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Jean Gagnier's De vita, et rebus gestis Mohammedis: Reading and Misreading the History of Islam in the Eighteenth Century

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Simon Mills



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).


Jean Gagnier’s De vita, et rebus gestis Mohammedis (1723) was the first substantial biography of the Prophet Muhammad translated by a European author directly from an authentic Muslim source. Familiar to Edward Gibbon and Voltaire, Gagnier’s work significantly shaped European understandings of the origins of Islam well into the nineteenth century. Yet Gagnier’s scholarship has not been examined in any depth since it was closely read by his contemporaries. This article provides an analysis of Gagnier’s strategies and competencies as a translator and reconstructs his attempt to exploit the Arabic manuscripts then available to an Oxford scholar. It argues that the case of Gagnier is a cautionary reminder that philological approaches to the study of the Muslim past did not necessarily occasion sympathy for Islam. Old prejudices continued to influence Gagnier’s decisions as a translator and were passed on in new forms to later readers. Moreover, aspects of the Muslim historiographical tradition discovered by Gagnier did not necessarily incline his readers to a more positive view of Islam. The increased accessibility of Islamic historical texts could just as easily serve the Christian polemicist as the Enlightened historian.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Mills S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes

Year: 2021

Volume: lxxxvi

Pages: 167-206

Print publication date: 31/12/2021

Acceptance date: 16/11/2020

Date deposited: 22/03/2022

ISSN (print): 0075-4390

ISSN (electronic): 2044-0014

Publisher: Warburg Institute, University of London


DOI: 10.1086/JWCI84010167


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