Kindred on Coller (2020)

Coller, Ian. Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution. Yale UP, 2020, pp. 360, ISBN: 9780300243369

Ian Coller’s new book posits that Muslims, Islam, and various governments throughout the Islamic world played a crucial, though not uncontested, role in the French Revolution and its ultimate aim of universalism. Coller demonstrates that many revolutionaries imagined their undertaking as one that was to include Muslims, and some tenants of Islam, if it was to bring about a dismantling of the ancien régime and a rethinking of the human condition. Bringing fresh archival material to light in the form of letters, newspaper articles, and more, Coller challenges the reader to revisit the Revolution in a trans-Mediterranean context. 

The book can be broken up as follows: the prologue and chapters one through three foreground the existence of Muslims in pre-Revolutionary France from the fifteenth century to 1789; chapters four and five take a deep dive into political and religious opinions on Muslims given by French commentators between 1790 and 1792, when Muslims were awarded civil rights by the National Assembly; chapter six discusses France’s interconnection with North Africa in the 1790s; chapters seven through nine examine religion in the years of the Terror; and chapter ten analyzes Napoleon’s personal affiliation with Islam, and its role during his Egyptian campaign. Coller’s study takes a unique approach to all of this, in that his chapters alternate between a presentation of the facts about a Revolutionary event, and an account of individual Muslims who lived through or influenced it. This is an intriguing structure that both deepens the scholarly nature of the book and adds a measure of popular appeal to it. 

The back and forth begins in chapter one when, after a review of the Russian annexation of the Crimean Khanate in 1783, and the French public’s outcry at their monarch’s inability to do anything about it, Coller takes up a discussion of an Indian Muslim delegation that arrived in Paris in 1788. Sent on behalf of Tipu Sahib to request assistance in driving the British out of India, this delegation was remarked upon in the press, while several of its members had their likeness commemorated in works of art. Among them was the dashing Mohammad Dervish Khan, whose portrait was painted by Vigée-LeBrun. In an iconographic analysis of Vigée-LeBrun’s portrait, which epitomizes the period’s tendency to deploy images of powerful and handsome Muslims as allegorical attacks against Louis XVI, often excoriated as impotent, flabby, and stupid, Coller describes the multiple ways in which the Muslim body was used as a trope in this period. 

Chapters three, four, and five address the period following the extension of French citizenship to Muslims in 1789, when public anxiety about the growing presence of Muslims in France reaches its peak. Recounting the actual presence of Muslims on the floor of the National Assembly, 

and their theoretical appearance in debates concerning the clerical oath, Coller writes that Muslims slowly moved from playing a merely symbolic role in the Revolution to a more concrete one. The need for Muslims to actively participate in the French Revolution comes full circle in chapter six. Following the founding of the French Republic in 1792, France began to establish closer ties with Algiers, the first international government to recognize the new French state. In the chapter, Coller employs a plethora of primary sources to show that some politicians, writers, philosophers, and news outlets in France viewed Algiers (incorrectly) as an equally fledgling democratic republic with which they might ally themselves. Although such a relationship proved untenable, Hassan Pacha, the dey of Algiers, routinely provided moral and pecuniary support to France, including loans of millions of francs. Unrepaid, Coller notes that these debts played a central role in the French invasion and colonization of Algiers three decades later. 

In chapters seven, eight, and nine, the most theoretical of the book, Coller reinterprets the idea of “dechristianization” that took hold during the Terror. In chapter seven, Coller writes that the period’s attempt at dechristianization should not be viewed as merely a Jacobin effort to rid France of Christianity, but also as resulting from the belief that other religions, including Islam, contained aspects aligned with Revolutionary principles. For example, Coller notes that while Robespierre made few direct comments on Islam, it is clear that he believed Muslims would find value in the aims of the Revolution. Chapter eight clarifies what this might have looked like, telling the story of Ahmed Khan, an Indian Muslim who applied to the Comité de salut public for financial assistance in 1794. Coming to his defense, Robespierre insisted that funds be disbursed to Khan, as helping the disadvantaged was both a pillar of Islam and a tenant of the Revolution. Consequently, Khan was provided the assistance he needed. Finding his treatment in France to be hospitable, he began the first translation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen into Persian. 

In chapter ten, Coller turns towards Talleyrand, Napoleon, and the latter’s invasion of Egypt. Through an imaginative reading that sees Talleyrand play to Napoleon’s childhood fascination with Islam in an effort to convince Bonaparte that the Egyptian people would “bless the French who deliver them” (227), Coller floats the possibility that Napoleon was duped into invading North Africa by the powerful minister. Whatever the case, Napoleon’s incursion into Egypt, a majority Muslim country that had long refused to align itself with France’s enemies, dealt the final blow to any attempt at a truly universalized Revolution. 

Muslims and Citizens is masterfully written, and its extensive notes section only adds to its already expansive and profound nature. Indeed, Coller’s book should be regarded as a model for others of its type. By pointing to the important roles that both Muslims and Islam played in it, Coller affords readers an opportunity to uncover the true diversity of the French Revolution, in terms of both ideas and people, via a variety of original source material and unique lines of inquiry. As such, readers from a plethora of disciplines will find its contents useful and illuminating.

Clayton W. Kindred
The Ohio State University