decorative initial 'I'n his collection of essays, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle examines Mahomet as an example of the "The Hero as Prophet." Carlyle explains "We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of" (43). Carlyle does not go on to explain how or why he has determined Mahomet "the one we are freest to speak of," or why he determines certain prophets to be more restricted from discourse. I also find of interest Carlyle's use of the plural pronoun in this declaration. By presenting his claims as belonging to a "we," Carlyle seems to make a sly attempt to increase the legitimacy and validity of these claims in the minds of his readers. Later, Carlyle is again considering his readers when he writes that "there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans" (43). Carlyle indicates clearly that he does not intend his essay to be read by those who worship Mahomet.

Carlyle goes on to describe Mahomet as a "spontaneous, passionate, yet just, true-meaning man! Full of wild faculty, fire and light; of wild worth, all uncultured; working out his life-task in the depths of the Desert" (53). For Carlyle, Mahomet possesses secrets which we must try to "get at" in order to "let us try to understand what he meant with the world. Carlyle feels that with this understanding we can then answer the question of "what the world meant and means with him". Carlyle clearly recognizes Mahomet as a great man and has distinguished him as a hero. But this label becomes problematic when considering Carlyle's romantic and stereotypical depiction of Mahomet. Mahomet is not so much a hero that should inspire "us" (as in Carlyle's intended audience), but one that inspires Muslims and therefore demands our analysis. Mahomet is a compelling example of a hero precisely because of what Carlyle sees as his lack of education, spontaneity and primitivism. Carlyle repeatedly draws our attention to Mahomet's impressive influence and multitudes of followers while the adjectives he uses to describe the prophet imply Carlyle's belief in the superiority of a white Christian man like himself, who is educated, cautious and "cultured."

Many of these issues can be considered in relation to Carlyle's description of what he sees as prevailing opinions of Mahomet:

Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to any one. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only . . . The word this man spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred and eighty millions of men these twelve hundred years. These hundred and eighty millions were made by God as well as we . . . Are we to suppose that it was a miserable piece of spiritual legerdemain, this which so many creatures of the Almighty have lived by and died by? I, for my part, cannot form any such supposition . . . One would be entirely at a loss what to think of this world at all, if quackery so grew and were sanctioned here . . . more godless theory, I think, was never promulgated in this Earth. A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house! . . . it will fall straightway. [Carlyle 44]

Carlyle also describes his encounter with and opinion of the Koran:

. . . I must say, it [the Koran] is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; — insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran . . . It is the confused ferment of a great rude human soul; rude, untutored, that cannot even read; but fervent, earnest, struggling vehemently to utter itself in words . . . We said "stupid:" yet natural stupidity is by no means the character of Mahomet's Book; it is natural uncultivation rather. The man has not studied speaking; in the haste and pressure of continual fighting, has not time to mature himself into fit speech . . . The man was an uncultured semi-barbarous Son of Nature, much of the Bedouin still clinging to him: we must take him for that. But for a wretched Simulacrum, a hungry Impostor without eyes or heart . . . we will not and cannot take him. Sincerity, in all senses, seems to me the merit of the Koran; what had rendered it precious to the wild Arab men . . . Curiously, through these incondite masses of tradition, vituperation, complaint, ejaculation in the Koran, a vein of true direct insight, of what we might almost call poetry, is found straggling. [Carlyle 64-67]


1. What is the danger of an essay which claims to exclude a certain group as readers? Especially when this group's "hero" is the subject of the essay? How does the intention for his essay to be read by those who do not worship Mahomet change how we take Mahomet as an example of "the hero as prophet"?

2. What are the implications of describing Mahomet as "all uncultured"? Does this notion even make sense considering the impossibility of an existence apart or separate from culture?

3. It is perhaps commendable that Carlyle asserts and defends the importance of Islam and the devotion of its followers. He also defends the virtue and sincerity of Mohamet and the Koran . . . how is this assertion problematized by Carlyle's statements that refer to the "natural uncultivation" of the Koran or that refer to Mahomet as "an uncultured semi-barbarous Son of Nature"?

Related Materials


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Last modified 20 April 2004