Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XVIII
Mollah Mehemet Ali, Servant of the Prophets, to Usbek, at Erzeroum
YOU are always propounding questions that have been laid before our holy Prophet thousands of times. Why do you not read the traditions of the doctors? Why not go to that pure fountain head of all intelligence? There you would find all your doubts resolved.  1
  Unhappy man! Constantly troubled about earthly things, you have never looked with a single eye on those of heaven. You reverence the life of the Mollahs, but you have not the courage to embrace and follow it.  2
  O profane ones who never enter into the secrets of the Eternal, your light is as the darkness of the pit, and the reasonings of your minds are no more that the dust which rises as you walk, when the sun is at the highest pitch of noon in the scorching month of Chahban. 1  3
  The very zenith of your understanding does not attain to the nadir of that of the least of the Imans: your vain philosophy is but as the lightning which heralds storm and darkness: in the midst of the tempest, you are driven by the wind and tossed.  4
  Nothing is easier than the solution of your difficulty. For that purpose it is sufficient to narrate what happened once when our holy Prophet, tempted by the Christians and pestered by the Jews, effectually silenced both parties.  5
  The Jew, Abdias Ibesalon, 2 asked him why God had prohibited the eating of swine’s flesh. “There is good reason for it,” answered Mohammed. “The creature is unclean, and of that I will convince you.” He took some earth and shaped it into the figure of a man. Then he threw it on the ground, and cried, “Arise.” Immediately a man stood up, and said, “I am Japhet, the son of Noah.” “Was your hair as white at your death as it is now?” asked the holy Prophet. “No,” replied he, “but when you roused me I thought the day of judgment had come; and such fear laid hold of me that my hair turned white on the instant.”  6
  “Now tell me,” said the messenger of God, “the whole history of Noah’s ark.” Japhet obeyed, and after having minutely recounted all that passed during the first months, he continued as follows: “All the excrement of the animals we cast on one side of the ark, which made it lean so much that we were all in mortal terror, especially our wives, who made a terrible outcry. Our father Noah sought divine aid, and God commanded him to take the elephant and place him with his head toward the side that was overweighted. The excrement of the huge animal was so plentiful that there came forth from it a pig.” Do you wonder, Usbek, that since then we have abstained from swine’s flesh, and have regarded the animal as unclean?  7
  “But, as the pig wallowed every day among the filth, he caused such a stench in the ark that he was himself compelled to sneeze; and from his nose there dropped a rat, which began to gnaw everything that came in his way. This became so intolerable to Noah, that he once more sought God’s help in prayer. God commanded him to strike the lion a heavy blow on the forehead, which made him sneeze too, and from his nose there leapt a cat.” Are you yet persuaded that these animals are unclean? How does it strike you?  8
  When, therefore, you fail to understand the reason of the uncleanness of certain things, it is because you are ignorant of much else, and have no acquaintance with what has passed between God, the angels, and men. You know not the history of eternity; you have not read the writings that were penned in heaven; what has been revealed to you is but an insignificant part of the divine library: nay, those who, like us, have approached so near that they may be said to live the heavenly life, are still in obscurity and darkness. Farewell. May Mohammed be in your heart!

  KOUM, the last day of the moon of Chahban, 1711.
Note 1. More correctly, Shaban, the eighth month of the Persian year. [back]
Note 2. Mohammedan tradition.—(M.) [back]

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