Montesquieu

Muhammad Ali, ser­vant of the pro­phets, to Usbek in Erzerum


You always ask us ques­tions that were asked a thou­sand times of our holy Prophet. Why do you not read the tra­di­tions of the scho­lars ?1 Why do you not go to that pure spring of all unders­tan­ding ? You would find all your doubts resol­ved.

Wretched man, who, ever confu­sed by the things of earth, have never gazed fixedly on things of hea­ven, and will dream of the posi­tion of mul­lahs, not daring to embrace it or fol­low it.

You who are pro­fane never enter into the secrets of the Eternal ; your lights are like the dark­ness of the abyss, and the rea­so­ning of your minds is as the dust rai­sed by your feet when the sun is at mid­day in the ardent month of Chahban.2

So it is that the zenith of your minds does not attain the nadir3 of his who is least of the Immaums.4 Your vain phi­lo­so­phy is the light­ning that heralds the storm and the dark­ness ; you are in the midst of the tem­pest, and you drift with the winds.

It is quite easy to ans­wer your objec­tion. To do so, I need only tell you about what hap­pe­ned one day to our holy Prophet, when, temp­ted by Christians and tes­ted by Jews, he confoun­ded the ones and the others equally.

The Jew Abdias Ibesalon5 asked him why God had for­bid­den us to eat the flesh of swine. It is not without rea­son, replied the Prophet : it is an impure ani­mal, and of this I am going to convince you. He tra­ced in mud on his hand the shape of a man6 ; he threw it on the ground, and com­man­ded it : Arise. At once a man arose, and said : I am Japheth, son of Noah. Did you have such white hair when you died ? the holy Prophet said to him. No, he replied ; but when you awa­ke­ned me I thought the last judg­ment had come, and I was so ter­ri­fied that my hair tur­ned white on the spot.

Now tell me, said the Messenger of God to him, the whole story of Noah’s ark. Japheth obeyed, and rela­ted exactly eve­ry­thing that occur­red in the first months, after which he spoke as fol­lows :

We pla­ced the excre­ment of all the ani­mals on one side of the ark, which made it list so far that we fea­red for our lives, espe­cially our wives, who wai­led in great style. When our father Noah went to consult God, he was com­man­ded to take the ele­phant and have him turn his head toward the side that was lis­ting. The great ani­mal made so much excre­ment that from it sprang a hog. Do you believe, Usbek, that since that time we have abs­tai­ned from the hog, and have always consi­de­red it an impure ani­mal ?

But as the hog every day agi­ta­ted this excre­ment, such a stench arose in the ark that even he could not keep from snee­zing, and out of his nose came a rat, which went about che­wing up eve­ry­thing in its path ; and this became so unbea­ra­ble to Noah that he thought it was time to consult God again. He com­man­ded him to give the lion a blow on the fore­head, which made him too sneeze, and expel­led from his nose a cat. Do you believe that these ani­mals too are impure ? What do you think ?

Therefore, when you do not per­ceive the rea­son for the impu­rity of cer­tain things, that is because you are una­ware of many others, and lack know­ledge of what has pas­sed bet­ween God, the angels, and men. You know not the story of eter­nity. You have not read the books that are writ­ten in hea­ven7 ; what has been revea­led to you about them is but a small part of the divine library ; and those who like us are more acquain­ted with it while they are in this life, are still in dark­ness and sha­dows. Adieu : Muhammad be in your heart.

Com this last day of the moon of Chahban 1711

The Hadith are books of the acts and words of Mohammed collected by his first successors and transmitted by tradition ; they “are to the Muhammadans what the Mishnah is to the Jews, a second divine book, a second law, to which one has recourse in cases where the decision cannot be found in the Qur’an” (Chardin, X, 69).

Paradoxe (or error), Chahban was supposed to designate the month of October.

The nadir is the lowest point in the celestial sphere, opposite the zenith.

This word is more used by the Turks than by the Persians [author’s note]. (Montesquieu makes a distinction between imam (see letter 15) and immaum.)

Muhammadan tradition [author’s note]. Montesquieu adapts, but following it rather closely, a dialogue between Mohammed and a Jewish scholar, Abdia Iben Salon (ou Abd Allah ben Salam in the Muslim traditions) found in Hermannus Dalmata, Machumetis Saracenorum principis doctrina (n.p., 1550).

Echo of a passage in the Gospels where Jesus, tested by the scribes and Pharisees, begins to write with his finger in the dust (John 8:6).

According to the Islamic commentaries (tafsir), revelation was brought from heaven to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel.