Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe (1749-1832) is widely recognized as the greatest writer of the German tradition. German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher, one of the greatest figures in Western literature after whom countless institutes and associations have been named all over Europe and North America, namely Goethe Institute. All evidence have been taken from his own works and his letters to friends.
As a young man Goethe wanted to study oriental studies - but his father finally wanted him to study law; he always admired the first travellers to Arabia (Michaelis, Niebuhr), he was fascinated by it and read everything they published about their trips. In 1814/15 at the time of his “Divan“ Goethe trained himself with the professors for oriental studies Paulus, Lorsbach and Kosegarten (Jena) in reading and writing Arabic.
After looking at his Arabic manuscripts and having known about the Qur'an, Goethe felt a great yearning to learn Arabic. He copied short Arabic Du'as by himself and wrote: “In no other language spirit, word and letter are embodied in such a primal way.“ (Letter to Schlosser, 23.1.1815, WA IV, 25, 165)
At the age of 70 Goethe writes (Notes and Essays to the Divan, WA I, 17, 153) that he intends “to celebrate respectfully that night when the Prophet was given the Koran completely from above“ He also wrote: “No one may wonder about the great efficiency of the Book. That is why it has been declared as uncreated by real admirers“ and added to it: “This book will eternally remain highly efficacious/effective“ (WA I, 7, 35/36)
Still today we have the handwritten manuscripts of his first intensive Qur'an-studies of 1771/1772 and the later ones in the Goethe and Schiller-Archive in Weimar.
Goethe read the German translation of Qur'an by J. v. Hammer (possibly as well from the more prosaic English translation of G. Sale) out loud in front of members of the Duke's family in Weimar and their guests. Being witnesses Schiller and his wife reported about the reading. (Schiller's letter to Knebel, 22.2.1815) Goethe always felt the shortcomings of all the translations (Latin, English, German and French) and was constantly looking for new translations. In his “Divan“ Goethe says:
“Whether the Koran is of eternity?
I don't question that!...
That it is the book of books
I believe out of the muslim's duty.“
“Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?
Darnach frag' ich nicht ! ...
Da_ er das Buch der B|cher sei
Glaub' ich aus Mosleminen- Pflicht“
(WA I, 6, 203)
He studied Arabic handbooks, grammars, travel-books, poetry, anthologies, books on the sira of the Prophet Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace! - and had a widespread exchange with oriental scholars about these matters. Goethe liked the German translation of Hafis' “Diwan“ by Hammer (May 1814) and studied the different translations of Qur'an of his time. All of this inspired him to write his own “West-stlicher Divan“ and of course many poems of the “Divan“ are clearly inspired by and relate to different Ayats of Qur'an (see Mommsen, p. 269-274).
Goethe bought original Arabic manuscripts of Rumi, Dschami, Hafis, Saadi, Attar, Qur'an-Tafsir, Du'as, an Arabic-Turkish dictionary, texts on matters like the freeing of slaves, buying and selling, interest, usury and Arabian scripts from Sultan Selim.
Goethe considered it not to be a mere accident but rather as meaningful incidents, in fact as part of his decree and signs of Allah, when in Autumn 1813 he was brought an old Arabic handwritten manuscript from Spain by a German soldier coming from Spain which contained the last Surat An-Nas (114). Later Goethe tried to copy it himself with the help of the professors in Jena who had helped him in finding out the manuscript's content in January 1814 he visited a prayer of Bashkir Muslims from the Russian army of Zar Alexander in the protestant gymnasium of Weimar.
See the letter to Trebra, 5.1.1814 (WA IV, 24, 91) where he says: “Speaking of prophecies, I have to tell you that there are things happening these days, which they would not have allowed a prophet to say. Who would have been allowed some years ago to say that there would be held a mahommedan divine service and the Suras of Koran would be murmured in the auditorium of our protestant gymnasium and yet it happened and we attended the Bashkir service, saw their Mulla and welcomed their Prince in the theatre. Out of special favour I was presented with a bow and arrows which for eternal memory I will hang above my chimney as soon as God has decreed a lucky return for them.“
In a letter to his son August from the 17.1.1814 (WA IV, 24, 110) he adds: “Several religious ladies of us have asked for the translation of the Coran from the library.“ Goethe's positive attitude towards Islam goes far beyond anyone in Germany before: He published on 24.2.1816: “The poet [Goethe]... does not refuse the suspicion that he himself is a Muslim.“ (WA I, 41, 86) In another poem of the “Divan“ Goethe says:
“Stupid that everyone in his case
Is praising his particular opinion!
If Islam means submission to God,
We all live and die in Islam.“
“Ndrrisch, da_ jeder in seinem Falle
Seine besondere Meinung preist!
Wenn Islam Gott ergeben hei_t,
In Islam leben und sterben wir alle.“
(WA I, 6, 128)
Apart from Goethe's - the poet's - fascination for the language of Qur'an, its beauty and sublimeness, he was mostly attracted by its religious and philosophical meaning: the unity of God, the conviction that God manifests in nature/creation is one of the major themes in Goethe's work. During his first intensive Qur'an-studies Goethe copied and partly put right the text of the first direct translation of the Qur'an from Arabic into German in 1771/1772.
Goethe wrote down different Ayats of Qur'an which teach man how he should see nature in all its phenomena as signs of divine laws. The multiplicity of the phenomena indicates the One God. The relation towards nature as the Qur'an presents it connected with the teaching of the kindness and oneness of God - as Goethe writes it down from the Ayats of Sura No. 2 - became the main pillars on which Goethe's sympathy and affinity towards Islam was based. Goethe said we should realize “God's greatness in the small“ - “Gottes Gr'e im Kleinen“ and refers to the Ayat of Surat Al-Baqara, vers 25 where the metaphor of the fly is given.
Goethe was very impressed about the fact that Allah speaks to mankind by prophets and thus he confirmed the prophet Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace!: In 1819 Goethe writes (referring to Sura “Ibrahim“, Ayat 4) “It is true, what God says in the Qur'an: We did not send a prophet to a people but in their language.“ (Letter to A.O. Blumenthal, 28.5.1819, WA IV, 31, 160) Referring to the same Ayat Goethe repeats in a letter to Carlyle: “The Koran says: God has given each people a prophet in its own language.“ (20.7.1827, WA IV, 42, 270) It appears again in 1827 in an essay of Goethe in: German Romance. Vol. IV. Edinburgh 1827 (WA I, 41, 307)
Goethe affirmed the rejection of the unbelievers' challenge to the prophet Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace! - to show them miracles where he says: “Wonders I can not do said the Prophet, / The greatest miracle is that I am.“ (Paralipomenon III, 14 of the Divan, WA I, 6, 476)
In “Mahomet“ Goethe wrote the famous song of praise “Mahomets Gesang“. The meaning of the prophet is put into the metaphor of the stream, starting from the smallest beginning and growing to be an immense spiritual power, expanding, unfolding, and gloriously ending in the ocean, the symbol for divinity. He especially describes the religious genius in carrying the other people with him like the stream does with small brooks and rivers. On a handwritten manuscript of the Paralipomena III, 31 of the "Divan" Goethe writes on the 27.1.1816:
“Head of created beings / Muhammed“. (WA I, 6, 482)
Furthermore that true religion is shown by good action. Here Goethe especially liked the action of giving Sadaqa, giving to the needy. In several poems of the Divan, “Buch der Sprche“ Goethe speaks about “the pleasure of giving“ / “die Wonne des Gebens“ / “See it rightly and you will always give“ - “Schau es recht, und du wirst immer geben“ (WA I, 6, 70) which already in this life is full of blessings.
Goethe is also well known for his rejection of the concept of chance/accident: “What people do not and can not realize in their undertakings and what rules most obviously at its best where their greatness should shine - the chance as they call it later - exactly this is God, who here directly enters and glorifies Himself by the most trifling.“ (conversation with Riemer, November 1807)
The increasingly firm belief in the decree of God (conversation with chancellor Mller, 12.8.1827, WA I, 42, 212, WA I, 32, 57) and the verse of a Divan-poem: “If Allah had determined me to be a worm;/ He would have created me as a worm.“ (WA I, 6, 113) and more “they [-examples of metaphors used in the Divan -] represent the wonderful guidance and providence coming out of the unexplorable, inconceivable decree of God; they teach and confirm the true Islam, the absolute submission to the will of God, the conviction, that no one may avoid his once assigned destiny.“ (WA I, 7, 151ff) resulted in his personal attitude of submission under the will of God, i.e. Goethe saw it as an order to accept it thankfully and not to rebel against it. See famous examples for this in his “Egmont“, “Dichtung und Wahrheit“, “Urworte Orphisch“ and “Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre“ etc.
A deeply moving example from his own life was his reaction to the accident of his coach when he started his third journey to Marianne von Willemer (July 1816), who he intended to marry after Christiane had died about which he felt extremly unhappy. Goethe took this as a clear warning not to pursue his wish anymore and completely refrained from his original intention. After that Goethe wrote: “And thus we have to remain inside Islam, (that means: in complete submission to the will of God)...“ (WA IV, 27, 123) He said: “I cannot tell you more than this that also here I try to remain in Islam.“ (Letter to Zelter, 20.9.1820, WA IV, 33, 240)
When in 1831 the cholera appeared and killed many people he consoled a friend: “Here no one can counsil the other; each one has to decide on his own. We all live in Islam, whatever form we choose to encourage ourselves.“ (Letter to Adele Schopenhauer, 19.9.1831, WA IV, 49, 87)
In December 1820 Goethe wrote thanks for the gift of a book of aphorisms of his friend Willemer and says: “It fits ... with every religious-reasonable view and is an Islam to which we all have to confess sooner or later.“ (WA IV, 34, 50)
As a participant in the war of 1792 against France Goethe said that this belief in the decree of God has its purest expression in Islam: “The religion of Mohammed gives the best proof of this.“ (WA I, 33, 123)
According to Eckermann's conversations with Goethe (11.4.1827) the latter said to the first speaking about the education of the muslims by constantly seeing opposites in existence, therefore meeting doubt, close examination of a matter and thus finally arriving at certainty: “That philosophical system of the mohammedan people is an excellent measure which one can apply spirit because it indicates for man the unity within his own self.“ (Noten und Abhandlungen zum West-stlichen Divan, chapter Mahmud von Gasna, WA I, 7, 42)
Goethe tells about the difference between a prophet and a poet and the confirmation of Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace! - as a prophet: “He is a prophet and not a poet and therefore his Koran is to be seen as a divine law and not as a book of a human being, made for education or entertainment.“ (Noten und Abhandlungen zum West-stlichen Divan, WA I, 7, 32)
Sufism / Practice of Dhikr
Goethe is fascinated by Saadi's metaphor of the “fly in love“ flying into the light where it dies as the image for the Sufi. See here especially the poem of the “Divan“ about the butterfly flying into the light “Blissful yearning / Selige Sehnsucht“ whose earlier titles were “Sacrifice of the self / Selbstopfer“ and “Perfection / Vollendung“. In the chapter about Rumi, Goethe acknowledges the invocation of Allah and the blessing of it: “Already the so-called mahometan rosary [prayer-beeds] by which the name Allah is glorified with ninety-nine qualities is such a praise litany. Affirming and negating qualities indicate the inconceivable Being [Wesen]; the worshipper is amazed, submits and calms down.“ (WA I, 7, 59)
Goethe and Christianity
Goethe said that there is “much nonsense in the doctrines of the [christian] church.“ (Conversations with Eckermann, 11.3.1832) In his “Divan“ Goethe stresses the value of the precious present moment rather than having the Christian attitude of only waiting for the next life and therefore, disgracing what God gives man in every moment of his life.
Goethe refuses the christian view of Jesus and confirms the unity of Allah in a poem of his “Divan“:
“Jesus felt pure and calmly thought
Only the One God;
Who made himself to be a god
Offends his holy will.
And thus the right(ness) has to shine
What Mahomet also achieved;
Only by the term of the One
He mastered the whole world“
“Jesus f|hlte rein und dachte
Nur den Einen Gott im Stillen;
Wer ihn selbst zum Gotte machte
Krdnkte seinen heil'gen Willen.
Und so mu_ das Rechte scheinen
Was auch Mahomet gelungen;
Nur durch den Begriff des Einen
Hat er alle Welt bezwungen.“
(WA I, 6, 288 ff)
Besides Jesus and Muhammad - may Allah bless him and give him peace! - in the following verses Goethe also names Abraham, Moses and David as the representatives of the Oneness of God. It is a known fact that Goethe felt a strong dislike for the symbol of the cross. He wrote:
“And now you come with a sign ...
which among all others I mostly dislike.
All this modern nonsense
You are going to bring me to Schiras!
Should I, in all its stiffness,
Sing of two crossed wooden pieces?“
“Und nun kommst du, hast ein Zeichen
Dran gehdngt, das unter allen ...
Mir am schlechtesten will gefallen
Diese ganze moderne Narrheit
Magst du mir nach Schiras bringen!
Soll ich wohl, in seiner Starrheit,
Hvlzchen quer auf Hvlzchen singen?...“
Und sogar noch stdrker:
“Mir willst du zum Gotte machen
Solch ein Jammerbild am Holze!“