Far Past Mecca: Religion in the Persian Letters

Writing, like oration, is a deliberate act. Those who speak or debate for a living hone their skills so well that they are capable of arguing either side of a case with equal passion and persuasion. Any reasonably skilled writer is capable of doing the same, particularly since he or she is not limited by the exigencies of the moment and can edit or redact at will. It is therefore impossible to say, with certainty, exactly what a writer believes, thinks, or feels based solely on the product on his pen. This is particularly true in an absolutist or totalitarian environment, wherein authors can be imprisoned or even executed for overtly criticizing the wrong person. Yet throughout Les Lettres Persanes Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu creates satirical caricatures of religion and of religious people. The notion of religious tolerance and freedom, even filtered as it is through the words of imaginary narrators, was risky enough to make de Montesquieu publish the 1721 book under a pseudonym (1). This essay will show the strategies used by de Montesquieu to portray religion in a very critical way: beneficial chiefly in the abstract, but hypocritical, self-important, and even predatory in practice. The text is not kind to anybody, but it mocks religious individuals more gently by presenting them as well-intentioned hypocrites. The most trenchant irony is reserved for the First Estate, the members of which are presented as not just self-interested but actively predatory. Religious freedom is never explicitly endorsed in Les Lettres Persanes, but the sentiments expressed by the fictional characters therein appear to support it at times.

Born in 1689 (2), de Montesquieu came of age during the reign of Louis XIV, who between 1643 and 1715 (3) presided over an absolutist empire in which aristocratic families (known as the Second Estate) were part of a very privileged class to whom education was readily available. Yet even the social liberties permitted to the noble class did not quite permit an author to criticize members of the First Estate. In Les Lettres, Montesquieu frequently makes a point through a narrator who, while overtly proclaiming something, is unreliable enough to convince the reader that the author intends the opposite.

This author never explicitly says that religion is bad, or that there’s no such thing as a God. At times, the characters speculate as to what God must be like, but it’s always a positive and perfect image. But, when it comes to human beings, Montesquieu presents them as misguided, corrupt, self-absorbed, and hypocritical.

“I give thanks to Almighty God, Who sent His great prophet Hali, whence it is that I profess a religion which requires to be preferred before all human interest, and which is as pure as the sky from which it came.” (4) These words are attributed to Usbek, an owner of multiple slaves and concubines, who has just finished criticizing what he characterizes as Christian hypocrisy of freeing slaves in one’s own country for religious reasons, only to enslave people in other nations. The more overtly a de Montesquieu character praises or condemns something, the more ironic the praise or censure becomes. Usbek himself appears to regard Islam as a “pure” religion, and Islamic lands as being somehow peaceful and superior despite the extremely corrupt goings-on in the court of Sultan Ahmed III (who reigned at the time in which the fictional Usbek would have been traveling in Europe). Ironically, Ahmed III was known for being a modernizing influence in the Ottoman Empire, and was a devoted Francophile. (5)

When the character Usbek presents “his” thoughts in general terms, stating his opinion of the human condition, he does not confine his observations to religion. He describes humanity as self-interested overall: “Men act unjustly, because it is in their interest to do so, and because they prefer their own satisfaction to that of others. They act always to secure some advantage to themselves: no one is a villain gratis; there is always a determining motive, and that motive is always an interested one.” (6) But in the early part of the book, Usbek identifies self-interest as a uniquely Christian and European trait, and contrasts it with his idealized vision of his own nation.

Through the eyes of the Persian visitors, European traits are exaggerated for the sake of irony. Usbek remarks on the European habit of religious discussion, which he interprets as a lack of faith: “With them there is a vast difference between profession and belief, between belief and conviction, between conviction and practice. Religion is not so much a matter of holiness as it is the subject of a debate, in which everybody has a right to join.” (7) Yet the fact this debate occurred in France is evidence that the violent suppression of the Protestant religious viewpoint during the Huguenot rebellion of the 1620’s (8) is no longer a credible threat, so that ordinary people feel free to discuss or dispute religion, within limits.

Usbek meets and describes “certain people who are never done discussing religion, but who seem at the same time to contend as to who shall observe it least.” (9) He goes on to describe his notion of the best way to serve God, which is to follow the rules of the religion and the nation. Yet Usbek himself, though he purports to be devout, has not yet bothered with the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. In Letter 15, his servant the First Eunuch expresses a desire that he do that, so as to cleanse himself. (10)

When it comes to the clergy, de Montesquieu takes the gloves off. Although he points out the hypocrisy in lay people and allows Usbek to point at it repeatedly, the criticism of clerical hypocrisy is far more vicious. “These dervishes take three oaths: of obedience, of poverty, and of chastity. They say that the first is the best observed of the three, as to the second, it is not observed at all; you can form your own opinion with regard to the third.” (11) This next passage describes the corruption the cheekier Rica sees in the Church: “Thus, if any one wishes to escape the fast of Rhamazan or is unwilling to submit to the formalities of marriage, or wishes to break his vows, or to marry within the prescribed degrees, or even to forswear himself, all he has to do is to apply or a bishop, or to the Pope, who will at once grant a dispensation.” (12) Rica describes his first impression of the concepts of holy trinity and transubstantiation, two important articles of faith for Catholics of the time:

(T)here is another magician more powerful still, who is master of the king’s mind, as absolutely as the king is master of the minds of his subjects. This magician is called the Pope. Sometimes he makes the king believe that three are no more than one; that the bread which he eats is not bread; the wine which he drinks not wine; and a thousand things of a like nature. (13)

One passage in a letter from Rica depicts Church representatives, bureaucrats, and judges as not just hypocritical but dangerously predatory:

Other judges assume the innocence of the accused; these always deem them guilty. In dubious cases, their rule is to lean to the side of severity, apparently because they think mankind desperately wicked. And yet, when it suits them, they have such a high opinion of mankind, that they think them incapable of lying; for they accept as witnesses, mortal enemies, loose women, and people whose trade is infamous. In sentencing culprits, they pay them a little compliment. Having dressed them in brimstone shirts, they assure them that they are much grieved to see them in such sorry attire; that they are tender-hearted, abhorring bloodshed, and are quite overcome at having to condemn them. Then these heart-broken judges console themselves by confiscating to their own use all the goods of their miserable victims. (14)

On the subject of religious tolerance, de Montesquieu allows his characters to speak plainly and explicitly. Although at no point is religious freedom recommended overall, Usbek has this to say about the Jews he has observes in Europe:

They have never been freer from molestation in Europe than they are now. Christians are beginning to lose the spirit of intolerance which animated them: experience has shown the error of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and of the persecution of those Christians in France whose belief differed a little from that of the king. They have realized that zeal for the advancement of religion is different from a due attachment to it; and that in order to love it and fulfil its behests, it is not necessary to hate and persecute those who are opposed to it. It is much to be desired that our Mussulmans regarded this matter as rationally… (15)

Montesquieu ultimately presents religious sentiment as a positive force, and he never goes so far as to criticize God or assert any form of atheism. But the human beings in the book are all imperfect, even the narrators. Most of the religious individuals in the book come across as self-absorbed, well-intentioned hypocrites. The Second Estate is depicted as corrupt and predatory. Although the text supports the abstract notion of religion, it criticizes the way people follow it. To the extent the text can be assumed to reflect de Montesquieu’s actual thoughts, one might label him a freethinker who approves of religion, but has no faith in humanity.

End Notes

1) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 501-502

2) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 423

3) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 464, 466

4) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

5) Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Copyright 1992, reprinted 2009 Barnes and Noble. Hardcover. Pages 30-42.

6) Letter 84, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

7) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

8) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 412

9) Letter 46, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

10) Letter 15, the First Eunuch to Jaron, at Erzeroum

11) Letter 57, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

12) Letter 29, Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna

13) Letter 24, Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna

14) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

15) Letter 60, Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna


Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback.

Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Copyright 1992, reprinted 2009 Barnes and Noble. Hardcover.

de Secondat, Charles. (Montesquieu) Les Lettres Persanes. Public Domain. Retrieved from http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Lettres_persanes

de Secondat, Charles. (Montesquieu) The Persian Letters. Public Domain. John Davidson, translator. Retrieved from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Persian_Letters.

Quasi-Hopelessness and Martyrdom in Persian Letters

Persian Letters seems like a hopeless account lobbying against female empowerment. Starting from each of the wives’ opening letters to Usbek and continuing to Roxana’s death by suicide at the end of the novel, at first glance, these letters reek of despair and cyclical dread for womankind during this time period. However, while these epistles might seem to speak to insurmountable irreparability and impossibility for gender equality, deeper inspection reveals a heavily feminist manifesto circumventing this society. These feminist undertones are largely seen in Roxana’s sacrificial death, as well as the writings about the Female Paradise. But even aside from these plot points, there is a consistent tone of female rights providing an underpinning throughout all of the novel. This alternate, empowering reading encourages unique sources of power for these women; they may not be able to fully escape the hell they are subjected to in an optimal manner, but time and time again, their writings and actions remind readers that female agency is possible, depending on how they look for it.

The wives in The Persian Letters portray a prime example of protofeminity. Usbek’s wives are submissive in every way, but oftentimes, this behavior is purely displayed out of necessity or survival — later on, we learn that this is also related to them carrying on extramarital affairs and wanting the freedom to do so. As humans, they are entirely enslaved and used for their bodies, always having to submit to Usbek’s rule. They are aware of this limiting lifestyle they are forced into as well, with Fatme even dubbing herself “a free woman, by the accident of birth…enslaved by the violence of her love” (46). Each wife has a unique way of dealing with Usbek’s whims and desires while communicating with him.

While writing him, they each display their own unique style and mode of managing him in order to gain maximum freedom; they are acting on every feminist urge and ability they have. They are unable to stand openly for women’s rights or speak out against their injustices, so instead, they use specific, distinctive diction to manipulate Usbek and get their way. Zashi plays the nostalgic lover, reminding him that she is “searching for you all the time, and finding you nowhere” (43) and referencing the moments at which “they” fell in love. Zephis is the damsel in distress, griping to him about “how miserable I am!” and how “all I need is yourself” (44) to bring her happiness again. Fatme takes on the role of the unabashed lover, bordering on resembling Stockholm syndrome at various junctions in her letter. She pines over him and “still [tries] to make a habit of being attractive” (47). Roxana is unlike all of the other wives. She doesn’t write to Usbek until the last year of his escapade, playing hard to get (minus any “play”). Their different approach tactics prove significant because they are acutely aware of every word they say and the order in which they talk to him. These letters at first create concern for the women, and an urgent need to save them from Usbek, who has seemingly brainwashed them; Fatme in letter seven seems especially too far-gone. However, the way they present themselves is actually more a form of agency than anything else. In each letter, a significant amount of buttering up takes place — be it in the form of displaying weakness or withholding communication entirely, so that by the time they need or want something, they’ve swooned or impressed Usbek enough to ask for it. Through their letters to Usbek and their actions at home, it is seen that the power they have at the end of the novel is far greater than the power they were allotted at the beginning, with The Chief Eunuch even stating to Usbek that his “wives have come to think that [his] departure meant complete impunity for them” (270). The shift in the power structure here ends up leading to Usbek’s demise because it provides the wives agency over their own lives. They become characters who are able to manipulate and writhe skillfully within their adverse situations to make the best out of the hand they’ve been dealt. Roxana may not be able to be with the man she loves; Zashi may not be able to be as sexually adventurous as she wishes outside of the company of her slaves (270), but they are able to find nooks and crannies of time to carve out a life they want – given unavoidable and unfortunate circumstances. It is through this hushed, written manipulation that comes off initially disparaging that any of this agency is made possible.

The death of Roxana is sad and disheartening; she must die in order to gain power and happiness. In the midst of the Persian tale about women’s paradise, Zulema states, “we are so wretched that we cannot not want something different…I wish only to die myself…since that is the only way in which I can hope to be separated from you, I shall still find such a separation pleasant” (249). An idea of paradise for women is the exact opposite of what their life on earth is like, which is true of the four wives, as well. Zulema illustrates even in this tale that the only way a woman can attain agency in this society is via suicide. She adopts it as an act of power, and it is highly symbolic that she goes to Heaven afterwards to have her “happiness perpetually renewed” (249). This underscores how female suicide here death provides more joy and freedom opposed to a life in shackles chained to their husbands. It is also meant to lay the framework for Roxana’s suicide. It foreshadows that death by suicide in this time period is not something to be mourned, but something that could be a gateway to new realms of happiness. While suicide is typically thought of as heartbreaking, this changes it into a welcome act of power for women looking for a needed escape in this society.

The biggest source of female power — coming both from the structuring of the novel and the text itself — is found in the last letter from Roxana to Usbek as she poisons herself. Following the feminist motifs rife throughout the rest of the novel, this is not a suicide, it is a sacrifice and act of rebellion. She has manipulated everyone skillfully enough to tell Usbek, “I suborned your eunuchs, outwitted your jealously, and managed to turn your terrible seraglio into a place of delightful pleasures” (280). She is touting her accomplishments and the successful way she has undermined his power while he’s been away. She is akin to civil rights activists and valiant martyrs rather than someone who frivolously or over-emotionally committed suicide, which would have likely been seen as a sign of demented weakness during this time period. While killing herself could be seen as her acting out of desperation or finding an escape from ubiquitous power, the fact that she documents her death and writes to Usbek about it speaks volumes, as she is openly disregarding his authority, efforts, and rule. She acts against the feeling of entrapment felt by many women at the time: They would rather be killed or become martyrs rather than submit to the will of men who advance upon them. Every movement they made in spite of the men who controlled them was actually a movement toward freedom, as they were openly acting against the patriarchy and articulating the basic right of a women’s right to self-determination. She takes this act of suicide and turns it into her last word; the last word that will ever be said in their gender argument entirely. Her death might not have changed the world or granted women more rights than they originally held, but this act of selflessness could be seen as the beginning blueprints for feminism as a movement. Usbek asserts his dominance throughout the novel with his letters — especially the final letters where he gives the First Eunuch “unlimited powers over the entire seraglio” (271). He writes his wives and asserts threats, stating, “it is you who would be caught if I decided to follow the Chief Eunuch’s advice” (133), but Roxana’s last letter reminds Usbek that he is — and has always been — effectively powerless. He has spent years pining over Roxana and trying to control the seraglio and all of his wives, but this letter proves to him — definitively — that he cannot control anything. The irony in this is that he has spent his entire correspondence controlling people and running his society from the outside. In many ways, he was successful, as it would be near impossible to say his wives had wide degrees of freedom, but it is acts such as Roxana’s suicide that remind us how simply out of control he always was.

This is the note Montesquieu wanted to leave us with. The last thing that he wanted to tell us was that a woman felt so shielded by her husband that she had find happiness in the shadows and use her death as a way to escape a hell on earth. Montesquieu didn’t want to give Usbek the last word, didn’t want to give him a chance to explain himself. Throughout The Persian Letters, Montesquieu didn’t allow other people to stick up for themselves or let his wives have a say in their lives. They wrote letters and cunningly expressed their opinions, but he didn’t give them agency or power — rather, they had to find it themselves. His disregard for them is replicated, and dug in even more harshly, by Montesquieu’s — and the wives’ — disregard for him by lack of a final letter. It’s hard not to feel bad for Usbek’s wives and the people they represent, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, Usbek’s power is forgotten and undermined by his wives. They found glimmers of hope and unique ways to control him and eventually destroy him. Roxana had to sacrifice herself, but this act of dominance and power over him simultaneously destabilizes patriarchy while asserting female power. It’s hard not to feel bad for them. But it’s similarly hard not to see their actions as immense acts of clever, albeit saddening, power and strides toward eventual gender equality.