Mahomet (play)

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Mahomet
MahometFanatisme.jpg
Frontispiece of the 1753 edition
Written by Voltaire
Characters Mahomet, founder of Islam
Zopir, leader of Mecca
Omar, general and lieutenant to Mahomet
Seid, Zopir's son, abducted and enslaved by Mahomet
Palmira, Zopir's daughter, abducted and enslaved by Mahomet
Phanor, senator of Mecca
Meccan tribes
Mahomet's followers
Date premiered 25 April 1741
Place premiered Lille, France
Original language French
Subject Religious fanaticism
Genre Tragedy

Mahomet (French: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete, literally Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet) is a five-act tragedy written in 1736 by French playwright and philosopher Voltaire. It received its debut performance in Lille on 25 April 1741.

The play is an alleged study of religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation based on an episode in the traditional biography of Muhammad in which he orders attacks against his enemies who wrote scathing things against him.[1] Voltaire claimed that the play was "written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect to whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet".[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story of "Mahomet" unfolds during Muhammad's post exile siege of Mecca in 630 AD, when the opposing forces are under a short term truce called to discuss the terms and course of the war.

In the first act we are introduced to a fictional leader of the Meccans, Zopir, an advocate of free will and liberty who rejects Mahomet. Mahomet is presented through his conversations with his second in command Omar and with his opponent Zopir and with two of Zopir's long lost children (Seid and Palmira) whom, unbeknownst to Zopir, Mahomet had abducted and enslaved in their infancy, fifteen years earlier.

The now young and beautiful captive Palmira has become the object of Mahomet's desires. Having observed a growing affection between Palmira and Seid, Mahomet devises a plan to steer Seid away from her heart by indoctrinating young Seid in Islam and sending him on a suicide attack to assassinate Zopir in Mecca, an event which he hopes will rid him of both Zopir and Seid and free Palmira's affections for his own conquest.[3] Mahomet invokes divine authority to justify his conduct.

Seid, still respectful of Zopir's nobility of character, hesitates at first about carrying out his assignment, but eventually his fierce loyalty to Mahomet overtakes him[4] and he slays Zopir. Phanor arrives and reveals to Seid and Palmira to their disbelief that Zopir was their father. Omar arrives and deceptively orders Seid arrested for Zopir's murder despite knowing that it was Mahomet who had ordered the assassination. Mahomet decides to cover up the event.

Having now uncovered Mahomet's "vile" deception Palmira renounces Allah[5] and commits suicide.

Analysis and reception[edit]

The play is a direct assault on the moral character of Muhammad. The characters of Seid and Palmira represent Muhammad's adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh. The play's plot contradicts the version of the respective Surah in the Qu'ran.

Pierre Milza, posits that, it may have been "the intolerance of the Catholic Church and its crimes done on behalf of the Christ" that were targeted by the philosopher,[6] Voltaire's own statement about it in a letter in 1742 was quite vague: "I tried to show in it into what horrible excesses fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds."[7] It is only in another letter dated from the same year that he explains that this plot is an implicit reference to Jacques Clément, the monk who assassinated Henri III in 1589.[8]

In 2005, a production of the play in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, Ain, France, resulted in demands for cancellation and street disturbances outside the performance itself.[9]

However, like often in Voltaire's texts, it was indeed not Islam that was the plot about, but Christianity. His aim when writing the text was to condemn "the intolerance of the Church and the crimes that have been committed in the name of the Christ".[10]

Napoleon during his captivity on St Helena criticised Voltaire's Mahomet, and said Voltaire had made him merely an impostor and a tyrant, without representing him as a "great man":

"Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. 'Voltaire,' said the Emperor, 'in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melo-drama.'"[11]

Translations into English[edit]

There are four known translations of the play into English:

  • James Miller's translation, published by A. Donaldson, 1759 (technically an adaptation, rather than a translation)[12]
  • The translation by E. P. Dupont publishers (New York, 1901)[13]
  • The translation by Robert L. Myers, published by Frederick Ungar, 1964[14]
  • The translation by Hannah Burton, published by Litwin Books, 2013[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Voltaire, Mahomet the Prophet or Fanaticism: A Tragedy in Five Acts, trans. Robert L. Myers, ( New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964).
  2. ^ Voltaire Letter to Benedict XIV written in Paris on August 17, 1745 AD: "Your holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect. 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; in hopes of which, with the profoundest reverence, I kiss your sacred feet."
  3. ^ Mahomet Act IV Scene I Mahomet speaking We must work in secret, the dark shades of death must hide our purpose—while we shed old Zopir's blood, be sure you keep Palmira in deepest ignorance; she must not know the secret of her birth: her bliss and mine depend upon it
  4. ^ Mahomet Act IV scene IV Seid speaking To serve my God, to please and merit thee, This sword, devoted to the cause of heaven, Is drawn, and shall destroy its deadliest foe
  5. ^ Mahomet Act V scene VI
  6. ^ [Pierre Milza, Voltaire p.638, Librairie Académique Perrin, 2007
  7. ^ Voltaire,Lettres inédites de Voltaire, Didier, 1856, t.1, Lettre à M. César De Missy, 1er septembre 1743, p.450
  8. ^ Voltaire, Lettres inédites de Voltaire, Didier, 1856, t.1, Lettre à M. César De Missy, 1 September 1742, p.450
  9. ^ Muslims ask French to cancel 1741 play by Voltaire
  10. ^ Pierre Milza, Voltaire p.638, Librairie Académique Perrin, 2007
  11. ^ Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, volume 2, Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné comte de Las Cases, Redfield, 1855, p.94
  12. ^ Voltaire, Mahomet the Impostor. A Tragedy, trans. James Miller, (London: A. Donaldson, 1759).
  13. ^ Voltaire, Voltaire' Mahomet: A Play in Five Acts, trans. E. P. Dupont, publishers, (New York: E. P. Dupont, 1901).
  14. ^ Voltaire, Mahomet the Prophet or Fanaticism: A Tragedy in Five Acts, trans. Robert L. Myers, ( New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964).
  15. ^ Voltaire, Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation, trans. Hanna Burton, (Sacramento: Litwin Books, 2013).

External links[edit]