Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish agnostic philosopher/historian who gave a series of lectures in 1840 titled, “On Heroes and Hero-Worship.” He selected Muhammad to be his example of a Prophet as a Hero, and his discourse has been a cornucopia of quotations on the shortcomings of Islam on one hand and examples of blatant “Orientalism” on the other. Carlyle admired the success of Muhammad and his Islamic religion, but clearly failed to understand or appreciate the reasons for that success. Since there is an increasing number of multiculturalists who give Muhammad and his ideology unparalleled respect and deference these days, perhaps it is appropriate to revisit Thomas Carlyle’s lecture on Muhammad and see what he got right and what he may have gotten terribly wrong. The full text of Carlyle’s speech can be read at
When the British Empire peaked out near the end of the 19th Century, its territories comprised 1/6 of the world. It was boasted that “the sun never sets” on British soil. Of course, many of the British subjects were Muslim. The attitudes of the British, in particular, gave evidence of an “Orientalist” viewpoint that saw Middle Eastern affairs through an imperial prejudice. A prime example of this can be found in Carlyle’s lecture on Muhammad when observed, “We have chosen Mohamet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of. . . [A]s there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mohametans, I mean to say all the good of him I justly can.”
Ironically, Muslims today make up more than 1/6 of the world’s population, and most British scholars and politicians get tongue-tied saying anything – positive or negative – about Muhammad and his ideology.
Today, Carlyle is most remembered for his most unflattering description of the Quran (George Sale’s translation):
I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; — insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.
The prevailing attitude in Carlyle’s time was that Muhammad was an impostor, falsehood incarnate, and that his religion was a mere mass of quackery and fatuity. But how can that be?, queried Carlyle. “A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house! . . . It will not stand for twelve centuries, to lodge a hundred-and-eighty million; it will fall straightaway.”
However, Muhammad did not actually build the house. He merely laid the final brick and claimed thereby to have superseded all other religions.
Muhammad said, “My likeness among the prophets is as a man who, having built a house and put the finishing touches on it and made it seemly, yet left on place without a brick. When anyone entered it and saw this, he would exclaim, ‘How excellent it is, but for the place of this brick.’ Now, I am the place of that brick: through me the line of prophets has been brought to completion.” (Bukhari, Vol. 4, No. 735)
Carlyle called Islam a confused form of Christianity. His point was not that it reflected Christian doctrines as much as Islam could have never been conceived without Christianity coming along beforehand. But Islam is not Christianity. As Carlyle says, “The sublime forgiveness of Christianity, turning of the other cheek when the one has been smitten, is not here: you are to revenge yourself. . . “
To the criticisms of Muhammad’s faults, imperfections and insincerities, Carlyle argues that Muhammad lived an exemplary life into his 50’s, when he was married to his first wife, Kadijah. “Not until he was already getting old, the prurient heat of his life all burnt out, and peacegrowing to be the chief thing this world could give him, did he start on the “career of ambition;” and, belying all his past character and existence, set-up as a wretched empty charlatan to acquire what he could now no longer enjoy! For my share, I have no faith whatever in that [scenario].” Besides, Carlyle argues, the Old Testament David was filled with faults, but he was called ‘the man according to God’s own heart.’ If God and posterity could ignore David’s faults, Carlyle argued, so shouldn’t we ignore those of Muhammad as well? Of course, the answer to that rhetorical question is that David sorely repented of his sins and strove to sin no more, whereas Muhammad’s sins became more flagrant and outrageous as time passed.
In his search for how could Muhammad found a great religion, the most noteworthy thing Carlyle saw in Muhammad was his sincerity. This sincerity was directed at a single-purposed mission – to end idolatry among the Arab people. His message was that we must submit to God. Our whole strength lies in resigned submission to Him. To Carlyle, this is the heroic accomplishment of Muhammad. And he adds, “Sincerity, in all senses, seems to me the merit of the Koran.”
But after preaching 13 years, Muhammad must flee Mecca with his 50 or so converts under threat of death. In Carlyle’s view, however, it wasn’t that Muhammad’s message was faulty, but rather he was the victim of unjust men who must be revenged. “But now, driven foully out of his native country, since unjust men had not only given no ear to his earnest Heaven’s-message, the deep cry of his heart, but would not even let him live if he kept speaking it, — the wild Son of the Desert resolved to defend himself, like a man and an Arab.”
Carlyle was hard-pressed to explain why Christianity spread quickly even though Jesus was driven from some of the towns where he preached, (See Matthew 13:57) and the Apostle Paul was beaten and thrown out of towns where he preached. (See Acts 14:19 and Acts 21:31). Says Carlyle, “It is no doubt far nobler what we have to boast of the Christian Religion, that it propagated itself peaceably in the way of preaching and conviction. Yet withal, if we take this for an argument of the truth or falsehood of a religion, there is a radical mistake in it.”
For Carlyle, the truth or falsehood of an ideology does not lie in its merits as much as it lies in its ultimate successful propagation. It doesn’t seem to matter to him if the propagation was through force or through reason. “I will allow a thing (i.e., an ideology) to struggle for itself in this world, with any sword or tongue or implement it has, or can lay hold of. We will let it preach, and pamphleteer, and fight, and to the uttermost bestir itself, and do, beak and claws, whatsoever is in it; very sure that it will, in the long-run conquer nothing which does not deserve to be conquered. What is better than itself, it cannot put away, but only what is worse.”
Surely, Carlyle had never contemplated the way cancer or AIDS can take over and consume a healthy body. Carlyle also lived before the bloody marches of Stalinism and Nazism, the ravages of the Holocaust, and the killing fields of Cambodia, to mention a few. It would be the epitome of naivety in the 21st Century to believe that “what is better than itself” cannot be destroyed by force and evil motives.
It is interesting to note that throughout Thomas Carlyle’s speech on Muhammad, he extolls Muhammad for hearing God’s call to be a “Prophet of God,” but in the ideological struggle between truth and falsehood, the arbitrator is not God but “Nature.” “In this great Duel, Nature herself is umpire, and can do no wrong: the thing which is deepest-rooted in Nature, what we call truest, that thing and not the other will be found growing at last. . . She requires of a thing only that itbe genuine of heart; she will protect it if so; will not, if not so.”
But Christians actually hold up a different standard: “Be on your guard against false prophets; they come to you looking like sheep on the outside, but on the inside they are really like wild wolves. You will know them by what they do. Thorn bushes do not bear grapes, and briers do not bear figs. A healthy tree bears good fruit, but a poor tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a poor tree cannot bear good fruit. And any tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know false prophets by what they do.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
And what does Carlyle feel about the empires that Muhammad’s followers overran in their militant sweep across the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain? “Islam devoured all these vain jangling [Eastern Christian] Sects; and I think had a right to do so. . . Arab idolatries, Syrian formulas, whatsoever was not equally real, had to go up in flame – mere dead fuel, in various senses, for this which was fire [i.e., Islam].” From Carlyle’s perspective, the marauding Muslims with their swords and mighty horses were not the deciding factor, only the sincere belief in the One God. “God alone has power. . . Understand that His will is the best for you. . . you have no other thing that you can do!”
But if those overrun religions of the Middle East were flawed, what does Islam have to offer that is so much better? We have already quoted Carlyle’s assessment of the Quran. Did Carlyle find any profound truths in it? Actually, the textual flaws become proof of its merit: “One would say the primary character of the Quran is this of itsgenuineness, of its being a bona-fide book. . . It is the confused ferment of a great rude human soul; rude, untutored, that cannot even read; but fervent, earnest, struggling. . . With a kind of breathless intensity he strives to utter himself; the thoughts crowd on him pell-mell; for very multitude of things to say, he can get nothing said. . . The successive utterances of a soul in that mood, coloured by the various vicissitudes of three-and-twenty years; now well uttered, now worse: this is the Koran. . . Sincerity, in all senses, seems to me the merit of the Koran; what had rendered it precious to the wild Arab men.”
In his effusive praise of Muhammad’s “rude vestiges of poetic genius” Carlyle seems to have forgotten that the unique claim of the Quran is that it is the verbal word of God, not Muhammad. The Quran states this quite clearly: “We [God] have revealed the Koran in the Arabic tongue that you may understand its meaning. It is a transcript of the eternal book in Our keeping, sublime, and full of wisdom.” (Surah 43:2) “. . . this is a glorious Koran, safeguarded in a book which none may touch except the purified; a revelation from the Lord of the Universe.” (Surah 56:77) “Proclaim what is revealed to you in the Book of the Lord. None can change His words.” (Surah 18:27) So the standard for the text of the Quran must be that of an omniscient God, who patiently created the Universe over millions of years, and who is the master of all languages and all discourse. Did the Quran rise to that standard in Carlyle’s opinion? Definitely not. Here are some of the ungodly characteristics Carlyle identified:
· A wearisome confused jumble
· Insupportable stupidity
· Repeats ten, perhaps twenty times, again and ever again
· It is difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven
· Written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was
· Mahomet’s Book is natural uncultivation
Over and over Carlyle feels he must defend Muhammad against accusations of calumny and being intent on base enjoyments. As was stated above, Carlyle posits that a man in his fifties has outgrown prurient desires and vain ambitions. Of course, the official record by Muslim historians seems to indicate otherwise. After Kadijah died, he had eighteen other wives and concubines. He married Aisha at age six and consummated the marriage at age nine when he was 54. He lured away his adopted son’s wife, Zaynab, and verses in the Quran assured the faithful that this was neither adultery nor incest. Muhammad also raped several captives immediately after his forces killed their husbands. A reliable hadith indicates that Muhammad interrupted his sexual activities by going to prayer:
Sulaiman bin Yasar narrated: “I asked Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) about the clothes soiled with semen. She said: ‘I used to wash it off the garment of Allah’s Apostle (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) and he would go for the prayer with water spots still visible.’”[Bukhari, Vol. 1, Number 231]
With regard to personal ambition and greed, Muhammad’s own words are a chilling testimony:
“I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror, and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.” (Bukhari, Vol. 4, Number 220)
And if Carlyle had put himself in the shoes of Muhammad’s victims, would Muhammad’s dispatching of the Jews of the Banu Qurayza tribe have been deemed “heroic”?
The apostle besieged them for twenty-five nights until they were sore pressed and God cast terror into their hearts. . . Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. . . There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. . . . Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of the Banu Qurayza among the Muslims. . . . Then He addressed the believers and said, “In God’s apostle you have a fine example for one who hopes for Allah and the last day.” (Ibn. Ishaq, “The Life of Muhammad,” pages 461 – 467.)
It is a pity that Carlyle could not recognize that Muhammad’s greatness as a Prophet of God had little to do with the religious truths of the Quran or his personal virtues. Every one of the virtues Carlyle found in the Quran had been set down long before in Judaism and Christianity – love for God, forsaking other gods, compassion for one another, striving for what is best, charity towards the poor, and the many signs that pointed to an omniscient and all-powerful God. So what did Muhammad add to religious understanding? Nothing, other than violence, vengeance, and the taking of life and property through force of arms.
Fortunately for Carlyle’s reputation, in his subsequent lecture on “The Hero as a Poet” he took back much of the praise he had heaped on Muhammad just one week earlier. The foil in this case was none other than William Shakespeare. When compared with the depth and color of Shakespeare’s writing, the Quran (by whoever authored it) was “a stupid piece of prolix (tediously prolonged, wordy) absurdity. . . Mahomet speaks to great masses of men, in the course dialect adapted to such: a dialect filled with inconsistencies, crudities, follies: on the great masses alone can he act, and there with good and evil strangely blended.”
Carlyle also came around to appreciating the “fruit” of good trees. “Let a man do his work; the fruit of it is the care of Another than he.” Conquests and political power do not constitute such fruit. “If the great Cause of Man, and Man’s work in God’s Earth, got no furtherance from the Arabian Caliph, then no matter how many scimetars he drew, how many gold piasters pocketed, and what uproar and blaring he made in this world – he was but a loud-sounding inanity and futility; at bottom, he was not at all. . . Even in Arabia, as I compute, Mahomet will have exhausted himself and become obsolete.”
Will Carlyle’s epitaph come true? At the end of the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire was in rapid decline relative to industrialized Europe, and Turkey was called “the sick man of Europe.” The discovery of oil in the Middle East in the 20th Century has provided a window of opportunity for followers of Muhammad to achieve the greatness they once enjoyed. Sadly, they have dissipated their resources promoting an ideology stuck in the 7th Century rather than investing in the Great Cause of Man — in education, infrastructure, and economic development. When the oil runs out — and it will — will the world find that the followers of Muhammad have merely exhausted themselves and become, once again, obsolete?