Interview with writer Kathleen Göbel

Symbols of human strength and weakness

The Islamic tradition is rich in stories about animals. Kathleen Göbel has published a collection of fantastical tales, parables and stories of wisdom with entertainment value for both young and old. Suleman Taufiq spoke to the Islam scholar and writer about her book

How did you come to be interested in the Orient and its cultures? And where did you get the idea for this book?

Kathleen Göbel: After finishing school in Berlin, I read German Studies, Psychology, Turkish and Islamic Studies at the Free University and spent my vacations in the 1970s in Turkey. Initially, this was a shock, as I soon discovered that the "Islamic studies" I had read at university were not only completely intellectual, but that they also had precious little to do with the actual, real-life realities of the Islamic cultural sphere. I was captivated by the people who – in the cities as well as the villages – opened the doors to their houses and their hearts.

I ended up staying for a long time. I went to Konya to study the Koran at the Shamsi Tabrizi Cami (even though this was not without its complications for a woman at the time) and Islamic philosophy with Suleiman Dede, who then sent me to Mustafa Effendi in Istanbul.

At the same time, I began collecting stories, and when I returned, I published my first volume of traditional Turkish parables. This was very well received and re-published several times.

From which sources did you draw your stories? And what idea underpins your book?

Göbel: In my book "Tiere des Himmels – Weisheitsgeschichten aus dem Orient" (Animals of Heaven – Stories of Wisdom from the Orient), each chapter is dedicated to a particular species of animal, from the elephant through to the mosquito. Animals are assigned to many prophets in the Koran (which corroborates all prophets in Christianity and Judaism). For example, the Koran tells the enchanting love story of Solomon and Bilqis, the beautiful and wise Queen of Sheba. It was the hoopoe bird that told Solomon about her and then carried the King's message to her as if it were a carrier pigeon. But the story doesn't end with the veiled Bilqis entering Solomon's harem. Instead, when she enters his palace she believes the blue tiled floor to be water, and hitches up her skirts, revealing her bare calves.…

Cover of Kathleen Göbel's book "Animals of Heaven"
"Animals, birds and even insects can serve as symbols to illustrate human strengths and weaknesses; they can show ways out and highlight unutilised potential," says Kathleen Göbel

This is the story as it is set out in Sura 27 of the Koran (The Ants), and whenever I told Muslim friends about it, I would often come in for a good scolding. Because I knew these were rarely quoted verses, I would always stick to my guns. Someone would then fetch the Koran and look up the relevant section. This would then usually be followed by a heated discussion, an exchange of views, a chance to learn from one another.

There is a general problem, in particular in the case of uneducated Muslims from humble backgrounds, who have often not learned to read: there's a village imam who repeats the same passages over and over again until these are learned by heart. But no one guides these young people in their reflection and reception of texts or teaches them how to approach the great books of our global cultural heritage.

There are more dangerous, more heightened versions of this example that the western media are only too fond of disseminating. In Muslim countries, it is no secret among educated Muslims that of all people it is the "Islamists" who haven't read the Koran themselves, and that they only know what's been drummed into them by their sheikh.

What can we learn from these old tales, parables and stories of wisdom from the animal world of the Orient? What can be drawn from these stories?

Göbel: Animals, birds and even insects can serve as symbols to illustrate human strengths and weaknesses; they can show ways out and highlight unutilised potential. In the twelfth century, the Persian philosopher Attar composed an account of a gripping search for self-discovery with high spiritual aims using the example of birds searching for their king. In the tenth century, the Syrian philosopher al-Muqqadisi wrote his enchanting work about unveiling the secrets of the flowers and the birds.

The animals can serve as a clarification of that which all creatures have in common: namely that they are assigned a "role to play in terrestrial affairs. They are subjected to particular rules and disciplines which they use to fulfil the wishes of the Creator," as Syed Omar Ali-Shah wrote in his preface to my book.

Which story had the greatest influence on you? Are these stories also known in the Christian or Jewish faith?

Göbel: These traditional stories, which are derived from the source material for the "three religions of the book", belong to us all and are familiar to us in one version or another.

A calligraphy illustration of a carrier pigeon from the book "Animals of Heaven"
The Koran and hadith record that the Prophet Muhammad treated animals (birds and insects included) with respect and dignity, and advised others not only to refrain from physical cruelty, but also to abstain from mental cruelty to animals

One of the stories that left an impression on me is the one about the "golden calf", a story that is well known to Christians and Jews: when Moses had received the Ten Commandments on the mountain and returned to the Israelites, he realised that during his short absence they had stopped believing in the one true God. I'd never really wondered why it was a golden calf of all things, and not a donkey or a camel. Sura 20 describes an intriguing additional detail: only a short time had passed since the Israelites had left Egypt, and one of them used Moses' absence to revive the Egyptian cult of Osiris.

Not all animals are popular in the Islamic Orient. Which animals enjoy a high status, and which do not? As far our relationship to animals is concerned, are there differences between East and West?

Göbel: The dog is regarded as such a dirty and impure animal that even the slightest contact makes a ritual washing necessary. At the same time, in the Koran, the dog is revered in the form of the loyal dog of the Seven Sleepers: it even records his name: Qitmir. And along with Buraq, the winged horse of the Prophet, the whale that swallowed Jonah and the ant that taught Solomon mindfulness, it is one of the four animals that will enter paradise.

In contemporary Arab nations, just as in Turkey, there is no mention of the exemplary empathy shown to animals by the Prophet Mohammed, who gave his animals names (his donkey was called Duldul, for example) and who repeatedly stepped in to protect camels maltreated by their owners – even on one occasion saving two baby birds from attack by his companions because he felt sorry for the anxious mother bird.

In view of the fact that the Prophet is supposed to serve as a role model in all areas of life, and that the faithful are supposed to emulate his actions, it is quite a contradiction that the way he treats animals is often ignored.

Suleman Taufiq

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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