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Mahomet the prophet; or, Fanaticism: a…

Mahomet the prophet; or, Fanaticism: a tragedy in five acts

by Voltaire

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Maybe it was just the translation, or the necessary brevity of the play as a format, but I found Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet to be a disappointingly sketchy effort from the writer of Candide. Indeed, it was humourless and one-note compared to the darkly cynical wit of Candide, broadcasting a message that blind obedience and servility to religious masters is false and evil. Voltaire was a champion of free-thinking and by painting Mahomet (based on the prophet Muhammad) as someone whose tyranny survives and thrives only by the efforts of gullible underlings ("I need someone who will do what I say, who will commit the murder and pass the rewards to me", Voltaire's villain says on page 62), he is not only revealing why religion is considered useful to those in positions of power but making the case for unprejudiced thought and responsible questioning of power as the main bulwark against such abuses. For all Mahomet's drawbacks as a play – its sketchiness, lack of humour and one-dimensional characters – it does succeed in getting this message across. It is a better polemic than it is a play.

Mahomet's theme of religious fanaticism and tyranny also, sadly, remains a topical one. Whilst the play, written in 1741, is widely agreed to have been a condemnation of Catholic oppression that used the cover of Islam just to get past the French censors, the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris just a couple of days ago (Friday 13th November 2015) were very much on my mind when reading Mahomet, and consequently I couldn't help but read the play as a straight critique of Islamic fanaticism. (Indeed, one of the Paris attacks took place on Boulevard Voltaire, named in honour of the writer. One imagines what he would think of our modern struggle with Islam; I'd wager he would be one of its fiercest and most uncompromising critics.) Read from this perspective, it reminded me just how little has changed in the intervening centuries. Religious fanaticism, for all our modern rationalisations and excuses about alienated youths and oppressed minorities and unjust foreign wars, is still the same animal as it ever was. It is still very much a blight on human decency, as has been brought home very clearly and tragically to Voltaire's native France.

"He [Mahomet] has thirty nations extolling the very crimes we deplore here. Meanwhile, within our own city is a group of misguided souls all too eager to guzzle the poison of lies and perpetuate the illusion of his false miracles. They spread fanaticism and sedition, and they're calling in his army. They believe a fearsome God has granted him inspiration, guidance, and invincibility. All of our true citizens are on your side. But is the best advice always followed? False ardour, the love of novelty, and fear, have been a scourge within Mecca's trembling gates. The people appeal to your kindness. They're crying out to their father for peace." (pg. 39) ( )
  MikeFutcher | Mar 19, 2017 |
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