Muhammad, Republican Revolutionary?

In 17th-century England, talking about Islam was a way of criticising the powers that be. When an introduction to the first translation of the Quran described a ‘leader of a band of fugitives’, was it aimed at the Prophet or Oliver Cromwell?

John Tolan | Published 25 Jul 2019

Depiction of Muhammad in the Nuremberg Chronicle, Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

In April 1649, just three months after the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth, the first English translation of the Quran was published. The anonymous translator (whom some scholars have identified as Thomas Ross) knew no Arabic: he used André de Ryer’s 1647 French translation. The publication provoked unease. The Commonwealth authorities arrested the printer, Robert White, confiscated the printed copies and held a hearing which eventually cleared all involved and authorised the publication.

In order to both placate readers and to justify the translation, Alexander Ross, former royal chaplain, wrote a brief ‘caveat’ meant to reassure his readers that the publication of the Quran in English was not dangerous. It is unclear whether the parliamentary commission requested this caveat from him or whether his relative Thomas Ross, or others involved, deemed it prudent to have him lend his name to the project. In any case, Alexander Ross affirms that Muhammad’s errors are no worse than many of those heretical Protestants whose works one can find in any bookstall. His central justification for the translation of the Quran is that it is the most effective means of ‘unmasking’ the ‘grand Hypocrite’ Muhammad.

L'Alcoran de Mahomet, André du Ryer, 1647.

Thomas Ross wrote a preface, ‘the translator to the Christian Reader’, in which he justified the publication of the Quran while at the same time implicitly criticising the Commonwealth authorities who had tried to stop the publication. There is no danger, he affirms, that such a ‘rude’ and ‘incongruous’ text should seduce Englishmen any more than it has other Europeans into whose languages it has been translated. Why then would the Cromwellian authorities attempt to block it? Ross could not of course criticise them openly, but he gave a good idea of what he thinks:

(Christian Reader) though some, conscious of their own instability in Religion, and of theirs (too like Turks in this) whose prosperity and opinions they follow, were unwilling this should see the Press, yet am I confident, if thou hast been so true a votary to orthodox Religion, as to keep thy self untainted of their follies, this shall not hurt thee: And as for those of that Batch, having once abandoned the Sun of the Gospel, I believe they will wander as far into utter darkness, by following strange lights, as by this Ignis Fatuus of the Alcoran. Such as it is, I present to thee, having taken the pains only to translate it out of French, not doubting, though it hath been a poyson, that hath infected a very great, but most unsound part of the Universe, it may prove an Antidote, to confirm in thee the health of Christianity.

Ross addressed readers who had a firm and healthy Christianity, in other words Anglicanism presented as ‘orthodox religion’. Over and against these orthodox Christians is the ‘batch’ of those who no longer follow the Gospel, whose behaviour shows their ‘instability in religion’: the Turks, but also the Cromwellians who have killed the king and attacked the Church.

Thomas Ross hides his royalist critiques of parliamentarism in his anti-Muslim polemics. He gives a brief and highly polemical biography of ‘Mahomet’, a ‘vicious Pagan’, an orphan whose uncle, Abdal Mutalib, sold him to Ishmaelite slave-traders. He eventually fell into the clutches of a scheming Nestorian monk named Sergius, who taught him heretical doctrines, denying the Trinity and the Incarnation, preaching that Jesus was nothing more than a holy man and a prophet. Mahomet, ardently desiring to be esteemed a prophet, ‘retires to a solitary cave’ and leaves Sergius to preach to the people, praising the new prophet. God, in mercy, sought to set Mahomet on the right path by striking him with ‘the falling sickness’ (epilepsy), but Mahomet ‘instead of repenting, made an advantage to promove his wicked design’: he pretended that his epileptic fits were the consequence of the presence of the Archangel Gabriel: this provoked even greater esteem and reverence.

Portrait of Mohammed from Michel Baudier's Histoire générale de la religion des turcs, 1625.

But what interests Ross most is Mahomet’s project of political revolution under the guise of religious reform. Not content to be a prophet, he says, Mahomet schemes to become king. To this effect, he pandered to their basest instincts by permitting polygamy and by promising a heavenly abode replete with sensual delights. Thus, says Ross, Mahomet managed to attract ‘a numerous, though vulgar party of the people’. Just like Cromwell, Ross may be tempted to say (but of course does not). That the parliamentarians are the object of this portrait of Mahomet becomes even clearer in what follows. He had ‘under pretence of Reformation of Religion, gained many followers’; now ‘he resolved to yoak to it that other concomitant in popular disturbances, liberty, proclaiming it to be the will of God’. English revolutionaries invoked religious reformation (greater tolerance and the curbing the wealth and influence of the Anglican Church) and asserted the liberty of the English people to their self-government. Mahomet does the same: he frees his slave Zeidi in the name of universal liberty.

This bait, as it inhaunced his fame, so it added to his retinue; for as multitudes, affecting novelty, and a mutation of condition, daily added themselves to his party; so slaves from all parts of Arabia forsook their Masters, and fled to him as their Redeemer, and embraced his Law, as the means of their salvation. These through a fond conceit of his piety, ready to sacrifice their lives at his command, he divided into troops, and sent to rob the Caravans of Merchants that travelled through the desarts; and by this means, having added to his treasure by spoil; and his retinue daily encreasing by a multitude of Fugitives and Vagabonds, who by reason of this liberty, to act any villany, resorted to him; he at length took up thoughts of imploying them in the confirmation of his Law, which he knew to be the ready way to his establishment, in that power to which he aspired.

In other words, Mahomet is a rabble-rouser and a revolutionary: he is Cromwell. He is the leader of a band of fugitives and vagabonds who delight in robbery and pillage and who glorify their actions through invoking liberty; a batch of dissolute villains who gleefully trample underfoot the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity and the prerogatives of the Church. Indeed, Mahomet is Cromwell, or perhaps Cromwell is Mahomet. Thomas Ross cannot say either way, for his troubles would be much greater than those he already had with the Council of State. Arrested in 1654 on suspicion of treason (in an affair that had nothing to do with his Quran translation), he was later released on bail; he later went to Cologne to join Charles II in exile.

Other royalist writers also compared Cromwell to Muhammad. Lancelot Addison, in his First State of Mahumedism (1678), says that Muhammad ‘so well managed his ambition and injustice, under the cloak of Religion, as never have any yet proved his Equal: the nearest and most exact Transcript of this great Imposter was the late Usurper’ – by which he of course means Cromwell. Other Royalists lambasted the government for permitting the publication of the ‘Turkish Alcoran’, proof of their impiety (whereas for Thomas Ross their desire to censure it had shown them to be like the Turk). For Royalists, Cromwell and his ‘batch’, like Muhammad and the Turks, insulted religion and sapped the foundations of good government.

As royalists and parliamentarians insulted each other through comparisons with Muhammad, just as Catholics and Protestants had begun doing in the 16th century, the polemical edge of such comparisons became blunted. In the quarrels over religious and political systems, Islam became one rival faith among many, neither better nor worse than many of the Christian denominations; the religious toleration of the Ottoman Empire became for some Englishmen a model. Yet none of these authors presented the prophet Muhammad as a positive figure.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656.

None, that is, until Henry Stubbe penned his Originall & progress of Mahometanism in 1671. Stubbe describes the Muslim prophet as a great reformer who fought the superstition and illegitimate power of Christian clergy and sought to return to a pure, unsullied monotheism. Stubbe’s Muhammad is a religious reformer, beloved and admired ruler and sage legislator. Stubbe becomes the first European non-Muslim to present the prophet in such glowing terms. But like Alexander and Thomas Ross, when Stubbe writes about Muhammad he is above all writing about English politics. Stubbe was a friend and admirer of Thomas Hobbes, with whom he corresponded frequently: in the 1650s, Stubbe was at work on a Latin translation of Hobbes’ Leviathan. His Muhammad fits well the model of the benevolent monarch of Leviathan, using the precepts of a simple, natural religion to enforce morality and uphold authority, without handing over power to a caste of grasping priests.

Hobbes proposed a civic, natural religion devoted to the honour of the one God, in which vain disputations about his nature would be prohibited, since ‘volumes of disputation about the nature of God … tend not to His honour, but to the honour of our own wits and learning; and are nothing else but inconsiderate and vain abuses of His sacred name’. Stubbe’s Muhammad is a Hobbesian monarch who returns to a simple form of natural monotheism in accordance with the religion of the primitive Christians. Stubbe’s work is not merely an academic exercise in the history of religion: it is a polemical work aimed at the Anglican Church and the monarchy. Like Muhammad, the king should strip the priests of their power and ban superstitious doctrine, returning to the simple, rational monotheism of the early Christians. He should also allow for the practice of diverse cults, just as the ‘Mahometans’ do. In other words, Charles II should become a new Muhammad.

In 17th-century England, talking about Islam, and in particular about Muhammad, was a way of criticising the powers that be, King, Church or Commonwealth, when more direct criticism was not possible. One of the consequences of this rhetorical use of Islam was to domesticate it: no longer a distant, foreign figure, Muhammad became a familiar one, the republican reformer that one admired or despised. In the following century, French authors would make similar use of the Prophet, painting him as an anticlerical hero, an example for enlightened European monarchs who should abolish the privileges of the Catholic clergy.

John Tolan is the author of Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (Princeton University Press, 2019).