This is a translation of the original article in French by the author: Davut Pasa.
Muhammad ﷺ is the Prophet of Islam who embodies both the Seal of Prophethood and the best of mankind. Therefore, they are careful not to misrepresent his name. If he is Muhammad in the Anglo-Saxon world, in France he remains Mahomet, a name considered offensive by many Muslims. Is this an attempt to distort the name in an insulting way or a legacy from the past? In this article, we will try to understand where the name Mahomet comes from.
A Turkish Origin?
Etymologically, the name of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ means “he who is praised.” For the last few decades, a rumor has been claiming that the term Mahomet is a voluntary distortion intended to mean the opposite. Indeed, Mahomet sounds like “mâ humida” which means “he did not receive praise”. However, this hypothesis is not credible because the name of the Prophet varies from one country to another: Mahoma in Spain, Maome in Portugal, Magumetu in Corsica, Maometto in Italy, to name but a few. If this thesis were to be true (although it would have to be proven), it would be confined to France and to the few French-speaking countries that use this terminology. We are therefore not faced with a thousand-year-old conspiracy to sully the name of the Prophet.
The pronunciation of Mahomet does not come from the Turkish-speaking peoples either, as is often claimed. It is true that the Turkish peoples have belatedly deformed the name of Muhammad into Mehmet, passing first by Mehemmet. Mehmet is therefore the diminutive of Mehemmet and refers to the Prophet ﷺ.
If the Turks have replaced the “d” by a “t”, it is essentially for reasons linked to the structure of the Turkish language.
Indeed, there are very few Turkish words ending with the letter “d” in contemporary Turkish. There are 24 of them, most of them being place names, like Riyadh or Madrid, anglicisms like barkod, or ancient Turkish words like şad.
In Turkish culture, a popular tradition tells that the name Mehmet was invented in the Ottoman era in order not to sully the name of the Prophet. Other popular traditions explain that its meaning would be “little Muhammed”, always with the idea of reverence to the name of the Prophet. However, anyone who has visited the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul at the time of prayer will have heard the homage paid to “Muhammad Khan” in the form of invocations and will have noticed that in Arabic it is Muhammad, and not Mehmet, although Westerners called him Muhammad. This shows once again the late nature of this name.
To find out if the ancient Turks used this term, we must go back to the reference work on Turkish languages and the uses of ancient Turkish, the Dîvânu Lugâti’t-Türk (literally “collection of Turkish languages”). Written in the 11th century by the scholar Mahmud of Kashgar, this work is a real gold mine on linguistic questions. Unique in its kind, it informs us of all the linguistic deformations of the various Turkish languages at the time of the Seljuk apogee. However, Mehmet does not appear in it.
It is therefore not among the Turks that one should look for the origin of Mahomet, since the Oghuz still occupied the Aral Sea and the grandfather of Osman I was not born when Mahomet was used in the West.
Mahomet, Mahumet, Mahometus… a Latin origin
Mahomet is rather the result of a Latinization of the Arabic term Muhammad. As early as the 12th century, when the abbot of Cluny known as Peter the Venerable undertook the translation of the Koran into Latin, he transcribed the name of the Prophet into Mahumet, well before the Turkish Mehmet. An interesting detail is that he is helped in his translation by a Muslim who he also calls Mahumet. This is not the only word that can be found at that time: we also find the terms Mahometus, Machometus and later Mahometes.
In the vernacular languages of the Middle Ages, the Latin derivations of Mahumet are numerous and have several meanings. In France, the most widespread meaning of Mahomet is that of idol. This is what the Dictionary of Middle French tells us. This meaning is not exclusive to the French language, and we find in the 14th century Anglo-Norman texts where the term idol is replaced by a variant, maumetz.
Thus, we read in the chronicle of the religious Nicholas Trivet in the 14th century that the pagans made “sacrifice as maumetz” and that they had to “revere their maumetz,” understand to deify their idols. In the same sense, the monk Philippe de Thaon wrote two centuries earlier “Mahumez brisera, Lur temples destruira”, that is to say that the idols and their temples will be destroyed.
This translation is so recurrent that it is taken up again in an edition of the Bible in Anglo-Norman of 1325: “Coment, caunt Joseph amena la Vyrge Marie et Jhesus son fuyz dedenz Egypte, tretuz les maumez ke estoyent dedenz cheyeyent e trebucheyent a la tere.”
In this passage, we read that the maumez (idols) fell to the ground when Mary fled from the infidels.
We can see that the global meaning of Mahomet and its derivatives refers to idolatry, according to medieval dictionaries. Across the Channel, we find many derivatives of Mahomet: makomet, macomete, machomet, makamet, machamete, machamote, makemet, mahimed, mahumet, etc., all of which come from medieval Latin or Old French.
By extension, mahomet is also used to designate the one who schemes in the shadows. Thus, the French writer Philippe de Mézières wrote in the middle of the 100 years war that “each lord has his mahomet”.
From Mahomet to Baphomet
In addition to the negative connotation given to the term “Muhammad,” another element indicates support to throw discredit on the name of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ, that of the assimilation to the idol Baphomet. To return to the sources of this comparison, we must go back to the Crusades, more precisely the first one.
At that time, the Franks and their allies discovered the East. Not knowing it, they imagined the Muslims as being vulgar idolaters. From this colonial fantasy before its time and from this ignorance about the East, a myth was born: that of Baphomet.
We are in the first crusade, during the siege of Antioch, and the auxiliary of Godfrey of Bouillon Anselm II of Ostrevent describes the following situation:
“As dawn broke, they loudly invoked Baphomet; and we silently prayed to our God in our hearts, so we attacked and they were driven from the walls of the city”
Anselm II of Ostrevent, Godefridi Bullonii epistolae et diplomata, 1098
Historians have deduced that the Crusaders had distorted the name of Muhammad, and what must have been the basis of the invocations of the Prophet ﷺ (also known as salawat) on the part of Muslims was interpreted as idolatry. The damage was done, and the news spread in the Christian West that they were idolaters worshipping a deity called Baphometh. This hypothesis is affirmed in particular in the “Dictionary of gods, goddesses and demons,” published in 2016. It is not without meaning.
Indeed, a writing of the twelfth century confirms that at that time, in the Western mind Baphomet and Muhammad ﷺ are the same person. It is the poem in Occitan language entitled Senhors, per los nostres peccatz, written by the Occitan Troubadour known as Gavaudan.
This poem is not the only one to describe Muslims as followers or worshippers of Baphomet. Austorc d’Orlac, a 13th century troubadour from Velay, wrote a poem lamenting the death of Louis IX during his expedition against the Hafsid kingdom in Tunis. The latter are described as worshippers of Bafomet.
As such, Henri-Pascal de Rochegude wrote in 1819 in his “Essai d’un glossaire occitanien, pour servir à l’intelligence des poésies des troubadours” that Bafomet was Mahomet. He also indicates that the term Bafomairia was used, among others, to designate the mosques or the country of the Muslims.
It is interesting to note that the reference to Baphomet returned to the West following the accusations against the Templars. The powerful order, which controlled an important part of the Crusader economy, was accused by the Papacy and the King of France of engaging in heresies, including the worship of Baphomet. According to the historian François Raynouard, Baphomet is an alteration of Mahomet. He also notes that the Inquisition tended to accuse the Knights Templar of being close to the Saracens, who were, as we have seen above, considered to be worshippers of Baphomet. Thus, the accusation of Baphomet worship made against the Templars was in no way founded, but was aimed at discrediting the Templars’ morals. More details are available in the “Revue des deux mondes : recueil de la politique, de l’administration et des moeurs”, published in 1837.
During the XIIth and XIIIth centuries, the scholarly circles were interested in Arabic knowledge and books, and it was finally the term of Mahomet that imposed itself and lasted. A term referring to dark accusations and which is therefore not of Turkish origin.
The Latin Translations of the 12th Century
The Prophet of Islam is not the only character of the Islamic civilization to have his name distorted in the West. Let us take for example the great mathematician al-Khawârizmî (d. 750) to whom we owe algebra (from the Arabic al-jabr). He is known in the medieval West as Algoritmi. The eminent physician Ibn Sina (d. 1037) is Avicenna. As for the father of modern surgery, the great Andalusian scientist Abu al-Qâsim al-Zahrâwî (d. 1013), he is known as Abulcasis.
Although they may appear insulting, these deformations are not strictly speaking voluntary. They are mainly due to the transliteration of Arabic characters into Latin. Indeed, throughout the 12th century, an unprecedented movement of translation of Arabic knowledge was implemented in Spain and Southern Italy (including Sicily). In workshops often including a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, the works of scientists from the Muslim world were translated from Arabic into Latin. This unprecedented exercise is characteristic of what historians have called the twelfth-century renaissance. It was the first time in history that the language of Revelation was transcribed into Latin characters. It was also at this time that Peter the Venerable had the Quran translated into Latin.
The unpublished character of this work, the Arabic letters having no equivalent in Latin characters, but also the subjectivity of the translators, are many factors explaining these deformations.
As such, these deformations are reciprocal. Many Western toponymies and characters have seen their names distorted once transcribed from Latin to Arabic, or from Latin to Turkish (the Turks had adopted the Arabic alphabet). And for the same reasons as the Westerners later on. If we stop at the lifetime of the Prophet of Islam, the Roman emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610 to 641, is called by the Muslims of that time Hiraql. His capital Constantinople is called al-Qunstantiniyya. Later, when the Umayyads crossed the Pyrenees, they reached Ghaliyush (Gaul) where they conquered Tulusha (Toulouse) as well as Qarqashûna (Carcassone), confronting al-ifrandj (the Franks). This was also true for the Turks who, when they took control of Anatolia in the 11th century, renamed Iconium to Konya or Anküra to Ankara. Later, Petrum was renamed Bodrum while Trepezous became Trabzon.
What is the point of saying “Mahomet” in the 21st century?
If the deformations inherent in the passage from one alphabet to another can be understood during the medieval period, or even the modern period, today they are no longer relevant. Linguistics has advanced sufficiently for us to give up certain pronunciations, medieval in every sense of the word. Today, an average Muslim is called “Muhammad,” whereas in medieval times all Muslims named “Muhammad” were called Mahomet. What use is there to differentiate, “Mahomet” for the Prophet, “Muhammad” for the neighbor of the third floor, if not to question the Muslims?
It must be said here that this desire to differentiate is typically Latin. In the Anglo-Saxon world, we say “Muhammad” for all, we do not differentiate. In the rest of the Latin world, we continue to use Mahoma, Maomé, Maometto, to designate the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. Terms that are obsolete, like Mahometan or Mahometan sect are no longer used to designate the Muslim or Islam. Are we able to adapt and replace Algoritmi with al-Khawarizmi, but not replace Mahomet with Muhammad ? This does not make sense.
Given the origin of this term, the accusations of idolatry that are linked to it as we have seen, French-speaking Muslims reject this term and do not want it. The fact that they persist in keeping this insulting anachronistic terminology raises questions. This term, constructed to designate in turn an idol and then a false Prophet, should have been abandoned long ago. If it does not refer to the urban legend “Mâ humida”, it refers to a degrading image of Islam and a false conception of this religion. And that is an insult.
That is why it must be abandoned.
And may the best of greetings and prayers be upon our Beloved, our Master Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم
- Translation of the Quran by Peter the Venerable and writings against the religion of the Mohammedans, available ici
- Center National de la Ressource Textuelles et Lexicales, accessed April 2020
- Dictionary of Middle French 1330-1500, accessed April 2020
- The Anglo-Norman On-line Hub, accessed April 2020
- Choice of the original poems of the troubadours. Biography of the troubadours and appendix to their poems printed in the previous volumes, François Raynouard, 1816
- Dictionary of gods, goddesses and demons, Le Seuil, 2016
- Essai d’un glossaire occitanien, pour servir à l’intelligence des poésies des troubadours“, Henry Pascal de Rochegude, 1819
- Revue des deux mondes : recueil de la politique, de l’administration et des moeurs”, Paris, April 1837.