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Goethe and the Qur’an

9th June 2020

Prof. Dr. Karl-Josef Kuschel

Goethe and the Qur’an

At a central place inside our home hangs a calligraphy by the hugely talented Shahid Alam, who was born in Pakistan and has lived in Germany for a long time. Shahid Alam answered my plea to have a famous text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe translated into Arabic and then fashioned into a 80×80 work of colour calligraphy. The text in question is a key part of the West-Eastern Divan, Goethe’s epic poem published in 1819:

“To God belongs the Orient! / To God belongs the Occident! / Northern and southern lands / rest in the peace of His hands.” (translation by Eric Ormsby).

The Divan is the outcome of a dialogue which Goethe conducted with a Persian poet of the 14th century whose title was “Hafiz”, a title only awarded to someone who can recite the Qur’an from memory. It is therefore not surprising that Goethe studied the Qur’an  intensively while he was working on the Divan.

His four-line poem is based on a verse from the Qur’an. Sura 2:142: ‘The East and the West are God’s. He guides whom He wills to a straight path’ (translation by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Classics, 2014). But it is exciting to see how Goethe changes the text to integrate it into his “cosmos”. Although Goethe maintains echoes of the structure of the Qur’anic original, he leaves out everything typical of the text: the appeal to the Prophet with the word “Say” is omitted, as is God’s guidance to pursue the righteous path.

Instead, Goethe turns the excerpt into his own distinctive text: firstly by establishing a linguistically more elegant parallelism by leaving out the word “and”, which disturbs the rhythm: “To God belongs the Orient! / To God belongs the Occident!” translation by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Classics, 2014). And secondly, by adding a point of content: “Northern and southern lands / rest in the peace of His hands.” The Qur’an does not contain a literal parallel, but it is close enough to the spirit of Sura 2:115: ‘To God belongs the East and the West. Whichever way you turn there is the Face of God. God is omnipresent and all-knowing.’ Goethe’s own point, by contrast, is God’s reign of peace, which he contrasts with the transitory chaos of the earthly power structure: he had lived through in the past 20 years rocked by the sheer endless Napoleonic Wars that had engulfed the whole of Europe.

The universal Peace of God is the basis of the Peace of the World. By overcoming the narrow reference of the Qur’an, he has made the word of God universal, without losing the connection to the Qur’an. Now his four-liner is an expression of hope for Believers in God of all kind, be they Muslim, Jews or Christians, in other words all who long for the Peace of God and wish the world to be safe and secure in God’s hands. This belief has to be wrestled from the chaos of the world experienced on a daily basis, especially from those who defile peace and agitate for war. Goethe confronts them with the conclusion: the world does not rest in the clutches of the Devil, but in the hands of God.

To remind us of this fundamental message we awarded this colourful and impressively composed calligraphy a central place in our home. The gold of the frame corresponded wonderfully with the blue and the green and then again is taken up in the yellow, which glows from the depths and changes into white. The Goethe verse transposed into Arabic, which encircles the middle, offers a visual expression of this message of peace and turns it into a “new Qur’an”. We love this piece of calligraphy: for its legacy and its mission.

Prof. Dr. Karl-Josef Kuschel taught Theology of Culture and Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Tuebingen. He is the author of numerous books on that subject. 

Goethe and the Qur’an will be published by the Patmos Verlag in 2021. This is an excerpt from this publication. The English-language edition Christmas and the Qur’an was published by the Gingko Library in 2017.