Home / news / The Cedar Tree from History to Legend … a little-known anti-Islamophobic poem by Victor Hugo

The Cedar Tree from History to Legend … a little-known anti-Islamophobic poem by Victor Hugo

Through a conversation in which he brought together the Caliph Omar bin Al-Khattab and Saint John the Evangelist, the French poet Victor Hugo placed Islam within a global humanistic perspective, and stood in the face of the media campaign that followed the assassination of the French consul and his British deputy in the city of Jeddah in 1858, with his unpopular poem entitled ” Cedar from his collection “Legend of the Centuries”.

With this introduction, the French site Orient XXI opens an article by Louis Blaine, in which he mentions the general atmosphere in which Hugo began writing his epic “The Legend of the Centuries” shortly after his mystical mystical crisis between 1853 and 1856, when he wrote “The Ninth Year of the Immigration.” Its theme is the death of Muhammad (may God bless him and grant him peace), then “The Cedar,” an almost unknown symbolic poem.

The writer pointed out that the “myth of the centuries”, as the German writer Theophil Gautier said about it, “is a look at man through darkness. Its object is man, or rather humanity. In order to draw the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), he is so immersed in the Qur’an that one will take it as being. Ibn al-Islam, “which indicates the sympathy that generated a few years ago the rumor that he had embraced this religion at the end of his life.

The poem “The Cedar” comes – according to the article – in late October 1858, shortly after the assassination of the French and British diplomats on June 15 of the same year in the city of Jeddah, which was under Ottoman rule, due to the revolt of the local population that day against the kingdom’s grip. United Growing Economy.

On that day, 23 Europeans were killed, and the topic made headlines, and caused a deep and lasting shock to the French public opinion. However, the promoters attributed the massacre to fanaticism, and showed the Muslims “enemies (…) the Christ whom they were supposed to honor,” as the grandmother of General De Gaulle wrote in 1859 As a response to the tragedy.

Jeddah .. the city of Eve

The writer says that in a global city known for its tolerance among its French visitors, the “rebels” did not invoke religion at that time, but rather Europeans used it in their comments to hide their interests in the Red Sea, and the writer Alexandre Dumas (died 1870), 8 years later, narrated the story of Elise Ivyar, the daughter of the murdered consul, and her escape On a “heroic” journey, she removes any religious dimension from the massacre. On the contrary, she simply narrates the Muslims’ rescue of her with the man who later became her husband.

At the time, Hugo stood against the media hype that offends Islam, and put this religion – according to the writer – in a global human perspective with his poem “The Cedar”, which is based on a mystical dialogue between Caliph Omar and Saint John the Evangelist on the one hand, and between Jeddah, which mythically expresses the origin of humanity, and between Greece, which is the imagined source of European civilization, on the other hand.

The author is likely that Hugo chose to place Omar in Jeddah instead of his original city of Mecca or his capital, Medina, even though they are the first two holy cities in Islam, because Jeddah has been considered, since ancient times, the city of Eve (the mother of all humans), which gives it the sanctity of the other in the eyes of the poet .

From history to legend

According to the article, Hugo attached great importance to the legend of Eve, to which he dedicated the first poem of “The Legend of the Century” under the title “The Coronation of a Woman.” In a drawing published in the newspapers, there were palm trees on the beach near the platform built at the head of Eve, which Hugo thought was a cedar tree, and he set out in a strong dream-like vision, especially since the tree for him is a symbol of life.

Hugo says, “The tree is the beginning of the forest, it is all. It belongs by its roots to the isolated life, and by its sap to the common life. On its own, the tree establishes, but it declares the forest.” The writer refers to the symbolism of the tree in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the throne of the gods Ishtar, which was a huge cedar, where the cedar becomes a symbol of immortality and the impossibility of corruption.

The writer indicated that this may be the reason why Hugo chose rice instead of palm trees, as the symbolism of this tree fits his point perfectly, thus drawing a heavenly bridge between the eastern roots of civilization and the “end of science” Christianity, that is, the West.

In this long and majestic poem composed in Alexandria, Hugo describes Caliph Umar as he was walking on the shore of Jeddah, making sure to have his hand (his stick) famous in Islamic history.

According to the poem, Omar sees a cedar tree and orders it to separate from its rock and fly “in the name of the living God” to Saint John the Evangelist, author of “The End of the World”, who slept on the shore of the Greek island of Patmos, on a journey reminiscent of the Night Journey and the Night of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) From Mecca to Jerusalem, a path symbolizing the link between Islam and the other two monotheistic religions, according to the article.

Thus, “cedar” links the Book of Genesis (Eve) and “the end of the world” and the Qur’an in a Sufi acronym for human history, and “this is history at the gates of legend,” as Hugo put it. It also establishes a symbolic bridge between the East, rooted in Jeddah, and the West, through a dialogue between the caliph and the saint, in which Hugo shows his knowledge of Islam by naming Christ by his Arabic name “Jesus (may God bless him and grant him peace).”

Leave nature calm

Hugo’s pantheism, nature in general, and the tree in particular, makes a reflection of God, saying, “I do not believe in pantheism, because the pantheist says everything is God, but I say that God is everything. The difference is profound.” However, “all beings are God, all waves are the sea.”

Therefore, Hugo deals here symbolically with the respect that one should give to nature, the source of life, and this message comes from the East that “was once the paradise of the world.” Therefore, the sleeper should realize in the suppression of the message of the new birth that the rice carries, instead of drowning in the darkness of the vision. According to the author.

The writer believes that “Jan, who was lying on the sand, was asleep, like Eve who was lying on the beach in Jeddah, and he needs to revive life in the West.” This is the poet’s message that reached the Evangelist from the mouth of Caliph Umar. However, Saint John’s answer remained ambiguous, “O newcomers, leave nature alone, for it is she who gives life and sustains it.”

It seems to the writer that the contrast between the poet’s message and the refusal of the French at that time to novelty and Islam, shows Hugo’s originality and his human desire to find an antidote to the poison that was spreading there, and he succeeded in completing an immortal epic on a burning and bloody topic.

Thus, literature played its role in forming bonds between people at a time when their anger tore them apart, by responding to violence with dialogue, not stigmatizing the Muslim other, in a lesson given by France’s greatest book of the times.

Excerpts from the rice poem:

This is Omar Sheikh al-Islam and the new law

What Muhammad (may God bless him and grant him peace) added to what Jesus (may God bless him and grant him peace) brought,

Sometimes he walks and then stops. And on his long stick

Sometimes, like a shepherd relaxing his chin,

He was wandering near the holy city of Jeddah on the beach

On the sands of the Red Sea, where the light of God appeared in the dream,

In a black desert under the shade of the heavens,

Where Moses (may God bless him and grant him peace), who is blocked, passed by in mysterious circumstances.

While walking like this, you fill him with a serious thought,

From above the deserts of Egypt and Judea,

In Patmos, on the slope of Mount Baldy the summit,

He saw Jan who was sleeping on the sand.

Jan was asleep with his head naked in the sun.

Umar, the great pontiff like the prophets (may God bless them and grant them peace),

He saw near the Red Sea in the shadow

Dome, old cedar with large dark leaves

Firmly rooted in a rock near the road,

Sheikh Omar extended his hand towards the horizon

To the north where the greedy eagles are,

And I see the old cedar, beyond space,

The Aegean Sea and John was asleep in Patmos,

He pushed the tree with his finger and said this:

Go rice! Go cover this guy with your shadow.

And the cedar rushed into the enormous void,

The waves crossed the dark abyss of the enemy,

It landed in Patmos, near the sleeper Jan.

John woke up and saw the tree, and the prophet

He was surprised to find his head in the shadows,

Then he said, frightened in his calm:

O tree. What are you doing here?

Rice was not created to grow like a dream.

Whatever a watch has built, it can be destroyed in a moment.

Cedar said to him: Why are you accusing me, Jean?

Oh Jean, if you are here it is by order of a man.

Jan, a contemplative monster, shivers when his name is mentioned,

And he continues: Who is this man to whom everything is subject?

The tree said: This is the age of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

I have been near Jeddah for countless years.

He told me to come and cover you with my shadow.

That is why John, who God forgot among the living,

He turned south and cried in the wind

Above the shore of his Spartan island:

Newcomers … Leave nature alone.

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