Navid Kermani‘s "Questions about God"How do we believe?
Navid Kermani’s latest book sees him making good on a promise. His father wanted the author to teach his granddaughter "our Islam". An Islam that you won’t find in libraries or classrooms, but in the lives of people, on the street, in nature.
In a personal discourse about God and religion, Kermani makes both his own daughter and his readers smile, doubt and wonder. He speaks about transience and infinity, about trust, quantum physics and tradition, about the difference between understanding and reason, but also about the crisis in which the monotheistic religions find themselves in the 21st century. Kermani insists that if you are going to understand the world we live in, knowledge about the religions is at least as important as the study of the natural sciences and languages.
When language is not enough
But how do you explain to a child what faith is, or who or what we mean by God? Jostein Gaarder gave a wonderful demonstration of this in his novel about the history of philosophy – by asking questions and setting off on a journey. Kermani takes the same approach, and swiftly concludes that the problem of theology lies in its attempt to teach something that cannot be taught. The author compares trying to talk about the ineffable with swimming: "You can’t think it, you can only experience it."
No matter how detailed and precise someone’s description of diving in, and the way the body feels floating in water: if you’ve never swum, you can only guess at what is being talked about. The same goes for the ecstasy into which melody and harmony can transport you, or for being in love. And this is because our ability to imagine ourselves in those situations is based on feelings and experiences, and draws on a repertoire of things we have been through before.
Faith in God is another one of these experiences. Opening yourself up to religion requires not only the will and the ability to understand it with your head, the father explains to his daughter; you must also want to involve all your senses.
"Recovery service" for Islam
Many people are probably asking themselves why and how people can still have faith at all, with all the terrible things that have happened in the name of God and religion, and still happen every day. The number of people turning their back on the church in recent years alone speaks volumes. So how can people turn in prayer to a God who allows religious fanatics to blow themselves up and church dignitaries to sexually abuse children?
In this regard, Kermani speaks not only of a "recovery service", as he calls it, which Islam urgently needs. He also writes about how the Koran is read and interpreted. Many Islamic scholars only reiterate what others wrote long before them, he says. He reflects that they have "lost the living and therefore mutable relationship with the Koran". In a way, he argues, they are not practicing their religion in the here and now, but as Muslims from the Middle Ages.
Losing this living relationship with the Koran can lead to backward attitudes, irrationality and even misogyny. Kermani doesn’t just talk about the good that faith can enable people to do; he also touches on the dark side of faith, with circumstances that can make a relationship with God uncomfortable, or sow doubt.
All the same, for Kermani, God’s truths go beyond the truths and logic of mankind. The writer doesn’t regard religion as a complex thing; in fact the real problem, he says, is its simplicity. Essentially, a Muslim is a person "who has insight into his own, human limitations, and for that reason submits himself to the infinite". And although the father acknowledges that words like power and submission have negative connotations, this attitude is not nearly as compliant as it might sound. That requires an explanation.
If having faith means submission, you might think, that must mean the faithful stop thinking for themselves. Kermani, however, argues that the faithful are not subjugating themselves to a person, a president, but to a higher power. In fact, subjugating yourself to simple faith in God, rather than to power, money or recognition can be a kind of liberation.
Kermani’s favourite word in the Koran is "maybe"
Before the book closes with an epilogue, the father tells his daughter about the great "maybe", which Kermani confesses is his favourite word in the Koran. For him, that "maybe" contains freedom, responsibility and the search for insight. And it actually dominates our whole life. An individual neither knows when they will be born, nor when they will die. They are capable of incredible things, and yet there is much they do not know.
For Kermani, all the drama lies "in this 'maybe', which creation has embodied ever since the first cells divided". In the end, all humans can do is trust, just as small children trust their parents to look after them. And that is why the Bible, too, says that we should learn our faith from children.
Everyone will have their own reading of the same book, Kermani writes. That is the treasure that literature contains for every one of us. The title of his book in German – "Everyone should come a step closer from where he is" – also invites doubt, and that, according to the author, means primarily that we are thinking for ourselves.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin