Voltaire’s "Mahomet": Still Controversial After All These Years

9. September 2010 0

An Essay by Adrian Morgan

In February 1778 when Voltaire returned to Paris after an absence of several years, he wanted to see that the performance of his play, Irène, went smoothly. This was to be performed by the Comédie-Française and the actors were falling out with each other. He knew he was dying, but his concern for the play’s success caused him to attend rehearsals, even though he was so ill that at one stage a confessor was called. His frail health prevented him from attending the premiere on March 16th. He missed a further four performances, but on March 30th, arriving in a blue carriage covered in stars, he attended its sixth performance. The play was a success, and at the close of the performance, his bust was presented on stage and the cast members crowned it with laurels.

Irène was to be Voltaire’s final play. It dealt with an Islamic theme, a popular legend about the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432 – 1481), who had conquered Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire. According to the legend, Mehmed (Mahomet) had fallen in love with a Greek Christian captive, and his love caused him to neglect his duties. His janissaries (slave soldiers who had been forcibly converted to Islam) objected to the union. To regain their obedience and respect, Mehmed killed the object of his affections and regained control of his Sultanate.

The legend had been attempted by other writers. In 1594, George Peele had written “Turkish Mahomet and Hyrin the Fair Greek” which, according to Sila Senlen (pdf document), has been lost. In 1640, Gilbert Swinhoe had written of it in a play called “The tragedy of the unhappy fair Irene”, published in 1658.

Voltaire had been concerned about the success of the play. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), whom Voltaire had met on a few occasions, had written a play called Irene in 1737. The actor David Garrick had agreed to produce Johnson’s play at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. The first performance was held on February 6, 1749. Johnson was not happy with the changes that Garrick made to the play and an argument broke out. Johnson, according to his biographer Boswell, complained: “Sir, the fellow wants me to make Mahomet run mad, that he may have an opportunity of tossing his hands and kicking his heels.”

Though Johnson’s Irène eventually made money for the theater, it began as a fiasco. There were catcalls and whistles from the audience even before the curtain rose. Boswell reported that:

“the play went off tolerably, till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bowstring round her neck. The audience cried out „Murder! Murder!“ She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive. This passage was afterwards struck out, and she was carried off to be put to death behind the scenes, as the play now has it.”

Perhaps mindful of the pitfalls that initially beset Johnson’s version of “Irene”, Voltaire mentioned during the rehearsals at the Comédie-Française that: “It would be a sad business if I had only come to Paris to be confessed and hissed.” Two months after his bust had been brought onto the stage and crowned with laurels, Voltaire died, aged 83.

Voltaire had courted controversy from the start of his career. A play he had written more than four decades before Irène had an Islamic theme, and had caused controversy when it was first produced. The same play, when performed less than five years ago, led to rioting. This play was called “Mahomet”.


The play Mahomet savaged the founder of Islam as a manipulating despot. The play was seen by Louis XV, the king of France, as scandalous. Mahomet was first performed in Lille, northern France, in 1741, even though it was initiated five years earlier. Voltaire was worried about staging it in Paris. In 1740, Voltaire had read out this play to Frederick II (the Great) the Prussian King. Frederick had initiated a correspondence with Voltaire in 1736, but the two did not meet until 1740, in Belgium. When Frederick invaded Austria in 1741, Voltaire interrupted one of the Lille performances of Mahomet to announce the news, which had been sent directly to him by the king.

On 9 August 1742, the Comédie-Française mounted a performance of Mahomet, but after the third performance it was banned. Those who had urged the banning of the play were said to be Catholic Jansenists within the court of King Louis XV. In 1740, Voltaire had dedicated the play to Cardinal Fleury, chief minister of the king, but it was assumed by some to be an attack on both the monarch and the Christian Church.

The basic plot of Mahomet, according to Lahoucine Ouzgane, is as follows:

“Criticism of fanaticism does permeate the text, but the major crime is committed by Seid, slave of Mahomet. Mahomet commands Seid, in the name of God to murder Zopir, his father; then Mahomet has Seid poisoned. From the outset, Mahomet desires his slave girl Palmira, the only woman in the play. In the last scenes she attacks Mahomet as an impostor, bloody savage, seducer and tyrant.”

In a letter to Frederick, dated January 20, 1742, Voltaire announced that he was sending him a printed copy of the play Mahomet. Voltaire spoke of the plot of the play:

“A young man born with virtuous inclinations, seduced by fanaticism, assassinates an old man who loves him; and whilst he imagines he is serving God, is, without knowing it, guilty of parricide: the murder is committed by the order of an impostor, who promises him a reward, which proves to be incest.”

He admitted that there was little that was historical about the episodes recounted in the five-act play. Zopir, the leader of Mecca, was based upon the character of Abu Sufian ibn Harb, who had been defeated by Mohammed and his armies on January 12, 630 AD. The events recounted in the play are loosely related to those alluded to in one verse of the Koran, (Sura 33: 37). In this verse Mohammed’s adopted son Zaid (Zayd ibn Háritha) had his marriage to Zainab (Zaynab bint Jahsh) annulled, and Mohammed then married Zainab. One of Mohammed’s daughters by his first wife Khadija was called Zainab, and maybe this is why there is a suggestion of incest. Voltaire explained:

Mahomet, I know, did not actually commit that particular crime which is the subject of this tragedy: history only informs us, that he took away the wife of Seid, one of his followers, and persecuted Abusophan, whom I call Zopir; but what is not that man capable of, who, in the name of God, makes war against his country? It was not my design merely to represent a real fact, but real manners and characters, to make men think as they naturally must in their circumstances; but above all it was my intention to show the horrid schemes which villainy can invent, and fanaticism put in practice. Mahomet is here no more than Tartuffe in arms.

In the letter to Frederick, Voltaire acknowledged expressed contempt for Mohammed:

“….for a driver of camels to stir up a faction in his village; to associate himself with a set of wretched Koreish, and persuade them that he had an interview with the angel Gabriel; to boast that he was carried up to heaven, and there received part of that unintelligible book which contradicts common sense in every page; that in order to procure respect for this ridiculous performance he should carry fire and sword into his country, murder fathers, and ravish their daughters, and after all give those whom he conquered the choice of his religion or death; this is surely what no man will pretend to vindicate, unless he was born a Turk, and superstition had totally extinguished in him the light of nature.”

It has been speculated by many critics that Mahomet was a satire on Christian values. David Hammerbeck wrote about Mahomet and asserted that:

Voltaire composed and staged this tragedy in order to counter what the author viewed as the hypocrisies of organized religion and its associated ills: superstition, dogma and fanaticism, as practiced in Catholicism in particular. However, Voltaire targeted not only the Papacy. He challenged the theological and metaphysical basis of all organized religions, counterposing his own „natural“ religion based in part on the skeptical rationalism of Hume, Shaftesbury and Leibniz. Voltaire’s tragic vision of the Prophet embodies previous Western biases against Muhammad and Islam, while updating these cultural preconceptions in the then-current dramaturgical codes.

Hostility to the play from the court of Louis XV may have been due to a perception that it was an attack upon the French monarchy. Voltaire had earlier been accused of satirizing the alleged incest of Louis’s cousin Philippe, Duke of Orleans, with his daughter Marie Louise (Duchesse de Berry), both in a poem and a play. Marie Louise was reputed to have been of “loose morals” – shortly before her early death in 1719, several men had claimed they had spied her engaging in naked dinner parties in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.

The notion that Mahomet was written as a veiled attack upon the Church may have led Voltaire to present a copy of the play to the Pope of the time – Benedict XIV. In the accompanying letter, dated August 17, 1745, Voltaire offered to dedicate the play to the pontiff, claiming that it was “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect.” Voltaire wrote:

“To whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet, than to the vicar and representative of a God of truth and mercy? Your holiness will therefore give me leave to lay at your feet both the piece and the author of it, and humbly to request your protection of the one, and your benediction upon the other.”

Later, Clarence Darrow would describe the exchanges between Voltaire and the Pope:

He had already written his play Mahomet. This of course had been pronounced sacrilegious and profane and had been consigned to the flames. Still he thought the people did not fully understand the play. He wrote long letters to people in society to prove what a good Christian and church man he was, but he did not succeed in deceiving anyone. The Academy could not accept him as a successor to a cardinal, but England elected him a member of the Royal Society. Germany placed him in her Hall of Fame. Everybody recognized him but France. Still he was not satisfied. Then he started a still bolder campaign to mollify the pope. He read all his works, complimented him highly and thereupon the pope called him his „dear son“ and sent Voltaire his „blessing.“ Then he wrote the pope asking permission to dedicate to him his play Mahomet, and although it had been burned as sacrilegious, the pope consented. The pope doubtless thought it would be better to have Voltaire his friend then his enemy, so he sent Voltaire his „apostolic benediction“ and accepted the dedication of „your admirable tragedy.“

Benedict XIV’s positive response can be read here, and Voltaire’s subsequent letter of thanks can be viewed here.

Voltaire’s descriptions of Islam’s Prophet

The entire text of the play (in French) can be seen here or here, and English translations can be found here and here.

In Mahomet, Act V, Scene ii, Mahomet is described thus:
What joys, what blessings, or what happiness
Can I expect from thee, thou vile impostor?
Thou bloody savage! This alone was wanting,
This cruel insult to complete my woes:
Eternal Father, look upon this king,
This holy prophet, this all-powerful god
Whom I adored: thou monster, to betray
Two guiltless hearts into the crying sin
Of parricide; thou infamous seducer
Of my unguarded youth, how darest thou think,
Stained as thou art with my dear father’s blood,
To gain Palmira’s heart? but know, proud tyrant,
Thou art not yet invincible: the veil
Is off that hid thee, and the hand of vengeance
Upraised to scourge thy guilt: dost thou not hear
The maddening multitude already armed
In the defense of injured innocence?
(Translation: William Fleming, 1901).

The final words of the play are spoken by Mahomet:

“Omar, we must strive
To hide this shameful weakness, save my glory,
And let me reign o’er a deluded world:
For Mahomet depends on fraud alone,
And to be worshipped never must be known.”

In act I, scene four, Zopire states:

Je te connais, Omar : en vain ta politique
vient m’étaler ici ce tableau fanatique :
en vain tu peux ailleurs éblouir les esprits ;
ce que ton peuple adore excite mes mépris.
Bannis toute imposture, et d’un coup d’oeil plus sage
regarde ce prophète à qui tu rends hommage ;
vois l’homme en Mahomet ; conçois par quel degré
tu fais monter aux cieux ton fantôme adoré.
Enthousiaste ou fourbe, il faut cesser de l’être ;
sers-toi de ta raison, juge avec moi ton maître :
tu verras de chameaux un grossier conducteur,
chez sa première épouse insolent imposteur,
qui, sous le vain appât d’un songe ridicule,
des plus vils des humains tente la foi crédule ;
comme un séditieux à mes pieds amené,
par quarante vieillards à l’exil condamné :
trop léger châtiment qui l’enhardit au crime….

I know you, Omar: your strategy is employed in vain
To bring before me this fanatical presentation,
Besides, in vain you may confound the minds of the public:
That which excites your people to adore, gains my contempt.
Throw off pretence and with a wiser eye
Behold this prophet to whom you pay homage;
See the man in Mahomet, consider to what degree
You have displayed but an apparition, adored to the skies.
By over-enthusiasm or knowing falsehood, this must cease to be;
Avail yourself of reason, use judgment with me as your guide:
You will see a base driver of camels,
At the home of his first wife, an impudent impostor,
Who, using the worthless lure of a ridiculous dream
Attracts the vilest of people to a credulous faith;
As a rouser of sedition he was brought before me,
By forty old men he was condemned to exile –
Too light a punishment, which emboldened him to his crime… 1


  1. Translation by the author.

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