Montesquieu

Usbek to the same


I can­not, divine mul­lah, calm my impa­tience ; I can­not bear to await your sublime reply : I have doubts ; they must be set­tled. I can feel my rea­son vacilla­ting : bring it back into the straight way1 ; source of light, come illu­mi­nate my way ; strike down with your divine pen the dif­fi­culties I am about to put before you. Make me asha­med of myself, make me blush at the ques­tion I am about to ask.2

Why is it that our Legislator3 pro­hi­bits us the flesh of swine and of all meats he calls unclean ?4 Why is it that he for­bids us to touch a dead body, and that to purify our souls he com­mands us cons­tantly to wash our bodies ? It seems to me that things in them­sel­ves are nei­ther pure nor impure5 ; I can­not conceive any qua­lity inhe­rent in the sub­ject that can make them so. Mud seems dirty to us only because it offends our sight or ano­ther of our sen­ses, but in itself it is not more so than gold and dia­monds. The idea of unclean­ness contrac­ted by contact with a car­case occur­red to us only because of a cer­tain natu­ral repu­gnance it gives us. If the bodies of those who do not wash offen­ded nei­ther smell nor sight, how could anyone have ima­gi­ned that they were impure ?

The sen­ses, divine mul­lah, the­re­fore must be the sole jud­ges of the purity or impu­rity of things ; but inas­much as objects do not affect men in the same way, inas­much as what cau­ses an agreea­ble sen­sa­tion to some, pro­du­ces a repul­sive one in others, it fol­lows that the evi­dence of the sen­ses can­not serve as our rule unless we were to say that eve­ryone may decide this point as he will, and dis­cern, with res­pect to him­self, pure things from those that are impure.

But would not that itself, holy mul­lah, reverse the dis­tinc­tions esta­bli­shed by our divine Prophet, and the fun­da­men­tal points of the Law which was writ by the hand of angels ?

Erzerum this 20th day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 17116

The Qur’an begins with the invocation : “It is You we worship and You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path” (1:5-6).

Whereas in letters 11-14 it is Usbek who “answered” a question put to him by Mirza (letter 10) on the nature of justice, Usbek submits here to a religious authority, evoking the avoidance of Mirza who has already expressed to him his exasperations with mullahs.

The word can designate Moses as well as Muhammad ; prescriptions of the Qur’an often resemble those of the Bible, and Montesquieu clearly plays on this ambiguity.

The Mosaic definition of immundus is the theme of Leviticus 11. The Qur’an repeats the Biblical injunction : “Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah” (5:3). These forbidden foods had long been the object of medical and religious commentary.

St. Paul several times suggests a similar attitude : “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself : but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14 ; cf.14:20 and Titus 1:15.)

The last letter written from Erzerum (the first being letter 6), where Usbek has stayed eighty-seven days.