French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Islam

Executive Director, The Fiqh Council of North America
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest military genius in history. He conquered much of Europe and became the emperor of France from 1804 to 1815. He centralized the French government, established the Bank of France and introduced the Napoleon Code to reform the French law. Finally his army was defeated by the allied forces and he was imprisoned by the British on the remote Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena. He died there on May 5, 1821.
Napoleon very much appreciated Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He studied the Qur’an as well as the life of Prophet Muhammad and appropriated that knowledge to realize his world ambitions. He converted to Islam and took the name of “Ali Bonaparte.” He was a student of oriental history in general and Islamic history in particular. Ziad Elmarsafy observes that “There are few more momentous “applications” of European learning about Islam than Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt… A learned man, Napoleon embodied the relationship between power and Orientalists knowledge.”Napoleon’s military genius and successes owed much to his knowledge of the Orient.

Henry Laurens argues that “Bonaparte invented nothing, but he translated certain simple principles of the totality of Oriental learning of his age better than anyone else.” Napoleon studied the Orient especially the history of Islam and its Prophet with great enthusiasm. Claude-Étienne Savary (1750–1788), who spent three years in Egypt (1776-1779) and published his translation of the Qur’an in 1784, was one the main sources of Napoleon’s knowledge of Islam. Savary admired the Prophet of Islam as a “rare genius aided by circumstance.” To him “Mahomet was one of those extraordinary men who, born with superior gifts, show up infrequently on the face of the earth to change it and lead mortals behind their chariot. When we consider his point of departure and the summit of grandeur that he reached, we are astonished by what human genius can accomplish under favorable circumstances.” Napoleon wanted to be the same genius conqueror of the world. He wanted to be for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “what Muhammad had been to the seventh.” Therefore he could not accept the slightest denigration of the Prophet. He admired Muhammad in the following words: “Mahomet was a great man, an intrepid soldier; with a handful of men he triumphed at the battle of Bender (sic); a great captain, eloquent, a great man of state, he revived his fatherland and created a new people and a new power in the middle of the Arabian deserts.” Here Napoleon refers to the Battle of Badar which was fought in the second year of Prophetic migration to Madinah.
Napoleon’s biographer Emmanuel-Augustin-Dieudonné-Joseph, count of Las Cases, reports that Napoleon was unhappy with Voltaire’s dramatization and apparent denigration of Muhammad in his play “Mahomet.” Napoleon, in the final years of his life, was exiled to the Island of St. Helene. During these long years of forced exile he had the opportunity to reflect upon a series of important issues. His conversations and memoir were recorded by a number of fellows including the Count of Las Cases. In relating to conversations made in April of 1816, the Count of Las Cases wrote:
“Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. “Voltaire”, said the Emperor, “in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly traverstied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melo-drama. Voltaire committed a fundamental error in attributing to intrigue that which was solely the result of opinion.” Omar here refers to Omar bin al-Khattab who was the second caliph after Prophet Muhammad.
Napoleon rejected the central theme of Voltaire’s play that Muhammad was a fanatic. He observed that the rapid social changes and political victories which Prophet Muhammad realized within a short span of time could not have been the result of fanaticism. “Fanaticism could not have accomplished this miracle, for fanaticism must have had time to establish her dominion, and the career of Mahomet lasted only thirteen years.” General Baron Gourgaud, one of the closest generals to Napoleon, gives almost identical accounts of Napoleon’s evaluations of Voltaire’s play. Napoleon further observed that “Mohammed has been accused of frightful crimes. Great men are always supposed to have committed crimes, such as poisonings; that is quite false; they never succeed by such means.”
Napoleon was a true admirer of both Prophet Muhammad and his religion. As an aspiring world conqueror and legislator, Napoleon adopted Muhammad as his role model and claimed to be walking in his footsteps. Before his military excursion to Egypt he advised his soldiers and officers to respect the Muslim religion. “The people amongst whom we are going to live are Mahometans. The first article of their faith is this: “There is no God but God, and Mahomet is his prophet.” Do not contradict them… Extend to the ceremonies prescribed by the Koran and to the mosques the same toleration which you showed to the synagogues, to the religion of Moses and of Jesus Christ.” In 1798 Napoleon landed in Egypt along with his strong army of fifty five thousands to occupy Egypt and disrupt English trade route to India. He believed that “Whoever is master of Egypt is master of India.”
He addressed the Egyptians employing traditional Islamic vocabulary of God’s unity and universal mission of Prophet Muhammad. He publically confessed himself to be a true Muslim.
“In the name of God the Beneficent, the Merciful, there is no other God than God, he has neither son nor associate to his rule. On behalf of the French Republic founded on the basis of liberty and equality, the General Bonaparte, head of the French Army, proclaims to the people of Egypt that for too long the Beys who rule Egypt insult the French nation and heap abuse on its merchants; the hour of their chastisement has come. For too long, this rabble of slaves brought up in the Caucasus and in Georgia tyrannizes the finest region of the world; but God, Lord of the worlds, all-powerful, has proclaimed an end to their empire. Egyptians, some will say that I have come to destroy your religion; this is a lie, do not believe it! Tell them that I have come to restore your rights and to punish the usurpers; that I respect, more than do the Mamluks, God, his prophet Muhammad and the glorious Qur’an… we are true Muslims. Are we not the one who has destroyed the Pope who preached war against Muslims? Did we not destroy the Knights of Malta, because these fanatics believed that God wanted them to make war against the Muslims?”
Humberto Garcia observes that Bonaparte promised “to restore egalitarian justice in Ottoman Egypt under an Islamic republic based in Cairo.” The intended Islamic republic was to be based upon the egalitarian laws of “the Prophet and his holy Koran.” Bonaparte casted himself as a Muslim convert and took the Islamic name of “Ali”, the celebrated son in law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad. He expressed his desire to establish a “uniform regime, founded on the principles of the Qur’an, which are the only true ones, and which can alone ensure the well-being of men.” Garcia further observes that “supposedly, the French came as deist liberators rather than colonizing crusaders… and not to convert the population to Christianity…” Juan Cole states that “The French Jacobins, who had taken over Notre Dame for the celebration of a cult of Reason and had invaded and subdued the Vatican, were now creating Egypt as the world’s first modern Islamic Republic.”

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