Literary history

Lamartine, in the forgotten years of French Islamophilia

Hard as it is to believe today, in the course of French literary history, many writers displayed, vis a vis Islam, a desire to understand, a real tolerance and an open-mindedness which have now vanished completely among most of our intellectuals. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine is a case in point.

M. Alophe, Portrait of Lamartine, member of the Provisional Government, Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1848
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Department of Prints and Photography/BNF Gallica

If the grandeur of his ambition, the modesty of his means and the enormity of the result are the three criteria by which to measure a man’s genius, who could venture to compare as a human being any great man of modern history with Mahomet? […] Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, genitor of conquering ideas, of doctrines, of a religion without images, founder of twenty terrestrial empires and one spiritual one, such was Mahomet! By whatever scale we measure human greatness, what man was greater than he?

The author of the above was a famous writer, one-time foreign minister of France, unsuccessful candidate for its presidency … 175 years ago. His name was Alphonse de Lamartine. Who in the West today knows that the poet of ”Le Lac” took Mohammed for model?

A humanist without borders

Those were the days when admiration for Islam did not get a public figure pilloried. And yet our poet was a Burgundian aristocrat, a deeply Catholic royalist with, on the face of it, no special attributes to attract an anarchist like Georges Brassens who nonetheless sang his praises, or the young people chatting on the Moslem social networks where he is regularly praised today. As a young man he favoured dismembering the Ottoman Empire and lauded the conquest of Algeria, at a time when he had chosen the cross as against the crescent, like his friend Victor Hugo. But deeply moved by the reception which greeted him in the Middle East in 1832 and 33, horrified by the massacres attendant on the colonisation of Algeria, he took up the defence of the Ottomans and, more broadly, of all Muslims, going so far as to publish a biography of Mohammed, completely forgotten today.1 In the meantime, he had presided over the executive stemming from the 1848 Revolution, an office in which he promoted his universalist ideals.

I am of the colour of those who are persecuted
Neither loving nor hating the various flags,
Wherever man suffers he will find me at his side
The more a human race is vanquished and sullied
The dearer it is to me and becomes my homeland2

Created religious the way the air was created transparent’ as he defined himself, Lamartine always maintained his Christian faith in the teeth of his Catholic detractors, even though his unorthodox religiosity did converge with Islam on many points. Drawn to the Orient in his youth, he discovered there a spirituality which delighted him. ‘That Arab land is the land of wonders. […] God is more visible out there than He is here: which is why I hope to grow old and die there.’ He declared in his later years. He urged his fellow countrymen to take their cue from Ottoman religious tolerance:

Mahometanism3 is capable of entering, effortlessly and painlessly into a system of religious and civil liberties; […] it is accustomed to living in peace and harmony alongside Christian faiths. […] Within European civilization one may leave it its place in the mosque, and its place in the shade or the sun.4

In an homage which is tantamount to a spiritual testament, he confesses in his Mémoires politiques that he draws his convictions from his travels to the Middle East, which changed the poet into a champion of a universal God and the moralist into a humanist without borders:

We left as a man, came back as a philosopher. Now our only party is God’s party. Our opinion has become a philosophy; our politics, a religion. There we have the consequence of long journeys and deep thinking through the Orient.

“A land of fusion and contrast in unity”

His humanism is not the consequence of some romantic exoticism but that of an historic reflection on his own country;

France is geographically and morally a land of fusion and contrast in unity. […] The country itself is nothing more than a vast mixture of races, blood types, languages, mores, legislations, religions which mingle all their diversity in a slow and laborious unity … […] Thus diversity is the fundamental and essential character of the French nation. […] the poverty of the other national races of Europe is to have only one national character; the genius, the aptitude, the glory of France is to have several.5

The critics of political Orientalism6 have misunderstood Lamartine, judging him on the basis of a one-sided and truncated reading of his Voyage en Orient. By limiting themselves to that text, they are omitting the author’s later development. We may detect in Lamartine’s work an intellectual journey running parallel to his personal discovery of the Orient, which led him from a poetic sensibility akin to the spirituality of the Koran to a brand of humanism which did not exclude Muslims. His receptiveness to Islamic sacrality was accompanied by an empathy for those people which prompted him to delve into the biography of their spiritual and temporal model, and explain him to his readers. Thus he wanted to explore the totality of the sacred Muslim sphere, from the Koranic revelation to its realisation in the daily life of the Prophet, as though he were seeking a balance between the two.

His capacity for change, due to his open mind, turned out to be remarkable: here we have a royalist nobleman elected to the left wing of parliament, a staunch advocate of European imperialism who became a determined anti-colonialist, a fundamentalist Catholic turned laudator of Mohammed! These intellectual maturations went hand in hand and turned out to be complementary. They reflected at the levels of both foreign and domestic politics and of religion, respectively, humanistic dispositions which had been bridled by both his background and his education. They obeyed an overall logic: the respect for the victims of oppression in his original society went arm in arm with that for those Muslims so despised in Europe. Thus the life of this man, who was a rationalist in the soul, offers a coherence which his contemporaries never forgave him and from which his posterity would do well to learn.

“Let Christians ask themselves…”

While he was enthusiastic about Islamic spirituality, our humanist was mostly impressed by Muslim tolerance:

That allegedly brutal intolerance of which ignorant people accuse the Turks7 is evinced only in their respect for what others venerate and worship. Wheresoever the Muslim sees the notion of God in the thinking of his brothers he bows down with respect. He believes that the idea sanctifies the form. They are the only tolerant people. Let Christians ask themselves in good faith what they would have done had the fortunes of war delivered into their hands Mecca and the Kaaba!

Go-between for Islam

The Crimean war, which pitted a coalition made up of France, the United Kingdom, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire against Russia from 1853 to 1856, made Western Europe aware of the dangers represented by the hegemonic ambitions of the latter nation. For a while it overshadowed the imaginary Muslim enemy, but the popularity on fairgrounds of the “Turk’s head” strength tester is proof of the latter-s durability. This attraction enabled patrons to measure their muscular strength by knocking on a turbaned head with a big wooden mallet, it being understood that in those days the word “Turk” referred to the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs included.

Crimean War medal, Paris, 1854, showing Napoleon III flanked by Queen Victoria and Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid 1st (engraved by Armand Auguste Caqué - 1792–1881)
Cgb Numismatique, Paris

The links between orientalism and colonialism in the 19th century are well known and the period was scarcely more favourable to Islam than our own, but the French had not yet erected the Arab-Muslim menace as a scapegoat for their identitarian fears and did not stigmatise expressions of sympathy for that religion. There was still room in the public debate for an Islamophilia to which some of the most eminent writers of the day could lay claim.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s opinion

In view of his celebrity, Lamartine may be regarded as the main go-between with Islam in the France of the period. Following his lead, other 19th-century writers shared his respect for that religion of which most of their readers knew nothing. Lamartine, born in 1790, is the oldest member of a generation to which his friends Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas belong, both born in 1802. Hugo sang the praises of Mohammed in his collection of poems, La Légende des siècles and Dumas wrote in his Journal d’un voyage en Arabie :

Blending all those beliefs into one, gathering all those Arabs under a single law, giving that people a fresh start, such was the huge task undertaken by the genius Mahomet. How can we fail to pay tribute to the creator of everything great, noble and glorious proposed by Muslim history.

These three were preceded by Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared, shortly before his death, in 1821: “Islam is the true religion. [.’..] I hope it will not be long before Islam rules the world.” Lamartine was followed by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) who heaped praise on “the incomparable Mahomet”, by Edgar Quinet (1803–1875), for whom “Islamism was the first to carry out the principle of equality” and by Edouard de Laboulaye (1811– 1883), the author in 1859 of a philosophical tale Abdallah or the Four-Leaf Clover, the cover of which bore the celebrated expression “Allahou akbar (‘God is most great’). In 1847, Jules Verne (1828–1905) published a poem entitled ‘Le Koran’: ‘There is no God if not the God, Allah!’ ‘Much of the life of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and his cultural preoccupations wee steeped in his attachment to Arab-Islamic culture’ is the opinion of one of his critics, Mohammed Bennis. Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1881) converted to Islam once he had settled in Aden in 1880. And finally Pierre Loti:

For us Europeans it goes without saying that Islam is nothing but an obscurantist religion. [...]. This primarily signifies our complete ignorance of the prophet’s teachings.

We could add the names of other less well-known writers to this list, short but impressive. These attest to an Islam having inspired our finest authors all of whom belong to the most deeply rooted tradition of French culture, far from the allogenic entity denounced by some today. The image of a 19th century inevitably Islamophobic because imperialist is reductive and forgetful of such prestigious authors. They lived at a time when it was possible in France to express one’s admiration for Islam without arousing suspicion…

Lamartine’s Life of Mahomet has been translated into Arabic and today most of its readers are probably Muslims, as one is inclined to believe after searching on Internet. Yet no French policymaker has thought to make use of that part of his or her country’s literary heritage to favour the integration of Islam or to its growing reputation for Islamophobia among many Muslims. We have to rediscover Lamartine.

1This biography, from which is drawn h quotation that stands at the head of this article, constitutes the first volume of his Histoire de la Turquie (Paris, Aux bureaux du Constitutional, 1854).

2Toussaint Louverture, 1850.

3‘Mahometanism’ was synonymous with Islam at the time.

4Voyage en Orient, in Œuvres complètes de M. de Lamartine, Paris, Charles Gosselin, Furne et Cie, 1842, tome 7 ; p. 148.

5Cours familier de littérature, volume 2, entretien VIII, Paris, chez l’auteur, 1856 ; p. 105 sq.

6Read Edward Saïd, L’Orientalisme. L’Orient créé par l’Occident, Seuil, 1980.

7‘Turks’was synonymous with Ottomans at the time and therefore included ‘Arabs’.