What began with Olearius and the poet Paul Fleming who travelled with him, and continued in the adventurous travel writing of Engelbert Kaempfer and Carsten Niebuhr, established two influential tendencies in German literature’s reception of Islam. Firstly, that scholarly exploration and poetic adaptation repeatedly went hand-in-hand. Secondly, as a result of this, the respectful, curious conversation stubbornly outweighed any inclination towards the formation of orientalist clichés.

A travelling merchant, importing poems

When Goethe contemplates his own poetry and its role-playing in the prose section of his "Divan" – which remains underrated to this day – he initially portrays himself in the same mould as these role models: as a travelling merchant, who imports his poems and "offers [them] obligingly". He had already found a model for his earlier self-image of the inspired genius in the same spheres.

Prophet Muhammad: Ottoman depiction from the seventeenth century (Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Muhammad as peacemaker and herald of a new era: during the First World War, the rhapsodic expressionist Klabund and the socialist activist Friedrich Wolf both wrote about Muhammad, independently of each other, as the proclaimer of a reconciliation among humanity

Goethe’s youthful attempt at a Mahomet play as a riposte to Voltaire’s (the story of which is recounted in his autobiography, "Dichtung und Wahrheit") apparently followed the eponymous hero’s path from sanctifying revelation into political violence, before the dying man regrets his errors and returns to pure piety, role model and a warning in one.

From Goethe’s poems onwards, the literary paths branch outwards. As Daumer and Platen rediscovered the mysticism of Hafez, following in Goethe’s footsteps, Friedrich Rueckert’s flawlessly precise translation of the Koran finally gave German readers an idea of the original’s beauty.

And for those who felt this was all too highbrow, there were Karl May’s Middle-Eastern novels, beginning with "In the Desert": enlightened compendia of contemporary knowledge about the world that Muslims inhabited, their fundamental beliefs and practices, their conflicts with Christians, Jews and Yazidis (and the mechanisms of mutual intolerance), strikingly well-informed, sympathetic and, despite all gestures of superiority, willing to understand.

Zenith of literary Islam adaptations

But wondrous paths led onwards through high literature, too. In Rilke’s 1907 sonnet "Mohammed’s Call", for instance, he drafted that primal scene of poetic revelation, which five years later would become an often-misunderstood model for his own "Duino Elegies". Inspiration needed to come via the artist, Rilke noted while working on the poem, "at least as well as it came via Muhammad".

 During the First World War, the rhapsodic expressionist Klabund and the socialist activist Friedrich Wolf both wrote about Muhammad, independently of each other, as the proclaimer of a reconciliation among humanity under the banner of divine peace.

At the end of Klabund’s Muhammad novel, Muhammad, Moses and Christ fall weeping into each other’s arms. This gorgeously sentimental scene is a climax, not an endpoint for literary interpretations of Islam. Goethe, at least, might have liked it. "If Islam means devoted to God," he wrote in the "Divan", then "we all live and die in Islam."

Heinrich Detering

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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