Goethe and Islam

Religion has no nationality

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe may have had his reservations about Islam – as he did about Christianity – and he certainly wasn′t shy of criticising it, but his credo was without doubt built on the foundations of non-negotiable tolerance. By Melanie Christina Mohr

In the 21st century, how might Goethe, who had a lifelong preoccupation with Islam, position himself on the question of whether Islam is a part of Germany? The idea that although Muslims live in Germany and are allowed to practice their religion there, this isn't enough to make Islam a part of Germany, would probably elicit a frown from Goethe. We may suspect he would argue vehemently that religion has no underlying nationality and that Islam has just as much right to exist in Germany as Christianity and Judaism.

It wasn′t by chance that during the production of his West-Eastern Divan, Goethe formed an opposition to some Romantics, who were trying to equate Germanness with Christianity.

The prince of poets didn′t believe religious affiliation was founded in one′s ancestry or cultural affiliation; it lay in the person themselves. It required no preconditions, no original connections or even linguistic capabilities. For Goethe, religion embodied first and foremost a construct of personal freedom and decision-making power, which had been the source of his creativity from a young age.

Faith, a holy vessel

If we want to understand Goethe′s fascination with and sympathy for Islam, we need to know the prince of poets′ feelings and views on religion in general. Goethe had an ambivalent attitude towards religion throughout his life. Although he repeatedly underlined the particular strength he was able to derive from the divine and praised the linguistic value of the holy texts he was familiar with, he often turned away again from the elements of belief just as quickly as his liking for them had developed.

At the age of six, according to his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), his faith was shaken for the first time. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which around 60,000 people lost their lives, made him doubt the intentions of the sublime. The young Goethe couldn′t understand why God, the creator of the world and the universe, could mete out the same fate to the just and the unjust alike.

Volume of Goethe′s West-Eastern Divan (published in 1819, augmented in 1827; source: Wikipedia)
"It wasn′t by chance that during the production of his West-Eastern Divan, Goethe formed an opposition to some Romantics, who were trying to equate Germanness with Christianity", writes Mohr

Even so, Goethe couldn′t let go of the holy book; he studied the Old and the New Testaments until he knew them thoroughly, later realising that in essence it always comes down to the basis, the interior, the sense and the orientation of the work. For Goethe, this was where the divine quality lay, the thing that made the holy texts sacrosanct and sublime for all time.

When Goethe parted ways with religion, it was usually in connection with the institutions of faith and their representatives. Working for the literary journal Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen, he rebelled against the orthodox standpoints of Christian representatives and spoke out in favour of openness and individual religious determination.

These facts are very significant inasmuch as they illustrate that, for one thing, Goethe had a very reflective approach to the construct of faith and for another, that he distinguished between the essence of religious doctrine and how people used it. Faith, as he wrote, was "a holy vessel, in which every man′s feeling, his reason, his imagination, as well as he is able, stands ready to be sacrificed."

"Austere, grand, fearsome and truly sublime"

After the Bible, the Koran was the holy book with which Goethe was most familiar. In 1771 Herder prompted him to engage intensively with the Muslims' holy book. Alongside his admiration for the Koran's powerful eloquence – it was higher inspiration, he believed, that led to the poetic quality of the holy texts – one decisive element made it easier for him to access the Koran: the principal teachings of Islam accorded with the poet′s own feelings and views.

Along with the doctrine of the unity of God and the conviction that God revealed Himself in nature, it was the rejection of miracles that secured Goethe′s affinity with the Muslim faith.

As a true follower of Spinoza (1632-1677), according to whose ethics man′s free will is not absolute, but confined to individual acts of will, Goethe felt understood by Islam's thoughts on fate. For the poet, the course of things on earth went hand-in-hand with divine will.

Pakistani Muslim reads the Koran (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Bilawal Arbab)
Plagued by ambivalence: if we want to understand Goethe′s fascination with and sympathy for Islam, we need to know the prince of poets′ feelings and views on religion in general. Though he repeatedly underlined the particular strength he was able to derive from the divine and praised the linguistic value of the holy texts he was familiar with, he often turned away again from the elements of belief just as quickly as his liking for them had developed

His affinity with Islam stretched to the 70-year-old Goethe confessing in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan that he "reverently celebrate[d] that holy night when the Koran was given to the Prophet from above, in its entirety".

In the Laylat al Qadr, the "night of decree", which is celebrated on one of the odd nights during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, the poet did as Muslims do and spent the night in prayer. It is also that date on which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven with his winged steed Buraq and the archangel Gabriel (al-israa).

Goethe was captivated by the night-time journey and noted in the Divan: "What should prevent the poet from mounting Mahomet′s miraculous horse and winging his way through all of heaven?" He describes the style of the Koran in the "Mahomet" chapter as corresponding to its content: "austere, grand, fearsome and in places truly sublime" – one should not wonder, then, at its great impact.

Dismal shroud of religion

Even if Goethe is reluctant to make the Prophet Muhammad the object of his criticism, this doesn't stop him from feeling compelled to point out what seemed unreasonable to him. First, there was the position of women in Islam – which, according to Goethe, took a step backwards after the death of the Prophet and the ban on alcohol. He had no understanding for this, or for the Islamic vision of paradise, which to his mind was formed too much from the masculine perspective. Goethe′s relationship with Muhammad was also burdened by the antagonism between poet and Prophet.

Unlike the Prophet, Goethe certainly did not regard the time before Islam as a time of ignorance (Jahiliyya). Quite the reverse: the poet – like Herder – valued the heathen age in the Arab world, with its flourishing and outstanding poetic art.

Goethe avoided judging ages of humanity purely by their theological aspects and held the view that there was a multiplicity of criteria according to which past ages should be measured.

In this respect, Goethe felt almost challenged to rival the Prophet and wrote in a letter to Zelter in 1816: "I keep myself productive, meaning: I insist that he who does not do things quite rightly shall do better."

Beyond his religious esteem and fascination for Islam and its representative on earth, it accorded with Goethe′s innermost conviction that it is in "the splendour of poetry" that "the salvation of man is preserved". In the Divan he summarises this criticism by saying that the Prophet subordinated his religious community to a "dismal shroud of religion". 

Festival of purest humanity

All his life, Goethe was at pains to bring the various religious communities closer together. His heartfelt desire was for them to work and live not alongside each other, but with each other. In an unpublished essay written in 1817 "On the Reformation Festival", he put forward the suggestion that religious festivals should be celebrated together, uniting all denominations. 

The goal of this festival of purest humanity should be that instead of asking each other which community they belong to, people would celebrate diversity, united solely by the belief (or disbelief) in God.

We should not move within a homogenous realm; diversity should be the key to peace and happiness. This dream of Goethe′s has still not been realised and is still searching for a brave spirit who feels prepared to take on this idea and its implementation.

Melanie Christina Mohr

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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