Page of the Koran (photo: DW/Axel Warnstedt)
Part of Europe's historical legacy: "the Koran must be regarded as a text of late antiquity, just like the scriptures – namely the New Testament and the Rabbinic writings – of the other two religions belonging to the same period. We have to recognise the Judeo-Christian-Islamic nature of culture," says Neuwirth

This is not, however, one of the usual lists of ways in which Arab thinking influenced Western scholarship. The fact that one of the main strands of the European Enlightenment can be traced back to Arab culture and to Judeo-Islamic philosophy in particular, is something that has been known in Germany at least since the period of Jewish scholarship – even if Germany′s current Minister of the Interior is still unaware of it.

Angelika Neuwirth is concerned with something else. She makes clear that the Koran itself, the founding document of Islam, is a European text – or vice versa: that Europe, according to its origins, also belongs to Islam. The explosive contained in this research is something no security service is capable of defusing. It will rock the foundations of our intellectual landscape for a very long time to come.

Angelika Neuwirth′s most recent work, the first volume of her Koran commentary, gives us an indication of just how enriching this shock might be. By tracing the various Biblical, Platonic, patristic and Talmudic references in addition to the ancient Arabic and inner-Koranic ones and above all by paying serious attention to the linguistic structure of the Koran as a poetic text, a musical score for sung recitation, the extent to which the Koran has breathed in the entire culture of the eastern Mediterranean becomes apparent. And the extent to which, in turn, its exhalation has permeated this, our culture.

In my laudatory speech I have referred only to Angelika Neuwirth′s tremendous and excellent work on the Koran. Acknowledging her numerous essays on classical and modern Arabic poetry, such as those on the important Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, would require a whole other speech.

I have also omitted to depict Angelika Neuwirth as an instigator, which she is as well: the instigator not only of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences′ comprehensive project on the textual history of the Koran, but also of countless smaller research projects.

Almost everyone in Germany who is engaged in working on the Koran or classical Arabic poetry – including myself – has been taught by her, infected by her enthusiasm and supported by her loyalty. At the same time, she also spends many months of the year in the Middle East, keeping a room in Beirut and another in Jerusalem, supervises a whole host of religious students from the Muslim world and gives lectures not only at Harvard and Princeton but also at many Arab universities, as well as at the most important Islamic institutions.

Taking the Other seriously

For as long as I have known her I have been asking myself how she manages it. Time is one aspect – so much work crammed into just one life! But why is it that people, even those at the heart of Islamic scholarship, listen to her so closely, even though her research may touch, even undermine, the very foundations of the Muslim faith?

I believe this has to do with her attitude, her empathetic fidelity to the text, her seriousness and with her own piety. And perhaps this is something we can learn from this philologist in terms of the way the secular public realm relates to religion.

We may question that which is sacred to others; we may, of course, criticise the fundamental principles of any religion. But we should respect the fact that, for others, these fundamental principles are sacred and we should take this seriously. I would like to congratulate Angelika Neuwirth on being awarded this year′s Sigmund Freud Prize.

Navid Kermani

© Goethe-Institut / Fikrun wa Fann 2014

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

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Comments for this article: The scholar's touch

A translation of the Quran is not the Quran itself.

Kabir02.08.2016 | 22:39 Uhr