Goethe anniversary

Orient and Occident

Two hundred years of the "West-Eastern Divan": "North and West and South shatter, thrones burst and empires tremble" – why Islam is part of German literature. By Heinrich Detering

To say that Islam has been a part of German literature since the 17th century is an understatement. What is seldom appreciated is that among a wealth of individual examples, there are continuities that can’t simply be dismissed as "Orientalist".

In this long history, Goethe’s "West-Eastern Divan" is by no means an exotic exception. Rather, it is the great relay station between enlightened curiosity and a chain of literary works stretching right into the modern era, written in conversation with the Islamic world – with orthodoxies and heresies, Sunni, Shia, and Sufi traditions.

When Goethe started work on the "Divan" in 1815, he already had recourse to a whole library of German expertise on Islam. He certainly didn’t rely solely on Hammer-Purgstall’s renderings of Hafez, which were to lead him into the fiery nucleus of Persian mysticism.

On his desk there was also a German and a Latin translation of the Koran; many volumes of research in the emergent discipline of religious studies, including the journalism that popularised it; a French biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and, true to Voltaire's motto of "Crush infamy!", the latter's hate-filled Mahomet play, which Goethe himself translated, reluctantly and on commission.

A trunk full of literary marvels

Among the voices that speak in his work, however, are some that are easily overlooked. The voice of Lessing for example, who like many of his contemporaries thought he recognised a potentially enlightened form of religion in the strict monotheism and morality of Islam.

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (photo: Imago/Image Brooker)
Referencing the growing knowledge about the Islamic world: when Goethe started work on the "Divan" in 1815, he already had recourse to a whole library of German expertise on Islam. He certainly didn’t rely solely on Hammer-Purgstall’s renderings of Hafez, which were to lead him into the fiery nucleus of Persian mysticism

Or the voice of the graceful Wieland, who took traditional fairy-tales from the East and in his poetry, such as "Oberon", sketched out his own dream image of a reconciliation between the Christian West and Islamic East. Or the voices of the travellers who, since the Baroque period, had brought back not only silks and spices from Persia and Arabia, but poetry, too.

Returning from Persia in 1639, for instance, the diplomatic delegation from Schleswig may not have brought back the hoped-for trade deals, but they did bring a work of literary genius like Sheikh Saadi’s "Gulistan". The polymath Adam Olearius didn’t just translate this poem into elegant Baroque German; he decorated it himself so ingeniously, playing with Islamic calligraphy and iconography, that in his "Divan" project, Goethe was able to draw on both the verses and the design of a German book with an Islamic look and feel.

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