Was Napoleon a Muslim?

By Spahic Omer

Napoleon’s justification for the invasion of Egypt was twofold. The first reasoning was in relation to the assertion that the French purpose was to cleanse Egypt of a regime that had brought only oppression, tyranny, exploitation and misrule to the Egyptian people. Hence, the French were there to bring a revolution for those who were unable to do so for themselves, this local revolution reverberating the freedom and civilization spirit of the French Revolution. The French were there to extinguish barbarism and ignite sophistication and progress (civilization). The universal standards of virtue, reason and knowledge were the brass ring.

The second justification was pertaining to a popular claim that the French were not hostile to Islam and its holy Prophet, that they did not come to oppose, but uphold, them, and that they, on the whole, did not come to destroy, but to build. Thus, Napoleon stressed in his first proclamation to the Egyptians: “O ye Egyptians, they may say to you that I have not made an expedition hither for any other object than that of abolishing your religion; but this is a pure falsehood and you must not give credit to it, but tell the slanderers that I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors and that I more than the Mamluks, serve God and revere His Prophet Muhammad and the glorious Qur’an. And tell them also that all people are equal in the eyes of God and the only circumstances which distinguish one from the other are reason, virtue and knowledge…Tell the people that the French also are true Muslims, and in confirmation of this they invaded Rome and destroyed there the Papal See, which was always exhorting the Christians to make war with Islam. And then they went to the island of Malta, from where they expelled the Knights, who claimed that God the Exalted required them to fight the Muslims.” (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt). 

Napoleon as an admirer, defender, or manipulator of Islam 

That is why Napoleon is generally portrayed as a serious “admirer” and at times also “defender” of Islam. Some yet contended that he eventually embraced Islam, like what one of his generals, Jacques-Abdullah Menou, had done. This is how Napoleon addressed his troops prior to the invasion: “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. Behave to them as you have behaved to the Jews – to the Italians. Pay respect to their muftis, and their Imams, as you did to the rabbis and the bishops. 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. The Roman legions protected all religions. You will find here customs different from those of Europe. You must accommodate yourselves to them. The people amongst whom we are to mix differ from us in the treatment of women; but in all countries he who violates is a monster. Pillage enriches only a small number of men; it dishonours us; it destroys our resources; it converts into enemies the people whom it is our interest to have for friends” (The French View of the Events in Egypt: Memoirs by Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, Private Secretary to General Bonaparte).

Napoleon was ready to stop at nothing in his efforts to succeed and make his ideas gain currency. One of his rather extreme attempts was his projection of himself and his conquest of Egypt as the fulfilment of a prophecy which had its short-term and long-term effects. For that reason, Napoleon propagated a sort of political foreordination and wished to thus exact a degree of civilian fatalism. The whole design was the consequence of a providence of one God to whom both the people and Napoleon belonged. 

Napoleon tried to project himself as a saviour and a Mahdi-like messianic figure. He was a deliverer of the Egyptians, insinuating the lexis the people and their land were familiar with, and thus aiming to strike a chord with the majority. By speaking generally of a diktat of God to destroy the enemies of Islam and to break the crosses by his own hand, Napoleon yet wished to portray himself as the saviour of Islam and Muslims en bloc. The fulfilment of this prophecy was supposed to serve as the climax of God’s plans intended for the world. It would have connoted the dawn of a new era, of a new world order.

Al-Jabarti reported – based on a letter from Napoleon to the Egyptian people – that Napoleon wanted to quell a civil discord. In the letter he informed the people that those who opposed him were in fact opposing the destiny of God. Every sensible person knew that the French acts were God’s will and divine decree and “he who doubts this is stupid and devoid of perception.” What Napoleon was up to in Egypt was a divine command since the beginning of time. “Moreover He (Almighty God) decreed from eternity that I (Napoleon) shall come from the West to the land of Egypt for the purpose of destroying those who have acted tyrannically in it and to carry out the tasks which He set upon me. And no sensible man will doubt that all this is by virtue of God’s decree and will.”

Napoleon even said that the verses of the Qur’an foretold his deeds, and every Muslim knows that “the words of God in His book are truthful and righteousness which are inevitable in their realization.” He further professed that he had some miraculous powers one of which was bordering on knowing the unseen. He said that it was in his power to expose what was in the heart of every person, for he knew the nature of man and what was concealed in his heart at the very moment he looked upon him even though he did not state or utter what that person was hiding. This was a special gift from God in order for Napoleon to be able to enlighten, lead and control his subjects. Going against him, therefore, meant going against God and His providence. 

It is noteworthy that Napoleon instructed the religious elites and leaders in general to inform the people about all this and about the potential repercussions. Which means that they were instructed as to what to teach their audiences in schools, mosques and other religio-social establishments. The philosophy of the new ruling masters had to be reflected throughout the hierarchy of life systems in the country. Religion and education were top priorities. Successes elsewhere depended on the successes in those two areas, in particular considering that the colonizers were committed to the gradual introduction of a secularization system. Even though the religious and sheer worldly spheres were to be separated, they had to be in harmony when it comes to working together for the governmental interests dictated by the provisos of the common national good (Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the First Seven Months of the French Occupation of Egypt).

All things considered, it comes as no surprise that there existed rife allegations to the effect that Napoleon was a Muslim. However, he was either just a master of his trade, or was undergoing the first phase, and was preparing himself for the second one, with reference to his elaborate schemes as put forward by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in his book “The Future of Islam” (1881). Napoleon must have been so good in his masquerade that he was able to easily deceive people, both the Egyptians and French. He may have hoodwinked his own self somewhat, too.

About some of his modi operandi, Napoleon once said that he only toyed with the idea of becoming a Muslim. He was a manipulator so that the people would respect him more than they actually did, and obey him more readily. He revealed that he never did anything Islamic sincerely. But at the same time he admitted that, politically, the French wanted to be “the friends of the Mussulmans”, and that, morally as well as intellectually, he personally “respected Mahomet their Prophet, which was true; I respect him (even) now.” Napoleon then said that he told the Egyptians that the French were all Muslims and friends of the Prophet, which they really believed, “as the French soldiers never went to church, and had no priests with them. For you must know that during the Revolution there was no religion whatever in the French army” (The French View of the Events in Egypt: Memoirs by Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, Private Secretary to General Bonaparte).

Rebuffing the circulating charges 

Therefore, Napoleon’s private secretary and biographer, Louis Antoine Fauvelet De Bourrienne, had a hard time to rebuff the circulating charges. How serious the allegations had been can be gleaned from the fact that simply affirming that Napoleon took part in the national and religious ceremonies of Egypt merely as a spectator, for the presence of the country’s new master was gratifying to the people; that Napoleon neither learned nor repeated any prayer of the Qur’an – as many persons had asserted; that he never advocated fatalism, polygamy, or any other doctrine of the Qur’an; that issues with regard to the Islamic faith were to him matters of curiosity only; that he never set foot in a mosque; that he only on one occasion dressed himself in the “Mahometan costume”, which nevertheless was casual and in jest – all these were insufficient for absolving Napoleon from the allegations. 

The private secretary had to go further and admit that Napoleon was exceptionally tolerant insofar as all religions were concerned, and that religious tolerance was the natural consequence of his philosophic spirit. Moreover, Napoleon did, as he was bound to do, “show respect for the religion of the country; and he found it necessary to act more like a Mussulman than a Catholic. A wise conqueror supports his triumphs by protecting and even elevating the religion of the conquered people. Bonaparte’s principle was to look upon religions as the work of men, but to respect them everywhere as a powerful engine of government.” And as if the private secretary was able to foresee the ensuing contention of people like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, so he supplemented his defence of his chief thus: “However, I will not go so far as to say that he (Napoleon) would not have changed his religion had the conquest of the East been the price of that change.”

The private secretary eventually had no choice but to admit that Napoleon “frequently conversed with the chiefs of the Mussulman religion on the subject of his conversion; but only for the sake of amusement. The priests of the Koran, who would probably have been delighted to convert us, offered us the most ample concessions. But these conversations were merely started by way of entertainment, and never could have warranted a supposition of their leading to any serious result. If Bonaparte spoke as a Mussulman, it was merely in his character of a military and political chief in a Mussulman country. To do so was essential to his success, to the safety of his army, and, consequently, to his glory. In every country he would have drawn up proclamations and delivered addresses on the same principle. In India he would have been for Ali, at Thibet for the Dalai Lama, and in China for Confucius.”

The persistence of doubts 

As self-assured as the private secretary and biographer of Napoleon seemed, doubts persist. Most of the things the private secretary had said in order to dissociate Napoleon from any possible connection with Islam were mere conjectures. They were yet allegations in their own right, and so, it is inappropriate that a person tries to do away with one set of allegations with another.

The truth remains that Napoleon was not a Muslim. However, relegating the exploration of the possibility of converting to Islam to a mere act of insolent amusement and entertainment would be a slur on Islam and Muslims, and on the personality of Napoleon, whose life in general and expedition to Egypt in particular, were deemed so important that there was no room whatsoever for worthless distractions and entertainment. This applied especially to the highly consequential matters, the matter of accepting Islam or not being one of them. 

Napoleon must have been familiar with the gravity of the Islamic concept of apostasy. Islam is a serious thing which cannot be accepted and rejected for fun. The only thing that is more serious is to do all this as part of a bigger malicious anti-Islamic program. To every Muslim, sheer political animosity is one thing, but religious animosity is completely something else.

That type of fun and enjoyment would have been perilous and against the fundamental principles of Napoleon’s policies. It could have easily backfired and could have come back to haunt not just Napoleon, but also the entire French plans in the regions. As it was able to undermine the far-sightedness and rationality of Napoleon for which he was so well-known. Again, Napoleon was not a Muslim, but he was so open-minded that he left all possibilities open, if nothing then in furtherance of diversity and enrichment. Many of his statements and actions left a myriad of questions unanswered.

Napoleon’s behavioural display was more than a tinge of curiosity. He kept his cards close to his chest, but if the Egyptian operation had succeeded, nobody knows what would have happened next. Napoleon was critical of Muslims and their socio-political vagaries. However, the situation was so bleak that Muslims were critical of themselves too. Napoleon was never critical of Islam itself, the Qur’an, or the personality and legacy of the Prophet. On the contrary, he was very positive about them, occasionally applauding them. 

Which suggests that if he had physically spent more time in Muslim milieus, and if he had somehow overcome the impediment of (many) Muslims’ rendition of Islam, turning then his attention to the pure and authentic version of Islam, nobody knows what Napoleon’s resultant course of action would have been. Nobody knows where his words “I respected Mahomet their Prophet, which was true; I respect him (even) now” would have led him. Napoleon preached and demanded honesty and respect, but if he personally had dealt with the sanctities of Islam on the basis of derision and mockery, that would have sent a wrong signal to everybody, not least to his subordinates and soldiers as the instruments of his schemes. That simply would not have been the Napoleon people generally knew. He was known as a man of principles who led by example.

Finally, when Napoleon’s general Jacques-Abdallah Menou embraced Islam and married a Muslim woman from Egypt, Napoleon did not treat this as an act of treason against the country, nor as an act of blasphemy against the principles of the French Revolution and its civilization project. Rather, such seemed to be a normal occurrence. What is more, when Napoleon was withdrawing from Egypt, he consented to leave his Muslim general behind for he “really turned Mahometan.” One wonders, therefore, if both Menou and Napoleon were on the same path. While the former was able to reach his destination quickly, the latter was held back first and then thwarted altogether.

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

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