Louis Blin: “French Muslims can be proud that the greatest French writer respected the Prophet and even identified with him”

Louis Blin: “French Muslims can be proud that the greatest French writer respected the Prophet and even identified with him”

Interview on Oumma with Louis Blin,
author of the book “Victor Hugo and Islam”, Ed Erik Bonnier

Still too little known, the keen interest in Islam of the master of the word, the illustrious Victor Hugo, which has continued to grow under his inspired and committed pen, to the point of establishing the prophet Muhammad as a model with which to identify. , is finally brought to light by a historian, Arab diplomat and expert on the Arab world: Louis Blin.

In his latest work “Victor Hugo and Islam” (published by Erick Bonnier), which highlights the importance of the place occupied by the Koran and its Messenger in the monumental literary work of the French genius of words, this author of around ten essays – including Alexandre Dumas Stories of Arabia, The Arab world in the Tintin albumspublished by L'Harmattan and Saudi Arabia from black gold to the Red Sea published by Eyrolles – brilliantly explores the depth of this unsuspected, even cleverly ignored, passion…

Through the interview given to OummaLouis Blin, currently head of the Middle East Directions research program at the European University Institute in Florence, lifts the veil on the inexhaustible source of inspiration that Islam was for Victor Hugo, to the point of having magnificently irrigated his poetry and nourished his desperate quest for spirituality. Such a source of inspiration, which it brought forth from the pen of the author of Miserable and of There Legend of the centuries the most beautiful pages ever written by a non-Muslim on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In the introduction to your book on Victor Hugo and Islam, you affirm that the study of French literature has neglected the place occupied by Islam. How do you explain this neglect?

The French colonization of Algeria is the main reason. The French authorities separated the settlers from the natives legally, making the Muslim religion an ethnic group. They institutionalized religious racism inherited from the Middle Ages to exclude Islam and its followers from Frenchness.

That French literature could be impregnated with Islam contradicted the structure, so we unconsciously obscured this reality to consolidate colonial influence. It took a long time to realize this after decolonization, and the Islamophobia which is overwhelming Europe today still expresses its refusal to face the evidence of the Muslim and Arab part of its culture, although prior to the great migratory waves of the twentieth century. The work of Victor Hugo is a victim of this history.

Before discussing his interest in Islam, what was Victor Hugo's relationship to religion in general?

Victor Hugo did not receive a religious education, but his spiritual quest began very early. The search for God guided his entire life and work, because he equated poets with prophets and believed himself possessed by God.

Deeply religious, but impossible to lock into a given religion, Hugo dreamed of a religion free of religions, in particular of a Christianity whose practice had become a caricature for him. He was anticlerical in the name of religion and not against it.

Even if he adopts certain European clichés about Islam, Victor Hugo's interest in this religion can be read in his youthful poems. What knowledge did he have of it at that time?

He had little interest in it, but a careful reading of certain poems from his youth collection The Orientals shows that he already aspired to understand the spirituality of Islam. In the famous poem The djinns, it is Muslim prayer which chases these away and delivers them from evil. The poet promises to practice it in turn, if Mohammed saves him from the jinns.

In 1846, at the age of 44, Victor Hugo read the Koran, as well as other works devoted to the Muslim religion. You write that despite the scarcity of French translations of Muslim authors at the time, Victor Hugo managed to understand the message of Islam better than most French people today. Who are these authors who influenced his vision of Islam?

Above all, his friend Lamartine, who had discovered Muslims during his trip to the Orient in 1832, and who would subsequently publish a biography of the Prophet. Hugo was also linked to a renowned orientalist of the time, Ernest Fouinet. But it was above all his own meditation on the Koran which made him discover Muslim spirituality.

In his major poetic work, The legend of the centuries, you emphasize that Victor Hugo tends to abandon the orientalizing Eurocentrism of his youth. How does this distinguish him from other authors of his time who also deal with Islam? How is this religion approached in The legend of the centuries?

Hugo designed The Legend of the Centuries as an epic of humanity, in which he reserved a chapter for Islam. This amounted to going against the majority current which excluded this religion from French history and civilization, a racist conception to which Ernest Renan gave scientific support at the same time. For Hugo, East and West, Islam and Christianity, are two sides of the same coin.

Although Victor Hugo was fascinated by Muslim spirituality, he did not convert to Islam. Where does this rumor come from according to which his conversion to Islam, 4 years before his death, was concealed by a conspiracy?

Hugo is the most read, commented on and celebrated French writer. However, the Koran and its prophet return a hundred times in his work. Why did we have to wait until 2023 for us to notice it, with the publication of my book? We can understand that some people are talking about a conspiracy, in the current Islamophobic context. The reality is more prosaic. Our time struggles to accept Victor Hugo's message: you do not need to be Muslim to respect Islam.

French Muslims today can be proud that the greatest French writer respected the Prophet and even identified with him, just like them. The important thing is not to know whether Victor Hugo became Muslim in his old age, but to appreciate what he brought to the fraternity between East and West. This little-known or even forgotten legacy makes it an unparalleled antidote to the so-called clash of civilizations, which is in fact that of ignorance.

Comments collected by the Oumma editorial staff

Louis Blin, Victor Hugo and Islam, Ed. Erik Bonnier