Book Review: Muhammad: An anticlerical hero of the European Enlightenment

medina mosque 3

The Mosque of Medina, first built by the prophet in the first year after his migration there.  The Muslim Times has the best collection of articles about the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, Muslim heritage, interfaith tolerance and to refute Islamophobia

Source: Princeton University Printing Press and

By John Tolan, who is a professor of history at the University of Nantes. His latest book is Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (2019).

Review by Marina Benjamin

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

Jefferson Quran

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Quran is used in the swearing in ceremony of US Representative Keith Ellison at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, on 4 January 2007. Photo by Getty

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.


Additional reading

Muhammad: the Light for the Dark Ages of Europe!


2 replies

  1. A must read to connect the East and the West, Islam and Christianity and religion & science. In other words it could help bring every one closer in their views and understand human heritage in more global terms rather than in parochial ways.

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