By Akbar Ahmed
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Neither immigration officials, nor border guards, nor racial or religious barriers can keep away the sense of affectionate spiritual ownership Allama Iqbal feels for the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Indeed his celebrated collection, Payam-e-Mashriq, the Message of the East, is dedicated to Goethe. Iqbal explicitly states that it is written in response to Goethe’s own masterpiece, the West-Eastern Divan, which Goethe loudly proclaimed was inspired by Hafiz, the great Persian poet. In creating this collection, Iqbal retains the Quranic verse, “to Allah belong the east and the west,” (Al-Baqra, Verse: 115), which inspires Goethe:
“God is the Orient!
God is the Occident!
Northern and southern terrain
Rest in the peace of his hands.”
One German convert to Islam we met while conducting fieldwork for my Journey into Europe project even said, “When I read Goethe and Iqbal, I read them at the same time. I was so confused after. I didn’t know anymore what Goethe said and what Iqbal said, because they supply each other in his opinion.”
With Payam, Iqbal intended, as he put it, to warm “the cold thoughts and ideas of the West.”A visit to Germany will confirm that Iqbal succeeded: Heidelberg, where he studied, has named a street after him by the scenic Neckar River and the house he lived in has a reverential plaque in his honor. The renowned local University houses a Chair named after him, and Munich has dedicated a monument to him.
Just as Hafiz, the great Persian poet, inspires Goethe, Rumi is Iqbal’s inspiration. In a moving poem Iqbal has Goethe and Rumi meeting in heaven. Shadab Zeest Hashmi, herself a distinguished poet and professor of literature, identifies Iqbal’s “poet-fathers Rumi and Goethe.” With bold poetic imagination she pays a tribute to the three giants in Walled City: A Qasida Cycle and brings them to her beloved Lahore.
While Iqbal keenly knew of Goethe’s passion for Islam, many Germans, who acknowledge Goethe as the Shakespeare of the German language and the quintessential Renaissance man, do not know about Goethe’s enthusiasm for Islam, which lasted his entire life. While he wrote “Mahomet’s song” at the age of 23, at age 70 he publicly declared he was considering “devoutly celebrating that holy night in which the Quran in its entirety was revealed to the prophet from on high.” Goethe’s comments on Islam have led to speculation about the extent of his commitment to the faith, for example, in the following verse: “If Islam means, to God devoted/ All live and die in Islam’s ways.” In fact, Goethe himself sometimes wondered if he was actually living the life of a Muslim, writing, when announcing the publication of West-Eastern Divan, that the author “does not reject the suspicion that he may himself be a Muslim.” If Iqbal is the gift of the Muslim world to the West, then Goethe is the gift of the West to the Muslim world.
No Muslim can be unmoved by Goethe’s poem, “Mahomet’s Song”, dedicated to the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), whom he calls “head of created beings.” Goethe had intended to write a longer piece in which Hazrat Ali (AS) was to have sung the poem “in honor of his master,” but the project was never completed. The poem compares the Prophet (pbuh) to a powerful river that slowly but surely gathers other streams as it flows to its destiny in the ocean where it meets the divine. The poem is a powerful expression of the desire to discover unity in the universe while searching for the divine.
Here are some verses of Goethe’s poem to convey its force and beauty:
“See the rock-born stream!
Like the gleam
Of a star so bright!
High above the clouds
Nourished him while youthful
In the copse between the cliffs.
And, advancing like a chief,
Tears his brother streamlets with him
In his course.
In the valley down below
‘Neath his footsteps spring the flowers,
And the meadow
In his breath finds life.
Yet no shady vale can stay him,
Nor can flowers,
Round his knees all softly twining
With their loving eyes detain him;
To the plain his course he taketh,
Join his waters.
And the streamlets from the mountain,
Shout with joy, exclaiming: “Brother,
Brother, take thy brethren with thee,
With thee to thine aged father,
To the everlasting ocean,
Who, with arms outstretching far,
Waiteth for us;
Ah, in vain those arms lie open
To embrace his yearning children;
For the thirsty sand consumes us
In the desert waste; the sunbeams
Drink our life-blood; hills around us
Into lakes would dam us! Brother,
Take thy brethren of the plain,
Take thy brethren of the mountain
With thee, to thy father’s arms!
Let all come, then! —
And now swells he
Lordlier still; yea, e’en a people
Bears his regal flood on high!
And in triumph onward rolling,
Names to countries gives he, — cities
Spring to light beneath his foot.
Ever, ever, on he rushes,
Leaves the towers’ flame-tipped summits,
Marble palaces, the offspring
Of his fullness, far behind.
In the breeze far, far above him
Thousand flags are gaily floating,
Bearing witness to his might.
And so beareth he his brethren,
All his treasures, all his children.
Wildly shouting, to the bosom
Of his long-expectant sire.”
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.