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463Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 39, no. 4 (2006) Pp. 463–483.
Leibniz, Historicism, and tHe
“PLague of isLam”
Ian Almond is currently giving a course on Islam in American Literature at the John F. Kennedy
Institute, with the Freie Universität, Berlin. He is the author of Suﬁsm and Deconstruction:
A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn’Arabia (Routledge, 2004) and has a new book on
postmodern representations of Islam, coming out with I. B. Tauris next year.
Provided that something of importance is achieved, I am indifferent to
whether it is done in Germany or France, for I seek the good of mankind.
I am neither a phil-Hellene nor a philo-Roman but a phil-anthropos.
—letter to des Billettes, October 21st, 16971
It is difﬁcult to make the world believe that black is white, that in order
to afﬁrm public peace one has to take up arms which destroy it, and
that for the good of Christianity one has to break all the sacred bonds of
Christianity, even up to attacking a catholic monarch while he is on the
point of delivering Europe from the plague of Mohammedanism [la peste
—“Réﬂexions sur la guerre” (1687)2
In the history of Western responses to Islam, what is fascinating about
Leibniz is that he exempliﬁes a certain ideological overlap, a peculiar transition
period between a theological repudiation of Islam (Muslims as enemies of Christ)
and an early Enlightenment rejection of the ‘Mohammedan’ (Muslims as enemies
of reason and civilization). Sometimes Leibniz’s Mohammedan is the Erbfeind
or hereditary enemy/eternal foe, sometimes he is elevated to the status of mere
barbarian, whilst on rare occasions he is even grudgingly acknowledged to be the
possessor of a natural (though still errant) theology.
464 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
Certainly, there is a standard essay on Leibniz and Islam that one could
write; it would involve a Saidesque compendium of the thinker’s largely negative
references to the faith and its followers, his dismissal of Turks as undeveloped, cruel,
and backward, his constant emphasis on Christian unity in the face of the Ottoman
threat; in such an essay, the author of Consilium Aegyptiacum (the Egyptian Plan)
would be foregrounded as an early, classical model for the modern intellectual of
Empire. Leibniz’s advice to Louis XIV, his attempt to persuade the monarch that an
attack on Egypt would be “to the proﬁt of Christendom” (pro profectu religionis
Christianae3), appear almost to have been written with Gramsci and Said’s analysis
of the intellectual’s complicity with imperialistic hegemony in mind. Even by the
early nineties, when both the Ottoman threat and Leibniz’s own passion for an
invasion of Egypt had faded, we can ﬁnd enough remarks on inﬁdels, Mahomedan
fatalism and perverted fakirs to indicate at the very best a dismissive indifference, at
the worst an abiding contempt on Leibniz’s part towards the Muslim Orient. The
ultimate point of such an approach, predictably enough, would be to underline pre-
cisely how Christian the limits of Leibniz’s Christian humanism actually were—how
Leibniz’s allegedly universal concern for “the welfare of mankind,”4 with regards
to Islam at least, never really moved beyond Belgrade and Gibraltar.
Paradoxically, such an essay would be both necessary and superﬂuous.
‘Superﬂuous’ because, as Joseph McCarney has already pointed out in another,
quite different context, the collective damning of ﬁgures such as Leibniz or Kant
for their Islamophobia and race-bias becomes quite meaningless in judging a vo-
cabulary where terms such as ‘Islamophobia’ simply did not exist.5 At the same
time, the association of Leibniz, and in particular Leibniz’s impassioned Sinophilia,
with words such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘multiculturalism’—he has been called a propa-
gator of “disinterested, objective and unselﬁsh love” (Heer), the promoter of “an
ethics of harmony” (Perkins), the father of “an ecumenical accord of truly global
dimensions” (Clarke) and a man who “clearly did not harbour thoughts of politi-
cal conquest or religious conversion” (Umberto Eco)–does have to be modiﬁed in
the light of Leibniz’s Islam.6 However remarkable Leibniz’s prescient interest in
China may have been, the barbarous Mohammedans, lazy Turks, and lascivious
Egyptians we ﬁnd in his Opera omnia do offer a sobering corrective to the more
ambitious claims made for his inter-culturalism—reminding us of the signiﬁcance,
more than anything else, of exactly when and how Europeans chose to praise the
Orient, and which portions of that Orient were elevated above the others when
they did so.
Nevertheless, any such attempt to argue for an unambiguously negative
representation of Islam in Leibniz’s work ﬁnds itself complicated by three prob-
lematic counter-points. The ﬁrst of these is Leibniz’s epistemological subtlety—a
sophisticated awareness of the extent to which human beings will modify informa-
tion to suit their own political/doctrinal intentions. A single example will sufﬁce:
in 1697 the Englishman Thomas Burnet recommends to Leibniz one of the most
notorious anti-Islamic tracts of the eighteenth century, Prideaux’s defamatory
biography of Mohammed, The True Nature of Imposture. He recommends it to
Leibniz as being “very well-written” and “highly praised” (Schriften, 1:14, 378).
Leibniz’s reply, far from expressing any satisfaction that such a book has been writ-
ten, is cold and discouraging: “In order to write a proper biography of Mahomet,
465Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
author of the religion of the Saracens, it would be necessary to consult the Arabic
manuscripts, otherwise one runs the risk of getting things wrong [on court risque
de se tromper].”7 There is a critical will to truth here, one which is reﬂected in
Leibniz’s own frustrated search for a reliable translation of the Koran. Of course,
this declared desire for objectivity should not be exaggerated—Luther too, genu-
inely felt he was able to discern between the untruths which had been told about
the Turk and his own ‘real’ facts.8
A second, related complication leads on from this: a certain polyphony in
Leibniz, the range of voices, of linguistic registers that we ﬁnd—the slightly pompous
political commentator, the polite, deferring subject to his queen, the impassioned
advocate, the informal scholar to his fellow academician, the effusive patriot and
lover of the German language one minute, the sectarian-hating universalist and
lover of mankind the next . . . this plethora of different voices makes it harder to
gauge the weight and tone of Leibniz’s remarks. At the very least, the discrepancy
between the urge to holy war in the Egyptian Plan and the quieter, more respectful
tone adopted towards Islam in the later correspondence does suggest a distinction
between a Wartime Leibniz and a Peacetime Leibniz, between a public voice and
a private one.
The third complication involved in any straightforward exposé of Leibniz
as a conservative, Eurocentric, hegemonic, Islamfeindlich thinker does not involve
Leibniz so much as the multiplicity of optics through which his approach to Islam
can be evaluated. There are at least four different frames of reference within which
Leibniz’s rapprochement to—or perhaps reiﬁcation of—Islam can be assessed.
Three historical contexts intellectually color and calibrate our own understanding
of Leibniz’s response to “Turcis et Tartaris.” As these three alternative frameworks
suggest different evaluations of Leibniz’s own thoughts on Islam, it might be worth-
while to spend a moment brieﬂy considering each one in turn.
The ﬁrst context would be that of Leibniz’s more illustrious contemporaries.
Franklin Perkins, in his excellent Leibniz and China, sees Leibniz as “the only
prominent modern philosopher to take a serious interest in Europe’s contact with
other cultures” (42). Read against the background of Spinoza, Locke, Descartes,
and Hobbes, whose references to non-European cultures invariably took the form
of anecdotal ammunition to support their own views, Leibniz emerges as the only
signiﬁcant philosopher of his period (with the possible exception of Montaigne) to
actively research the languages, religious texts, and ethnographies of other cultures.
In this narrow sense at least, the attention Leibniz gives to Islam—his desire for a
translation of the Koran using Muslim commentaries, his inquiries into the geneal-
ogy of Mohammed,9 his token attempts to understand the grammar and vocabulary
of Persian, Arabic, and Uzbek10—distinguishes him from his more inward-looking
contemporaries, for whom the non-European was never really more than a source
of useful marginalia.
Another possible context for evaluating Leibniz’s response to Islam—and
in particular, his depiction of the Turk—would be the variety of French travel ac-
counts available in the time leading up to his arrival in Paris (1672). The reports
of travelers such as Nicolas de Nicolay, Thevet, Busbecq, Belon, and Postel had
already established a mini-tradition of French writing about the Orient, a pool of
texts Leibniz clearly made use of. In the Justa Dissertatio, for instance, we ﬁnd
466 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
references to travelers such as Bartholomew Georgiewitz, the Hungarian pilgrim
who spent thirteen years as a slave in Turkey, and achieved considerable fame with
the publication of his experiences.11 Leibniz’s conviction that the Turk obtained
his bellicose ferocity through consuming a wine called “Maslach,” for example,
probably came from Georgiewitz’s account of this in his La Manière et cérémonies
des Turcs.12 Read against this background, what emerges most strikingly is how
Leibniz’s representation of the Turks as slovenly, inefﬁcient, and bestial goes against
a general seventeenth-century admiration of Ottoman order, sobriety, and military
self-discipline. When one considers Postel’s praise of the integrity and efﬁciency
of Turkish ofﬁcials, Gassot’s description of the absence of pillaging in the Sultan’s
campaigns, and the general way in which Turkish sobriety and moderation was
used by writers such as Busbecq to attack Western excesses, the sheer paucity of
Leibniz’s positive comments becomes more noticeable. 13
A third and ﬁnal context which offers an interesting contrast to Leibniz’s
own thoughts on Islam and the Turk is the seventeenth-century tradition of Prot-
estant spirituality and millenarianism, one which gave a supernatural status to the
Turk as a future ally of the true faith in the struggle against a Roman Antichrist.
Böhme, Kuhlmann, and Comenius were all key ﬁgures in this tradition, the latter
two being near contemporaries of Leibniz and writers with whom Leibniz was
deﬁnitely familiar.14 Comenius’ Lux in tenebris (1657) had prophetically envis-
aged the Turks (alongside the Swedes) as fundamental in bringing down the House
of Habsburg—for which the Muslims would be rewarded with “the light of the
Gospel” (mercedisque loco reportaturos Evangelii lucem).15 In 1675, Kuhlmann
even took a copy of Comenius’ tract to Istanbul to try and persuade Mehmet IV
in person of the validity of his vision16—a visit Leibniz remained unimpressed with
(in the Nouveaux Essais, he dismisses Kuhlmann’s trip “all the way to Constan-
tinople” as the product of a “dangerous fantasy”17). This is no place to inquire
into how close Leibniz’s contact with such spiritualistic/ Kabbalistic/Rosicrucian
traditions was.18 On the surface, at least, it would appear that Leibniz was always
skeptical towards such ﬁgures. In the Nouveaux Essais (1705) we see a general
rejection of Comenius, Kuhlmann, Drabicius, et al as writers whose prophecies
do more to “foment disturbances” than serve any useful purpose (New Essays,
508). Despite the ambiguities in Leibniz’s overall disdainful attitude towards the
Rosicrucian/ alchemist/ Millenarian tradition—his abiding interest in plants and
minerals,19 his praise for Comenius’ encyclopaedia project, his parallel Lullian
interest (at the same time as Kircher and Kuhlmann) in an artiﬁcial language,
his reading of Kabbalists such as Van Helmont, not to mention Leibniz’s faintly
Rosicrucian belief that the wisdom inherent in the mystery of the numbers “came
from the Orient to Greece”20—Leibniz’s writings distinguish themselves in this
context with their near complete viliﬁcation of the Turk. As a Protestant thinker
with Catholic sympathies, Leibniz rejects all three of the available anti-Catholic
responses to Islam in the seventeenth century—for Leibniz, the Turk is neither a
sign of the end of the Age, nor a divine punishment, nor a possible ally in the ﬁnal
apocalyptic struggle with Rome.
467Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
LEIBNIZ THE POLITICAL THINKER: EXULTA, GERMANIA!
One approach to Islam and Muslims, amongst the many found in Leibniz,
remains predominantly political. Although it has theological underpinnings, and
although it will both found itself on and provide a foundation for research into
the ‘Orient,’ Islam is understood here as an essentially political entity. Its explicit
synonymy with Ottoman power means that the Leibniz who used this version of
Islam was the Leibniz of the court, the Hof, the diplomatic mission. A thinker who
did not simply (as Russell said) “depend on the smiles of princes,”21 but who rep-
resented the social/ political institutions of his time as a genuine mouthpiece—the
thinkers Gramsci called “experts in legitimation.”22 This means that the Leibniz
who used this voice, the Leibniz who was able to produce this very European ﬁrst
person plural (“The Turks have already learnt our military arts and naval science . . . ”
Schriften IV: 1, 398) felt he was representing a topos of Christian political power,
sometimes generically European, sometimes Franco-German-Austrian, sometimes
exclusively Teutonic. What emerges, subsequently, is the diminution of the phi-
losopher who considered heaven to be his country,23 and an increase in emphasis
upon the German thinker—the pen that could write a poem beginning “Exulta,
Germania!” when Belgrade was ﬁnally taken back from the Turks.24
Leibniz’s own sense of Germanness is worth a few words, not just because
Leibniz always emphasized how he was not “one of those impassioned patriots of
one country alone,”25 but also because it appears to grow and recede in direct pro-
portion to the Ottoman threat. Although Leibniz had always nurtured a sense of his
native tongue’s intrinsic superiority—from his belief (1670) that it is the Sprache best
suited to philosophy,26 to his candidacy of German in the Nouveaux Essais as the
closest tongue to the Adamic language (New Essays, 281)—it is in 1683, the crucial
year of the siege of Vienna, that we ﬁnd the most explicit afﬁrmation of his own
patriotism in a tract entitled An Encouragement to the Germans to Make Better Use
of their Language and Intellect.27 The style of the tract is simple and direct: Leibniz
praises how untouched Germany is by hurricanes and earthquakes (unlike “Asia and
Southern Europe” Heer, 79); Germany may not have any oranges, but it does not
have any scorpions either—in any case, Leibniz adds, our own apples taste much
sweeter than any India could send us. Mixed in with a slightly trivial nationalism,
however, is a more serious afﬁrmation on Leibniz’s part of what it means to belong
to a nation. Beneath a shallow preference for homegrown vegetables and German
linen, a much more earnest analysis of the naturalness and necessity of patriotism is
offered: “The bond of language, of customs, even of common names unites human
beings in such a powerful, albeit invisible way and forms at once a kind of kinship.
A letter, a newspaper which talks of our nation can make us ill or happy” (78).
First of all, a nation for Leibniz is a phenomenon based primarily not on race or
faith but language. In speaking of a Christian Europe, Leibniz will have to abandon
this appeal to German names and customs but, in this essay at least, the linguistic
bond appears to be privileged over those of blood or creed. As Leibniz, following
Luther’s recommendation of Gott as the best non-Hebrew term for God, attests
in the same essay to the superior proximity of German to the original Hebrew (“I
cannot conceive of the Holy Scriptures sounding better in any other language in the
world than they do in German,” 211) then, by implication, the German people lie
closer to the origins of Christianity than any other nation. It comes as no surprise,
468 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
therefore, to see Leibniz resurrecting the old Holy Roman description of the Kaiser
as “the worldly head of Christianity” (das weltliche Haupt der Christenheit, 80).
An attack on the German-speaking lands, in this sense, would be an attack on the
origins and center of Christianity. Unconsciously, with no explicit aim in mind,
Leibniz has moved Rome and Jerusalem to Hanover and Vienna.
Leibniz’s proliﬁc ﬂuency in French—and Schleiermacher’s remark that
Leibniz could never have been the same philosopher if he had only written in Ger-
man (Loemker, Papers, 130)—supplies only a limited irony here. A frustration
with Louis XIV’s un-Christian collaboration with the Ottomans—combined with
his anger at “those French fools who say that God is now chastising the emperor
for having helped the Dutch heretics”—had severely tested the limits of Leibniz’s
already ambiguous Francophilia. 28 The main aim of Leibniz’s essay, however, is
an urge to national awareness—the proposal for a German-orientated institution
(deutsch gesinnten Gesellschaft) which would educate the “common man” (gemeine
Mann) out of their desire for “animal drunkenness and card playing” (84) and
give them a better understanding of their war and peacetime duties. Patriotism,
for Leibniz, is an expression of intelligence, not a subjugation of it. In this national
becoming-aware of responsibility (the unpatriotic for Leibniz are literally “asleep”
die Schlafenden), a nation itself becomes more reﬁned and zivilisiert. In an ironic
anticipation of Nietzsche, Leibniz has little time for those “free spirits” who openly
mock “the fear of God and the Fatherland” (79). In many ways, Ermahnung an die
Deutschen offers a perfect example of how culture, religion, and language can be
consolidated into a singular expression of nation. Leibniz’s un-Lutheran loyalty to
topos over logos—to History over scripture—facilitates this extension of German
awareness to civilization, happiness, and spiritual well-being. The “free spirits” who
make fun of this, adds Leibniz on an unusually anti-Semitic note, those Freigeister
who see religion as a cage for the masses, deserve the same contempt as those who
poison wells (80).
Where does the Turk come into all of this? I have dwelt on Leibniz’s treat-
ment of patriotism not merely to show how a lively and highly developed national
consciousness is at work in his writings, nor even to demonstrate how, predictably
enough, the Ottoman threat augmented Leibniz’s own sense of his cultural origins.
The Ermahnung an die Deutschen is also interesting because the way it describes
the unawakened Pöbel or rabble sounds exactly like the way Leibniz talks else-
where about the Turks.
Most of Leibniz’s references to the Ottoman Turks, not surprisingly, are
scattered throughout the 1680’s, in response to the events of the Ottoman Balkan
campaign. Three essays in particular—Thoughts on the Unfortunate Retreat from
Hungary (1683), Some Reﬂections on the Present War in Hungary (1683), and
Thoughts On A Voluntary Turk-Tax (1688)—allow some limited glimpses into
what Leibniz thought of the “Mohammedan” culture which was now encamped
on the banks of the Danube. It is difﬁcult not to be struck by the distinctly plebe-
ian description of the Turk in these essays—he writes of the invading army as the
“Turkish rabble [die Türckische Menge], made up of incompetent, press-ganged,
and exhausted Asiatic peasants [abgemattete Asiatische landvolck]” (4:2 606). The
lightning speed of the Ottomans’ arrival at the gates of Vienna shocks Leibniz—he
says he can hardly believe the news; in writing of their presence, there is a tone of
469Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
outrage and offense not merely related to surprise and physical alarm, but also the
indignation of an aristocrat who sees an army of serfs march into his guest salon.
As with Luther, there seems to be in Leibniz an implicit association of Islam and
the Turk with the proletariat, and a repressed (though occasionally expressed) fear
of social upheaval connected to their approach. The fear of Islam and the fear of
the masses, not infrequently, lie inextricably together in this common alarm for an
extant Christian social structure.
As Leibniz had already taken great pains a decade earlier to reassure Louis
XIV that “despite their warrior pomp, there is no weaker army in the Orient” than
the Ottomans (nihil Orientibus . . . licet in pompam armatis, imbellius, Schriften,
4:1, 388), we ﬁnd the author of the Egyptian Plan, bereft of the Lutheran conso-
lation of a Hidden Hand, trying to understand ten years later how such Turkish
success was possible:
I’ll leave it to others to better understand whether the belief in an imagi-
nary predestination, Maslak (aromatic Turkish wine) or opium makes the
Turks so heartened, or much more that they are used to working harder
and for less salary and, like all barbarians, are stronger in body than
civilized peoples. . . . (Schriften, 4:2, 609)
The animal strength of the Turk, their uncouth sturdiness and peasant constitu-
tion, is what Leibniz chooses to emphasize here. The enemies of God, no longer
simply the enemies of Europe, have become the enemies of culture. The obvious
point to make here is that for Leibniz, an attack on one of these abstracts (God,
Europe, Civilization) is an attack on all three. And yet what is interesting about
the Turkish pieces Leibniz wrote in the Eighties is the relative paucity of religious
references—only once in these essays, for example, does he refer to the Turk as the
Erbfeind or eternal foe (“France should drive the Erbfeind into the water instead
of tormenting Europe,” Schriften, 4:4, 81). The Turkish assault on Vienna, for
Leibniz, is more of an assault of appetite on spirit, of ignorance on consciousness,
and ultimately (one suspects) of the rabble on the elite. Not so much Erbfeind,
then, as Kulturfeind. Like Luther, Leibniz tries to ﬁnd negative reasons for the Ot-
tomans’ success, reasons which will conﬁrm his already extant conception of the
Turk: their fanaticism, their animal savagery, their sensual imbecility, their servitude
to Oriental despotism. The possibility of a divine factor is left signiﬁcantly out of
When Köprülü’s campaign begins to ebb after 1683, Leibniz’s conﬁdence
grows and he begins his characteristic association of the Turk with stupidity once
more. The intellectual inferiority of Turks, of “Mohammedans” in general, ap-
pears to be a favorite motif of Leibniz—we encounter phrases such as imbecilitate
imperii Turcici, “clumsy government” (4:4, 81) and “barbaric negligence”(4:4,
5–6). As late as 1697, we ﬁnd Leibniz wondering why God supplies the Germans
with miracles only against the Turks:
How is it, I ask you, that He only does [a miracle] against the Turks, and
not against the French? Perhaps it is because the Turks are idiots [sont
des Sots], and Heaven loves clever nations like the French. (I:14, 609,
Leibniz to de Monceaux, Oct. 1697)
470 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
The idiocy of the Turks: one has to wonder in what this idiocy consists. Do they
reason slower? Are their brains less adapted to the rational? Do they ﬁnd it harder to
articulate abstract ideas? There are good reasons for thinking that if Leibniz deemed
Turks—and “Mohammedans” in general—to be less intelligent than Europeans, it
sprang from a perceived Turkish/ Muslim inability to fully grasp all the dimensions
of temporality. Just as the unenlightened peasant Leibniz wished to educate “thinks
no further than they see” and deems all “histories to be the same as fairytales”
(84), Leibniz’s Muslims—he remarks on several occasions—ﬁnd themselves equally
historically challenged, trapped in an idiot stupor by an epistemological incapacity
to reﬂect upon the past:
The History of Antiquity is of absolute necessity for the proof of the
truth of religion and, putting to one side the excellence of doctrine,
it is by wholly divine origin that ours distinguishes itself from all
others . . . and if the Mohammedans and the pagans . . . do not renounce
[their beliefs], we can say it is principally the fault of their not knowing
history. . . . (Nouvelles Ouvertures, 226)
Of course, Leibniz’s denial of historical consciousness to Islam is only a small
contribution to a long association of the Oriental with unreﬂectivity, one which
will ﬁnd its most spectacular expression in Hegel (the Oriental’s indifference to
history culminating in History’s indifference to the Oriental). What is original in
Leibniz—and most probably linked to his monadology—is how a “Mohammedan”
inability to understand their origins is responsible for their present ignorance and
error. Leibniz, author of the Protogaea, delver of both mines and etymologies, can
forgive neither the Turk nor the peasant for their indifference towards the primor-
dial. In a letter to Ludolf (1699) he mentions the eccentric Scandinavian philologist
Rudbeck, who proposed his native Sweden to be the Lost Atlantis and the origin
of Western civilization: “I do not doubt, however, that if Turkey and Tartary were
given education [si Turcis et Tartaris eruditio daretur], from them would emerge a
Hyperborea no less great than the one Rudbeck referred to” (Schriften I:16, 706).
The Turks, Leibniz insinuates, have enough pride (ﬁeri) to produce a Rudbeck,
but lack the historical consciousness. Islam, in many ways, comes across as an
incomplete Monad; unaware of its origins (and by implication unable to decide
its future), it lacks the introspective/maieutic level of inquiry that would bring out
(un-forget) the truths Platonically buried in its history. Leibniz’s fondness for the
familiar motif of Mohammedan fatalism (Fatum Mahumetanum)—and the reports
he gives of how Turkish travelers do not even bother trying to avoid places infested
by the plague because of such fatalism—underlines this inadequacy of Islam to deal
with time. 29 Bereft of arche and telos, isolated from a past it does not inquire into
and a future it does not care about, it lies adrift in a sea of Oriental passivity (the
Muslim, Leibniz tells us, will not even jump out of the way of carts, ibid, 173); the
Turk, like the peasant, lives from day to day in the airlock of such unreﬂection.
In contrast to earlier texts such as the Egyptian Plan, the “Mohammedan”
faith of the Turks hardly emerges as a characteristic in any of these remarks during
the eighties. Apart from the occasional reference to predestination, the Islam of
the Ottoman armies is largely transparent. For a series of texts written during the
most crucial period in the possible Muslim domination of Europe, the result is a
471Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
strangely secular analysis of the enemy—Leibniz’s Turks, one almost feels, could
quite easily be replaced by Visigoths or barbarians with no great disturbance to the
text, so little does the faith of Köprülü’s soldiers impinge upon the general narrative.
Perhaps this is not the place to move onto the complex topic of the facelessness of
Leibniz’s enemy; Gil Anidjar has already posited the question of the adversary as
“a concrete, discursive, vanishing ﬁeld,” and Leibniz’s Turks seem to share a similar
ontological intangibility. 30 Certainly if the Islamic identity of the Turks is elided
in these treatises, the Christian identity of the Europe they are attacking enjoys
rather more emphasis, in equal measures of optimism and pessimism. In Thoughts
on a Voluntary Turk-Tax Leibniz speaks glowingly of the “beautiful, unhoped-for
uniﬁcation” of the “greatest part of European Christianity,” whilst acknowledging
some disappointment at “the cold-heartedness of current Christendom, since they
have the enemy at the door . . . and yet show no signs of stirring” (Schriften 4:4,
6–7). In the 1683 satire Mars Christianissimus, we are told how important it is that
“the people of Christendom have a leader against the inﬁdels” (Riley, Political Writ-
ings, 123). And yet it is one of Leibniz’s earliest pieces, his Consilium Aegyptiacum
or Egyptian Plan (written at the age of twenty-four) which best illustrates—and
problematizes—the Christian underpinnings of Leibniz’s political thought.
To some degree, the scholar D. J. Cook is correct in describing the Egyp-
tian Plan as a “youthful outburst.”31 Despite the early date, however, this attempt
to persuade France to attack Ottoman Egypt instead of her European neighbors
is no piece of Leibnizian junvenilia, but a surprisingly well-prepared and medi-
tated argument for an invasion of the Orient. Although Leibniz would never use
again some of the more grotesque caricatures of Muslims (particularly Turks) in
the Egyptian Plan, it remains an important text—not just because it establishes a
trajectory for Leibniz’s approach to Islam which neither his political theory nor his
apologetics would ever really leave, but also because it suggests a rather cynical
use of Christianity as a slightly superﬁcial decoration, tacked on to an essentially
strategic and thoroughly un-transcendental project. The Consilium Aegyptiacum
is a treatise which begins with a promise to Christianize the East, ends with the
declaration that “never was God’s honor and our own more narrowly intertwined,”
and spends large amounts of text in between describing naval facilities, army sizes,
grain stores, and trade routes.
The Egyptian Plan throws an interesting light on a number of points in
Leibniz’s attitude towards the Muslim Orient—and the Christian Europe he jux-
taposed against it. Most obviously (as Perkins has already pointed out), it shows
how even at an early age, Leibniz was actively engaged in the research of non-Eu-
ropean cultures. Some fairly detailed (albeit exaggerated) descriptions of Ottoman
intrigues, Middle Eastern geography, and Arab resentment against their Turkish
masters attest to an already extant familiarity on the young Leibniz’s part with
travel accounts and ambassadorial reports.32 The conscious use of history in the
Plan as a pragmatic tool of legitimation is also striking. “This project” Leibniz tells
us, “has always been attractive to the greatest and wisest men as the sole means of
re-establishing [restaurandum] the interests of Christianity in the Orient”(Schriften
4:1, 383). The word restaurandum is interesting—Leibniz is careful to historically
contextualize his proposal partly to be able to supply precedents such as Caesar
and Alexander the Great, but more importantly to sell the Plan not as an inva-
472 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
sion but a restoration. The Orient is originally Christian; Leibniz’s Morgenland
is a place where Christianity is indigenous. Egypt will not be attacked so much
as ‘taken back’—the existence of Muslims in the Middle East has no place within
Leibniz’s exclusively Christian temporality except as unlawful and temporary oc-
cupiers. And yet if Time and History help Leibniz to transform Islam into the tout
autre of Europe, they also serve to inscribe Islam into the destiny of Europe. In
some sense anticipating Hegel’s own relegation of Islam to an intermediate stage
between paganism and Christianity, the conquest of Ottoman Egypt (described
somewhat entomologically as a “nest” for the Saracens [Schriften, 384; literally
where the Saracens have “nested,” nidulati]) and the subsequent “disappearance”
of Mohammedanism will enable Europe to fully become what it is and proceed to
a higher stage within its own Christian identity:
Egypt is the Holland of the Orient, as China is the France of the Ori-
ent . . .
[if France undertook this project] it could lead the way to expansion
without limit, towards expansion on the scale of Alexander the Great;
thus the Gospel would be carried to the most distant regions, with hap-
piness ﬁlling the whole earth. The conquest of Egypt is easier than the
conquest of Holland, that of the whole Orient more easy than Germany
alone. The houses of Austria and France will be able to share the world.
To one the Orient, to the other the Occident. Italy and Germany will
be delivered from the fear of the Turks, and the Moors will no longer
trouble the peninsula (Schriften, 4:1 386)
It is difﬁcult to decide how much cynicism should be employed when witnessing
these moments of overlap between Leibniz’s Christian and political vocabularies.
In Leibniz’s desire to secure at the same time a spiritual and a ‘worldly’ good, one
critic has discerned a mood of “Machiavellian Realpolitik.”33 Certainly the Leib-
niz who could tell Burnett how “the goal of the whole human race should be the
knowledge and the development of the marvels of God” and, more importantly,
that it was for precisely this reason that “God has given [the human race] the empire
of this globe”34 . . . such a Leibniz would see nothing problematic in the synonymy
of faith and Empire. In an ontology which privileges activity over passivity,35 ac-
tuality over possibility, development over stasis, an ontology whose universe sees
happiness as “a perpetual progress to new pleasures and new perfections”(204),
it is not difﬁcult to imagine how Leibniz might see the expansion of culture to be
the expansion of consciousness.
Any part the Muslim Orient played in this process of “expansion” would
be purely ancillary. Where China, for example, would be able to offer a “commerce
of light” with the West, an exchange of knowledge which “could give to us at once
their work of thousands of years and render ours to them,”36 neither the Turk nor
the Arab have anything to teach us—their role is to be the recipient of European
civilization, not an illuminating variant of it. Indeed, in some parts of the Plan,
Leibniz seems to suggest the Orientals do not have any religion at all (Schriften
4:1, 393) 37—it will be necessary to wave a bag of booty to persuade the Arabs
to join our side, for “it is foolish [stultum] to believe that these people are guided
by religion” (395). Leibniz’s consistent de-humanizing of the Turk/Arab—turning
them into a rabble of Asiatic peasants, a swarm of insects proceeding from a com-
473Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
mon nest—underlines the conscious refusal of the political Leibniz to consider any
kinship or analogy whatsoever with the Muslim Other.
When the much-vaunted status of Leibniz as a non-sectarian philosopher
of peace and reconciliation is considered, then it becomes easier to see how Islam,
in many ways, would pay the price for such Christian unity. The abiding other-
ness of Islam, in short, both sprang from and sustained Leibniz’s ecumenicalism.
The annihilation of any possible relationship and future co-existence with the
Muslim world—drawing on any example from a range of historical precedents,
from Frederick II’s pact with the Saracens to Protestant hopes of an alliance with
the Turks—was both the condition and consequence of Leibniz’s hope in “the
great work of reunion” he envisaged for Christianity. 38 As far as the author of the
Egyptian Plan and the “Turk-Tax” was concerned, the faith Leibniz once referred
to as “the monster of Islam” possessed no redeeming features.39
LEIBNIZ THE CHRISTIAN THINKER:
ISLAM AS NATURAL THEOLOGY
inﬁdelis est qui Christi ﬁdem respuit (quales judaei, Mahumetani, pagani).
Deﬁntionum Juris Specimen, (Schriften 6:3, 625)
I heartily commend you, sir, for maintaining that faith is grounded in
reason; otherwise, why would we prefer the Bible to the Koran or the
ancient writings of the Brahmins?
New Essays, 494
For all the interrelatedness of Leibniz’s political and religious vocabularies,
there are approaches to Islam within Leibniz which see Muslims not as animals or
savages or political enemies, but primarily as misguided human beings with similar
moral/theological frameworks who, for some reason or another, have rejected the
truth of Christianity. When Leibniz writes this way, his understanding of Islam as
a corrupted, yet on many points still valid, version of Christianity comes to the
fore, rather than any demonic picture of Islam as a plague, monster or Eternal Foe.
For the political Leibniz—the author of the Egyptian Plan and advocate of the
Turckensteuer—the “Mohammedan” is unconvertible in the most Lutheran sense
of the word; he can never be convinced, only conquered. However, for Leibniz the
Christian apologist—the Jesuit correspondent, the author of the Theodicy—the
project of ﬁnding a way to evangelically disseminate the rational truthfulness of
Christianity was of abiding signiﬁcance. Muslims, as well as the Chinese and the
Jews, were naturally included in this project.
Leibniz’s lifelong desire to construct an artiﬁcial language is of crucial
signiﬁcance here. It is surprising how many scholars, in their appraisal of Leibniz’s
dream of “a language or universal characteristic by which all concepts and things
can be put into beautiful order,”40 fail to mention the medieval Christian author
who inspired the project, the thirteenth-century “missionary to the Muslims”
Raymond Lull. Certainly, Eco’s description of Leibniz as a thinker who “did not
474 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
harbor thoughts of political conquest or religious conversion” makes no mention
of him (Serendipities, 70). This may be partly because Leibniz’s evaluation of Lull
was as critical as it was laudatory, and partly because of the low opinion he had
of the “Lullian” treatise he himself had written as a teenager—the 1666 Art of
Combinations, a work he describes as “a little schoolboyish essay” written after the
“Lullian Art.”41 Lull’s life was dedicated to the conversion of non-Christians—in
particular, of the Jewish and Muslim populations on his native Majorca—and his
Ars Magna (1305), a mathematical attempt to prove the validity of the Christian
God through a succession of Kabbalistic, geometrical spheres, tables, and proposi-
tions, was a strong inﬂuence on the early Leibniz. A brief excerpt from the Prologue
to his Book of the Gentile will give an idea of the spirit of his project:
Since for a long time we have had dealings with unbelievers [Jews and
Muslims] and have heard their false opinions and errors, and in order
that they may give praise to Our Lord God . . . I . . . wish to exert myself
to the utmost in ﬁnding a new method and new reasons by which those
in error might be shown the path to glory without end and avoid inﬁnite
Every science requires words by which it can best be presented, and
this demonstrative science needs obscure words unfamiliar to laymen, but
since we are writing this book for laymen, we will have to discuss this sci-
ence brieﬂy and in plain words.42
Peter Fenves, in a remarkable essay on Leibniz and philosophical style, has already
highlighted the relationship between Leibniz’s privileging of clarity over truth and
the quest for an origin: “As a logica verbalis, philosophical style disambiguates
discourse.”43 Almost four centuries earlier, we ﬁnd Lull in the same quest for clar-
ity—driven by the same concern for the transparency of Truth, exhibiting the same
frustration at the inadequacy of the current tools available to him (the need for
a “new method” and “new reasons” to convert the looming Saracens). Leibniz’s
avoidance of special terminology (“Technical terms are to be shunned as worse
than a dog or snake”44) ﬁnds its precedent in Lull’s desire for “plain words”—in
both cases, given the evangelical projects of the two men, the price of ambiguity
would be the eternal soul; the reward of clarity the promise of salvation. Both the
Ars Magna and Leibniz’s own “General Characteristic” illustrate how the semiotic
project to construct a language of perfect clarity has its origins not in a desire to
seek truth, but to disseminate it—not to comprehend, but to convert. Leibniz,
writing in 1679, is explicit on this point:
. . . anyone who is certainly convinced of the truth of religion and its con-
sequences, and so embraces others in love that he desires the conversion
of mankind, will surely admit, if he understands these matters, that noth-
ing will be more inﬂuential than this discovery for the propagation of the
faith, unless it be miracles, the holiness of an apostle or the victories of
a great monarch. Where this language can once be introduced by mis-
sionaries, the true religion, which is in complete agreement with reason,
would be established. . . .45
Leibniz’s desire to construct a universal language, when seen as a direct descendant
of Lull’s search for a new method or argument which would convert the Saracens,
is ultimately motivated by Islam. To say ‘exclusively motivated’ would be in error—
475Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
Leibniz saw the defense of Christianity as a war on a number of Socinian/freethink-
ing fronts, not least of all against “the shipwreck of atheism which now threatens
us.”46 When one considers, however, Leibniz’s advocacy of his new language as an
Ersatz for military campaigns (as good as “the victories of a great monarch”) in
the propagation of the Christian faith—an evangelical device, moreover, indebted
in no small part to medieval Christendom’s most renowned anti-Islamic apologist,
it is difﬁcult not to see Islam, in the form of the encroaching pressure of the Turks,
as playing a signiﬁcant part in Leibniz’s plan for a universal character.
One consequence of this need for Christian clarity is that it pushes the Mus-
lim/Turk/Arab into the realm of confusion, muddle and un-clarity. If the Christian
is required to provide a transparent language so that the latent truthfulness of his
faith may emerge, then Islam is an effect of the obfuscation of such a message. Not
surprisingly, what Leibniz called the “childish errors of the Koran” rendered the
Muslim faith a poor photocopy of the Christian original (Schriften IV: 1, 335).47
This natural tendency of Leibniz’s Muslim to confuse and pollute truth is not
conﬁned to religion; the “spring-water” of Greek medicine, we will recall, “was
muddied in the Arab rivulets, and has had many impurities removed by recourse
to the Greek originals” (New Essays, 336). Likewise the followers of Averroës
are considered to have given sound neo-Platonic ideas “a bad turn of meaning.”48
Leibniz’s conviction of the natural clarity of German facilitates the ease with which
a Christian Europe can command a superior access to truth—spiritually, intellectu-
ally, linguistically—over their muddled, origin-blind, Oriental counterparts. In his
preface to Nizolius, Leibniz is happy to report how “even the Turks use German
names for metals in the mines of . . . Asia Minor” in preference to their own (125).
Nevertheless, this belief that Christians/Europeans have a clearer, uncorrupted
view of truth than their Muslim/Arab opposites will be undermined by Leibniz’s
own obsession with the arche.
Leibniz’s conception of Islam as possessing a natural theology offers us a
slightly milder aspect of his relationship to the faith. It would be wrong to exag-
gerate this; Leibniz’s understanding of the expansion of Islam could be quite cyni-
cal, and there are a number of stages in its development. The young author of the
Egyptian Plan allows no credit at all to any semblance of natural religion in his
description of “Mohammedan” conversion in North Africa, choosing rather to
blame the indigenous Christianity there (“if the Nubians . . . have lost their faith, it
is due more to the faults of their pastors than any love of Mahomet” [Schriften IV:
1, 395]). This reluctance to acknowledge anything remotely good about Islam—and
the consequent decision to attribute its successes to the deﬁciencies of the Catho-
lic/Orthodox church rather than any redeeming doctrine of Mohammed’s—con-
tinues well into the 1690’s. In a letter to Bossuet, we ﬁnd Leibniz lamenting how
the early church’s prohibition of images was overturned by the second Council
of Nicaea—if the abuse of image-worship had been checked early on, remarks
Leibniz, “Christianity would not have become reproachable [méprisable] in the
Orient, and Mohammed would never have prevailed.”49 The main point to make
here is that Leibniz’s approach to the possibility of a natural theology in Islam is still
rather negative; two years later, in a letter to Madame de Brinon, Leibniz informs
her how the “wholly sensuous” devotion of Roman Catholicism has resulted in
abuses which, in turn, “have contributed a great deal to frightening away many
476 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
Mohammedans from Christianity.”50 For Leibniz the emphasis lies more on the
unnaturalness of contemporary (invariably Catholic) Christianity, rather than the
naturalness of the religion of Islam. Any praise there is for Islam’s natural theology
is relative, implicit and tainted with a certain cynicism:
. . . it is an ineradicable custom to relate all things to one single, intelligent
and spiritual Principle—it is from this which Mahomet has proﬁted, and
Mohammedanism has been the graveyard of idolatry in many countries.51
Islam’s resemblance to Christianity, Leibniz suggests, is something Islam has ‘prof-
ited’ from. In all of these remarks, it is easy to detect a certain avoidance of the
basic similarities Islam and Christianity share. Leibniz feels he has to mention these
but, in order to render such resemblances less problematic, tries to place them in a
framework (Mohammed the cynical imposter and manipulator of rabbles) which
will actually turn them to his advantage. In this way the awkward problem of
Mohammed’s similarities with Christian core-beliefs—the mistrust of images, the
immortality of the soul, a single God—either end up reinforcing the image of Mo-
hammed as one who ‘proﬁts’ from truth or, even better, serve to strengthen Leibniz’s
own attempts to reform Christianity from within (‘Even the Turk does not do X,’
‘Even Mohammedans believe in Y,’ etc.). One could almost write a mini-history
of this ‘even,’ this etiam, this meme . . . beginning, no doubt, with James’ assertion
that “Even the devil believes in one God” (James 2:19), this reference to an enemy’s
good practice or belief in order to provoke and correct the complacency of one’s
own. Nevertheless, by the time we reach the Theodicy (1710), Leibniz’s approach
is generally more positive, although the clause-inducing ‘even’ still persists:
Even Mahomet in time did not stray from these important teachings of
natural theology: rather, his followers have spread them even more to the
farthest-ﬂung peoples of Asia and Africa, where Christianity had neither
penetrated, nor had a chance to spread; and in many lands they have
done away with pagan superstitions, which was in contradiction with the
true teaching of the unity of God and the immortality of the soul.52
The political enemy has become the spiritual ally; the Eternal Foe, the plague, the
“monster” of Islam, actually does the work of Christianity. Islam’s similarities,
no longer proof of Mohammed’s cunning, now attest rather to the universality of
certain key-beliefs. A selective gaze, now bereft of any agonistic edge, has taken
the extant resemblances to Christianity within Islam and converted them from a
rival faith’s advantageous features into the basis for a sustained belief in universal
moral truths. In a sense, this foreshadows what I am going to argue next—that as
Leibniz becomes more and more interested in the question of origins, Islam’s resem-
blance to Christianity ceases to be resented, as it acquires a use-value in Leibniz’s
bigger project. Again, this should not be exaggerated—although Leibniz concedes
that “Mohammedans” practice a natural theology, there is never the sense (as
with China) that such a natural theology is better at producing “public morality”
than the European version (Leibniz and China, 151). Perkins has already shown
in some detail how, for Leibniz, “both Europe and China have a natural theol-
ogy—that of Europe is more developed and articulate, while that of China is more
effective in producing good behavior” (152). This idea of an exchange—we teach
the Chinese the Christian faith, they teach us how to lead better public lives—will
477Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
never be applied to the Islamic Orient. Although Leibniz’s generally low opinion
of the Muslim never again reaches the levels of debauchery found in the Egyptian
Plan—where the Ottoman Empire, we will recall, is submerged in crimes of Sodomy
and rampant polygamy (Hinc infandum Sodomiae crimen, et in media polygamia
contemtus sexus muliebris [Schriften 4:1, 390])—even as late as 1705, we still ﬁnd
tales (taken from Locke) of Egyptian fakirs who are considered holy because they
sleep with mules, and not women or boys.53 If Leibniz felt that Europeans were to
improve their morality by learning from the East (as Perkins argues), such lessons
would come from a far higher Orient than any Islam could provide.
LEIBNIZ THE SEEKER OF CAUSES:
THE ENEMY BECOMES THE ORIGIN.
It is good to study the discoveries of others in such a way that allows us
to detect the source of their inventions and to make them in some sense
our own. And I wish authors would give us the history of their discover-
ies and the process by which they arrive at them.54
History, Leibniz once remarked, is the mother of observation.55 In three
quests—Leibniz’s search for a reliable translation of the Koran, his linguistic inves-
tigations into the ﬁrst ‘Adamic’ language, and the related ethnological inquiry into
what he called “the origin of nations” (New Essays, 286)—historicism emerges
as a determining vocabulary, one which overrides any religious or political con-
siderations. Of course, Leibniz still remains a Christian thinker; the very fact that
his request for samples of different languages from dozens of philologists took the
form of a pater noster (so that “every tongue may praise His name”56) warns us
against the naiveté of separating a “scientiﬁc” Leibniz from the theological thinker.
Moreover, Leibniz’s occasional and inconsistent conviction that German was the
most natural of Natursprachen also points to a nationalistic bias in his research.57
Nevertheless, the strangely respectful tone adopted towards Islam—not to men-
tion Turks and Arabs—within Leibniz’s philological research, in contrast with the
generally derogatory remarks he employs elsewhere in his political and religious
writings, does suggest a fundamental change of identity. For this version of Leibniz,
at least, the enemy becomes the origin, the adversary becomes the ancestor; Islam,
along with its languages and cultures, moves from a place of political enmity and
theological disdain to a new position of tacit philological acceptance.
A number of factors facilitated this move. The most obvious of these would
be the evaporation of the Ottoman threat after 1683—the gradual withdrawal of a
“Mohammedan” empire not merely from the gates of Vienna, but even right back
down to the boundaries of modern Bulgaria. By 1691, Leibniz is well aware that
the “Turks are trying to save the rest of their Empire in Europe” and that a victory
at Timisoara would frighten the Ottomans in Adrianopolis.58 One could argue, in
a somewhat Foucauldian manner, that once the Turk had withdrawn physically, a
lacuna was left which could only be ﬁlled philologically. Once the Turkish armies
of the Ottomans were no longer there to represent the threatening contemporane-
ity of Islam, the retreating Muslim could be re-inscribed into an Oriental past, less
real, more remote, the subject of scholarship, not strategists.
478 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
Whatever one might think of such historical methodology, the fact remains
that Leibniz’s political and philological remarks concerning Turks do not overlap.
The brief treatise Consultation sur les affaires générales (1691) is the last time
Leibniz talks with any degree of seriousness about the Turkish military threat; a
letter to Landgraf Ernst in July 1692 marks the ﬁrst signiﬁcant manifestation of
Leibniz’s interest in the Turks as an ethnic/linguistic group, rather than a political
power. After 1692, apart from the occasional reference to the Porte and their peace
with the Tsar, Leibniz’s fervent inquiries into Arabic, Persian, and Turkish—not
to mention the Turk’s possible kinship with Kalmucks and Scythians—effectively
sideline any interest in the Turk as a political contemporary. For Leibniz, the ge-
nealogy of Mohammed and the identity of Ibn Khallikan become more important
than the Sultan’s intent in Transylvania or the size of his Balkan army.
Leibniz’s concern for origins—reﬂected in an insistence on the authentic
documentation of claims—was another factor in his late obsession with Oriental
ethnic groups and etymologies. We have already seen how wary Leibniz was of
anti-Islamic propaganda such as Prideaux’s The True Nature of Imposture. This
extended to religious polemics in general.
. . . it is the norm in authors to attribute monstrous opinions, and in-
numerable sects, to those they do not love. If we had the books of pagans
against Christians we would see some interesting things [des belles cho-
ses], the Christians in their turn attributing to the ancient heretics many
things I hold for false.59
This historically alert awareness of a possible outside perspective, as yet unreached
and untold, on the subject at hand (‘How could the thing I am looking at be seen
differently by someone else?’) is impressive in Leibniz, and yet it does have its
limitations. Five years later, in a letter to the same Burnett he had told to rely on
Arabic manuscripts for any sound biography of Mohammed, Leibniz relates how
the Scholastics “had written several good books against Jews and Mohammedans,
to which one could add Aquinas’ Contra Gentiles”—Leibniz’s fondness for the
scholastics, here, clearly overriding his better critical judgment.60 Nevertheless,
the fact that Leibniz, in this letter at least, is able to posit an imaginary pagan
perspective on the Christian suggests two things: ﬁrst of all, a tension between
Leibniz’s historicism and his Christian faith, a prioritizing of letter and text over
spirit and idea, producing a faint anxiety which could not simply be resolved by
citing History’s usefulness in illuminating “the foundations of revelation” (New
Essays, 470). Moreover, the passage also highlights an enigmatic motif in Leibniz’s
discourse—the search for an imagined, as yet undisclosed book or source, one which
would be free of any bias or tampering and which would perfectly illuminate a pres-
ent state of knowledge. Leibniz’s hypothetical “pagan” book on Christianity, along
with the perfect translation of the Koran (“not from Christianorum praejudiciciis
but from Mahometanorum commentariis”61), the genealogy of Mohammed which
he sought from scholars such as Ludolf (Schriften I: 9, 283), the elusive oeuvre of
Ibn Khallikan, even the ideal bi-lingual Arabic interpreter Leibniz went to such
lengths to try and ﬁnd . . . all of these represent an imaginary viewpoint outside of
Christianity which Leibniz, in his letters, was always trying to get hold of. By 1705,
the author of the Nouveaux Essais is willing to acknowledge a truth-seeker “can
479Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
get satisfaction from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish historians on the one hand, and
Greek, Roman, and Western ones on the other” (New Essays, 470). The Muslim,
previously so inept at history, now becomes an important correlating factor in the
veriﬁcation of the past, a supplier of “powerful evidence of truth” (ibid). The desire
to have a translation of the Koran made by a lay scholar, and not by a priest, is also
signiﬁcant in this respect. When Leibniz writes how a translation of the “Alcoran,”
being prepared by a scholar called Acoluthus, “will be quite another thing from
the version the good Father Maracci will give us,”62 we glimpse a Leibniz who is
trying to go outside his tribe. The same historical drive which speculated on how
Christianity might look to pagan eyes rejects an Islam constructed for Christian
readers, by searching for a Muslim Koran, commented on only by Muslims.
This point on the outside, this moment of willful alienation when a Chris-
tian thinker attempts to imagine Christianity and Christians through Muslim eyes,
is a gesture of decentering we may also ﬁnd in Kant’s speculations on the kinds
of names Turkish travelers might give to European countries.63 It is possible to
overestimate the signiﬁcance of such maneuvers—the desire to obtain an outside,
apodictic view on one’s own culture and belief-system makes momentary use of an
alien, perhaps even hostile perspective, without necessarily resulting in any creation
of empathy with the brieﬂy visited vantage point of the Other. That Leibniz repeated
this ex-static gesture on a number of occasions, even to the point of considering
both Muslims and Christians together as inferior versions of Jews,64 underlines
how far Leibniz saw his own Christianity as a detachable identity, one he could
step out of from time to time and view with a pagan/non-European gaze. As we
move into the 1690’s, we see that Islam and the world of cultures and languages it
offered increasingly represented one of many such symbolic points of externality
Between 1692 and 1697, the letters of Leibniz reﬂect a profound interest
in the languages/ethnologies of the Middle East and Central Asia. Eagerly awaiting
a copy of d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale, we ﬁnd Leibniz constantly corre-
sponding with a variety of Orientalists, desperately trying to ﬁnd out whether the
Tartars are from Lithuania, whether Persians and Parthians are of Scythian origin,
whether Armenian is related to Ancient Egyptian (Schriften, I:13, 543; I:14, 761).
He keeps in close contact with the Swedish linguist Sparwenfeld, who in March
1697 writes Leibniz long letter, giving the exact list and bibliography of a whole set
of Arab historians, including Ibn Khallikan, Ibn ‘Asakir, at-Tabari, Ibn ‘Abu-Zar’
and the famous Ibn Khaldun (Schriften, I:13, 637). The impression is of a thinker
who is sifting through the world’s languages—as Leibniz himself recommended
in the Nouveaux Essais, where he advocated the study of Turkish, Finnish, and
Persian in an attempt “to make clear the origin of nations” (New Essays, 285–6).
The fervor of his search, the intensity of Leibniz’s desire to locate the fons et origo
of language, is best reﬂected in a letter to Landgraf (1692):
To all appearances the Germans themselves, as well as the Slavs, Hungar-
ians, Huns, and Turks, have come out of Scythia . . . the language of Persia
also contains many words close to German . . . One could explain all these
things concerning the origins of peoples, if one knew well the nations
of Scythia from Poland up to China, and in order to do this, I propose,
that we try to obtain the pater noster, in the languages of all the nations.
480 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
There would be dozens of them, which would serve as comparison, since
the pater noster is already in many languages—it would even be a point
of religion, “so that every tongue may praise His name.” (Schriften I:8,
It has been said that Leibniz’s desire to ﬁnd the Ursprache runs in a fundamentally
different direction from his quest for an artiﬁcial language. The view of Leibniz’s
language-theory which has been termed the “Cassirer Thesis”—namely, Ernst
Cassirer’s conviction that Leibniz’s conception of natural and artiﬁcial languages
are ultimately in conﬂict and that it was Leibniz’s intention to replace the former
with the latter65—seems less convincing when one takes into account the non-
European. What links Leibniz’s project for a characteristica universalis with his
search for an ‘Adamic’ language, more than anything else, is the gaze towards the
Orient; if the desire to construct a universal language was inﬂuenced to a signiﬁ-
cant extent by a desire to Christianize the East (“the conversion of mankind”),
Leibniz’s investigations into the Natursprache are motivated by a desire to unite it.
Ideologically, the second aim is much more ambiguous than the ﬁrst; even though
Leibniz’s request for a version of “Our Father” in every language is indicative of
his ulterior evangelical motives, this relentless search for the wellspring of race and
language (largely synonyms for Leibniz) did bring a new paradigm into his work,
one which Leibniz was unconsciously affected by. In many ways, one could suggest
that Leibniz’s work on languages gently foreshadows the explosive implications
of the work of Jones and other British Sanskritists in the late eighteenth century,
where the discovery of common English and Sanskrit Indo-Aryan roots completely
“revolutionised European notions of universal history and ethnology.”66 Leibniz,
writing a century earlier before such events, certainly experiences no such ‘revolu-
tion.’ When, however, in the Nouveaux Essais, we ﬁnd Hebrew re-described as a
sub-group of Arabic (New Essays, 281), one cannot help feeling Leibniz’s attitude
to the Islamic Orient has undergone some form of signiﬁcant change. The emerg-
ing possibility of kinship with Turks, Arabs, and Persians accounts for the gradual
mellowing of Leibniz’s relationship to Islam from the 1690’s onwards.
To share an origin, of course, does not mean to be suddenly ﬁlled with
brotherly love for one’s ethnological/linguistic seventh cousin (although one
hundred and ﬁfty years later Max Müller, passionate reader of Leibniz, would
advocate precisely this67). It does mean, however, having to change one’s strategies
for ‘othering’ the enemy. In 1671, Leibniz’s talk was of the Turkish pestilence, the
nest of Saracens, the plague of Islam; by 1710, we have a Leibniz who is willing to
acknowledge the usefulness of Turkish/Arab historians, the positive, anti-idolatrous
elements within Islam, and the ethno-linguistic proximity of Arabic and Turkish not
merely to German, but also to the hypothetical primordial tongue. This movement
from eternal foe to philological source is no sea-change, nor does it represent an
unbroken, continuous movement. What it does suggest, however, is the gradual
primacy of Leibniz’s philological identity over his political/theological vocabular-
ies, at least with regards to his remarks on Islam. The critic Gensini has astutely
noted how Leibniz found “in the historico-natural study of language the key to
the historicity of human experience” (Leibniz and Adam, 133). Such historicism
would ultimately overwhelm anything else Leibniz had to say about the Muslim.
A near obsessive devotion to History, not scripture, would ultimately problematize
481Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
Leibniz’s simplistic picture of the ‘Mohammedan’ faith. A consecration of the ori-
gin, a ﬁdelity to Ursprungen, would dilute, though never quite remove, Leibniz’s
historically-inherited antipathy to Islam.
Special thanks to Franklin Perkins and Sun Demirel for reading an earlier version of this essay, as well
as to Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann for earlier conversations regarding the piece.
1. From a letter to des Billettes (December 1696), L. E. Loemke, ed. Philosophical Papers and
Letters, vol.2 (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989), 2:475.
2. Leibniz, ed. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaft, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe (Berlin: Akad-
emie Verlag, 1923–) 4:3, 776. All translations from the French, German, and Latin of the Sämtliche
Schriften are my own unless otherwise stated.
3. Consilium Aegyptiacum (1671), Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften 4:1, 399.
4. Leibniz in a letter to Peter the Great, cited in F. Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of
Light (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), 200.
5. Joseph McCarney, “Hegel’s Racism: A Response to Bernasconi,” Radical Philosophy 119 (May/
June 2003), 1–3.
6. See F. Heer, ed. Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1958), 58; Perkins, Leibniz and
China, 207; J. J. Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought
(London: Routledge, 1997), 47; U. Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (New York: Harvest,
7. Leibniz in letter to Burnet, 1697, Schriften 1:14, 449.
8. A hundred and ﬁfty years before Leibniz, Luther too had been searching for a trustworthy transla-
tion of the Koran—see his introduction to Montecroce’s Rifutatione Alcorani—Verlegung des Alcoran
Bruder Richardi, Prediger Ordens, ed. H. Barge, Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 70
vols. to date (Weimar: Hermann Böhlhaus Nachfolger, 1883–1986), 53:260–385.
9. Leibniz in a letter to Hiob Ludof, January 1693, Schriften 1:9, 283.
10. Leibniz to Sparwenfeld, 1697, Schriften 1:14, 761.
11. Schriften 4:1, 336; Clarence Dana Rouillard, The Turk in French History, Thought and Litera-
ture 1520–1660 (Paris: Boivin, 1938), 189. Georgiewitz published two books in 1544, Les misères et
tribulations que les Christiens tributaires et esclaves tenuz par le Turcz seuffrent and La Manière et
cérémonies des Turcs. Both were translated into Latin and German, and enjoyed several reprints well
into the seventeenth century. From a reference in Leibniz’s 1683 satire Mars Christianissimus, we know
that he had been familiar with the Latin edition of Georgiewitz’s work, De Turcarum moribus epitome.
See P. J. Riley, ed. Leibniz: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 127.
12. Rouillard, The Turk in French History, 193. See Leibniz in “Bedencken,” Sämtliche Schriften,
13. Postel, for example, declares a sense of shame at the corruption of French courts in contrast
with the perceived efﬁciency of the Turkish system. For more on this, see Rouillard, The Turk in French
14. Kuhlmann and Leibniz had shared the same professor at Jena, Erhard Weigl. See Willhelm
Schmidt-Biggemann, “Salvation Through Philology,” P. Schäfer and M. Cohen, eds. Toward the Mil-
lenium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998), 261.
15. W. Schmidt-Biggemann, “Comenius’ Politische Apokalyptik,” Studia Comenia et Historica 32
16. Schmidt-Biggemann, “Salvation Through Philology,” 267.
482 Eighteenth-Century Studies 39 / 4
17. P. Remnant and J. Bennett, eds. New Essays on Human Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1989), 507.
18. As is widely known, Leibniz had been a member of a Rosicrucian society during his brief stay in
Nüremberg in 1667. Equally well-known is the story, repeated by Leibniz’s secretary Eckhart, that he
had obtained membership of the alchemical society by crafting together a letter to the President using
strange, mystical terms which Leibniz himself did not understand. E. J. Aiton, Leibniz: A Biography
(Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1985), 25. Certainly, one study of the inﬂuence of the Kabbalist van Helmont
on Leibniz has argued that Leibniz “took the Kabbalah extremely seriously,” rationalizing “its more
mythical and mystical elements . . . to the tastes of a more modern world.” Alison P. Coudert, Leibniz
and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995), 157.
19. Richard Ariew makes this point in his “G. W. Leibniz, Life and Works,” Nicholas Jolley, ed.
The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), 41.
20. “On The General Characteristic” (1679), in Loemker, 221. One of the standard orthodox objec-
tions against the Rosicrucians was that Rosencreutz’s “learning came from Turkey and was therefore
heathen.” Rosencreutz was said to have returned from the East with his newfound wisdom. See F. Yates,
The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge, 2002), 141.
21. B. Russell, A Critical Expansion of the Philosophy of Leibniz (London: Routledge, 1988), 3.
22. Cited in Sheldon Pollack, “Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and Power beyond the Raj,”
Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, eds. Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament:
Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 86.
23. Cited in Perkins, Leibniz and China, 200.
24. “Comparatio orientalis et occidentalis turcae,” Schriften 4:3 N42.
25. Cited in Perkins, Leibniz and China, 200.
26. “Preface to Nizolius,” Loemker, Philosophical Papers, 125.
27. Ermahnung an die Deutschen, ihren Verstand und ihre Sprache besser zu üben, samt beigefügten
Vorschlag einer deutschgesinnten Gesellschaft, in Heer, Leibniz, 77–85.
28. “Quelques réﬂexions sur la guerre,” Schriften 4:2, 613.
29. From the Theodicy, cited in Heer, Leibniz, 173.
30. Gil Anidjar, The Jew, The Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003),
31. D. J. Cook, “Leibniz’s Use and Abuse of Judaism and Islam,” M. Dascal and E. Yakira, eds.
Leibniz and Adam (Tel Aviv: Univ. Publishing Project Ltd., 1993), 290.
32. See L. Valensi’s “The Making of a Political Paradigm: The Ottoman State and Oriental Despo-
tism,” A. Grafton and A. Blair, eds. The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia:
Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990): 173-203, for a fascinating account of how the reports of Venetian
ambassadors returning from their diplomatic missions in Istanbul became “a kind of literary genre.”
More importantly, she examines how the Venetian representation of Ottoman rule mutated from a
strong, legitimate, well-disciplined form of government, within the space of ﬁfty years, into “the ab-
horred category of tyranny” (199).
33. M. Dascal, “One Adam and Many Cultures: The Role of Political Pluralism in the Best of all
Possible Worlds,” Dascal and Yakhira, Leibniz and Adam, 390.
34. Riley, Political Writings, “Letters to Thomas Burnett,” 191.
35. No. 49 in the Monadology, in G. H. R. Parkinson, ed. Philosophical Writings (London: Dent,
36. Leibniz in a letter to Vergus, December 1697, cited in Perkins, Leibniz and China, 42.
37. cum plerique nulla penitibus religione ducantur.
38. Leibniz to Bossuet, 1692, cited in Riley, Political Writings, 190.
483Almond / Leibniz, Historicism, and the “Plague of Islam”
39. Foucher de Careil, ed. Oeuvres de Leibniz (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1867) III:186, cited in Cook,
“Leibniz’s Use and Abuse of Islam and Judaism,” 290.
40. “On the General Characteristic” (1679), Loemker, 222.
41. Leibniz in a letter to Remond, July 1714, Loemker, 657.
42. Antony Bonner, ed. Doctor Illuminatus: A Ramon Lull Reader (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
43. Peter Fenves, “Of Philosophical Style—from Leibniz to Benjamin” in boundary 2, 30:1 (2003),
44. Schriften 2:411, cited in Fenves, 73.
45. “On the General Characteristic,” Loemker, 225.
46. Leibniz to Thomasius, April 1669, Loemker, 102.
47. Cited in Cook, 290.
48. “Discourse on Metaphysics,” Loemker, 321.
49. Leibniz to Bossuet, March 1693, Schriften I:9, 85–6.
50. February 1695, Schriften I:11, 295.
51. Leibniz to Larroque, November 1692, Schriften I:8, 548.
52. Theodicee (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1996), 66.
53. New Essays, 92. To be fair, Leibniz also has Theophilus remind us how “the Mohammedan
authorities would customarily punish” such activities (ibid).
54. Cited in Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah, 159.
55. “A New Method for Learning and Teaching Jurisdprudence,”Loemker, 89.
56. Letter to van Hessen-Rheinfels, July 1692, Schriften 1:8, 139.
57. For more on these remarks, see Stefano Gensini’s “Leibniz Linguist and Philosopher of Language:
Between ‘Primitive’ and ‘Natural’,” Leibniz and Adam, 117–9.
58. “Consultation sur les affaires générales,” Schriften 4:4, 479.
59. Letter to Landgraf Ernst, July 1692, Schriften I:8 141.
60. Letter to Burnett, 1697, Schriften I:13, 552.
61. May, 1693, Schriften I:9, 426.
62. Letter to Sparwenfeld, 1697, Schriften I:13, 546.
63. W. Weischadel, ed., Kant:Werkausgabe (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, 1968), XII:661.
64. Leibniz to Herzog 1677, Schriften II:1, 303.
65. Donald Rutherford, “Philosophy and Language in Leibniz,” Jolley, ed. Cambridge Companion
to Leibniz, 248.
66. Thomas R. Trautmann, Aryans and British India (Delhi: Yoda Press, 2001), xxxiii.
67. For more on Müller and his descriptions of Indians, “our nearest intellectual relatives,” see his
collection of lectures, India: What Can It Teach Us? (New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2002), 11.