Was Napoleon Bonaparte a Muslim?

Awwab Saad Hayat, Al Hakam
Napoleon at Borodino, where there was a battle between Napoleon and the Russians on 7 September 1812

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa visited France in October 2008. It is reported that on 9 October 2008, during a meeting with new converts of the Jamaat, a member stated that she had heard Napoleon Bonaparte accepted Islam and became a Muslim in 1798. She asked if Huzooraa could confirm this. In response, Huzooraa said:

“I have also heard this; however, I do not know for sure whether this is true or not. But it doesn’t seem likely. (Al Fazl, 18 October 2008, p. 6)

Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous French military leader and conqueror who later became the ruler of France, was ranked 34th in the list of the most influential people in the book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael H Hart. 

Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, France. Records of his death show he died on 5 May 1821 in Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic. After the defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned by the British authorities and died there, allegedly of cancer. However, around the same time, it has been proven that Napoleon’s death was not due to cancer or any other disease but was the result of poisoning.

If one carefully examines the references and records of Napoleon Bonaparte’s assumed acceptance of Islam and his adherence to the religion, we find there are both opinions for and against it.

A study of Napoleon’s life shows that he was a courageous, intelligent and successful ruler and had a special skill in adopting policies according to the situation. He had the ability to adapt according to any situation.

For example, the territory of Corsica was annexed to the French Empire just 15 months before Napoleon Bonaparte’s birth. And the France that Napoleon became ruler of was the same France that was considered by Napoleon to be an oppressive and occupying force in the early years of his life, when he preferred to call himself a Corsican. Despite all this, he completed his education at French military training institutions, where he joined the French Army as a second lieutenant after graduating in 1785. Just four years later, the famous French Revolution began.

Napoleon first gained fame when the French recaptured the city of Toulon, France from the British forces in 1793. In this battle, commonly known as the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon was in charge of the artillery. From here, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. And then in 1796, Napoleon was given command of the French forces in Italy where he achieved continuous success due to his superior military tactics and bravery. He returned to France as a hero.

Before setting out for his expedition to Egypt, Napoleon instructed his secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, to compile a library (with the intention of learning more about Egypt and its surrounding lands). This library was divided and ordered into six categories: 

(i) Arts and science

(ii) Geography and travels 

(iii) History

(iv) Poetry

(v) Romance

(vi) Politics and morals

In the latter category, Napoleon had, in his collection, the Holy Quran, the Vedas, the Torah and the Bible. (The French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte [Urdu translation], p. 56)

In the account of Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt, it is written that Napoleon spent his time in the management of Egypt and the modification of the empire and managed the affairs of Egypt in such a way that the inhabitants were soon blessed with peace and comfort which the populace was unacquainted with for a prolonged period. Napoleon adopted the Turkish dress to win the hearts of the inhabitants of Egypt, but then, seeing that his chiefs humoured his act, he eventually abandoned it. Napoleon adopted the attire of the Muslims and supported them. Later, when he arrived in St Helena, he said Egypt was in every way worthy of his wearing the attire embraced by Muslims. (The French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte [Urdu translation], p. 65)

Almost all historians are convinced of the genius and cunning intelligence of Napoleon Bonaparte during the testing and difficult military campaign in Egypt, his stay there and the formulation of policy according to the needs and objectives of the country. There, Napoleon attributed the reason for his adopting the Muslim attire to the conditions in Egypt and not to himself converting to Islam or having any kind of relation to the religion. 

In connection to Napoleon’s entry into Egypt, we find that he entered Cairo, Egypt on a June morning in 1798. He was accompanied by 36,000 troops. Napoleon had studied the history of Islam extensively before his campaign in Egypt and knew how to channel the emotions of the Muslims living there and also learnt some basic Arabic words to make him more agreeable to the locals.

Napoleon told his generals to fight what he called militancy by the Muslims. Whilst in Egypt, he also invited around 60 scholars of Jamia Al-Azhar to his military headquarters for a meal. After the meal, Napoleon began his address in which, it is said, he mentioned the greatness of Islam, its truth and various aspects of the personality of the Holy Prophetsa. During the speech, whenever he mentioned the name of the Holy Prophetsa, he would bow slightly. (Daily Express Faisalabad, 19 October 2008, p. 2)

Before Napoleon returned from Egypt and became the ruler of France, it is recorded that whenever he went out, people would be eager to see him. Napoleon was very good at attracting people to his side. (The French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte [Urdu translation], p. 80)

Napoleon 1
Napoleon Bonaparte

It is also recorded that Napoleon knew that his goals could be achieved by appealing to the emotions of people:

“Napoleon was also well aware of the importance of propaganda, so he publicised his achievements to the world in order to make himself appear extraordinary. Public opinion was manipulated in Napoleon’s favour in such a way as to cement in the minds of the people that Napoleon was their saviour.” (Napoleon Bonaparte, Rubine Naz, pp. 8-9)

On the other hand, many of Napoleon’s military campaigns, after his return from Egypt, and then as King of France, clearly oppose and go against the idea that he accepted Islam and became a Muslim. His decisions and personal actions seem to be the opposite of the lifestyle of a true Muslim. Without going into its details here, only a few issues of the expeditions of Napoleon Bonaparte are being mentioned as a sample. 

After the invasion of Egypt and gaining a little foothold there, Napoleon set out against Syria. It is written that Napoleon left Egypt and attacked Syria merely for military success. There, to encourage his troops before a difficult attack, he called for the Bible, and, by reading passages from the book of Joshua, he raised the spirits of his weary and discouraged army and incited them to a fierce battle.

During his expedition to Syria, he ordered the execution of all the prisoners of Jaffa. 3,000 horsemen had surrendered themselves to Napoleon’s generals at Alania, on the condition that their lives be spared. Yet, despite being aware of this promise, Napoleon ordered to have them all executed. These unfortunate prisoners were showered with bullets on the banks of the river; their bones lay on the ground for several days. The Jaffa Massacre proved to be damaging to Napoleon’s reputation throughout Europe at the time. 

With the then growing resistance in Syria and back in Egypt, Napoleon ordered raising the siege in Syria. As a result, Napoleon’s soldiers committed many atrocities. They burnt ready crops and committed atrocities which would’ve surely been known to Napoleon and even if he was unaware, it was a shortcoming on his part as the army chief. 

In Egypt, Napoleon left his wounded generals and exhausted soldiers to die in the desert and showed no sympathy to them despite their repeated pleas. As for the wounded chiefs who were initially carried by the soldiers, Napoleon ordered them to be thrown to the ground.

In one case, during his return to Cairo, an epidemic struck the French army. Napoleon ordered the killing of his soldiers under treatment in the Jaffa hospital. Such drastic steps do not represent any true Muslim leader. 

Historians allege that after witnessing a weakening government in France, Napoleon secretly left Egypt with the intention of usurping the French throne. Leaving his forces in ruin, he withdrew secretly with a few men. 

These historical accounts show that Napoleon could not have converted to Islam as his actions were far from Islamic teachings.

Those who believe Napoleon converted to Islam during his military campaign in Egypt argue that in David Pidcock’s book Satanic Voices – Ancient and Modern (1992, p. 61) it is written that a government newspaper, Le Moniteur, had published that Napoleon accepted Islam in 1798. The newspaper said his new Islamic name was Ali Napoleon Bonaparte. It was said that Napoleon also told his commander, Jacques-François de Menou, about this and he too converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdallah de Menou. The same general later married an Egyptian woman, Siti Zubaydah, who was said to belong to the family of the Prophetsa of Islam. The newspaper stated that Napoleon not only acknowledged the virtues of the Islamic Sharia himself but was also willing to implement them throughout his empire later. 

Further, it is recorded that Napoleon spent the last days of his life as a captive in St Helena, where he revealed his thoughts and outlook on life. A book titled The Thoughts of the Prisoner of the Island of St. Helena was published after his death. This is the period when Napoleon, after attaining all his glory as a commander, was living the life of a mere prisoner. It is recorded that here, Napoleon said the existence of One God was certain but all religions were creations of mankind.

Similarly, the following sayings of Napoleon are found from which some people infer he was a Muslim. It is recorded that Napoleon said:

“Moses has revealed the existence of God to his nation. Jesus Christ to the Roman world, Muhammad to the old continent […]

“Arabia was idolatrous when, six centuries after Jesus, Muhammad introduced the worship of the God of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Moses, and Jesus. The Ariyans and some other sects had disturbed the tranquillity of the east by agitating the question of the nature of the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost. Muhammad declared that there was none but one God who had no father, no son and that the trinity imported the idea of idolatry […]

“I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness.”

(Bonaparte et l’Islam, d’Après les Documents Français et Arabes, Christian Cherfils, Ed., Paris, France, 1914, pp. 105-125. Original References: Correspondance de Napoléon Ier. Tome 5)

The famous researcher and distinguished writer, Allama Abul Kalam Azad, has written the following in Jami al-Shawahd fi Dakhool Ghair al-Muslim fi al-Masjid

“When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and conquered it, and it was occupied by the French for two and a half years, Napoleon himself and most of the officers of the army accepted Islam in the Azhar Mosque, participated in Friday prayers and also adopted Islamic names. However, the French army was considered to be Christians and would often enter the mosques. A discussion started on this whether non-Muslims should be allowed to come to mosques or not. Some Maliki scholars at the Al-Azhar said that it was not permissible. But Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, in Tarikh Ajaa’ib al-Asar, has written a special magazine and confirmed that within the Maliki School of thought the permission [of a non-Muslim entering a mosque] can be granted if a Muslim permits a non-Muslim. Therefore, Christians should not enter without the permission of Muslims. They can enter the mosque with the concession of respect and reverence. This entire incident was written by Sheikh Abdullah al-Sharqawi in Tuhfat al-Nazareen, who was Sheikh Al-Azhar at that time. But I do not have the said book at the moment.” (Jami al-Shawahd fi Dakhool Ghair al-Muslim fi al-Masjid, pp. 90-91)

The Promised Messiahas describes the merits and superiority of Islam and says that the secret to the success and advancement of Islam was that people would naturally be attracted to the words and message of the Holy Prophetsa because the message was so simple and clear, so much so that even Napoleon is claimed by some authors to have testified to its simplicity and accepted Islam. (Malfuzat, Vol. 2, (1988), p. 60) However, when we look deeper into the alleged conversion of Napoleon, we can understand why some of those authors may have made the claim about his conversion.

Napoleon 2

Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a French diplomat, is famous for his Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, a work based on years of intimate friendship and professional association. In that work, he writes: 

“It has been alleged that Bonaparte, when in Egypt, took part in the religious ceremonies and worship of the Mussulmans; but it cannot be said that he celebrated the festivals of the overflowing of the Nile and the anniversary of the Prophet. The Turks invited him to these merely as a spectator; and the presence of their new master was gratifying to the people. But he never committed the folly of ordering any solemnity. He neither learned nor repeated any prayer of the Koran, as many persons have asserted; neither did he advocate fatalism polygamy, or any other doctrine of the Koran. Bonaparte employed himself better than in discussing with the Imams the theology of the children of Ismael. The ceremonies, at which policy induced him to be present, were to him, and to all who accompanied him, mere matters of curiosity. He never set foot in a mosque; and only on one occasion, which I shall hereafter mention, Mahometan costume. He attended the festivals to which the green turbans invited him. His religious tolerance was the natural consequence of his philosophic spirit. […]

“Doubtless Bonaparte did, as he was bound to do, show respect for the religion of the country; and he found it necessary to act more like a Mussulman than a Catholic. A wise conqueror supports his triumphs by protecting and even elevating the religion of the conquered people. Bonaparte’s principle was, as he himself has often told me, to look upon religions as the work of men, but to respect them everywhere as a powerful engine of government. However, I will not go so far as to say that he would not have changed his religion had the conquest of the East been the price of that change. All that he said about Mahomet, Islamism, and the Koran to the great men of the country he laughed at himself. He enjoyed the gratification of having all his fine sayings on the subject of religion translated into Arabic poetry, and repeated from mouth to mouth. This of course tended to conciliate the people.

“I confess that Bonaparte frequently conversed with the chiefs of the Mussulman religion on the subject of his conversion; but only for the sake of amusement. The priests of the Koran, who would probably have been delighted to convert us, offered us the most ample concessions. But these conversations were merely started by way of entertainment, and never could have warranted a supposition of their leading to any serious result. If Bonaparte spoke as a Mussulman, it was merely in his character of a military and political chief in a Mussulman country. To do so was essential to his success, to the safety of his army, and, consequently, to his glory. In every country he would have drawn up proclamations and delivered addresses on the same principle. In India he would have been for Ali, at Thibet for the Dalai-lama, and in China for Confucius.” (Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, edited by R W Phipps, Vol. 1, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889, pp. 168-170)

On the subject of Napoleon’s alleged conversion to Islam, Bourrienne also quotes Bonaparte from his Voices from St. Helena in which he wrote, “I never followed any of the tenets of that religion [Islam]. I never prayed in the mosques. I never abstained from wine, or was circumcised, neither did I ever profess it. I said merely that we were the friends of the Mussulmans, and that I respected Mahomet their prophet, which was true; I respect him now. I wanted to make the Imaums cause prayers to be offered up in the mosques for me, in order to make the people respect me still more than they actually did, and obey me more readily.” He goes on to say that he asked the Muslim clerics if he could be a Muslim without following any of Islam’s tenets. The clerics deliberated for months and only when they agreed to his becoming a “Muslim” without having to actually profess or follow Islam, he sates, “I then told them that we were all Mussulmans and friends of the Prophet, which they really believed.[…]” (Ibid.)

Thus, just as many famous scholars like Sir George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russel, Dr William Draper, Thomas Carlyle, Phillip Hitti, praised Islam and the founder of Islam; so too, we find some phrases of praise by Napoleon Bonaparte praising Islam. However, it is more reasonable to assume that his “conversion” may have been no more than a political strategy.

The list of those who bear witness and praised the greatness of the founder of Islam, the Holy Prophetsa is far too many to count; as it is written that during the blessed life of the Holy Prophetsa himself, the Emperor of Rome, Caesar said: “If I could reach him [Holy Prophet Muhammadsa], definitely, I would go immediately to meet him and if I were with him, I would certainly wash his feet.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab Bada’u al-Wahi, Hadith no. 7)

Thus, after researching various books and references along with other available evidence, we once again recall the words of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa with regards to Napoleon being a Muslim – it is claimed he was a Muslim, however, “it doesn’t seem likely.”

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