Prophet Muhammad in French and English Literature: 1650 to the Present

Prophet Muhammad in French and English Literature: 1650 to the Present

by Ahmad Gunny

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"Gunny, a pioneer in the study of French and European literary and theological representations of Islam in the modern period, offers a survey of over 350 years, which is both a cross cultural history and a discussion of the intellectual changes in the representation of the Prophet's life based on the examination of original published and unpublished manuscripts." -Islamic Horizons

"Ahmad Gunny has been a pioneer in the study of French and European literary and theological representations of Islam in the modern period. Thanks to his acclaimed critical studies, students and scholars alike have found in his work new and important directions for research." —Nabil Matar, professor, University of Minnesota

This magisterial survey of the Prophet Muhammad over three hundred and fifty years is both a cross cultural history and a discussion of the intellectual changes in the representation of the Prophet's life based on the close examination of original published and unpublished manuscripts.

Ahmad Gunny is fellow and senior associate at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780860376460
Publisher: Kube Publishing Ltd
Publication date: 07/02/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Ahmad Gunny: Ahmad Gunny is Fellow and Senior Associate at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. His works include Voltaire and English literature (1979), Images of Islam in Eighteenth-Century Writings (1996), Perceptions of Islam in European Writings (2004), and critical editions of Voltaire’s miscellaneous texts, including ‘De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet’ in the Complete Works of Voltaire. In 2009 he received the award of Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques from the French Government.

Read an Excerpt


The period examined in my previous works on perceptions of Islam in European literature began from the late seventeenth and ended with the nineteenth century, covering about a hundred years at a time in one volume. The present study begins a little earlier, concentrating on perceptions of the Prophet Muhammad from the mid-seventeenth century to the twentieth century and beyond. Its longer chronology is justified by the fact that the evaluation of perceptions of Muhammad over more than three centuries is not as broad a subject as a study of Islam would have been over the same period; after all, many of the crucial events affecting Muhammad’s life cover a period of only some twenty-two years, from the first revelations in 610 to his death in 632. While there is no Islam without Muhammad, it does not follow that he and Islam are the same thing, as some Westerners seem to think.

The earlier start should allow me to fill in the gaps I had left in the previous studies, especially with regard to the attitudes of English Protestants to the Prophet in the seventeenth century (see Chapter 1). For the sake of convenience, the chronological divisions adopted here broadly follow those of the previous books. The emphasis is, however, different. There is now room for a discussion of authors such as Ibn Tufayl, du Ryer, Alexander Ross, Joseph Morgan, Sale, Carlyle, Garcin de Tassy, and William Dalrymple on Indian Islam. New material on the eighteenth century concerning the Traite´ des trois imposteurs (1719) and on Lamartine’s Vie de Mahomet (1854) is also introduced. At the same time, only those few travellers and diplomats who deal specifically with Muhammad or his family are included. For the same reason only the works of some oriental scholars are subject to scrutiny. Reference to articles on Muslim personalities other than Muhammad in d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque orientale (1697) is brief, as the focus here is on the latter. The last chapter (on the modern period) is completely new territory.

Even older territory, if approached from a slightly different angle, may yield interesting results. In any case, it is unthinkable that the Enlightenment (earlier periods too, provided one does not go as far back as the Middle Ages which were not able or unwilling to engage seriously with Islam and Muhammad) could be overlooked. Going back to a fairly distant past certainly exposes readers, especially Muslim readers, to the painful experience of reading incessant denunciations of Muhammad as an impostor. Yet this experience is unavoidable unless one is embarking on an exercise in hagiography. Moreover, only by examining past responses to Muhammad can one avoid giving the impression that he had always been recognized as a Prophet. Previous centuries could show if there has been an evolution in his fortunes in the French and English literature of modern times.

If the study as a whole appears to be unevenly weighted, with slightly more space devoted to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is not because the latter are deemed to be less important; while even-weighting is a reasonable target to aim at, it should not, however, be pursued at any cost. If, for example, attention were devoted to some aspects of the works on Qur’anic studies by scholars such as Theodor No¨ldeke in the nineteenth century, or Richard Bell and Re´gis Blachere in the twentieth century, this might result in a confusing situation for many Muslims. These writers, in their attempts to renew Islamic studies, propose a re- ordering of the Suras of the Qur’an, which may be of interest to non- Muslims, but which would leave the majority of Muslims bewildered.1 The latter are more comfortable with the traditional ordering, which European writers of the early period do not attempt to disturb. Fidelity to European thought surely does not require me to give full exposure to an end product that is not recognized by Muslims? On the other hand, the recommendation, by many Orientalists, that Muslim sources should be jettisoned in favour of non-Muslim sources (that prove to be unreliable on close examination) will be discussed without prioritising the latter.

To make Muhammad the sustained centre of attention for much of the time, rather than the rest of the Arab-Muslim civilisation, is to face a daunting task which, nevertheless, has its rewards. Keeping the discussion within strict chronological boundaries, desirable as this may be, is also quite difficult. Moreover, an assessment of the ‘man’ is to a large extent governed by external factors and attitudes to a world religion, which has renewed its challenge to the Christian West in terms of ideology and space. Of note is the reversal of roles and fortunes that has taken place over the last four centuries. The Ottoman Empire was extending into central Europe in the sixteenth century, attacking Mediterranean outposts such as Malta, Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete. The end of the seventeenth century, however, marked the end of an era in its history. Following the defeat of its forces at the gates of Vienna (1683), and the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz, Croatia (in 1699), the Ottomans were left with only a third of their Hungarian possessions. They were no longer the aggressive, expanding military power that had been feared for more than three centuries by Christian countries. The decline in their fortunes, which continued until 1923, undoubtedly had some impact on the image of Muhammad in the West.

Islam as a subject has developed much in recent years, such that in addition to traditional approaches of history, philosophy, theology, and culture, it now also requires increasing attention to politics, economics, the environment, military, and social matters. For this reason, the field of enquiry needs to be limited. Although it may not always be possible to develop an argument entirely around Muhammad, the narrowed focus on him and his message is justified. Western writers have been reacting to him for some fourteen centuries, producing a proliferation of biographies and shorter essays in European languages. In order to obtain a balanced appraisal, the discussion therefore has to concentrate on a number of carefully chosen writers, texts, and ideas. This may leave less room for an assessment of Muhammad in popular literature, despite the fact that this literature may have been influential: giving it more exposure than I do here might have ensured the predominance of fantasy over reality, which is unnecessary, given that the historical figure of Muhammad is available. Two further points are worth noting in relation to the scope of this study. One is that no individual writer is likely to offer a sound evaluation if their survey stretches from the beginning of Islam to the present. The other is that despite much talk of multidisciplinary studies in our times, few authors demonstrate a deep knowledge of both the European and Islamic material on the theme ‘Muhammad and the West’, and this knowledge is, in my view, an essential requirement for understanding Islam.

Table of Contents

Transliteration Table / iv
Preface / v
Introduction / 1
Chapter 1 Muhammad in Christian Thought, 1650-1750 / 21
Chapter 2 The imagined Muhammad from Marana to Voltaire / 71
Chapter 3 Muhammad in French Enlightenment / 113
Chapter 4 Muhammad in the Age of Empire to 1900 / 159
Chapter 5 Sympathy and Scepticism, 1900 to the present / 207
Conclusion / 251
Bibliography / 257
Index / 265

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