Leone Caetani

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Photo of Leone Caetani taken in Egypt in 1888

Leone Caetani (September 12, 1869 – December 25, 1935), Duke of Sermoneta (also known as Prince Caetani), was an Italian scholar, politician and historian of the Middle East.

Caetani is considered a pioneer and founding father in the application of the historical method on the sources of the early Islamic traditions which he subjected to minute historical and psychological analysis.[1]

He emigrated to Canada in 1927 with Ofelia Fabiani, they brought with them their daughter Sveva, who after an appalling childhood emerged as a highly talented painter.


Caetani was born in Rome into the prominent and wealthy Caetani family, his father Onorato, Prince of Teano and Duke of Sermoneta, was Minister of Foreign Affairs in Italy in 1896 in the second di Rudini cabinet; his English mother, Ada Bootle Wilbraham, was the daughter of the Earl of Lathom. His paternal grandfather, Michelangelo, had married the Polish countess Calixta Rzewuski, whose ancestor Wacław Seweryn Rzewuski had been a well-known Polish orientalist.

Caetani developed an interest in foreign languages at an early age. At 15 he began to study Sanskrit and Arabic on his own. Later he studied Oriental languages at the University of Rome, under Ignazio Guidi and Giacomo Lignana, with an intensive study of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac languages (and perhaps also Turkish). Caetani spent many years researching and travelling throughout the Muslim world gathering a great deal of material on a wide range of Islamic cultures from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, the Levant, the Sahara, India, Central Asia and southern Russia. Later, one of his disciples was Giorgio Levi Della Vida, he had become a corresponding member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1911 and a full member in 1919. Later on, he left his rich library to the Lincei to create the Caetani foundation for Muslim studies.

Leone Caetani also served as a deputy of the Italian Parliament (1909–1913), keeping a radical socialist stance, he had married Vittoria Colonna Caetani of the Colonna, daughter of Marcantonio VI prince of Paliano, from which he later separated;[2] since 1917 he had succeeded his father as Prince of Teano and Duke of Sermoneta.

Due to his family's situation, after the end of his marriage[3] and to the rise of Fascism, in 1927 he decided to emigrate to Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, with his new partner Ofelia Fabiani and their daughter Sveva, he later become a Canadian citizen. In 1935, the Fascist regime stripped him of his Italian citizenship and expelled him from the Accademia dei Lincei; he died soon afterwards in the same year in Vancouver, British Columbia.


Caetani made extensive analysis of sources related to the origins of the Qur'an and Islamic thought between 1904–1926 during which he collected and arranged chronologically and sequentially all known existing primary sources and materials related to the origins of Islam. Caetani presented his critical analysis and conclusions regarding what he believed to be inconsistencies, contradictions and variances in the Islamic sources in his work in ten volumes "Annali dell'Islam".[4][unreliable source?][5]

Caetani claimed that most of the early traditions of Islam could be dismissed as fabrications by later generations of authors.[6][unreliable source?][7] He also suggested that the Arab conquests during the formative era of Islam were driven not by religion but by material want and covetousness.[8][9][unreliable source?][10]

Caetani was not a Muslim and he did not believe in the literal truth of the Qur'an. Instead his views about its origins were as follows; as long as Muhammad was alive, he could answer any doctrinal questions that arose, so there was little attention paid to written documents. The reign of his successor Abu Bakr was characterized by increasing confusion as multiple written and oral versions of Muhammad's teachings coexisted. To his great credit, Uthman understood the danger of this situation; he had an official version of the Qur'an developed and ordered the destruction of all unapproved versions. To summarize, Caetani thought that the Qur'an as it exists today did not come word for word from the pen of the Prophet, but was the result of a standardization and cleanup effort ("Uthman's recension") undertaken many years after his death.[citation needed]

One of Leone Caetani's studies, Uthman and the Recension of the Koran, is included as a chapter in The Origins of The Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book edited by Ibn Warraq.


  1. ^ From Babel to the dragomans Bernard Lewis Then came a second phase, when the great nineteenth-century scholars began to apply critical method, treating Muslim historians in the same way they had treated Greek, Latin, and their own historians, trying to detect biases, distortions, variant versions and so on. Here I am thinking particularly of the work of such founding fathers of our discipline as de Goeje, Wellhausen, Caetani and others.
  2. ^ they had a son, Onorato (1902 - 1948), mentally and physically disabled; for further details on Caetani biography and familiar life, see Marella Caracciolo Chia, The light in between, Pushkin Press 2013, ISBN 978-1908968050
  3. ^ Caetani was upset by the impossibility, under the Italian laws of that time, to pass his name to the illegitimate daughter he had had with another woman
  4. ^ Studies on Muhammad and the Rise of Islam A Critical Survey Ibn Warraq Caetani had "compiled and arranged (year by year, and event by event) all the material which the sources, the Arab historians offered. The resultant conclusions based on the facts, which took into account the variant forms in which they were found in the sources, were accompanied by a critical analysis that reflected the methodological skepticism which Langlois and Seignobos [109] had just set forth as absolutely indispensable for the historian." 110
  5. ^ "Review: Annali dell' Islam by Leone Caetani". The Athenaeum (4196): 379–380. March 28, 1908.
  6. ^ The quest for the historical Mohammed Ibn Warraq In 1905, Prince Caetani, in his introduction to his monumental ten folio volumes of Annali dell'Islam ( 1905 to 1926), came to "the pessimistic conclusion that we can find almost nothing true on Muhammad in the Traditions, we can discount as apocryphal all the traditional material that we possess." 108 Caetani had "compiled and arranged (year by year, and event by event) all the material which the sources, the Arab historians offered.
  7. ^ Uthman and the Recension of the Koran, Leone Caetani, Volume 5, p. 380-390, 1915The koran was not collected during the Prophet's lifetime; this is clearly stated by good authorities. Those who are enumerated as collectors can certainly have collected only a part, for otherwise there is no explanation of the great pains to which the three caliphs, Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman, put themselves after Muhammad's death to produce the single official text of the Prophet's revelations; the tradition of the first compilation in the reign of Abu Bakr is usually accepted without questioning, but an examination of the account quickly betrays certain contradictions. Thus, if the death of so many Muslims at al-Yamamah endangered the preservation of the text, why did Abu Bakr, after making his copy, practically conceal it, entrusting it to the guardianship of a woman? Hafsah's copy seems, in fact, to be an invention to justify the corrections of that subsequently compiled under 'Uthman. I allow, however, the probability that in the time of Abu Bakr and 'Umar, quite independently of the battle of al-Yamamah, a copy of the Koran was prepared at Medina, perhaps at 'Umar's suggestion, exactly as others were compiled in the provinces, those, namely, which were afterwards destroyed by order of 'Uthman, it may be that the copy in Medina had a better guarantee of authenticity; while the statement that in the text prepared by Abu Bakr and 'Umar no verse was accepted which was not authenticated by at least two witnesses, who declared that they had themselves heard it from the Prophet, leads us to suppose that already in the first Koranic compilation other verses were suppressed which had not the required support.
  8. ^ Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law By Ignác Goldziher p.119 As Leone Caetani clearly demonstrates in various parts of his work on Islam the Arabs's drive to conquest sprang chiefly from material want and cupidity, which is easily explained by the economic circumstances of Arabia. Want and cupidity fired the enthusiasm to emigrate from a land that had declined and to occupy more fertile areas.
  9. ^ The Quest of the Historical Muhammad Arthur Jeffery Caetani holds that the great outburst, which sent Arab armies out in conquest of the surrounding fertile lands, is only the latest of a series of similar outbursts of Semitic peoples which in historical times have been disgorged by Arabia, due to the economic stress consequent on the gradual desiccation of Arabia. Muhammad thus becomes the leader of this movement, religious, if you will. according to the ideas of religion in Arabia at that time, but above all a politician and an opportunist.
  10. ^ Studi di Orientale (Leone Caetani, p. 369) translated in The Expansion of the Early Islamic State (Fred M. Donner, ISBN 9780860787228, p. 61): The arabs achieved their conquests only with material means and the moral virtues innate in ther character; and Islam had nothing to do with these.


  • Annali dell' Islam (Milan, Ulrico Hoepli, 1905–1907), 10 volumes
  • "Uthman and the Recension of the Koran", Muslim World 5 (1915), pp. 380–90
  • Study of the history of the Orient (Milan, Ulrico Hoepli, 1914)

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