Fyodor Dostoevsky, Prophet Muhammad and the Quran

Fyodor dostoevsky
5 min read
11 May, 2023

“Send me the Quran, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and if you happen to be sending secret mail, you must send Hegel, especially Hegel's History of Philosophy.” 

This sentence is taken from a letter Dostoevsky sent to his brother Mikhail on February 22, 1854, in Omsk, written a week after his release from prison. 

A year later, Dostoevsky wrote Memoirs of the House of the Dead, a title dedicated to the convicts of Siberia whose miserable situation was yet to be written about. 

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In it, Dostoevsky recalls meeting a young Tatar convict named Ali: "I was teaching young Tcherkess (a prisoner convicted for being a bandit) to read Russian. How grateful he was!"

And it is through this meeting between Dostoevsky and Ali that Russians became aware of a new subject: Islam.

It is probable that Dostoevsky read the Quran in the 1840s in Russian or in a French translation as it had been translated several times into Russian from French during the eighteenth century. 

In Memoirs of the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky describes: "a group of Caucasian mountaineers - two Lezghians, a Chechen and three Tatars from Dagestan - almost all condemned for robbery, occupied the left side of the partition [of the prison barracks]."

Dostoevsky becomes interested in the Chechan, Nourra, and his pious Islamic behaviour: "Throughout the course of his imprisonment, he never stole anything and committed no villainy. Fanatically religious, he recited his prayers fervently, observed the fasts preceding the Mahometan festivals, and spent entire nights in prayer. The religious difference was not a source of conflict between the prisoners of the barracks."

A dummy of a prisoner sits in a cell for recedivists in the Prison Castle in Tobolsk, where Dostoyevsky spent 10 days before being transferred to Omsk [Getty Images]
A dummy of a prisoner sits in a cell for recidivists in Prison Castle in Tobolsk, where Dostoyevsky spent 10 days before being transferred to Omsk [Getty Images]

Dostoevsky benefited from the sympathy and protection of his mates, particularly those from Dagestan. "The three Tatars of Dagestan were brothers. Two had reached middle age, but the third, Ali, was not older than twenty-two and looked even younger."

Dostoevsky would teach Ali Russian. In return, Dostoevsky would find out their two religions - Christianity and Islam - shared a number of similarities, notably their reverence of Jesus.

“Listen, Ali," I said to him one evening. Why don’t you learn to read and write in Russian? It would be so useful for you, later in Siberia.

I would love to, but with whom?

This place abounds with educated people. If you want, it will be me.

Oh! come on, do it! "

Ali learnt Russian with a speed that surprised Dostoevsky. In three months, the young Tatar was able to read and write. But it is the New Testament reading of the Sermon on the Mount that deepened their relationship:

"I noticed that he took certain passages to heart. And I asked him if he liked what he had just read. He glanced at me sharply with a blush.

Oh! yes, he replied. Yes, Issa [Jesus] is a holy Prophet, Issa speaks the language of God. It is very beautiful.

What do you like the most?

There, where he says: "Forgive, love, do not offend, love your enemy. Ah, how well he says that!"

Ali's appreciation of Jesus isn't overly surprising. The Quran repeatedly qualifies Jesus as the 'Divine Word', the 'Spirit from God', or the 'Spirit of Holiness'.

"They [Ali and his brothers] conversed for a long time, seriously, with affirmative nods of heads. Then, smiling with a smile that was both serious and benevolent...they turned to me and confirmed that Issa was a Prophet of God and that he had accomplished great wonders, having kneaded a bird with clay, he had blown on it, and the bird had taken flight; it was written in their books."

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Prophet Muhammad and Dostoevsky

This meeting with the Tatars was not Dostoevsky's first direct contact with the Muslim world. 

Very early on in his career, the Moscow native focused on the Prophet Muhammed. Far from being the reactionary and nationalist novelist as he is often painted, Dostoevsky shows concern for the understanding of otherness.

The Russian novelist mentions for the first time the Prophet of Islam “Turkish Prophet Muhammad” in The Double (1846). 

Mr. Goliadkine, the main character is in “Disagreement...with some scholars about slander directed against the Turkish Prophet Muhammad” whom he regards as a great politician. 

The text also mentions the need to “restore, among other things, the reputation somewhat dirtied by various German scholars of our mutual friend Mahomet the Turkish Prophet”. 

Like Dostoevsky, a considerable number of European philosophers of the time wrote about Prophet Muhammad. Thomas Carlyle published 1841 Heroes and Cult of Heroes where he criticised Prophet Muhammed, on the other hand, Sir George Bernard Shaw saw in him a saviour of humanity. Victor Hugo dedicated the Year Nine of the Hegira to him.

Dostoevsky's interest in the Prophet Muhammed reappears in other novels and registers. In Crime and Punishment, the main character Raskolnikov ranks Prophet Muhammed on an equal footing with Caesar and Napoleon among “all lawmakers and teachers of humanity".

The figure of Prophet Muhammed in Dostoevsky's works suggests a vision of the man who tends more towards the Nietzschean superman than the nihilism that dominates Crime and Punishment. Prophet Muhammad, for Dostoevsky, is a great figure who found a new system of values ​​that succeeded the old. Muhammed was a man who "moves" others to find something new.  


Prophet Muhammad in Dostoevsky is also a 'mystical' figure. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky caricatures one of Muhammad's miracles - his nocturnal journey, Israa and Miraj - by invoking his own condition of epilepsy: “Remember the pitcher of Muhammad: while being emptied the Prophet rode off into paradise. The pitcher is five seconds; Paradise is your harmony, and Mohammed was epileptic. Be aware of becoming one too, Kiriloff!” 

As Alexis Klimov shares, epilepsy is viewed by Dostoevsky as a sparking force: "For Dostoyevsky, to say of someone that he is epileptic amounts to finding a set of convulsive manifestations [...], but does not illustrate in any way the secret of a human life, which will be beyond all explanations, whatever they are. "The figure of Muhammed is a last nod to a desperate illness but which has probably provided him with the spiritual and psychological strength of his genius."

Shathil Nawaf Taqa is a French-Iraqi legal counsel and a regular contributor to the literary French magazine Le Comptoir and Philitt

Follow him on Twitter: @shathil_