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The Enlightenment Prophet: Muhammad in Early Modern Europe

Thu 18 May 2023, 17:30 – 18:30

Delivered by the most outstanding academics in the UK and beyond, the British Academy’s flagship Lecture Programme showcases the very best scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

In 1649, the English civil war resulted in the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and the execution of King Charles I. In the same year, the first English translation of the Quran was published in London. For some royalists, these two events were linked: they both signified the ‘moral demise’ of the kingdom, and indeed some polemicists depicted Cromwell as a “new Mahomet” (Muhammad) seeking to gain power by attacking the moral and religious foundations of the nation.

In this lecture, Professor John Tolan will discuss how English authors such as Henry Stubbe, John Toland and George Sale embraced this comparison, presenting the Muslim prophet as a reformer who preached pure monotheism and who abolished the powers of a corrupt clergy.

Professor Tolan will expand on how this comparison was used to argue for the curtailing of the power of the Anglican Church; with 18th-century French authors similarly lionising the prophet as a polemical tool against the Catholic church.

The lecture will conclude by arguing that Muhammad – seen as an imposter or a reformer – was at the centre of European debates on the proper relations between Church, Crown and people.

Professor John Tolan

Speaker: Professor John Tolan, Professor of History at the University of Nantes.

John Tolan works on the history of religious and cultural relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He has studied and taught in universities in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; he is currently Professor of History at the University of Nantes and member of the Academia Europæa. He has received numerous prizes and distinctions, including two major grants from the European Research Council and the Prix Diane Potier-Boès from the Académie Française (2008). He is author of numerous articles and books, including Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (2002), Sons of Ishmael (2008), Saint Francis and the Sultan (2009), Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (2019), and England’s Jews: Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century (2023). He is one of the four coordinators of the European Research Council programme “The European Qur’an” (2019-2025;

Chair: Professor John Coffey, Professor of History at the University of Leicester.

Free, booking required

This event includes a reception for attendees after the lecture.

This event will take place in person in partnership with the University of Leicester.

If you have any questions about this event, please email