Did You Know? Napoleon Was A Serious Admirer Of Prophet Muhammad

Not many know that Napoleon was an admirer of Islam. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte showed support for Islam that combined liberal ideals with political pragmatism.

Napoleon was born into an era when the Enlightenment was challenging old values and beliefs. During his rule, France dominated mainland Europe and sought to expand eastwards to control the Middle East. Islam therefore became an important topic to understand.

Like most Enlightenment scholars, Napoleon viewed history as something shaped by the actions of great men. He sought examples that he could study and follow. With his eye on the importance of Islam, the prophet Muhammad became one of these examples.

He referred to Muhammad as “a great man who changed the face of the earth”. He even dismissed the views of another of his heroes, Voltaire, on the subject of Muhammad, believing that the French philosopher had denigrated the achievements and character of a great leader.

It is hardly surprising that Napoleon saw a kindred spirit in Muhammad, more so than other religious figures. After all, the prophet had united the fractured Arabs to unleash a wave of conquest that swept through the Middle East. That was the sort of leadership Napoleon could admire.

Napoleon tried to conquer Egypt and Syria in the campaign of 1798-1799, one of his few major failures. There he sought to learn more about Islam and to support local religious leaders, as long as they did not oppose him.

In 1798, a revolt took place against the French in Cairo. The armed rebels, many based around the Great Mosque, proclaimed their intention to exterminate the French in the name of the Prophet Muhammad. Having put down such a revolt, many commanders would have punished the imams and sheikhs who had inspired this violent religious talk. But Napoleon was careful not to punish them, as they had not taken an active part in the revolt, instead beheading those who had led the action. The message was clear – rebellion was unacceptable, but the French would not harm the holy men of Islam.

Unlike the generals of so many previous Christian armies in the east, Napoleon made clear that his soldiers should not treat Muslims differently from the people of nations they had conquered in Europe. Citing the examples of Alexander the Great and the pagan Roman legions, he instructed them to treat all religions equally and to treat all religious leaders with respect. The crime of rape, common among soldiers in countries they considered barbarous, was singled out for attention, with instructions that any soldier who raped a Muslim woman would be shot.

Some Egyptians responded by referring to Napoleon as Sultan Kebir, the Great Sultan, a title which left Napoleon feeling flattered. Having taken to studying Mohammad, the Koran and Islamic culture, he understood the compliment this represented.

Many years later, as he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena after having lost the Napoleonic Wars, he wrote down his thoughts on Prophet Muhammad in his memoirs. Since there was no conceivable ulterior motive by this point for him to be saying about Prophet Muhammad what he did not actually believe, the following passage from his memoirs may show his genuine admiration for Prophet Muhammad:

“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 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.” [1]

Later in life, Napoleon stated that, if he had remained in the Middle East, he would probably have taken a pilgrimage to Mecca to kneel at the shrine there. It’s easy to dismiss this, but to have said it at all shows a great respect for Islam that was remarkable for a European of his time.

Sources:

[1] Napoléon Bonaparte, Campagnes d’Egypte et de Syrie (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1998), 140-141.

[2] Dr. Matthew Donald Zarzeczny (2013), Meteors that Enlighten the Earth: Napoleon and the Cult of Great Men.