His frail health prevented him from attending the premiere on March 16th. He missed a further four performances, but on March 30th, arriving in a blue carriage covered in stars, he attended its sixth performance. The play was a success, and at the close of the performance, his bust was presented on stage and the cast members crowned it with laurels.
Irène was to be Voltaire’s final play. It dealt with an Islamic theme, a popular legend about the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432 – 1481), who had conquered Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire. According to the legend, Mehmed (Mahomet) had fallen in love with a Greek Christian captive, and his love caused him to neglect his duties. His janissaries (slave soldiers who had been forcibly converted to Islam) objected to the union. To regain their obedience and respect, Mehmed killed the object of his affections and regained control of his Sultanate.
The legend had been attempted by other writers. In 1594, George Peele had written “Turkish Mahomet and Hyrin the Fair Greek” which, according to Sila Senlen (pdf document), has been lost. In 1640, Gilbert Swinhoe had written of it in a play called “The tragedy of the unhappy fair Irene”, published in 1658.
Voltaire had been concerned about the success of the play. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), whom Voltaire had met on a few occasions, had written a play called Irene in 1737. The actor David Garrick had agreed to produce Johnson’s play at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. The first performance was held on February 6, 1749. Johnson was not happy with the changes that Garrick made to the play and an argument broke out. Johnson, according to his biographer Boswell, complained: “Sir, the fellow wants me to make Mahomet run mad, that he may have an opportunity of tossing his hands and kicking his heels.”
Though Johnson’s Irène eventually made money for the theater, it began as a fiasco. There were catcalls and whistles from the audience even before the curtain rose. Boswell reported that:
“the play went off tolerably, till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bowstring round her neck. The audience cried out "Murder! Murder!" She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive. This passage was afterwards struck out, and she was carried off to be put to death behind the scenes, as the play now has it.”
Perhaps mindful of the pitfalls that initially beset Johnson’s version of “Irene”, Voltaire mentioned during the rehearsals at the Comédie-Française that: “It would be a sad business if I had only come to Paris to be confessed and hissed.” Two months after his bust had been brought onto the stage and crowned with laurels, Voltaire died, aged 83.
Voltaire had courted controversy from the start of his career. A play he had written more than four decades before Irène had an Islamic theme, and had caused controversy when it was first produced. The same play, when performed less than five years ago, led to rioting. This play was called “Mahomet”.
The play Mahomet savaged the founder of Islam as a manipulating despot. The play was seen by Louis XV, the king of France, as scandalous. Mahomet was first performed in Lille, northern France, in 1741, even though it was initiated five years earlier. Voltaire was worried about staging it in Paris. In 1740, Voltaire had read out this play to Frederick II (the Great) the Prussian King. Frederick had initiated a correspondence with Voltaire in 1736, but the two did not meet until 1740, in Belgium. When Frederick invaded Austria in 1741, Voltaire interrupted one of the Lille performances of Mahomet to announce the news, which had been sent directly to him by the king.
On 9 August 1742, the Comédie-Française mounted a performance of Mahomet, but after the third performance it was banned. Those who had urged the banning of the play were said to be Catholic Jansenists within the court of King Louis XV. In 1740, Voltaire had dedicated the play to Cardinal Fleury, chief minister of the king, but it was assumed by some to be an attack on both the monarch and the Christian Church.
The basic plot of Mahomet, according to Lahoucine Ouzgane, is as follows:
“Criticism of fanaticism does permeate the text, but the major crime is committed by Seid, slave of Mahomet. Mahomet commands Seid, in the name of God to murder Zopir, his father; then Mahomet has Seid poisoned. From the outset, Mahomet desires his slave girl Palmira, the only woman in the play. In the last scenes she attacks Mahomet as an impostor, bloody savage, seducer and tyrant.”
In a letter to Frederick, dated January 20, 1742, Voltaire announced that he was sending him a printed copy of the play Mahomet. Voltaire spoke of the plot of the play:
“A young man born with virtuous inclinations, seduced by fanaticism, assassinates an old man who loves him; and whilst he imagines he is serving God, is, without knowing it, guilty of parricide: the murder is committed by the order of an impostor, who promises him a reward, which proves to be incest.”
He admitted that there was little that was historical about the episodes recounted in the five-act play. Zopir, the leader of Mecca, was based upon the character of Abu Sufian ibn Harb, who had been defeated by Mohammed and his armies on January 12, 630 AD. The events recounted in the play are loosely related to those alluded to in one verse of the Koran, (Sura 33: 37). In this verse Mohammed’s adopted son Zaid (Zayd ibn Háritha) had his marriage to Zainab (Zaynab bint Jahsh) annulled, and Mohammed then married Zainab. One of Mohammed’s daughters by his first wife Khadija was called Zainab, and maybe this is why there is a suggestion of incest. Voltaire explained:
Mahomet, I know, did not actually commit that particular crime which is the subject of this tragedy: history only informs us, that he took away the wife of Seid, one of his followers, and persecuted Abusophan, whom I call Zopir; but what is not that man capable of, who, in the name of God, makes war against his country? It was not my design merely to represent a real fact, but real manners and characters, to make men think as they naturally must in their circumstances; but above all it was my intention to show the horrid schemes which villainy can invent, and fanaticism put in practice. Mahomet is here no more than Tartuffe in arms.
In the letter to Frederick, Voltaire acknowledged expressed contempt for Mohammed:
“….for a driver of camels to stir up a faction in his village; to associate himself with a set of wretched Koreish, and persuade them that he had an interview with the angel Gabriel; to boast that he was carried up to heaven, and there received part of that unintelligible book which contradicts common sense in every page; that in order to procure respect for this ridiculous performance he should carry fire and sword into his country, murder fathers, and ravish their daughters, and after all give those whom he conquered the choice of his religion or death; this is surely what no man will pretend to vindicate, unless he was born a Turk, and superstition had totally extinguished in him the light of nature.”
It has been speculated by many critics that Mahomet was a satire on Christian values. David Hammerbeck wrote about Mahomet and asserted that:
Voltaire composed and staged this tragedy in order to counter what the author viewed as the hypocrisies of organized religion and its associated ills: superstition, dogma and fanaticism, as practiced in Catholicism in particular. However, Voltaire targeted not only the Papacy. He challenged the theological and metaphysical basis of all organized religions, counterposing his own "natural" religion based in part on the skeptical rationalism of Hume, Shaftesbury and Leibniz. Voltaire's tragic vision of the Prophet embodies previous Western biases against Muhammad and Islam, while updating these cultural preconceptions in the then-current dramaturgical codes.
Hostility to the play from the court of Louis XV may have been due to a perception that it was an attack upon the French monarchy. Voltaire had earlier been accused of satirizing the alleged incest of Louis’s cousin Philippe, Duke of Orleans, with his daughter Marie Louise (Duchesse de Berry), both in a poem and a play. Marie Louise was reputed to have been of “loose morals” – shortly before her early death in 1719, several men had claimed they had spied her engaging in naked dinner parties in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
The notion that Mahomet was written as a veiled attack upon the Church may have led Voltaire to present a copy of the play to the Pope of the time – Benedict XIV. In the accompanying letter, dated August 17, 1745, Voltaire offered to dedicate the play to the pontiff, claiming that it was “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect.” Voltaire wrote:
“To whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet, than to the vicar and representative of a God of truth and mercy? Your holiness will therefore give me leave to lay at your feet both the piece and the author of it, and humbly to request your protection of the one, and your benediction upon the other.”
Later, Clarence Darrow would describe the exchanges between Voltaire and the Pope:
He had already written his play Mahomet. This of course had been pronounced sacrilegious and profane and had been consigned to the flames. Still he thought the people did not fully understand the play. He wrote long letters to people in society to prove what a good Christian and church man he was, but he did not succeed in deceiving anyone. The Academy could not accept him as a successor to a cardinal, but England elected him a member of the Royal Society. Germany placed him in her Hall of Fame. Everybody recognized him but France. Still he was not satisfied. Then he started a still bolder campaign to mollify the pope. He read all his works, complimented him highly and thereupon the pope called him his "dear son" and sent Voltaire his "blessing." Then he wrote the pope asking permission to dedicate to him his play Mahomet, and although it had been burned as sacrilegious, the pope consented. The pope doubtless thought it would be better to have Voltaire his friend then his enemy, so he sent Voltaire his "apostolic benediction" and accepted the dedication of "your admirable tragedy."
Benedict XIV’s positive response can be read here, and Voltaire’s subsequent letter of thanks can be viewed here.
Voltaire’s descriptions of Islam’s Prophet
The entire text of the play (in French) can be seen here or here, and English translations can be found here and here.
In Mahomet, Act V, Scene ii, Mahomet is described thus:
What joys, what blessings, or what happiness
Can I expect from thee, thou vile impostor?
Thou bloody savage! This alone was wanting,
This cruel insult to complete my woes:
Eternal Father, look upon this king,
This holy prophet, this all-powerful god
Whom I adored: thou monster, to betray
Two guiltless hearts into the crying sin
Of parricide; thou infamous seducer
Of my unguarded youth, how darest thou think,
Stained as thou art with my dear father’s blood,
To gain Palmira’s heart? but know, proud tyrant,
Thou art not yet invincible: the veil
Is off that hid thee, and the hand of vengeance
Upraised to scourge thy guilt: dost thou not hear
The maddening multitude already armed
In the defense of injured innocence?
(Translation: William Fleming, 1901).
The final words of the play are spoken by Mahomet:
Omar, we must strive
To hide this shameful weakness, save my glory,
And let me reign o’er a deluded world:
For Mahomet depends on fraud alone,
And to be worshipped never must be known.”
In act I, scene four, Zopire states:
Je te connais, Omar : en vain ta politique
vient m'étaler ici ce tableau fanatique :
en vain tu peux ailleurs éblouir les esprits ;
ce que ton peuple adore excite mes mépris.
Bannis toute imposture, et d'un coup d'oeil plus sage
regarde ce prophète à qui tu rends hommage ;
vois l'homme en Mahomet ; conçois par quel degré
tu fais monter aux cieux ton fantôme adoré.
Enthousiaste ou fourbe, il faut cesser de l'être ;
sers-toi de ta raison, juge avec moi ton maître :
tu verras de chameaux un grossier conducteur,
chez sa première épouse insolent imposteur,
qui, sous le vain appât d'un songe ridicule,
des plus vils des humains tente la foi crédule ;
comme un séditieux à mes pieds amené,
par quarante vieillards à l'exil condamné :
trop léger châtiment qui l'enhardit au crime….
I know you, Omar: your strategy is employed in vain
To bring before me this fanatical presentation,
Besides, in vain you may confound the minds of the public:
That which excites your people to adore, gains my contempt.
Throw off pretence and with a wiser eye
Behold this prophet to whom you pay homage;
See the man in Mahomet, consider to what degree
You have displayed but an apparition, adored to the skies.
By over-enthusiasm or knowing falsehood, this must cease to be;
Avail yourself of reason, use judgment with me as your guide:
You will see a base driver of camels,
At the home of his first wife, an impudent impostor,
Who, using the worthless lure of a ridiculous dream
Attracts the vilest of people to a credulous faith;
As a rouser of sedition he was brought before me,
By forty old men he was condemned to exile –
Too light a punishment, which emboldened him to his crime… [1]
What Did Voltaire Really Think of Mohammed the Prophet?
In 1764, Voltaire published the first edition his Philosophical Dictionary. Initially printed anonymously this was later expanded in later editions, with more articles. A selection of some of these essays (translated into English) can be found here.
In one version of his Dictionary of Philosophy, Voltaire had written an entry called “Alcoran, or rather The Koran.” (an English version can be read here, p. 67). In summing up, Voltaire had written:
“We do not pretend to justify his ignorance or his imposture; but we cannot condemn his doctrine of one only God. These words of his 122nd 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 which were very good for the country in which he lived...”
In one entry of this dictionary, on Charlatans, Voltaire wrote:
Mahomet was twenty times on the point of failing, but he succeeded at last with the Arabs of Medina; and people believed that he was the intimate friend of the Archangel Gabriel. If today someone came to Constantinople to announce that he was the favourite of the Archangel Raphael, far superior to Gabriel in dignity, and that it was in him alone people should believe, he would be impaled in the public place. It is for charlatans to choose their time well. (translation: H.I. Woolf, 1924)
In an entry entitled Arot & Marot, Voltaire is ambivalent. He calls Mohammed an imposter, but also writes of the factually inaccurate allegations made against Islam:
“One could make a thick book of all the unjust accusations levelled against Mohammedans. They subjugated one of the most beautiful and greatest parts of the world. It would have been better to have driven them out than to have traded insults.
The Empress of Russia [Catherine the Great] today sets a good example; she has deprived them of Azov and Taganrok, Moldavia, Wallachia, Georgia, she pushed back its conquests to the ramparts of Ezerouom [in Turkey], she sent against them, in an unheard-of enterprise, fleets that launched from the heart of the Baltic Sea and others covering the Black Sea but at no point in any of her manifestos did she make mention of a pigeon that swooped down to speak in the ear of Mahomet.” [2]
The notion that a pigeon had whispered in Mohammed’s ear had been popularized by the Dutch theologian Hugo Grotius (1583 – 1645), whom Voltaire mentioned in this essay. In later writings, Voltaire would again refer to Grotius’ claims about Mohammed.
In 1756, Voltaire published “Essai sur les moeurs el l’esprit des nations” (Essay on the morals and spirit of nations) which has been claimed by some to show Voltaire expressing tolerance of Islam. This is a complex historical essay, essentially tracing the rise of Islam, leading to the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of Western Europe. The conflicts between Islam and Christendom are discussed. Voltaire was certainly aware of the moral failings of some of the Crusaders.
In Chapter Six of this essay Voltaire explored the character of Mohammed, while in Chapter Seven he discussed the Koran, pondering whether it contained anything new. He concluded that only the affirmation that Mohammed was a prophet was new.
There is no other religion which is commanded to give alms (Zakat). The Mohammedan is the only one to have made it a legal precept, positive, indispensible. The Koran orders one to donate two and a half percent of one’s income, be it in money or in food. [3]
Most of Voltaire’s observations are based on factual accounts. His description of Mohammed’s life is accurate. There were several accurate works available to Voltaire when he wrote “Mahomet.”
The most important available books were written by Henri de Boulainvilliers, Count of Saint-Saire (1658 – 1722). His books on Islam were published posthumously, with Histoire des Arabes appearing in 1730 and Vie de Mahomet being printed in 1731. Boulainvilliers had written favorably of Mohamed’s legislative and military skills. A facsimile of his Vie de Mahomet can be read (in French) here.
Voltaire had read Boulainvilliers’ work. Robin Tobin, in a 1961 Essay (pdf) entitled “The Sources of Voltaire’s Mahomet,” matched statements in Voltaire’s work to observations made by Boulainvilliers. In 1730, George Sale had published an English edition of the Koran, and Tobin showed evidence that in 1747 Voltaire had withdrawn copies of Sale’s Koran in English and also Boulainvillers’ Life of Mohammed from the Bibliothèque Royale.
Later in his life, in December 1767 Voltaire wrote a short dialectical play entitled: “The Feast of the Count of Boulainvilliers.” Voltaire published this work with no author’s name upon the front cover. Such was his desire to publicly distance himself from this work, he claimed in a letter that the satirist Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe (1684-1746) was the author, who had published the work in Holland in 1728. “The Feast of the Count of Boulainvilliers” was published in 1768, with “M. St Hiacinte” credited as the author.
In the 1767 play, there are open assaults upon Christianity made by the main character, and perhaps for this reason, Voltaire wished to disassociate himself from the play. There is a brief mention of Mahomet in the following exchange from the play:
Abbé Couet:  But how could the Christian religion have raised itself so high, if it had been founded upon fanaticism and falsehood?
The Count:  And how did Mohammedanism lift itself still higher? At least its lies have been more noble, and its fanaticism more generous. At least Mohammed wrote and went to battle. Jesus was able to neither write nor defend himself. Muhammad had the courage of Alexander the Great with the spirit of Numa; whereas your Jesus sweated blood and water once he had been condemned by his judges. Mohammedanism has never changed, while you people have changed your religion twenty times over. There is more difference between what it is today and what it was in your first times, than between your practices and those of King Dagobert. Miserable Christians. You do not adore your Jesus, you insult him by substituting your laws over his. [4]
Dagobert I (603 – 639) was a Christian contemporary of Mohammed, who used assassination as a means to gain power. When Voltaire wrote this play, a song called “Le Bon Roi Dagobert” was first becoming famous, used as a vehicle to satirize the French monarchy. In the song, Dagobert does ridiculous and self-centered things, against the better judgment of his adviser St Eloi (St. Eligius). The song has since become an extremely popular French nursery rhyme.
Voltaire here ignores the fact that Mohammed did not read or write, a fact which Boulainvilers was fully aware of, and had mentioned in his “Life of…”  Apart from this error of fact, the views on Mohammed that Voltaire placed into the mouth of his character do not veer too far from the appraisal of Mohammed as given by the authentic count.
 One anonymous work called “Traité des Trois Imposteurs” – the “Treaty of Three Impostors” - appeared around 1715. This anti-theistic work attacked Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as “impostors.” In Chapter 3, section 22 of this publication, Mohammed is featured, but it is clear that the author, whoever he was, had little knowledge of Islam.
The author of the “Treaty” claimed that Mohammed, using promises of wealth and power, had persuaded a man to hide in the “pit of Oracles”. From this pit, the accomplice impersonated the voice of God, saying "I am your God, I declare that I have determined Mohammed to be the Prophet of all nations, from whom you will learn my true law, which Jews and Christians have altered." Eventually, the anonymous author of the “Treaty” claimed, Mohammed ordered the people to cast rocks into this pit, in commemoration of the stone erected to Yahweh by Jacob. Thus, the alleged accomplice was stoned to death, his cooperation repaid with “the biggest and the blackest ingratitude.” [5]
In 1768, the same year that he published his “Feast of the Count of Boulainvilliers,” Voltaire publicly condemned this “Treaty of the Three Imposters.” His response to the “Treaty” has become famous, simply because it contains the line: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer). He claimed in a note to his response that: “This Trois Imposteurs book is an appalling work, full of a vulgar atheism, without wit, without philosophy.”
Voltaire attacked organized religion, but sometimes defended it. His complex personality and the necessity of the times in which he lived caused him to often write ambivalently. In his response to the “Treaty of the Three Imposters” he declares his firm belief in a deity:
“Tasteless writer, by purporting to sketch for your readers the portraits of Three Imposters, you have unconsciously become the fourth? Why, impoverished enemy of the supreme being, do you confuse Mahomet with the Creator, and the works of Man with God, his author? Correct the servant but respect the master. God does not suffer for the idiocies of the priest: let us acknowledge this Deity, even though he is very poorly attended to.” [6]
In his play “Mahomet” Voltaire used Mohammed as a cipher for fanaticism and extremism of organized religion, but in his letter of January 20, 1742 to Frederick, the King of Prussia, he had written:
The count de Boulainvilliers, some time since, wrote the life of this prophet, whom he endeavored to represent as a great man, appointed by Providence to punish the Christian world, and change the face of at least one-half of the globe. Mr. Sale likewise, who has given us an excellent translation of the Koran into English, would persuade us to look upon Mahomet as a Numa or a Theseus. I will readily acknowledge, that we ought to respect him, if born a legitimate prince, or called to government by the voice of the people, he had instituted useful and peaceful laws like Numa, or like Theseus defended his countrymen: but for a driver of camels to stir up a faction in his village; to associate himself with a set of wretched Koreish, and persuade them that he had an interview with the angel Gabriel; to boast that he was carried up to heaven, and there received part of that unintelligible book which contradicts common sense in every page; that in order to procure respect for this ridiculous performance he should carry fire and sword into his country, murder fathers, and ravish their daughters, and after all give those whom he conquered the choice of his religion or death; this is surely what no man will pretend to vindicate, unless he was born a Turk, and superstition had totally extinguished in him the light of nature. (Translation: William F. Fleming)”
The extremes of fanaticism expressed through monarchy and religion were important enough for Voltaire to leave as his last bequest to the world his play Irène, concerning the alleged behavior of an Ottoman king. The story in Irène is probably fictional, but like all legends it has some basis in fact. Mehmed II had married a Christian wife from Albania named Valide Sultan Amina Gul-Bahar (Gulbahar Khatun). This wife, the mother of his successor Bayezid II, outlived Mehmed II by eleven years. Turkish folktales maintained that she had been a French princess who had been abducted by Mehmed.
When Irène was presented at the Comédie-Française in 1778, it is probable that the audience saw in it an allegory of the French monarchy: despite declaring love for a woman (the country of France), the monarch could have her executed to maintain his power.
The Ottoman Empire at that time was both admired and hated. The Barbary States (Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis) were still kidnapping and holding foreign captives, working them to death as slaves or demanding ransoms.
Near the end of his life Voltaire could still express some of the respect for Mohammed the prophet as had earlier been expressed by the Count of Boulainvilliers. In 1772, Voltaire had a character praise Mohammed as a pragmatist in an essay entitled “Il Faut Prendrer un Parti, ou Le Principe d’Action” (One must choose sides – or The Principle of Action).  In this essay, from section XIX onwards, a dialectic is presented. Various fictional individuals express the validity of their worldviews in the following order – an atheist, a Manichean, a pagan, a Jew, a Turk, a theist. The final section of the book (XXV) expresses the views of a citizen, who is presented as the most rational of the preceding orators.
In  Section XXIII, “Discours d’un Turc” (Discourse of a Turk), Voltaire’s “Turk” is described thus:
When the Jew had finished, a Turk, who had smoked throughout the meeting, wiped his mouth, recited the Allah Illah [7] formula, and, addressing me, said:

I heard all these dreamers and I glimpsed that you are a Christian dog, but I admire you because you seem open-minded, and you support free will. I believe a man of good sense, which you seemed to be in my opinion.
Most of you Christian dogs have said nothing but stupidities concerning our Mahomet. Baron de Tott, a man of much wit and exceedingly good company, had rendered us great services in the last [Russian-Turkish] war. Not long ago, he had me read a book by one of your greatest wise men, named Grotius, entitled: “On the truth of the Christian Religion.” This Grotius accuses our great Mahomet of pretending that a pigeon whispered into his ear, that a camel had conversations with him during the night, and that he had placed half of the moon inside his sleeve**. If your wisest Christians have said such asinine things, what should I think of the rest?

No, Muhammad did none of these village-based miracles, of which nobody talks about, a hundred years after the alleged event. He did none of those miracles of Mr. Tott that I read in the Golden Legend written in Genoa
[8]. He made no such miracles as those at Saint-Médard, so mocked in Europe, about which an ambassador of France also laughed with us. The Miracles of Mahomet have been victories, and God, in submitting to him half our hemisphere, demonstrated that Mahomet was his favorite. He has never been ignored for two whole centuries. After he was persecuted he became triumphant.

His religion is wise, severe, chaste, and humane. Wise, because it does not descend into the folly of giving God any assistants, and it has no mysteries; severe since it forbids gambling, wine and strong liquors, and ordains prayer five times a day; chaste, since it reduced to four women the prodigious number of wives who shared a bed with all the princes of the East; humane, since it more rigorously commands us to give alms [zakat] than to travel to Mecca

Add to all these characteristics truth, tolerance. Remember that we have in the city of Istanbul alone more than one hundred thousand Christians of all sects, who can display in peace all the ceremonies of their different traditions of worship, and live so happily under the protection of our laws, that they do not bother ever coming to you, while you hasten in multitudes to our Imperial Porte.
Reactions to the play “Mahomet”
The Marquis de Sade (1740 - 1814) judged Mahomet to be a “moral” play. Sade devoted a section of  his bookCrimes of Love” (1788) to a scathing attack upon Alexandre-Louis de Villeterque, a drama critic, translator and journalist. In his critique of Villeterque, (pp 143-144) Sade mentions Voltaire’s play Mahomet:
“..when for the price of his newspaper, he [Villeterque] has swindled some theater tickets and when, situated in the rows of gratuity seats he is presented, for his dodgy money, with the enactment of masterpieces by Racine and Voltaire, he could learn from seeing Mahomet, for example, where first Palmire and then Séide perish in a virtuous and innocent state, while Mahomet triumphs...” [10]
Sade viewed the world as dominated by evil and doomed to destruction, where virtue is rarely rewarded and brute force always prevails. Voltaire had complimented Sade’s father, Jean-Baptiste, when he had married Sade’s mother. Sade wrote most of his controversial work after Voltaire’s death. When Sade was imprisoned in Vincennes from 1777 (a year before Voltaire died) until 1784, his wife Renée Pélagie allowed him to read Voltaire’s works, but not the work of Rousseau [11]. Sade respected the work of Voltaire and in some of his own work tried to emulate Voltaire, particularly the latter’s humorous but cynical work “Candide” (1759). Sade shared with Voltaire a contempt for the rituals and affected pieties of organized Christianity, but where Voltaire was a deist who frequently wrote of his firm belief in a deity, Sade was an antitheist.
Voltaire’s play “Mahomet” caused one influential Frenchman to be displeased. The dictator Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799, becoming Emperor of France in 1804. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was imprisoned by the British on the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. And here, if the writings of his secretary and biographer Emmanuel-Augustin-Dieudonné-Joseph, count of Las Cases, are to be believed, Napoleon criticized Voltaire’s play Mahomet.
In Volume 3 of his eight volume memoir, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, relating to conversations made in April of 1816, the Count of Las Cases wrote:
“Mahomet had been the subject of his [Voltaire’s] strongest attacks regarding his character and deeds. Voltaire, said the Emperor, had failed historically and in moral judgment. He prostituted the noble character of Mahomet with the lowest intrigues. He portrayed a great man, who had changed the face of the globe, as if he were the vilest of criminals, destined for the hangman’s noose. By no less inappropriate methods he traduced the noble character of Omar [Omar ibn al-Khattab] whom he depicted as a cut-throat from a melodrama.” [12]
In 1858, French philosopher Ernest Renan (1823 - 1892) wrote scathingly of Voltaire’s depiction of Mahomet:
“Mahomet [the man] appears to us as a gentle, thoughtful, faithful man, free from hate… Not in the least resembling this ambitious heartless Machiavellian [Mahomet in the play] who describes, in rigid Alexandrines [poetry with 12 syllables per line], his plans to Zopire.” [13]
In the twentieth century, though academic interest in Voltaire’s philosophical and polemical works remained, the play Mahomet had become virtually forgotten. Its language was archaic. The 12-syllable meter of the text, where emphasis is placed on the sixth syllable, required some skill to deliver in a “naturalistic” manner.
In that century’s last decade, the play Mahomet would rise phoenix-like from the ashes of obscurity. An attempt was made to stage a revival of the play at Geneva, Switzerland. In the last two decades of his life, Voltaire had sought sanctuary in Ferney in Ain, lying between the French Jura mountains and the Swiss border, close to the jurisdictions of either France or the Canton of Geneva.
At Ferney, Voltaire championed the rights of people who had been oppressed by religious authorities. He had publicly defended the family of Jean Calas, a Protestant cloth merchant who had been falsely accused of murdering his son in an “honor-killing,” for attempting to convert to Catholicism.
In the end he [Calas] was put to death. The executioner shattered the bones of his limbs and chest with blows of an iron bar. Then he was bound to the wheel to die slowly and then be burnt. To the priest beside him he said: “I die innocent.” [14]
The attempted restitution of the Calas family’s reputation was the first of many cases where Voltaire engaged in defending those who had been wronged, often on account of religious tyranny. The Chevalier de la Barre, aged 19, had been accused of impiety and had been decapitated and then burned, on the orders of a court in Abbeville, Picardy. The mentally-handicapped daughter of a protestant named Pierre-Paul Sirven had been kidnapped and tortured by nuns who tried to convert her to Catholicism. When she drowned in a well, Sirven and his wife were accused of murder. Sirven contacted Voltaire for assistance.
With such events going on with impunity, it is not surprising that in his later writings, Voltaire condemned the organized church establishment far more vigorously than he did Islam.
Ross Mullin wrote of the 1993 attempt to revive Mahomet in Geneva:
When a plan to restage "Mahomet" in Switzerland was proposed, Muslim "cultural centers" overtly denounced "blasphemy" and covertly hinted at violence. Geneva's authorities yielded to the pressure, and religious fanatics were appeased once again.
The proposal to stage a revival of the play had been made by theatrical impresario Hervé Loichemol, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Voltaire’s birth (November 21, 1694). One of the most prominent figures to condemn the performance of Voltaire’s play was TariqRamadan, grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On September 25 1993, in an article in Le Journal de Genève, Tariq Ramadan had complained of the mosque. On October 10 in the same magazine, he had written that the prospect of the play being performed would be “another brick in an edifice of hatred and rejection in which Muslims feel they are being enclosed.”
The decision to prevent the play being performed had ultimately been made not by Ramadan but by Erica Deuber-Pauli, wife of Jean Ziegler. At that time, Deuber-Pauli was responsible for cultural affairs in Geneva. She refused to grant the theatre company the 310,000 franc bursary that it needed to mount the performance. Ziegler was, however, a friend of Tariq Ramadan. As a result of the play being withdrawn, Tariq Ramadan became viewed as the main culprit in a conspiracy of censorship and intolerance.
According to Caroline Fourest, Erica Deuber-Pauli was a “militant communist.” Hervé Loichemol had announced in 1993 that: “One cannot celebrate Voltaire while banning one of his works. It is a contradiction in terms.”
Hervé Loichemol was not to remain quiet. He had previously been respected as an opponent of racism and fascism. After the affair, he was labeled as an Islamophobe, a fascist, a racist. On at least three occasions, after the decision by Deuber-Pauli to refuse funding, Lochemol tried to confront Tariq Ramadan with the same question: “What is your position on the [Salman] Rushdie affair?” On each occasion, Ramadan evaded and never gave a direct answer.
Mahomet Revived in 2005
On September 30, 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had published cartoons of Mohammed after Kare Bluitgen had complained that he could find no artists willing to illustrate a book he was ready to publish, on the life of Mohammed. This incident revived in Loichemol his desire to present a version of the play.
The cartoon affair seemed an appropriate time to make a statement about the need to be free of ideological tyranny. Voltaire had spent his life condemning the excesses of religious fanaticism. With no funds to stage the play, Loichemol opted to have a public reading of the play. The venue for the event was to be Saint-Genis-Pouilly, about two miles from Ferney (now called Ferney-Voltaire), on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border.
The date for the reading was set for Friday, December 9, 2005, at the theater in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, followed by a second reading at the Carouge theater at 2.30 pm on Saturday December 10, 2005.
Mosque representatives objected. Hafid Quardiri, spokesman and imam for the Geneva mosque headed by Tariq Ramadan’s brother Hani, was angry that the performance had not been stopped. He described the reading as
“detestable. It is misleading to present the Prophet as a fanatic because he himself had always fought against fanaticism. We respect freedom of expression, but ask for respect.”
A decade earlier, in 1993 Quardiri had also been a main opponent of Loichemol’s proposed theatrical staging of Mahomet.
Francois Rochaix, director of the Carouge Theater, said: “It’s a metaphor and is not blasphemous.” Hubert Bertrand, mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, wanted freedom of expression to be allowed, while he also expressed his concern for the feelings of Muslims.
On March 6, 2006, Andrew Higgins, writing in the Wall Street Journal, described what had taken place at Saint-Denis-Pouilly:
Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was "the most excitement we've ever had down here," says the socialist mayor.
The dispute rumbles on, playing into a wider debate over faith and free-speech. Supporters of Europe's secular values have rushed to embrace Voltaire as their standard-bearer. France's national library last week opened an exhibition dedicated to the writer and other Enlightenment thinkers. It features a police file started in 1748 on Voltaire, highlighting efforts by authorities to muzzle him. "Spirit of the Enlightenment, are you there?" asked a headline Saturday in Le Figaro, a French daily newspaper.
Some Westerners continue to criticize Voltaire’s play Mahomet. David Hammerbeck of UCLA, who also publishes articles in the Huffington Post, wrote that Mahomet
“plays a pivotal role in Western representation of the Islamic Other by reiterating and thus perpetuating key ideological and cultural strategies in the ongoing tensions between the Christian and Islamic worlds.”
While creating his argument, Hammerbeck downplays the genuinely violent aspects of Islam. Voltaire at least had the good grace to counterbalance these aspects by praising many aspects of Islamic and Ottoman history. Much of what Hammerbeck writes is valid, but he seems to present a monochrome picture. Voltaire was too subtle, playful, inventive and deliberately contrary to be able to be painted in one hue.
Voltaire’s archaic play, belonging like the character Mohammed himself to another time, was written for sensibilities that few now appreciate. It has become a blank canvas upon which others have projected their own hopes, fears and prejudices. This is as true for modern supporters of Voltaire as it is for Islamist opponents of the tragedy “Mahomet”.
Voltaire may have insulted religion, but he was well aware of the insults that organized religion could – and did - inflict upon the powerless. Since February 14, 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, our world has changed.
Voltaire was a living embodiment of Enlightenment principles. He refused to let tyranny or religious bigotry dictate his agenda. Nowadays we have a world in which freedom of expression, the same freedom of expression upheld in the Second Amendment, is on the run. Religious bigotry and bullying are now dictating how we live.
Voltaire died on May 11, 1778. He had succeeded in drawing attention to the outrages of religious bigotry, enacted against common civilians who were deemed to be heretics. The Enlightenmemt took away the power of the church over legal affairs.
Now, we have another religion that continues to act in ways that once shocked Voltaire when practiced by the church. Where the Church once acted in despotic ways and became humane and user-friendly, Islam now has no tolerance and its excesses need to be exposed and challenged. Where Islam does have power, as in Saudi Arabia, no other faiths have equal rights.
While our leaders and representatives flirt with Islamists who would sabotage democracy, there are no Voltaires to champion the rights of those who are subjected to Islamic tyranny. Our leaders refuse to even publicly challenge or condemn death threats made by Islamists.
While this situation prevails, we must all strive to become our own Voltaires.
Related Article:
[1] - [6]Translations by the author.
[7] La illah ila Allah.
[8]Jacques de Voragine, author of the Golden Legend, was archbishop of Genoa.
[9], [10] Translations by the author.
[11] The Marquis de Sade, Donald Thomas, 1992, pp 24, 169.
[12], [13] Translations by the author.
[14] André Maurois.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing EditorAdrian Morgan is a writer and artist. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. Since May 31, he has been the Editor of Family Security Matters.

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