Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The French Encyclopedia Reshaped the Image of Arabs and Islam

A woman passes by a first edition of the Encyclopedie
A woman passes by a first edition of the Encyclopedie on October 4, 2013 in Langres, central France, at “La Maison des Lumieres” (the house of the Enlightenment). FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

The French encyclopedia was the embodiment of a great philosophical enlightenment project that started in the 18th century. During the era of monarchies, French renaissance humanists started this project in the 18th century. The word encyclopedia is of Greek origin, meaning a circle or a complete system of knowledge. This word was used for the first time in the modern ages in 1559. At that time, general knowledge books were previously given literary names or called dictionaries. Awni Al-Daoudi defines an encyclopedia as “A databank that covers a variety of fields, issued by a group of academics and specialists. Any information in it is viewed as a scientific and objective fact, as specialists agree on it. So, the encyclopedia is an important resource for researchers, writers, and readers alike across the globe.”

That French project, which Europe saw during the 19th century, was given the title: “Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers”. 160 writers participated in writing articles for the encyclopedia under the supervision of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. Each writer drafted the material that was within his/her specialization. For example, Rousseau handled the educational content while Voltaire wrote the philosophical one. Daubenton made the political articles, and d’Holbach dealt with the controversial ones. Diderot undertook all intellectual and religious subjects while d’Alembert took articles relating to mathematics. Montesquieu handled law content. Buffon dealt with natural sciences, while Quesnay handled everything related to physics and so on.

In his editorial, Diderot wrote: “We aim to criticize blind religious fanaticism as well as political fanaticism or rather political tyranny. Besides, we praise the critical spirit of reason and freedom of thought. France needs to breathe freely until the spirit of critical and innovative creativity is mastered after a long slumber. The time has come for France to awake! The others have preceded it.”

The enlightened French philosophers adopted a position contradictory to religion, seeing it as the main obstacle in the face of European progress. But because of the power of the Church, they resorted to symbolism, metaphor, and euphemism. They poured their criticism of Christianity and other religions through criticizing Islam. By that, they reshaped the Arab image. Criticism of Islam was a symbol of criticizing Christianity. The same applies to criticizing Prophet Muhammad and his miracles. That was a symbol of criticizing Jesus Christ. In the same way, criticism of the Quran was a symbol of criticizing the Bible.

The Syrian thinker Mamdouh Adwan believes that choosing Islam, the Quran, and prophet Muhammad by the Enlightenment philosophers meant selecting a target through which they could pour harsh criticism of religion. They could do that without facing objection from the average European reader. According to Adwan, Europeans are predisposed to accept criticism of Islam and to denounce and ridicule it. In other words, the enlightenment philosophers manipulated historical data to invent an East that suits their purposes. They said that Islam is hostile towards science and that it contradicts reason. The objective was to say that religion in general, and specifically Christianity, are inconsistent with science and reason. They chose to talk about miracles by addressing those of the Prophet Muhammad. Through that, they were trying to prove that miracles were deceiving the public. They meant that miracles of all prophets contradict knowledge and reason. Among these were those of Jesus Christ that they did not dare to criticize directly.

The enlightenment philosophers tried to criticize Christianity by praising Islam and some of its aspects through a hidden comparison, including De Jacques saying that the Quran’s description of God, or God’s description of himself in it, seems distinct and acceptable. He cites the verse “Say that Allah is one” to focus on “He neither begets nor is born.” The purpose of that was to debunk the idea of the Son of God in Christianity.

The encyclopedists also praised Islam’s view of idols, depiction and sculpture, and its call to worship one God. They did that to criticize the ecclesiastical preoccupation with the images of Christ, the Virgin, the cross, and church decorations. They also praised Zakat as a pillar of Islam, indicating that Christianity has neglected this great humanitarian matter.

However, the sudden strike that Adwan sees is their distinction between Arabs and Islam. Those encyclopedists indeed considered Islam as hostile to science and contradictory to reason. However, encyclopedists asserted that Arabs established a great civilization and honorable services for science and the world in the era of al-Rashid, al-Ma’mun, and al-Mu’tasim. They stated that this happened when Arabs diversified their sources of knowledge. The reason behind that was focussing on the philosophy and sciences of Greeks, Persians, and Indians. The distinction between Arabs and Muslims is a distinction that includes fallacies, which are not worthy of being inside an encyclopedia. For example, the Abbasid rule they admire did not deviate from religion more than others. It was not a pure Arab rule, as it was impacted heavily by Persians.

The major problem in the encyclopedia is that the reasons for this stance no longer exist. Western thinkers have become able to criticize religion. As for their view of Islam and Arabs, it remained in the encyclopedia for the subsequent generations. No one has reviewed the material of this encyclopedia.


– The French Encyclopedia Intellectuals and the Arab Encyclopedia Intellectual, Frederic Maatouk (Arabic).

– Encyclopedia and Dictionary, d. Ahmed Ibrahim Khader (Arabic).

– The Battle of the French Enlightenment, Hashem Saleh (Arabic).

– Judaization of knowledge, Mamdouh Adwan (Arabic).

– Islam and Arabs through the Eyes of the Encyclopédie – Rebecca Joubin (English)


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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