In "The Hero as Prophet," Carlyle upholds Muhammad as the emblematic Hero-Prophet. He praises Muhammad's strength, sincerity, and genuineness, arguing that these qualities enabled his leadership and dissemination of Islam. Here, as elsewhere in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle cites unwavering faith and fortitude of mind as the marks of the true hero. Encouraging his reader to see not the faults but the truth in Muhammad's teachings, Carlyle shows how he lifted the Arab Nation out of darkness through earnestness and "a word they could believe" (77). Notably, this chapter is saturated with Orientalist rhetoric, including references to "the Arab mind," "the Arab way," and the "natural uncultivation" of the Koran. Carlyle uncritically employs Orientalist tropes and attitudes apparently to show his European reader that, in spite of Muhammad and the Arab Nation's "semi-barbarity," they successfully demonstrated a true belief in their religious doctrine. Although he views Islam as "a bastard kind of Christianity," he ultimately renders it admirable because it is "living" with a "heart-life in it," unlike the idolatry of the previous era. Carlyle delineates Muhammad's commendable sincerity in his discussion of the Koran:

Every candid eye, I think, will read the Koran far otherwise than so. 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. With a kind of breathless intensity he strives to utter himself; the thoughts crowd on him pellmell: for very multitude of things to say, he can get nothing said. The meaning that is in him shapes itself into no form of composition, is stated in no sequence, method, or coherence; — they are not shaped at all, these thoughts of his; flung-out unshaped, as they struggle and tumble there, in their chaotic inarticulate state. We said "stupid": yet natural stupidity is by no means the character of Mahomet's Book; it is natural uncultivation rather. [66]

Discussion Questions

1. According to Carlyle, why is Mohammed so inarticulate in his attempts to write down his religious faith? Does his "rude, untutored" soul hinder or enable his dissemination of Islam? How is his "chaotic inarticulate state" constitutive of his heroism?

2. According to Carlyle's Orientalist rhetoric, what redeems the Koran as a religious text? Why does Carlyle suggest that we take it seriously as a doctrine of faith, despite its being "a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; — insupportable stupidity, in short!" (64-65)?

3. Carlyle writes of Muhammad as a "wild man of the Desert, with his wild sincere heart, earnest as death and life, with his great flashing natural eyesight" (63). According to Carlyle, what is the relationship between Muhammad and Nature? As a "Son of Nature" (67), does his "wildness" inhibit or enable his heroism?

4. In his subsequent chapter "The Hero as Poet," Carlyle writes, "Alas, poor Mahomet; all that he was conscious of was a mere error; a futility and triviality, — as indeed such ever is...His Koran has become a stupid piece of prolix absurdity; we do not believe, like him, that God wrote that! The Great Man here too, as always, is a Force of Nature: whatsoever is truly great in him springs-up from the inarticulate deeps" (112). In this passage, Carlyle emphasizes that Mohammad's actions, voice, and feelings made him great and that the sheer power of his "thunder-voice" combined with his sincerity made him a hero. Yet he argues that Muhammad falls short of the Poet in terms of heroism because, unlike Dante or Shakespeare, his message is not universal and will thus become obsolete.

5. Moreover, in this passage Carlyle calls the Koran stupid and absurd, whereas in the preceding chapter on the Prophet he refers to it not as stupid but uncultivated. Why might he at first differentiate between "stupid" and "uncultivated" only to collapse the distinction later on? How does this rhetorical strategy enable his ideology of Hero-Worship (i.e. how does he want us to compare the Hero-Prophet and Hero-Poet)?

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