Michelle Mazel on Notes sur le Coran et autres textes sur les religions

, November 15, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)


A Modest Contribution

Notes sur le Coran et autres textes sur les religions (Notes on the Koran and other Texts on Religions), by Alexis de Tocqueville, with introduction and commentary by Jean-Louis Benoît, Bayard, 2007, 175 pp. [French]

Reviewed by Michelle Mazel

Jean-Louis Benoît is a distinguished professor and leading expert on the French historian and political figure Alexis de Tocqueville, whose classic Democracy in America, first published in 1835, is still considered a milestone in the study of American institutions. In this book, Benoît presents and comments on some of Tocqueville’s writings on the leading religions of his time.

Tocqueville, Benoît notes in his introduction, was a lapsed Catholic but nevertheless believed that all societies must have religion and that democratic societies need it more than others. “Most religions, [Tocqueville] writes, are only a general means, simple and practical, to teach men that the soul is immortal. Such is the greatest advantage that a democratic people draws from beliefs and this is what makes them more necessary for such a people than for all the others” (27). Tocqueville develops this position at great length, further elaborating on this theme, and on its basis he analyzes the impact on society of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Catholicism.

The Issue of Islam

From the texts Benoît has quoted it is clear that Tocqueville, who had studied the Koran and observed Islam firsthand in the French colony of Algeria, did not hold Islam in high regard. In an October 1843 letter to his friend Gobineau, Tocqueville wrote:

I studied the Koran a great deal, mainly because of our position vis-à-  vis the Muslim population of Algeria and throughout the Near East. I must tell you that I came away from that study with the conviction that by and large, there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed. As far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world.

Tocqueville strongly objects to the fact that in Islam everything must be subordinated to religion. In his view, this prevents progress and ultimately runs counter to democracy. “Had Mohammed only committed the fault of intimately joining a body of political and civil institutions to a religious belief in order to impose on the former the opposition to change,…it would have been enough to condemn his followers in a matter of time first to a state of inferiority and then to inescapable ruin” (69).

Curiously, Benoît takes exception to Tocqueville’s harsh judgment of Islam and writes, “Beyond  a form of criticism which some may consider as unfair, awkward or wrong, Tocqueville assumes a clear position regarding the respect due to Islam and to Muslims by colonial powers” (12). Benoît does not explain what is wrong with Tocqueville’s criticism but goes on to quote in tedious detail a number of notes taken by Tocqueville while reading the Koran-perhaps with a view to writing a book-without commenting on them. He also gives long explanations of Tocqueville’s position on the excesses of colonialism and the rights of the local populations. This has nothing to do with Islam as such but perhaps is meant to show that, despite his critical views on that religion, Tocqueville’s heart was in the right place.

Tocqueville on Other Religions

The short section devoted to Hinduism begins with the material on the importance of religion for democratic society already presented in the introduction. Tocqueville’s few subsequent statements on the manners and customs of Hinduism are factual but, since they are not accompanied by a commentary, do not give a real sense of his views. Tocqueville does, however, offer some interesting perspectives on the history of India and the part played by Hinduism, adding the observation that the caste system impeded India’s emergence as a nation because individuals saw themselves as members of their caste and not of their country, “as if different nations coexisted on the same soil” (80).

It is not clear why Benoît devoted two separate chapters to Christianity and Catholicism, since both are discussed in these chapters. It is a subject that Tocqueville knows well, and the issues are clearer than those pertaining to Islam and Hinduism. However, here again the emphasis is not on religion itself but on its impact on society. Christianity, says Tocqueville, was initially revolutionary in creating a new set of values and introducing the notions of equality, unity, and fraternity. Its greatness lay in the fact that it was established outside the context of political power or nationality. That, however, was also the source of its weakness because it did not address man as a member of society and his duties toward his homeland.

Tocqueville also describes the status of Catholicism in the United States and Canada at the time. In addition, he discusses some problems concerning church-state relations in France.

This book is perhaps of some interest to historians and political scientists but will not greatly contribute to the understanding of the religions in question.  Benoît published this slim volume at the height of the controversy about the nature of Islam that followed the episode of the Mohammed cartoons. One cannot escape the conclusion that this publication was timed to cash in on the renewed interest in Islam.

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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.