The age-old tension between Islam and France

Nov 2, 2020 by

by Tom Holland, UnHerd:

A profound antipathy reaches back beyond the Enlightenment.

In 1798, Napoleon embarked on the first French invasion of Egypt since the era of the Crusades. He prepared for it with his customary attention to detail. Conscious that he was travelling to a predominantly Muslim land, he sought to make a careful study of Islam. Top of his reading list was, of course, the Qur’an. Raised as he had been to view the Bible as the archetype of scripture, he found it a surprising text. The character of Muhammad’s revelations, he realised, was radically different from that of the New Testament.

The Qur’an did not content itself with what Napoleon had been brought up to think of as “religion”. Its scope was much broader than that. From fiscal policy to sumptuary laws, it offered prescriptions for entire dimensions of what, in Europe, had long since come to be defined as “secular”. Napoleon, sorting out the library in his cabin, duly catalogued it, not under “Religion”, but under “Politics”.

Three weeks after disembarking at Alexandria, the French army won a decisive victory in an engagement that its general, displaying his customary genius for self-promotion, was quick to term the battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon was now effectively the master of Egypt. Yet this brought its own problems. While the military challenge might have been overcome, the much greater challenge of wooing a Muslim population suspicious of him as both an alien and a non-believer had not.

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