NOVEMBER 21, 2016
SOME WRITERS attempt to disentangle; others depend on entanglements. In his pleasurably wide-ranging new collection of 16 essays, the German-Iranian writer Navid Kermani brings his interpretive and philological flair to bear on the tangled affinities between Islam and the West, not in order to unravel them but to appreciate how closely they entwine us even today.
Kermani, who is also the author of a 1,200-page novel called Dein Name (Your Name), has proved one of our best contemporary interpreters of those affinities. He has a storyteller’s instinct for the telling detail, and prefers concrete examples to banal generalities about “intercultural influences” and the indebtedness of European culture to Islamic thought. The Qur’an and Kafka of his book’s title, Kermani says, “designate two poles between which my writing oscillates: revelation and literature; religious and aesthetic experience; the history of the Islamic and the German-speaking cultures.”
Born in Westphalia in 1967 to Muslim immigrants from Isfahan, Kermani grew up with German literature of the kind practiced by Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and Sebastian Haffner: exiles who expressed their love of Germany by critiquing it, and remained faithful to Germany by leaving it. “German culture is always closest to me where it stands farthest from Germany,” Kermani writes. Above all, Kermani grew to admire Kafka as “the exemplary German writer,” a figure who signifies “something which is genuinely European and yet which transcends Europe.” In that sense, he writes, “there is no greater obligation for me than to belong to the same literature as the Jew Franz Kafka of Prague. His Germany is also my homeland.”
Strangely enough, it was Kafka who led Kermani to the Qur’an — not to a reverence for the holy book’s law or theology, however, but to an appreciation of its beauty. “It was originally an aesthetic interest,” he writes, “formed by my literary and essentially German reading, that drew me to Islam.” Pursuing a line he opened in a previous book God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran, Kermani suggests that “the miracle of Islam was the language of revelation.” With an ear trained by German literature, he began to hear the Qur’an as a score for a liturgical performance, a poem meant to be sung rather than a text to be silently read. Kermani points out that many a convert to Islam — starting with the Caliph Umar in the seventh century — were moved by the sheer beauty of the Qur’an’s language, an aesthetic fascination that would carry through to “the spirituality of Ibn Arabi, the poetry of Rumi, the historiography of Ibn Khaldun [and] the philosophy of Averroes.”
At the heart of this collection, Kermani shades in affinities between East and West through a series of close readings. In one essay, for instance, he contrasts Dante’s account of his journey through the three realms of the dead in the Divine Comedy against two Islamic parallels: the Qur’an’s account of Muhammad’s ascension and the Persian poet Fariduddin Attar’s The Book of Suffering, which a century earlier described the journey of the Sufi adept through 40 spheres of futility and despair. In another tour de force, Kermani reveals how sensitively Goethe was attuned to Islamic culture. In his West-East Divan (1819) and other poems, Goethe appropriated allusions from the Qur’an, which he read in Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s translation, and his reading of the Qur’an subtly enriched his understanding of the Bible. Goethe and the Qur’an, Kermani suggests, share “the appreciation of this world as the setting of an omnipresent revelation.”
Kermani’s comparative technique proves equally original when he sounds Islamic culture by striking it with European instruments. This allows him to listen to the cadences of German literature through the ears of the Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat (1903–1951), Kafka’s translator into Persian, and to demonstrate how Islamic mystics “can contribute to a closer hearing” of the sighs of ecstasy and of death in the work of the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. The most mellifluous result of this approach is an essay on the frenzied Iranian Shiite passion plays commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad, in the year 680. Kermani persuasively explains the ritualized catharsis of the plays’ extravagant lamentations in terms of the staging of Richard Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, the dramatic techniques of Bertolt Brecht, and Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty.”
Certainly Kermani’s style of juxtaposition challenges the Western image of Islam as inherently antimodern. His method of retrieval insistently turns Islamic tradition toward the universal. But for all the originality of Kermani’s conversation with the Islamic past, he despairs for the Islamic present, which he feels has suffered “a massive intellectual implosion” that has left the tradition he cherishes in ruins. “The political, intellectual, aesthetic conditions that brought forth Rumi, the Thousand and One Nights, Averroes, and the Taj Mahal are past and beyond recall,” he laments. “That in itself would not be a calamity. The catastrophe of the Islamic world is that it has lost its living relation to its own past.”
In the end, Kermani’s exquisite book is marked by a refusal of the fundamentalist’s temptation to let Islam’s dogma eclipse its aesthetic permeability, and a refusal to let taut entanglements slacken into cultural amnesia. Taken together, these essays give texture to the tapestry of affinities that weaves together the two poles of his heritage — and, perhaps, of ours.