Thursday, 20 September 2012

Mohammed in the 18th century

Given sexually explicit character of the cartoon published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, apparently borne of a selfless desire to take some of the heat off the Americans by spreading the outrage, I thought I'd share with you one of Gibbon's footnotes - translated from the learned Latin in which the ever-cautious historian veiled it.


Perhaps the incontinence of Mahomet may be palliated by the tradition of his natural or preternatural gift. He claimed to have the sexual capacity of thirty men, and to be able to satisfy eleven women in the space of one hour...Al Jannabi records his own testimony, that he surpassed all men in conjugal vigour; and Abulfeda mentions the exclamation of Ali, who washed his body after death, "O prophet, truly your penis stretches up to heaven" (certe penis tuus caelum versus erectus est)

By "the incontinence of Mahomet", Gibbon is referring not to any urinary problems but to his sexual appetites.  Like many before and since, Gibbon was fascinated by the soap-opera character of the prophet's private life as recorded in the Hadith and other early sources.  Pious Muslims are apt to explain Mohammed's polygamy as a way of cementing alliances between tribes and providing security for widows who would otherwise have had no-one to look after them; but there are obviously more salacious interpretations of the facts.  Gibbon's study of Mohammed and the birth of Islam makes up the fiftieth chapter of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and while he says much about Mohammed the prophet, Mohammed the lawgiver and statesman and Mohammed the warrior, Mohammed the lover is awarded some of the most memorable passages.

The bachelor Gibbon offers some criticism of Mohammed's domestic arrangements.  Perhaps he was jealous.  He tells a couple of scandalous stories.  One involves Zeineb, the wife of Zeid, his ex-slave and adopted son.  The prophet  "beheld, in a loose undress, the beauty of Zeinib, and burst forth into an ejaculation of devotion and desire. The servile, or grateful, freedman understood the hint, and yielded without hesitation to the love of his benefactor."  Any scandal was avoided by a convenient revelation, courtesy of the archangel Gabriel, of a new Koranic verse.  Gabriel was equally obliging when one of Mohammed's wives found him in bed with an Egyptian slave-girl called Maiy. 

I gather these incidents were dramatised in a controversial recent film, excerpts from which can still be seen on YouTube.

Gibbon is, however, full of praise for Mohammed's fidelity to his first wife Khadija, and generally respectful, though he does suggest that later in life success may have gone to his head.   "From enthusiasm to imposture," he writes, "the step is perilous and slippery."  In a fascinating footnote with many modern resonances, he is critical of a play by Voltaire that portrayed Mohammed as a war criminal:


After the conquest of Mecca, the Mahomet of Voltaire imagines and perpetrates the most horrid crimes. The poet confesses that he is not supported by the truth of history, and can only allege, que celui qui fait la guerre à sa patrie au nom de Dieu est capable de tout [anyone who makes war on his own country in the name of God is capable of anything]. The maxim is neither charitable nor philosophic; and some reverence is surely due to the fame of heroes and the religion of nations. I am informed that the Turkish ambassador at Paris was much scandalised at the representation of this tragedy.

The ambassadorial protest is familiar, though there are no records of riots on the streets of Constantinople demanding for Voltaire to be beheaded.  Familiar, too, is the contrast between a French secularist claiming his right to artistic criticism of religion and an English liberal intellectual concerned about showing "respect".  Ironically, Voltaire's play was banned shortly after its first performance in 1742; not because of Muslim anger, but because the French censors viewed it as a veiled attack on Catholicism, which of course it was.  That wouldn't happen today.