François Pétis de la Croix
He was born in Paris, the son of the Arabic interpreter of the French court, and inherited this office at his father's death in 1695, afterwards transmitting it to his own son, Alexandre Louis Marie, who also distinguished himself in Oriental studies. At an early age, François was sent by Colbert to the East; during the ten years he spent in Syria, Persia and Turkey he mastered Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and collected rich materials for future writings.
Service as an ambassador
He served briefly as secretary to the French ambassador in Morocco, and was interpreter to the French forces sent against Algiers, contributing to the satisfactory settlement of the treaty of peace, which was drawn up by him in Turkish and ratified in 1684. He conducted the negotiations with Tunis and Tripoli in 1685, and those with Morocco in 1687; and the zeal, tact and linguistic knowledge he manifested in these and other transactions with Eastern courts were at last rewarded in 1692 by his appointment to the Arabic chair in the Collège Royal de France, which he filled until his death.
He published Contes Turcs (Paris, 1707), and Les Mille et un jours (5 vols, Paris, 1710-1712); an Armenian Dictionary and an Account of Ethiopia. But the lasting monument of his literary fame is his excellent French version of Sharafuddin Ali Yazdi's Zafar Nama or History of Timur (completed 828 A.H.; AD 1425), which was published posthumously (4 vols., Paris, 1722; Eng. trans. by J Darby, London, 1723). This work, a rare specimen of critical history of Persia, was compiled under the auspices of Mirza Ibrahim Sultan, the son of Shah Rukh and grandson of the great Timur. The only error committed by Pétis de la Croix in his otherwise very correct translation is that he erroneously ascribed the important share which Ibrahim Sultan had in the Zafar Nama to Timur himself.
In 1670 Pétis de la Croix, age seventeen, travelled to the East on an extended language course as part of a program devised by Colbert to create a pool of capable foreign officials - les Jeunes de Langues. After a study period in Aleppo, he arrived in 1674 in Isfahan where he stayed until June 1676. From a short description of his stay we learn of his deep interest in the manners of the "dervish".
"Having worked six full months on the Shahnama, together with Mulla Kerim, the extreme dedication made me fall into an illness lasting two months -on the brink of death- from which I hardly recovered to find that notwithstanding the twenty volumes of books I had read, I did not yet know the registers of the court, the patents of the king or the rules of the merchants (...)I still had to learn from a certain theological and very difficult book called Masnavi (comprising at least 90.000 verses -the good people of the country have it that it contains the Philosopher's stone). I looked for someone who knew the book, but against payement I found no one and was obliged to turn to a great superior of the Mevlevi. A friend conducted me there and I had hardly paid my respects or he offered me his services for the understanding of the Masnavi and he allowed me during four or five months to see him very frequently to study. I succeeded in this study (...) his name was Dervish Moqlas. (Derwish Moqlas was the author of the "Thousand and one Days" - translated by Pétis) " Since he was capable of leading a party I knew he was under observation of the court and so I had to take my precautions. I did not hesitate to inform Monseigneur Murtaza, brother in law to the king, and Myrza Ali Reza, also from the king's family and Cheikh al Islam, the head of the law, that I only went there to read the Masnavi, which they approved."
This is an excerpt from Pétis' own record of his travels as published in: "Relations de Dourry Effendi ambassadeur de la porte othomane auprès du roi de Perse. Traduite du Turk et suivie de l'Extrait des Voyages de Pétis de la Croix rédigé par lui mème. Chez Ferra 1810." The text of Pétis, somewhat hidden in this bibliographical reference, seems to have remained largely unnoticed.
In the same description, François Pétis de la Croix tells of a prank played on him by his Agha who during a visit to a Bektashi convent caused him to pose as a Shaikh. This he did admirably: "I said them the fatha (first sura of the Qur'an) over the meat with the usual movements; after the meal I read extensively from the Qur'an and I chose the chapters dealing with morals and not with Mahomet [Muhammad was a severe anathema to the majority of Pétis' audience at the time], which I explained according to the commentaries I had read. I also clearified some difficulties they had (...) of course my Agha could not help making a mockery of this; he almost choked laughing and told everyone I had come al the way from France to teach the Asian Muslims the Qur'an."
Despite the flourishing of Orientalism in France in the 17th century, and despite the fact that Antoine Galland, Barthélemy d'Herbelot de Molainville and François Pétis de la Croix at one time frequented the Wednesday afternoon discussions - les Mercuriales - of Gilles Ménage together, little has remained of the explicit and detailed references to the Masnavi or Sufism in general one could have expected from Pétis de la Croix - or François Bernier for that matter.
One should however keep in mind the real risk run by deviating opinion. It was not until 1682 following the Versailles edict that only the intention to kill with poison and sacrilege coupled with that intention could be withheld as grounds for capital punishment over witchcraft. The proceedings against the Quietists thus only narrowly escaped the greater dangers of the lingering witch craze. In 1685 concerted Catholic censorship became a matter of State after the edict of Fontainebleau; the opinion had by then developed that there was much resemblance between the Quietism of East and West (see: "Lettre sur le quiétisme des Indes" by François Bernier in Histoire des Ouvrages des Savans, Henri Basnage de Beauval (ed.), September 1688).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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