Frontispiece of the 1753 edition
|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
|Date premiered||25 April 1741|
|Place premiered||Lille, France|
Mahomet (French: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, 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 a study of religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation based on an episode in the traditional biography of Muhammad in which he orders the murder of his critics. Voltaire described the play as "written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect".
In the first act the audience is introduced to a fictional leader of the Meccans, Zopir, an ardent and defiant 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 and jealousy. 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 religious fanaticism 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. 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 fanatical loyalty to Mahomet overtakes him 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 whole event so as to not be seen as the deceitful impostor and tyrant that he is.
Having now uncovered Mahomet's vile deception, Palmira renounces Mahomet's god and commits suicide rather than fall into the clutches of Mahomet.
Analysis and inspiration
The play is a direct assault on the moral character of Muhammad. Omar is a known historical figure who became second caliph; the characters of Seid and Palmira represent Muhammad's adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh.
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. 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." 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. However, Milza considers that Islam wasn't the only focus of the plot and that the author's 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".
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.'
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. Under pressure to cancel the play, the Mayor allowed the play to continue despite "street disturbances" from Muslim groups. "Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe's 'foundation stone', he says. 'For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them.'"
Translations into English
There are four known translations of the play into English:
- James Miller's translation, completed by John Hoadly, first performed 1744, published by A. Donaldson, 1759 (technically an adaptation, rather than a translation)
- The translation by E. P. Dupont publishers (New York, 1901)
- The translation by Robert L. Myers, published by Frederick Ungar, 1964
- The translation by Hannah Burton, published by Litwin Books, 2013
- Voltaire, Mahomet the Prophet or Fanaticism: A Tragedy in Five Acts, trans. Robert L. Myers, ( New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964).
- 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."
- 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
- Mahomet Act IV scene IV Seid declares, 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,
- Mahomet Act V scene VI
- [Pierre Milza, Voltaire p.638, Librairie Académique Perrin, 2007
- Voltaire, Lettres inédites de Voltaire, Didier, 1856, t.1, Lettre à M. César De Missy, 1er septembre 1743, p.450
- Voltaire, Lettres inédites de Voltaire, Didier, 1856, t.1, Lettre à M. César De Missy, 1 septembre 1742, p.450
- Pierre Milza, Voltaire p.638, Librairie Académique Perrin, 2007
- Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, volume 2, Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné comte de Las Cases, Redfield, 1855, p.94
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Muslims ask French to cancel 1741 play by Voltaire", 06 March 2006
- Voltaire, Mahomet the Impostor. A Tragedy, trans. James Miller, (London: A. Donaldson, 1759).
- Voltaire, Voltaire' Mahomet: A Play in Five Acts, trans. E. P. Dupont, publishers, (New York: E. P. Dupont, 1901).
- Voltaire, Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation, trans. Hanna Burton, (Sacramento: Litwin Books, 2013).