Between contempt and fascination
In Germany, debates about Islam are often accompanied by heated disputes, with the various sides frequently giving way to all-too-familiar feelings of resentment. In his book "Die Deutschen und der Orient" (The Germans and the Orient), historian Joseph Croitoru shines a light on a centuries-old German ambivalence towards Islam, quoting figures from the world of politics, academia and literature in the eighteenth century, an age when the belief in reason and the striving for tolerance were starting to take hold.
The emancipation of the enlightened middle class went hand in hand not only with its detachment from authority, but also with a marked interest in foreigners – and in the Orient in particular.
In his book, Croitoru links political events and figures with literary works and academic achievements. From the reign of Frederick the Great (which began in 1740) to the Prussian–Ottoman alliance under Frederick William II (1790), the attitudes of the literary figures, philosophers, academics and monarchs he quotes range from religious contempt to aesthetic fascination and Orient-friendly promotion.
For the reader, the connections highlighted by Croitoru are not only exciting, they also help explain how both sides influenced each other and make it easier to understand their intentions and standpoints. It quickly becomes clear: a not inconsiderable proportion of perceptions and patterns of argument dating from the eighteenth century are still with us today.
Prussia and the Ottoman Empire
In Germany, the period of Enlightenment reached its heyday in the mid-eighteenth century.
Frederick the Great ascended the throne in 1740. It was a time of great change: the structures of the Middle Ages were disintegrating as society strode into the Modern Age: although witches were still being burned at the stake and peasants still bought and sold as slaves, torture was abolished and Frederick introduced religious freedom and the freedom of the press in the course of his reign.
In his book, Croitoru devotes much space to "Old Fritz's" pro-Ottoman policies, which brought the Prussians closer than ever before to the Turks.
The King was not only interested in treaties of friendship or trade treaties, however, but also in the structures of power, putting the longevity of the Ottoman reign down to the fact that the Ottomans held fast to religious tradition, the political exploitation of which the German monarch deplored.
This explains why he felt an affinity with the French philosopher Voltaire, whose tragedy Mahomet, which portrayed the Islamic Prophet as a deceiver, he celebrated. His successor, Frederick William II, strengthened existing ties with the Ottoman Empire, signing in Constantinople in 1790 an accord that marked the beginning of a military alliance with Sultan Selim II against Austria and Russia.
The Orient as the hub of academic debate
To this day, the Islamic East remains the subject of academic and literary works born of the most varied motivations and characterised by diverse approaches. In addition to a purely philological interest – as in the case of Johann Jacob Reiske, the father of Arabic Studies as a sovereign field of academic study in Germany – it was and still is difficult for others to maintain objectivity when assessing the foreign in relation to the familiar.
In the course of his treatise on Arabic grammar and the Koran, the eighteenth-century Prussian Orientalist Johann David Michaelis rejects the divine origin of the Koran, the Muslims' holy book and concludes from a comparison of Islam and the Christian religion that the latter "emerges much more favourably". Major literary figures such as Herder, Goethe and Lessing all strove to create a positive image of the foreign East.
A young Lessing used the attempt to change this image as an opportunity to portray himself as an authority on the Orient and stressed the benefits of learning Far Eastern languages.
Indeed literature was heavily influenced by the academic world. After all, the latter provided translations and treatises that the poets then fed into their own work. Herder was inspired by Reiske's Al-Muttanabbī translations, Proben der arabischen Dichtkunst in verliebten und traurigen Gedichten (Samples of Arabic poetry taken from love poems and melancholy poems). For his part, Goethe read throughout his life anything on this subject that he could lay his hands on.
With this book, Croitoru has successfully completed a difficult undertaking: he not only provides a detailed overview of how the political, academic and literary worlds of the eighteenth century grappled with the Orient he also succeeds in linking all of these strands, making it possible for the reader to gain a seamless understanding of the subject matter. It is a most wonderful, important contribution to understanding the diverse ways in which the Germans have viewed, discussed and considered the Islamic East. Without a doubt, it comes highly recommended!
Melanie Christina Mohr
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan