Persian Letters/Letter 86

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Persian Letters by Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson
Letter 86

Letter 86[edit]

1 Usbek to Mirza, at Ispahan

YOU know, Mirza, that some ministers of Shah Soliman formed the design of obliging all the Armenians of Persia to quit the kingdom or become Mohammedans, in the belief that our empire will continue polluted, as long as it retains within its bosom these infidels.

If, on that occasion, bigotry had carried the day, there would have been an end to the greatness of Persia.

It is not known how the matter dropped. Neither those who made the proposition, nor those who rejected it, realised the consequences of their acts: chance performed the office of reason and of policy, and saved the empire from jeopardy greater than that which would have been entailed by a defeat in the field, and the loss of two cities.

It is understood that the proscription of the Armenians would have extirpated in a single day all the merchants and almost all the artisans in the kingdom. I am sure that the great Shah Abbas would rather have lost both his arms than have signed such an order; in sending to the Mogul and to the other kings of Ind the most industrious of his subjects, he would have felt that he was giving away the half of his dominions.

The persecution of the Guebres by our zealous Mohammedans, has obliged them to fly in crowds into the Indies, and has deprived Persia of that nation,2 which laboured so heartily, that it alone, by its toil, was in a fair way to overcome the sterility of our land.

Only one thing remained for bigotry to do, and that was, to destroy industry; with the result that the empire fell of itself, carrying along with it as a necessary consequence, that very religion which they wished to advance.

If unbiased discussion were possible, I am not sure, Mirza, that it would not be a good thing for a state to have several religions.

It is worthy of note that those who profess tolerated creeds usually prove more useful to their country than those who profess the established faith; because, being excluded from all honours, and unable to distinguish themselves except by wealth and its shows, they are led to acquire riches by their labour, and to embrace the most toilsome of occupations.

Besides, as all religions contain some precepts advantageous to society, it is well that they should be zealously observed. Now, could there be a greater incitement to zeal than a multiplicity of religions?

They are rivals who never forgive anything. Jealousy descends to individuals: each one stands upon his guard, afraid of doing anything that may dishonour his party, and of exposing it to the contempt and unpardonable censures of the opposite side.

It has also been remarked that a new sect introduced into a state, was always the surest means of correcting the abuses of the old faith.

It is sophistry to say that it is against the interest of the prince to tolerate many religions in his kingdom: though all the sects in the world were to gather together into one state, it would not be in the least detrimental to it, because there is no creed which does not ordain obedience and preach submission.

I acknowledge that history is full of religious wars: but we must distinguish; it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced wars; it is the intolerant spirit animating that which believed itself in the ascendant.

This is the spirit of proselytism which the Jews caught from the Egyptians, and which passed from them like an epidemic disease to the Mohammedans and the Christians.

It is, in short, that capricious mood, which in its progress can be compared only to a total eclipse of human reason.

In conclusion, even if there were no inhumanity in distressing the consciences of others, even if there did not result from such a course any of the evil effects which do spring from it in thousands, it would still be foolish to advise it. He who would have me change my religion is led to that, without doubt, because he would not change his own although force were employed; and yet he finds it strange that I will not do a thing which he himself would not do, perhaps for the empire of the world.

Paris, the 26th of the first moon of Gemmadi, 1715.