goethe and the islamic world by affan seljug

Note: quite a few years back I read this article in a Pakistani newspaper and saved it for future reads.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the most outstanding personalities the west has produced during the modern times. He was a poet, a philosopher and a scientist who had excelled in botany, biology and physics. It was his literary abilities and poetic excellence that won him lasting fame.

Goethe was attracted towards the east from the beginning. His romanticism and varied love experiences have contributed towards the rich legacy of touching lyrics. His serenades to Anna Katherina, Lili Schonemann and Marianne van Willemer carry a superb flavour of eastern melody.

It was 1819 when the aging Goethe got a new German translation of the ghazals of Hafiz and Shiraz. Saadi’s Gulistan was already available to the German readers since 1721. These eastern mystic influences helped Goethe write his masterpiece, West Ostlicher Divan, a delightful blend of the east and the west, the orient and the occident. From now onwards, Goethe’s personality was transformed into an eastern spirit wandering in Shiraz, Hafiz and Saadi. He started to wear eastern costume and call himself Hatem Goethe and addressed to his colleague and beloved Marainne von Willemer as Sulaika (Zulaikha) Willemer. She too has written many lyrics on eastern tradition that are included in the Divan.

Besides these literary contacts and transitions, Goethe had seen the Bashkiri Muslim soldiers of a Russian Contingent stationed at Weimar, read their prayers and recite the Holy Quran in a murmur. A German army officer who had fought in the Spanish Civil War had presented him a codex of fine Arabic Calligraphy that left lasting impact on him.

Goethe was deeply influenced by the spirituality and divinity of Islamic teachings as he has paid glowing tribute to the Holy Prophet in Mahomet’s Gesang. He was so much impressed by the Islamic teachings that he wrote: “If Islam means submission to God, we all live and die in Islam’s dominion”.

How much he loved the cherished east is evident from the following verse:

North, west, south in fragmen’s break
Thrones are bursting, empires quake
Seek the unsullied east, for there
You will sense patriarchal air!
There in purity and right,
In the depths I will seek for light…

Goethe’s contribution to science has also been substantial but more important is his reasoning that materialistic knowledge alone cannot solve the mysteries of nature. The knowledge of self should develop with the knowledge of the world which is a typical Islamic sufi doctrine of Maulana Roomi.

Goethe’s most famous work Faust is a mystical travelogue showing marked similarities and analogies with the Muslim safi tradition. The human being is bound to err but he should strife and toil to prevail over evils seeking God’s help and protection. Like Divine Comedy, Faust also expounds the untold mysteries of the other world. It is a continuity of the subline interaction between the Muslim east and the Christian west. “”

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