1Heir to a tradition hostile to the Muslim religion and civilization, deeply rooted in the cultural history of medieval and modern Europe, Montesquieu offers a fundamentally negative representation of the Islamic world as a whole. The limits of his understanding of the complexity of Islam, the stereotyped character of this representation, and the errors into which he sometimes falls, even with respect to the knowledge of which the contemporary culture could dispose, have often been emphasized by the critical literature. The reproaches are not always without substance, and they were even in the 18th century often addressed to the author of L’Esprit des lois, with precise references to documents and the reality of Islamic societies. A serious orientalist like Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron, in Législation orientale in 1778 [[‣]], made it a central element of his work, devoted to the refutation of all the negative considerations that Montesquieu had expressed on the society and institutions of the Muslim Orient.
2The role of Islam in the whole of Montesquieu’s work, however, is not marginal, and the relationship between his considerations on the Islamic world and many aspects of his analysis of the structures of political societies and of the relation between Europe and Asia, is without doubt considerable. His attention to the social and cultural reality of the Islamic Orient is continual and remarkable over the course of his entire intellectual activity. From the Du Ryer (1647) and Marracci (1698) translations of the Qu’ran to the works of Baudier (1625), Moni (1684), Nau (1684) or Reland (1721), to the Prideaux (1699), Gagnier (1732) and Boulainvilliers (1730) biographies of Mohammed, the writings that Montesquieu could utilize – often present in his library at La Brède, see the Catalogue – were numerous, and not always linked to the anti-Islamic tradition, as shown by the case of Boulainvilliers’s Vie de Mahomet [[‣]], which he doubtless used (see Pensées, no. 948 and EL XXIV, 25). To these writings he could add information from travel literature, from Tavernier, Tournefort, and especially Chardin, which is a source he always followed with particular attention.
3In the Spicilège as well as in the Pensées especially we have the precise evidence of this interest. In the Spicilège most of the references to Islam are part of the “Desmolets collection” (see the article “[‣]”) and come mostly from Prideaux (Spic., no. 45, 178, 181) and more marginally from the travels of Tavernier and Lucas; to these fragments Montesquieu then added several references to the religion of the Turks borrowed from the Dutch gazettes (Spic., no. 230 et 321). More important, especially with respect to the chapters of L’Esprit des lois bearing on the subject of Islam, are the reflections he left in his Pensées. The tie between Islam and despotism, which was to be an aspect of particular importance to the architecture of L’Esprit des lois, is clearly established in the Pensées(nos. 100 and 503), and the negative consequences of a religion deeply marked by fatalism (Pensées, no. 1606 and 1738), especially with relation to economic activities (Pensées, no. 1738), are explicitly underscored.
4In the Persian Letters the necessity of a direct confrontation with the reality of Islam, beyond the simple oriental guise of literary fiction, had already presented itself to Montesquieu. In certain letters he takes an interest, with strongly ironic accents, in the prohibitions of the Mahometan religion (in particular those that concerned the consumption of alcoholic beverages, LP[‣]) and on the credulity of Muslims for the virtue of amulets and talismans (LP[‣]); he ridicules, using particularly what he could borrow from the Machumetis Saracenorum principis doctrina of Hermannus Dalmata (1550) the properly Islamic notion of impurity (LP[‣]-[‣]), and the tales of Mahomet’s birth (LP[‣]). These are references and judgments typical of the European anti-Islamic tradition, reinforced by Montesquieu, who put the accent on the submission of women, especially in the long “Story of Aphéridon and Astarté” (LP[‣]), where it appears by contrast with the ancient Persian religion. Finally, to complete a very dark picture, the social and economic implications of a religion that had imposed itself “not by way of persuasion, but by conquest”, are recalled, on the one hand, the negative influence of Islam on population development (LP[‣]), and on the other, more generally, the relation between fanaticism and economic decadence (LP[‣]).
5We can find all these elements in L’Esprit des lois, in the more structured context of that work. The strong link between Islam and despotism is underscored from the first books; if fear is the principle of despotic governments, the Mahometan religion is represented as “a fear added to fear” (EL, V, 14) because it is from Islam that come “the astonishing respect which [the Muslim peoples] have for their prince”. This notion is reinforced in the books on religion with the distinction between the Christian religion, more suited to moderate governments, and Islam, the solid ally of despotism (EL, XXIV, 3). In this overall picture, which remains coherent and unmodified, Montesquieu introduces a whole series of sociological observations, with the purpose of explaining in more detail what could be called the phenomenology of the relationship between Islam and despotism.
6It was first of all the reference to the climate and milieu that allowed Montesquieu to go beyond the observations already proposed in the Persian Letters and to find criteria of explanation that seemed to him more solid. The prohibition on drinking wine, for example, is directly linked to the Arabian climate, and recognized as a custom long before Islamic law (EL, XIV, 10). Similarly, it is again the milieu and the climate that he puts in the foreground to explain the polygamy of Asian societies and, consequently, the reason for the easier propagation of Islam in Asia compared with Christianity (EL, XVI, 2). The servitude of women, in this climate, is a perfect adaptation to despotic government (EL, XVI, 9) and is at the same time in conformity with the principles of the Mahometan religion. Even weightier, in this most oppressive system, is the condition of women slaves, who reach the deepest level of misfortune, a condition that contradicts the very economic principles of slavery, because in this case it is a condition of absolute subjection “recompensed by indolence” (EL, XV, 12).
7Still, Montesquieu is not unaware that the reality of Islam is more articulate and complex that his summary representation can make it look; he knew about the division between Shiites and Sunnis (LP[‣]), and he sees in the religion of the Turks elements of correction that can attenuate the effects of despotism (EL, V, 14); the positive function of Mahomet’s doctrine also must be made clear to surmount inner conflicts in the Arab world (EL, XXIV, 17), or again the moderating function of the effects of despotism exercised by the religious precepts of the Qu’ran. But that hardly changes the picture already portrayed. On the one hand Mahomet had shown incontestible skill as a political chief, by making the Arabic people a nation of conquerors (EL, XXI, 16), bearers of despotism; on the other, the moderating function of the Qu’ran itself, such as it appears in Montesquieu, makes it a most effective tool for consolidating the “tranquility” characteristic of despotic states and for making more stable what in any case remains arbitrary (EL, XII, 29). Instead of opposing the effects of despotism, the Mahometan religion thus reinforced its negative consequences, and its fatalism had catastrophic effects on economic activities (EL, XXIV, 11).
8The strong attachment of Muslims to their religion, linked to the idea “of a choice made by the divinity, and a distinction of those who profess it and those who do not” (“d'un choix fait par la divinité, et d'une distinction de ceux qui la professent d'avec ceux qui ne la professent pas”, EL, XXV, 2), and the radically intolerant nature of Islam, which separates it from all religions practiced in the Asian world (EL, XXV, 15), contribute to amplifying the sinister image sketched by Montesquieu and making it even more disquieting. It is in fact a happy consequence of the natural milieu and the climate that Islam found limits to its planetary expansion; the reasons that made Montesquieu regret that Christianity had its propagation bounded, for it could have checked the establishment of despotism (Ethiopia appeared thanks to Christianity as a happy exception to the laws of climate: EL, XXIV, 3), had thus quite an opposite value for Islam (EL, XXIV, 26). For the author of L’Esprit des lois the Islamic world thus expressed in the clearest way the spirit of servitude proper to the whole Asiatic world (EL, XVII, 6), but finds in the religion of Mahomet itself an essential complement. This clear and dominant image does not allow him to ask deeper questions about Muslim institutions and their history, by confirming the radical and redoubtable otherness – political, civil, cultural – of the Islamic countries with respect to European history and civilization.
Muriel Dodds, Les Récits de voyages sources de “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: Champion, 1929 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1980).
Paul Vernière, “Montesquieu et le monde musulman”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux : Delmas, 1956, p. 175-190.
Françoise Weil, “Montesquieu et le despotisme”, in Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux : Delmas, 1956, p. 191-215.
Pauline Kra, Religion in Montesquieu’s “Lettres Persanes”, Geneva, SVEC 72 (1970).
Ahmad Gunny, Images of Islam in Eighteenth-Century Writings, London: Grey Seal, 1996, p.118-129.
Rolando Minuti, Orientalismo e idee di tolleranza nella cultura francese del primo '700, Florence: Olschki, 2006.