The Islamic World’s Perspective on the French Revolution

The French Revolution generated shifting responses and striking perceptions all over the world, including in the Islamic World at the dawn of a new age.

Dec 26, 2022By Batuhan Aksu, MA History (in-progress), BA History
Bonaparte visiting victims gros
Detail of Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804, Musée du Louvre, Paris


France and the Islamic world enjoyed a close relationship since the Crusades. Both sides benefited from their multilayered contacts, influencing each other in differing fields. This reciprocal relationship was so significant that the Islamic societies called the entire Europe “Frangistan” (The Land of the Franks). Sociopolitical and economic developments in the sixteenth century facilitated their close ties, even leading to alliances for France, notably with the Ottoman Empire. It eventually prepared the ground for the wide-ranging impacts of the French Revolution on the Islamic Empires.


These empires experienced socioeconomic and political problems since the eighteenth century. When the Ottomans were at war with Russia and Austria, Selim III became the new sultan in 1789, and the Qajar tribe under Mirza (Agha) Muhammad revolted against the ruling dynasty (Zand) in the same year, demolishing it after a civil war in Persia.


In this context, Ottoman and Persian authors of the Islamic world differed in perceiving the French Revolution. While Ottoman ambassadors viewed the American Revolution and fiscal crisis as the main reason for the French Revolution, Persian travelers regarded the suffering of ordinary people under royal pressure as its leading causes. Therefore, the Islamic world had different responses to the French Revolution which were complicated.


Selim III: A Reformist Young Sultan on the Ottoman Throne

Selim III Receiving Dignitaries by Konstantin Kapidagli, Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul


The Ottoman Empire had lost a series of wars against Russia and Austria, causing territorial losses and socioeconomic turbulence since 1768. This climate required comprehensive reforms within the state structure. Hence, Prince Selim in Istanbul aimed to learn the socio-political structure of France and offer an alliance in 1786. Foreign Minister Vergennes welcomed this step because of his positive relationship with his father (Mustafa III) when he was the ambassador (1755-1768) (see further reading: Soysal, 1987). Selim appointed İshak Bey to provide an agreement with Versailles in sending letters to Louis XVI and Vergennes. Abdülhamid I, Selim’s uncle, also agreed since he needed Francophile officials against Russia and Austria.


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However, Louis XVI rejected the prospect of a military alliance by clarifying that his friendship with the Ottomans could not be a reason for an alliance. It is worth mentioning that he could not join an anti-Austrian partnership given the role of Marie Antoinette. Prince Selim was enthroned in April 1789 after his uncle’s death, becoming the sultan until his downfall after a Janissary rebellion in 1807. He attempted to reform the state structure based on a new program called the New Order (Nizâm-ı Cedid). He also gave importance to renewing relations with France, which could play a vital part in implementing reforms.


Ishak Bey at Versailles: The American Revolution & Financial Degradation

A Miniature of Selim III by Joseph Warnia-Zarzecki, 1850, Pera Museum, Istanbul


Nonetheless, Ishak remained in Versailles until March 1789, except for brief travels to Britain, Germany, and Russia. İsmail Soysal (1987) disputes that he could penetrate many international issues compared to the Ottoman elite in his period. Ishak stressed the opening of the Assembly of Notables (Meclis-i Muteberan) in his letters as the most notable development. He wrote:


“After your servant settled in France, your friend, the King of France, gathered state dignitaries and leaders and formed a great assembly (cemiyet)… It has decreed the regulation of revenues and expenses besides some unjustly received incomes.”


This was exceptional for him since the Ottomans had not known this sort of assembly. He underlined that France was under fiscal strains (müzâyaka); hence, allying would not be reasonable. In his opinion, the American Revolution was what endangered the Ancien Régime. Moreover, the American Revolution made France vulnerable to invasions, and he believed the country was not in the position to resolve any armed conflict even in five years. Only resting for a couple of years at peace might provide time to restore France’s royal power. Ishak did not indicate domestic problems like rural poverty, royal legitimacy, and representation. He wrote to Selim:


“The Frenchmen had naval wars with the British…though they were victorious over their enemies, their treasure (hazine) depleted in the meantime… in the war with the British for the New World (Yeni Dünya), much of their equipment was destroyed.”


Ebubekir Ratip at Vienna: Misery, Liberty, & Blasphemy

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris


After Ishak, the memorandums of Ebubekir Ratip provided intelligence to the Sultanate as the ambassador of Vienna until 1792. His reports affected the way the Ottomans of the Islamic world responded to the revolution. Ratip conceptualized the revolution as the insurrection of the miserable (esâfil), and its fundamental causes lay in financial troubles. Ratip expressed that Louis increased tax on peasants to balance the budget, causing hate and abuse (tenfir ve tekdir). The nobility (nobile) was also guilty since they oppressed peasants and refused to send Louis financial or military equipment (mühimmat). Fatih Yeşil (2011) debates that displaying divisions within France is one of Ratib’s striking analyses of the revolution. Ratip observed that France consisted of conflicting orders (fıkra) besides further disagreements.


Nonetheless, the nobility and clergy are faithful to Louis XVI. Hearing the voice of revolutionaries is possible from Ratip’s account. For instance, the Third Estate tasted liberty (serbestiyetten lezzet) and demanded:


“We cannot free the people from slavery unless we in the National Assembly (Nasyonel Asamliya) terminate this comedy… If every person has dignity and honor, why do these tyrants harass us so? Are they not humans like us? Oh gentlemen, oh brothers!… We will fire the bullets, guns, and cannons at their palaces.”


The Oath of the Tennis Court by Jacques-Louis David, circa 1790, Musée Carnavalet, Paris


Ratip underlined that this was the zenith of widespread dissent (fesâd) that resulted in the execution of Louis XVI. From this moment, Ratip was critical of the consequences and ideals of the revolution. To exemplify, disgraceful revolutionaries (cumhur-ı eşkıyâ) caused the massacre of people in the name of liberty (serbestiyet). He perceived “liberty” as a mental illness and the Declaration of the Rights of the Man as a piece of propaganda (See further reading: Yeşil, 2011).


His friends in Vienna provided him with the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, but he disliked them since their books include heresy (ilhâd) and blasphemy (küfriyât). Ratip used the German term Freigeisterei (free thinkers) to frame their ideas, demonstrating the impact of Austrians on his perceptions. However, he claimed that France would regain its splendor, culminating in a continental conflict because the revolution (ihtilâl) would unite Frenchmen for a common cause against European powers, concluding that war was inevitable (See further reading: Yeşil, 2011).


Shifting Perceptions in Istanbul: From Appreciation to Condemnation

Napoleon Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1808, Palace of Versailles


These struggles would have made the Ottomans tolerant of the revolution. The Grand Vizier mentioned they could no longer marry the Austrians like Marie Antionette. Moreover, the revolution forced Russian-Austrian Alliance to accept the peace proposal of the Ottomans, bringing insufficient gains to the alliance despite their military victories. Desiring the spread of the French Revolution, Scribe Ahmed Efendi appreciated that the Austrians would have inflicted persecution and torment upon the Ottomans if it had not happened (See further reading: Soysal, 1987).


Thus, the Revolution was a graceful moment and tremendous relaxation for Selim III. Revolutionaries in Istanbul celebrated it by wearing tricolor cockades, translating revolutionary documents, and planting a tree of liberty (See further reading: Casa, 1991). When European ambassadors applied for the prohibition of tricolor cockades, Raşid Efendi refused, indicating:


“They can wear any cockade (alâmet) they want. It is not our duty to say ‘why did you wear it’ if they put a basket of grapes on their heads.”
(Soysal, 1987)


In this era, Selim III implemented multifaceted reforms called New Order (Nizâm-ı Cedid) until the invasion of Egypt led Napoleon to label Selim “Louis XVI of the Turks.” This invasion also drove Ottoman historians to portray a negative depiction of the revolution as Ahmed Vasıf did after 1800 (See further reading: Menchinger, 2017).


Persian Responses to the French Revolution 

The Embassy of Tipu Sultan at Versailles by Nicolas-François Le Vachez, 1788, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris


Like France during the French Revolution, Persia was also experiencing a tumultuous period. It fell into turmoil after the reign of Karim Khan (d. 1779) from the Zand Dynasty since none of his descendants could take the throne. Opposing factions struggled with each other until Agha Mohammed Khan, the leader of the Qajar tribe, gained the upper hand in 1789. Like the Ottomans, the Qajar (1794-1925) attempted to reform the state structure primarily under French influence. Hence, the Revolution accelerated the Franco-Persian relationships.


However, historiography tends to neglect the effects of the French Revolution. However, American historian Nikki Keddie claimed that the impact of the French Revolution on Persia could not be negligible. For instance, Persia enjoyed a peaceful time since its foe, Russia, was involved in European affairs. The revolution also eased the victory of the Qajar within the civil war (1789-1794). However, Persian responses to the revolution were much more negative than the Ottomans at first because Persia had a beneficial relationship with Britain. Thus, Persian travelers echoed British impacts in detailing the stages of the revolution. Nevertheless, they found the uprising of the French people righteous due to the oppression of royal power.


Although one Persian-Indian prince, Tipu Sultan, sent an embassy to France to obtain an alliance in 1789, ambassadors failed to reach their objectives and write their experiences. The same cadre had visited Istanbul before settling in Paris, but Selim III refused their suggestions (See further reading: Habib, 2001). Hence, traveler accounts constitute the backbone of Persian perceptions about the revolution. Despite being farther from the Ottomans and having lesser ties with France, Keddie puts forward that Persia illustrates how far the influence of the French Revolution continued.


Mirza Abu Taleb: A Persian Traveler at the Heart of Europe

An Engraving of Abu Taleb by James Northcote, 1814


Mirza Abu Taleb traveled to European cities, including London and Paris, and penned his memories after 1799. Initially, he reflected the prominence of Les Cahiers de Doléances in making the revolution. The Frenchmen were disgusted with their tyrannical government and sent innumerable petitions to their King for effectual reforms.


However, Louis XVI did not consider their demands as a “wicked” and “weak” leader in 1787. Abu Taleb underlined that Louis XVI violated the fundamental principles of a just government. He conceptualized this issue in the light of Indo-Iranian kingship principles. According to these principles, the lineage is not enough for the survival of dynasties since the source of its legitimacy lies in implementing justice and wisdom. Despite the benefits of monarchy, an unjust king like Louis can do mischief, ruining his legitimacy after his mismanagement.


Additionally, the king parsimoniously spent the budget on gardens and building activities. While the nobility enjoyed gardens, the French laypeople were miserable. Unlike the Ottomans, he did not count the American Revolution and its fiscal outcomes as the basis of the revolution. In his view, the crisis of legitimacy and the problem of representation were the chief reasons.


Hence, after two years, the Frenchmen found their demands ineffective and pioneered a popular rebellion (balwâ-ye ʿâmm). Eventually, this stimulated Louis from inactivity, and summoned the Estates-General to appease the people in 1789. Taleb portrayed it like the British Parliament (majlis) since the objective of the Third Estate was to embrace the British form of government (naqsa-ye riyâsad).


Napoleon receiving the Persian Envoy by François Mulard, 1810, Château de Versailles


They announced their demand to be placed on a footing with the English. He exaggerated the role of the British model for the Third Estate as if there had been a consensus to demand it though this was not the case. It stemmed from considering the interpretations of his British friends as the basis of his account. Ultimately, the Third Estate felt its power in the Estates-General and demanded legislation. Its refusal by the king reinforced their discontent, culminating in the movement of the insurrectionist people (‘ahl-al balwâ). Because of their sedition (fitna), a complete revolution (enqelâb-e ʿazîm) happened since:


“The nobles…fled…and what wealth they could carry with them, into the neighboring countries…the King, being thus left alone, took refuge in his castle. The powerful were reduced to weakness, and the base (was) raised to power. The common people elected representatives (‘ahl-al shura) from the lowest classes and appointed officers of their own choice.”


Abu Taleb concludes that Britain was under the contagion of the revolution like a peach that turns reddish by looking at another peach. He also warned that a revolution would happen if Britain widened the gap between the rich and the poor. However, he did not regard the revolution as a milestone on a global scale. Instead, it is a spreading European rebellion. Besides, he disfavored sociopolitical developments in France after 1790 as a proponent of the Persian-Indian monarchical tradition. This tradition assumed the concept of “revolution” (enqelâb) as the cycle of emerging and fading dynasties driven by the divine order. Thus, unlike Ottoman authors, his cyclical theory of historical observation led him to encapsulate the revolution as an exemplary insurrection in Europe, not a defining transformation in world history.


Other Travelers & the Royal Responses in Tehran

Mirza Muhammad Khan Qajar by Abbas Quli Karami, 1855-1856, Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Washington DC


Other Persian travelers made similar observations regarding the nature of the revolution. Mir Abd-al-Latif Shustari wrote in Tohfat al-ʿâlam (Gift to the World) that the Frenchmen were sick of the royal oppression and demanded a parliament in the English model. Like Abu Taleb, Shustari also viewed the British constitutional model as the sole model for the Third Estate. However, his account often included occidental prejudices regarding France. This is because the Indo-Persian writers had little knowledge regarding how to criticize the Occident elaborately. To illustrate, Shustari called the French (Frangi) “the God-forsaken nation” that is full of sedition and corruption (fetna u fesâd). Nonetheless, people overthrew their corrupt king with a righteous cause and manifested the destiny of oppressive monarchs through revolution.


These portrayals positively altered the relationship between the Qajar and France, notably improving under Fath-Ali Shah after receiving military assistance after the revolution (See further reading: Keddie, 2002). To exemplify, Mirza Saleh repeated similar explanations in his travelogues but avoided negative designations in several cases. He highlighted the role of Louis XVI in earlier accounts but also investigated the part of the National Assembly. Their members insisted:


“Status and honor should be bestowed on capable and talented individuals and not upon any prattler who happens to be promoted by the king.”


Besides, the assembly (masvaratkhana) restricted the strength and control of the king, making him an obsolete shadow after their great revolution (enqelab-e kebir). Besides travelers, the Qajar Dynasty also welcomed the revolution under Fath-Ali Shah. Abbas Mirza, heir-apparent, attempted to imitate France as an example of a Western-style government like Selim III when he was heir-apparent (See further reading: Keddie, 2002). Thus, the revolution considerably improved the Franco-Persian relationship, unlike the broken Franco-Ottoman alliance after the Invasion of Egypt.


Conclusion: A Plethora of Multifaceted Interpretations

Expédition d’Égypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte by Léon Cogniet, 1835, Musée du Louvre, Paris


The perception of the French Revolution in the Islamic World offers a different and vivid viewpoint different from Eurocentric mainstream accounts. Accordingly, it can help to identify the various aspects of the Revolution that European-centered sources neglect. Additionally, it displays the Revolution’s prominence as a global milestone beyond a Western phenomenon. Ultimately, it erodes the Orientalist approaches that trivialized the Islamic World due to its so-called insufficiency to comprehend the Revolution.


All in all, despite historical distortions and cultural prejudices, Persian and Ottoman authors understood the causes and outcomes of the French Revolution. While Ottoman ambassadors stressed the American Revolution and fiscal bankruptcy, Persian travelers highlighted the crisis of royal legitimacy and the oppression of peasantry in detailing the revolution. Authorial intentions could have played a distinctive role in selecting several aspects and neglecting others.


The audience of Ottoman ambassadorial reports was the sultan and his viziers. Hence, reflecting doubts about the legitimacy of royalty could disturb them; therefore, Ottoman ambassadors could have avoided the probable faults of Louis XVI.


On the other side, Persian travelers had a larger audience outside the government, like scholars and other travelers. Besides, there was no central authority and ruling dynasty until the Qajar victory. Hence, the Persians would have felt more comfortable explaining the issues in royal legitimacy than the Ottomans.


Mirza Abu Taleb Khan by William Ridley, 1838, The British Museum, London


Nonetheless, there were common points between them, like the prominence of the Estates-General and National Assembly or the place of nobility in making the revolution. Although they examined the revolution in terms of their cultural and political mindset, Europeans affected them in making their narratives. While Ratip used philosophical terms in German under the influence of his friends in Vienna, Abu Taleb overemphasized the British Parliament as the only demand of the Third Estate because of his friends in London. The Ottomans regarded the revolution as a unique transformation since they analyzed its multi-dimensional impact on the European polities. Their notion of history also supposed that states possess long-lasting dynasties, calling their empire “the Eternal State” (Devlet-i Ebed Müddet). Hence, the French Revolution was shocking in their opinions.


On the other hand, the Persians viewed it as the story of a falling dynasty because of their cyclical notion of history, which presumed that this is a natural outcome of losing divine grace due to injustice and oppression. However, the French Revolution had a transformative impact on both empires, leading them to adopt Western-type governmental structures more. The reports of Muslim travelers and ambassadors could have played a key role in influencing their audiences in this direction. All in all, these reports would display the diversity of shifting responses to the French Revolution in the Islamic world.


Further Reading


Casa, Jean-Michel. Le Palais de France à Istanbul. Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Press. 1999.


Forrest, Alan and Middell, Matthias (ed.), The Routledge Companion to The French Revolution in World

History. Routledge, 2015.


Habib, Irfan. State and Diplomacy under Tipu Sultan. Indian History Congress, 2001.


Hambly, Gavin R.G. (ed.) The Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 7. Cambridge: CUP, 1991.


Klaits, Joseph, and Haltzel, Michael H (ed.). The Global Ramifications of the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Lewis, Bernard. “The Impact of the French Revolution on Turkey” in the Journal of World History. London: SOAS Press, Volume I, Number 1, 1953.


Menchinger, Ethan. The First of the Modern Ottomans: The Intellectual History of Ahmed Vasıf. Cambridge: CUP, 2017.


Nategh, Homa. “L’influence de la Révolution française en Perse (XIXe et début du XXe siècle)” in Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le monde turco-iranien, Volume 12. 1991: 117-129.


Shaw, Stanford J. Between Old and New: The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.


Steward, Charles. Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia, Africa, and Europe: Volume II. London: Longman. 1814.


Soysal, İsmail. Fransız İhtilali ve Türk Fransız Diplomasi Münasebetleri (1789-1802) (The French Revolution and Turkish-Franco Diplomatic Relationships). Turkish Historical Society Press, 1987.


Yeşil, Fatih. Aydınlanma Çağında Bir Osmanlı Kâtibi: Ebubekir Râtib Efendi (An Ottoman Scribe in the Age of the Enlightenment). History Foundation of Turkey, 2011.

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By Batuhan AksuMA History (in-progress), BA HistoryBatuhan is currently completing an MA at the Department of History at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the same university. He participated in the Erasmus program for History at the University of Manchester in 2021. Batuhan’s main interest is in eighteenth-century Ottoman, and Early Modern cultural and intellectual history. In his spare time, he enjoys reading literature and philosophy.