Islam and the Revolutionary Age

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Ian Coller

On 2 Floréal of the year III (21 April 1795) a letter written by a North African Muslim was read aloud in the National Convention in Paris. Its author, Muhammad D’Ghies, was well known to European travelers, and his son Hassuna would later rise to prominence. As a subject of a Muslim power, D’Ghies eschewed the dangerous word “revolution,” more diplomatically praising “the good you are doing here.” Historical evidence supports the grain shipments from North Africa he mentioned. This was no orientalist invention. In the letter, D’Ghies embraced the values of justice and humanity, and, above all, universal fraternity. But he seemed most keen to emphasize that this admiration did not contradict his religious faith. Beginning with an invocation of the prophet, he declared his willingness to support the Republic as a Muslim. “No matter the region where I first drew breath,” he wrote, “or the religion in which I was born, we are brothers, indeed more than brothers when all moral values are shared between two thinking beings.”[1]

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Why was this letter of such importance that it entered the political record? In the preceding five years of the French Revolution, Islam had become part of revolutionary symbolism and geo-politics. By 1795, Muslims were powerfully associated with the universalizing vision of the Revolution, at a moment when the early defeats of the Republic had given way to stunning victories. Claims about potential Muslim support were crucial for those who sought to expand the revolution beyond Europe. And such global visions helped to distract from the bloody violence of 1794-5, the period known as the “Terror” and its aftermath. Muslim participation underlined the religious plurality of the new regime, countering attempts to rebuild the shattered Catholic church that had dominated France for centuries. And the grain D’Ghies promised to ship from North Africa was crucial to staving off the threat of famine in southern France, and preventing further unrest.

A playing card from 1793 that shows the “Liberté des Cultes” with a copy of the Koran (as well as the “Dieu Seul” deistic conception crucial to the assimilation of Islam with the new revolutionary religion.

Islam and Muslims were significant in multiple ways in the eyes of revolutionaries. It is surprising, then, that historians have paid so little attention to the Muslim world in studying the Age of Revolution. Classical historians like Georges Lefebvre saw the parts of the world that had “developed under Islam” as unaware of or untouched by the “spark” of revolutionary ideas.[2] W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1961 of the historical blindness to any meaningful links between Africa and the French Revolution. Today, the Caribbean and Haiti in particular take a far greater place in history of the “Age of Revolutions”, but Du Bois’s point still holds. Most histories of “Atlantic Revolutions”  still leave out Africa in charting the mutual impact of revolutions in Europe and the Americas.[3] Despite the emphasis on “global history,” historians are only beginning to engage seriously with African and Asian participation in the revolutionary age.[4]

In his seminal work on the “Age of Revolution,” Eric Hobsbawm described the period from 1789 to 1848 as the epoch of a “world Islamic revival.”[5] The relationship of Islamic resurgence to revolutionary transformation remains poorly understood. In contrast to the Atlanticist picture of comparable revolutions forming a single transregional revolutionary shift, Christopher Bayly argued that we should recognize “conjunctural” revolutions taking different and apparently incommensurable forms. In diversifying the picture of “revolution,” however, we may risk losing its specificity, and throwing its periodization into disarray. Recent work on the Indian Ocean seeks to bring shipboard mutinies into our picture of the “age of revolution,” but fails to show what made these rebellions specific to one “age” or how they related to larger revolutions that altered political structures.[6] Considered on a global scale, is this best considered an age of revolution, or a messy prelude to European empire? Should we abandon the attempt to shoehorn the rest of the world into a Eurocentric “age of revolution”? Or can attention to wider global processes deepen our understanding of revolutions?

The example of Muhammad D’Ghies helps us to see these questions from the bottom up rather than from the eagle’s eye perspective of geopolitics, restoring the complexity of human agency and connection rather than categorization. It suggests that Muslims could and did engage with shifts taking place on a global scale, and saw no automatic contradiction between the new values and their religious faith. For Bayly, revolutionary language in Asia and Africa was not just “imitation”—it “made sense” in the struggle to reform collapsing pre-modern empires and resist growing European domination. [7] This did not mean that Muslims saw the French Revolution in identical terms—but the same may be said for many other actors of the revolutionary age. Peasants, women, Calvinists, Jews, people of color, and the enslaved all experienced different “revolutions” within the same broad set of transformations, as did aristocrats, clerics and émigrés: their own responses were equally varied.  From below, we can see diversity rather than uniformity as the hallmark of the revolutionary age.

That diversity is evident in Muslim responses to the revolutionary age. The Ottoman prince Ishak Bey was reported to have adopted a patriotic posture against Russian attempts to coopt him in their annexation of the Crimea, replying firmly that he had “only one faith and one fatherland [patrie].” Ishak arrived in France in 1786 and remained until the October Days of 1789: the frontal attack on the monarchy disturbed him deeply, and he returned to Istanbul to support the reforms of the new Sultan Selim III.

In contrast, in the middle of 1794, at the height of the “Terror,” the Indian Muslim Ahmed Khan, son of a Gujurati nawab, asked the revolutionary committee of Versailles to let him attach the tricolor cockade to his coat rather than his headwear because of the “religious scruple that prohibits Muslims from wearing any decoration on their turbans.”[8] This negotiation suggests a conscious adaptation of revolutionary symbolism, rather than simple compliance or imitation. Given assistance by the Committee of Public Safety, Ahmed began the first translation of the radical 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen into Persian. That work became a dead letter after the overthrow of the Jacobin government, but Ahmed’s revolutionary career continued. The documents of his arrest by the East India Company’s police on his return to India in 1796 suggested that he had visited France much earlier, before the Revolution had broken out. It is possible that “Ahmed Khan” was an assumed identity. This may point to a more convoluted revolutionary path behind the itinerary revealed in the documents, reinforcing Bayly’s emphasis on indigenous revolutionary agency coming out of South Asia.

Non-elite Muslims also participated in revolutionary shifts, from Algerians residing in Marseille to merchants and enslaved people in French Caribbean colonies. New ideas and practices reached Muslims living under French rule in St Louis du Sénégal, in Pondichery and Chandernagore in India, in the Mascarene islands of the Indian Ocean, and rippled into major centers of the Muslim world, from Istanbul and Cairo to Algiers, Tunis, and Tipu Sultan’s Mysore. By 1794, Muslim states were almost the only major powers still friendly to France. The rulers of Europe were allied against the Republic, and even the fledgling United States had cooled relations with its former benefactor. Without Muslim support—including those shipments of North African wheat that D’Ghies promised in his letter—France might not have held out against the onslaught of European reaction.

As France faced attack from all sides and from within, state authorities unleashed a wave of violence that became known as “the Terror.” In mid-1794, power was seized by the group of “Thermidorians” who blamed the bloodshed on the Jacobin leader Robespierre, executing him without trial on accusations that included seeking to establish himself as pope of a new religion—or as a “new Mahomet”. By 1795, the Voltairean atheists who had jeered at Robespierre’s civic cult of the Supreme Being were faced with the same problem. What should be done about religion? Ban it completely? Worship nature? Return to the roots of Christianity? Celebrate all religions…except counter-revolutionary Catholicism? Or forge a new civic religion, as Robespierre had tried to do? In the absence of faith, why should individuals transcend their personal desires in the common interest? How could the new society engineer morality? In this politico-religious whirlwind, Islam could take on all sorts of new meanings.

Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 9.46.45 AMIn June 1795 the Committee of Public Instruction issued an unusual order for the publication and distribution of Muhammad’s pact with the Christians in Arabic, along with a French translation.[9] Jean Baptiste Lefebvre-Villebrune, head librarian at the French National Library, lauded it as a model for limited tolerance under the sign of the “unity of God” (a phrase he underlined). Muhammad, he wrote, had succeeded in creating a new religion, not through force of arms, but through a “great and true dogma that will one day subject the entire globe to the religion of Islam.”[10] The Islam that Lefebvre-Villebrune flirted with here as a potential replacement for Christianity was a “dogma” stripped of law, custom and tradition. It resembled the deistic worship of a “Supreme Being.”

On the other side of the Mediterranean, struggles were taking place around similar questions. Followers of the recently deceased religious revolutionary Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) in alliance with the chief of the al-Saud dynasty seized a vast swathe of territory in the Arabian peninsula, threatening the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The principle of the “unity of God” (tawhid) that Lefebvre-Villebrune had underlined was at the heart of this radical movement, which condemned “pagan” customs (shirk) such as swearing by the prophet, as Muhammad D’Ghies did in his letter. French Jacobins sometimes mistakenly imagined that this movement—promoting purified forms of religion organized around the oneness of God, the equality of all believers, and the rejection of luxury—was aligned to their own ideas. In reality, Wahhabis outlawed all innovation (bid’a) and condemned Muslims who disagreed with them as enemy infidels (takfir).

In North Africa and India, new Sufi politico-religious movements were forming around the tariqa or imitation of the prophet Muhammad. The influential sheikh Ahmad al-Tijani (1735-1815) founded a movement that would shape the spiritual world of western Africa: although he did not oppose worldly wealth, he rejected the saint-worship that characterized popular Islamic practice. Like Wahhabism, such movements threatened the power of the Ottoman dynasty and its surrogates in North Africa—including the ruling “bey” of Tunis whom D’Ghies invoked. Those powers looked toward the dechristianized French Republic as a potential friend and ally. They were soon to find that trust betrayed.

Napolione di Buonaparte was just as fascinated by Islam as Lefebvre-Villebrune. In 1795, the young Corsican officer requested a posting as envoy to Istanbul, but was appointed instead to the Army of Italy, where stunning victories made him a household name. The influential former bishop Talleyrand began talking up an invasion of Ottoman Egypt, implausibly claiming that Muslims would greet the French as liberators. Bonaparte (as he now called himself) fell for this ill-conceived plan. Fifty thousand troops under his command landed in Alexandria in July 1798, carrying piles of Arabic pamphlets announcing that “the French are sincere Muslims.” Only the fantasy of a convergence between dechristianization and Islam can explain why Bonaparte thought the Egyptians would swallow this line. All doubt was dispelled when the Caliph of the world’s Muslims—the Ottoman Sultan—declared a global jihad against France in 1799. Bonaparte returned to France, and ended the Revolution’s promise of freedom and equality, launching a new empire. A path of confrontation and colonization was set for the century to come.

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the revolutionary age’s most incisive observers, directly likened the French Revolution to Islam. Both, he said, were revolutions that transformed not just politics but the fundamental structures of belief, and “flooded the earth with [their] soldiers, apostles, and martyrs.”[11] We may add that they were both torn by internal rifts over the nature of these beliefs and their application to political life. In the late eighteenth century, these great politico-religious universalisms converged and diverged, with consequences that can be seen today. To understand the global revolutionary age, we must recognize that religion was a living dimension of struggle, not a fading relic. Muslims participated directly in these revolutionary processes, not just as orientalist tropes. Islam must be recognized as a crucial piece in the analysis of the interlocking revolutions that shaped the modern world.

Ian Coller is professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. His upcoming book, entitled, Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics and the French Revolution, is out this March with Yale University Press in January 2020.

Title image: Audience du Directoire en costume, le 30 Brumaire, An 4eme de Jean Duplessi-Bertaux (1747-1819) (dessinateur) et Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (1737-1831) (sculpteur).

Further Reading:

Anderson, Clare. “The Age of Revolution in the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and South China Sea: A Maritime Perspective.” International Review of Social History 58 (2013): 229–51.

Armitage, David, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds). The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Bayly, Christopher. “The Revolutionary Age in the Wider World c.1790-1830” in . Richard Bessel et al. eds. War, Empire and Slavery, 1770-1830. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Bonacina, Giovanni. The Wahhabis Seen through European Eyes, 1772–1830. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Coller, Ian. Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics and the French Revolution. New Haven: Yale UP, 2020.

———— “The French Revolution and the Islamic World of the Middle East and North Africa” in Alan Forrest and Matthias Middell (eds) The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History (Routledge, 2015), 117-134.

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. L’Afrique et les africains au XIXe siècle: : Mutations, révolutions, crises. Paris: Armand Colin, 2014.

Dakhlia, Jocelyne, and Bernard Vincent (eds). Les Musulmans dans l’histoire de l’Europe, vol. 1: Une intégration invisible. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Africa and the French Revolution” Freedomways 1 (1961): 136-151

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

‎Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. New York: New American Library, 1962.‎

Desan, Suzanne, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson (eds). The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Laurens, Henry. “La Révolution française et l’Islam.” Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée 52.1 (1989): 29–34.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution, Volume 1: From Its Origins to 1793. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Lovejoy, Paul E. Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016.

Palmer, R.R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. New edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Yaycioglu, Ali. Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016.


[1] Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, 12 Floréal Year 3 (1 May 1795). The transcription D’Ghies was adopted by Muhammad’s son Hassuna: here it was rendered phonetically as Dyghis.

[2] Lefebvre, The French Revolution, xx.

[3] Palmer described his “democratic revolution” as a “world revolution of the West” — leaving out even the Caribbean (The Age of the Democratic Revolution). Africanists have begun to investigate African revolutions in this period, see eg. Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa, Coquery-Vidrovitch, L’Afrique et les africains au XIXe siècle

[4] For example, Armitage and Subrahmanyam’s reflection on the “absence of a revolution” in the Ottoman Empire (The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, xxviii) presumes that the overthrow of Selim III in 1807 was a “deposition” where the overthrow of the Bourbons from 1792 to 1799 was a “revolution” although monarchy was later restored. For a different view, see Yaycioglu, Partners of the Empire.

[5] Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 225.

[6] See Anderson, “The Age of Revolution in the Indian Ocean”

[7] Bayly, “The Revolutionary Age in the Wider World,” 31.

[8] Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Paris, MD Asie, 20.

[9] Procès-verbaux du Comité d’instruction publique de la Convention nationale VI, 320

[10] Archives Nationales (Paris), F17 1356

[11] Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 101.

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