26 Oct 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, 
Brothers and Sisters in Islam

The question of our identity has become one of the most important socio-political themes in recent years. In this age of globalisation we seem to be afflicted by a general uncertainty about whether to define ourselves as Germans, citizens, or Muslims. There is also a worryingly widespread tendency in every quarter to define one’s own identity in negative terms, using enemy stereotypes and by saying what one is not.

This kind of negative dialectic – “we are Germans because they are not” – was prevalent in and around the PEGIDA demonstrations. Defining oneself basically in terms of one’s opposition to Islam is today common in conservative circles. But of course there are also Muslim ideologists who form their identities not through a positive knowledge of Islam but by agitating using simplistic enemy stereotypes.

It is against this backdrop that the figure of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remains topical and relevant today. It is no coincidence that there are few events about Islam that do not include a quote by Goethe. Given that that this the case, one is almost tempted to ask whether there are any contemporary integrating figures left at all these days.

It is no surprise that Goethe remains so popular. His remarkable statements such as the following are the testimony to his enduring brilliance: “Tolerance should in fact be only a temporary attitude: it should lead to recognition. To tolerate is to insult.”

Goethe has been a recurring topic in Islamische Zeitung, which was founded 20 years ago in the very town in which he lived, Weimar. For many years we have guided groups of visitors through the centre of German classicism. Just a year ago we held one such memorable event involving the author Feridun Zaimoglu, the historian Eberhard Straub and myself.

We asked ourselves – from different perspectives – about the extent to which Goethe is relevant to our identity. My proposal, or should I say my own idea of the inner identity of German Muslims, was: a) German (culturally, linguistically, politically) b) Goethean and c) Muslim.

I am of course aware that identities are not in any way fixed. It is fitting to use the plural of the word. In German philosophy, the question of “personal identity” and “subject” has long been a fluid one. One only has to refer to Heidegger’s philosophy, whose thinking transformed rigid ideas of the “Ich” into the more open Dasein (literally ‘being-there’), thus transcending the familiar subject-object relationship. In Islam, the possibility of dissolving one’s personal identity in the sense of “die before you die” is a fundamental element of spiritual practice.

But back to the subject of Goethe and the part he plays in our identity today. To what extent can our national poet actually be used to build identity in today’s terms?

Nietzsche’s bon mot about this is famous: “Goethe has, for the Germans, remained a fleeting anomaly without after-effects.” 
Nietzsche even said: “Goethe stood above the Germans in every respect and still stands above them: he will never belong to them.”

On the back cover of Rüdiger Safranski’s highly readable biography of Goethe can be found (admittedly for different reasons) a description of what could be described as a rift between the bygone figure of Goethe and our lives in the modern age. It says: “When you are studying Goethe you become his contemporary. Then when you look up again you realise the chasm that separates us now from him then. And yet something remains: the comforting thought that a life such as his was possible.”

If we take Nietzsche’s aforementioned statement as a starting-point for today’s theme, then we first have to ask whether Goethe will remain “without after-effects” for us as German Muslims. What do we think about Safranski’s rift that separates the figure of Goethe from ourselves in the here and now?

It is worth inserting that the oeuvre of the master of the German language is unusually large and broad; the unabridged edition of his works amounts to more than 30,000 pages. He was a universal genius of unique character; poet, politician, economist, historian and scientist. We should not underestimate the complexity of this man, a man who transformed and reinvented himself over and over again.

Tellingly, Goethe himself said about his own complex identity that he was a pantheist as a natural scientist, a polytheist as a poet and a monotheist ethically. So we need to keep in mind that his work is not in fact a system (Goethe: Nature is not a system!) but is more akin to a journey.

In terms of our identity I wish to limit myself to three aspects that are crucial to the formation of identity in general and Goethe’s identity in particular:

– Politics (poet and politician)
– Economics (poet and finance minister)
– Religion (poet and believer)


Let us begin with politics. The poet’s political understanding was shaped by his relationship with Prince Carl August, his encounter with the Weltgeist of Napoleon, and his intellectual contemplation of the political principles of his time. Goethe was simultaneously a theorist and a practitioner of politics.

1a) To help us in our understanding and as a reference, we will begin by mentioning some of the important stages of Goethe’s political career:

– After finishing his law degree and celebrating his first successes as an author, the young Johann Wolfgang Goethe moved to Weimar in 1775.
– As a professional politician in the narrower sense, Goethe was first active between 1776 and 1786 (after which he fled in frustration to Italy for 22 months).
– Goethe’s ambitions played themselves out on a relatively small stage. The picturesque ducal seat of Weimar had only 6,000 inhabitants at the time, and the entire duchy of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach had no more than 100,000.
– The duchy, furthermore, was not a contiguous area, it was fragmented (indeed Germany was still a patchwork quilt, not a nation) and it included, as well as Weimar, the towns of Jena, Apolda, Eisenach and Ilmenau. The little impoverished state had been heavily afflicted by the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763) between Prussia and Austria.
– Weimar was heavily influenced by a woman: the ambition and intelligence of Duchess Anna Amalia helped the tiny state gradually regenerate its economy and culture. She was a bold, energetic and visionary local ruler who strove to make Weimar a Musenhof – a Court of Muses.
– That is why she encouraged her son Carl August, who from 1775 was the regent of the duchy, to bring Goethe to court, since he was an aspiring poet already known for works such as Werther and Götz von Berlichingen.
– The Duke, who was then 18, and Goethe, who was eight years older, quickly became friends. Furthermore, Goethe became the young regent’s confident and counsellor. An interplay between intellect and power began.
– Just a year later, Goethe, now in receipt of a good salary, was made Privy Legation Councillor, giving him a seat in the state’s highest organ of government. He was also made director of the Mining Commission, director of the Roads and Waterways Commission, director of the War Commission, and later Finance Minister, giving him far-reaching responsibilities and authority.
– In 1782 the local ruler entreated Emperor Joseph II to ennoble Goethe. The word ‘von’ was added to his name.
– After his return from Italy, Goethe, who in his own words had rediscovered himself as an artist there, was at his own request relieved of most of his previous official functions. As a poet and politician he had by then carved out a comfortable position for himself. His friend Schiller envied his privileges at times.
– Goethe then shifted his activity into the cultural-political sphere: he became director of the Hoftheater (1791-1817), initiator and director of the Free Drawing Institute, director of the duchy’s institutions of natural science and medicine, and a member of various cultural commissions (such as the commission governing libraries). The building of the castle and other prestigious structures also fell within his remit.
– But Goethe did not remain a distant observer in those turbulent times. When Duke Carl August assumed the rank of general in 1792 and joined the allied Prussian and Austrian troops on their march to France to confront the Revolutionary army, Goethe went along with his friend. He recounts the experience with ambivalence. The poet experienced the euphoric sense of victory after the conquest of the border fortress of Verdun, but also the abortive cannonade at Valmy, after which the Prussian-Austrian coalition, having lost thousands of men, eventually decided to retreat.
– In October 1808 he met Napoleon in a political setting during the Congress of Erfurt.
– When the state was reformed and became a Grand Duchy in 1815, Goethe was made Minister of State and given a portfolio specially tailored to him: ‘Supervision of the primary institutions of science and art in Weimar and Jena’.
– Goethe witnessed the downfall of Napoleon in 1815.

1b) Goethe and his political identity:
Throughout his life, Goethe processed his political experiences in his poetry and by formulating political principles. Goethe was certainly a pragmatic politician: “I hate all botchery with a passion, but especially botchery in matters of state from which nothing but misery ensues for thousands and millions.”

Probably the most important motif of his political thought was the fraught relationship between evolution and revolution. Goethe remained sceptical of the French Revolution throughout his life. He found its eruptive events unsettling. There is an episode which well illustrates his general attitude to this political context.

In 1784 Goethe wrote an essay about granite, which was to serve as a preliminary study for a novel about space which he had planned since 1781. To Goethe, granite was the Urgestein, the primary rock, and therefore the “foundations of our earth” which could be shaken by nothing, not even volcanic eruption. The crust of the earth, he believed, had been formed by the sedimentation of crystals from the retreating primordial ocean. He held to this belief (which was known as Neptunism) throughout his life, in contradistinction to the ‘Volcanic’ theory which traced the earth’s formation back to fire, volcanic eruption and earthquakes. Goethe’s Neptunism clearly correlates with his aversion to revolutionary explanations and tendencies in history.

After 1789 he regularly compared volcanism to revolution.

Furthermore, Goethe anticipated the general risks of mass ideological movements. “Generalised notions” (the Revolution), said Goethe, could in the long term only cause “horrible misery”. They would lead to collectivism, or, as he pessimistically put it in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years: “Every great idea, as soon as it emerges, has a tyrannical effect, and that is why the advantages it brings are all too soon transformed into disadvantages.”

He did not really believe in the idea of a perfect society, or the continuous evolution of politics as postulated by the French Revolution.

To Eckermann (15.2.1824): “If you could perfect man, then a perfect state would be conceivable; but it will always swing this way and that, the one group will suffer while the other prospers, the evil demons of egoism and envy will always be at work, and there will be no end to conflict between parties.”

Goethe, therefore, was sceptical about the French Revolution, and venerated Napoleon precisely because he considered him its liquidator, bringing an end to the terrible confusion and creating order once more. He was nevertheless terse in his response to Napoleon’s policy of conquest: “It does not concern me at all that Moscow is burned. It will provide history with something to write about.”

It was certainly one of Goethe’s fundamental convictions that order sometimes had to be defended by force, and this was one of the guiding principles of his political activity.

The historian Gernot Böhme aptly summarises Goethe’s relationship to monarchy and revolution: “Goethe was a monarchist. He was of bourgeois origins, but he entered the service of a princely house and remained true to it throughout his life. He held firmly to the feudal order. But as somebody who knew politics from the inside, who as a privy counsellor knew the in-back story of events, he was at the same time a critic of monarchism (…) In his view, the only real drawback to monarchism was that the throne had to be occupied by an actual person (….) Goethe, therefore, believed in monarchism, but criticised the human fulfilment of its form.”

What is very clear is that Goethe distanced himself from the nationalist politics which arose from the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleon and the French. Goethe’s warnings against nationalism force us back to the proposition that the poet was without after-effects; his warnings are, as we now know, an almost tragic element in German history.

To Eckermann (14.3.1830): “I find nationalist hate to exist most strongly and to proliferate most at the lowest levels of culture. One must ascend to that level where it disappears entirely, and where one to a certain extent stands above nations and experiences the fortunes and woes of neighbouring peoples as if they had been one’s own. This level of culture is in my nature and I had secured myself in it long before my sixtieth year.”

Such political cosmopolitanism corresponds with the open-minded poet and his outright loathing of provinciality.

To Eckermann (18.1.1831): “Nationalist literature has little more to say, the epoch of world literature is due and every one of us must do his utmost to accelerate its onset.”

Of course we as Muslims are especially aware of the current relevance of Goethe’sthinking as touched upon here. Its major aspects include his reserved stance towards the political process, his warnings against the kind of nationalism today widespread in the Islamic world, and his scepticism towards the absolute politicisation of man. Another important point would be the relationship between the Muslims and their monarchies in the age of the ‘Arab Spring’.


2a) Goethe and the techniques of finance 
Goethe lived through a dramatic change of epoch which affected the nature of politics and the identity of man. One might say that Goethe witnessed the transition from ‘politics as destiny’ to economics as a predetermined fate.

In 1825, reflecting almost melancholically on the new techniques of power, Goethe in a letter to Georg Nicolovius described the changes he saw – and which have such relevance to our current situation: “…As impossible it is to muffle steam cars, so too regarding morality: the liveliness of trade, the rapid spread of paper money, and the increasing debts to pay debt – such are the fearsome elements that a young man must confront today…”

Fear for one’s own provision has become a major aspect of man’s modern, economically governed everyday life. As an economist, Goethe was again a man of theory and practice. His policies were influenced by what was at the time modern, rationalist economic thought, especially as formulated in the theories of the French physiocrats (Quesnay, Turgot). One of the primary maxims of these physiocrats, which today seems rather old-fashioned, was simply to keep state expenditure below the level of its income.

– This is the context in which Goethe, as Minister of War, reduced the state’s troops by 50 percent to achieve considerable savings in the state’s budget. It was by this and other such actions that the Duke came to appreciate Goethe as an able financial practitioner.
– Hoping for further consolidations in the state budget, the Duke appointed him President of the Chamber (Finance Minister) in 1782.

But as well as its practical aspects, he also reflected frequently on the theory of economics. Goethe closely observed the invention of banks, known then as Zettelbanken or note-issuing banks, and reflected on the coinage debacles at the time. Faced with Germany’s complex monetary situation, Carl Augustcommissioned him in 1793 to conduct an assessment of the coinage. In this document, Goethe records his conviction that “money must have its own intrinsic value.”

When in 1810 Goethe’s friend Carl August contemplated the idea of a paper currency for his tiny starving state, Goethe, who was the prince’s Finance Minister, was at first enthusiastic. He knew from his own household how difficult it could be to get by on limited funds when you have to demonstrate public grandeur and dignity. But in the end a firmly convinced Goethe rejected the introduction of paper money. As he had already said in his coinage survey of 1793, he believed “that money is money not because of the stamp it bears but because it has its own inherent value.”

In his poetry, Goethe brilliantly recognised the significance of the new techniques of finance for the politics of the future. In part two of Faust, Mephistopheles, dressed as a Fool, famously entices the political leadership to break taboo by creating money out of nothing in the form of paper, and thus – furnished with a devilishly ingenious competitive advantage – undertake the conquest of the whole world.

Faust II:

“Der Zettel hier ist tausend Kronen wert. Ihm liegt gesichert als gewisses Pfand, Unzahl vergrabenen Guts im Kaiserland. Nun ist gesorgt damit der reichste Schatz, Sogleich gehoben, diese zum Ersatz.” / “This note here’s worth a thousand crowns, secured by a certain collateral, immeasurable buried treasure in the Emperor’s land. Now the richest horde, once unearthed, can make it stand.”

This adventurous strategy worked at first, to the surprise of those involved, because the public believed in the promise of the new banks, namely that the colourful notes were backed by buried treasure. But the new technique, and therefore the triumphal march of the new money, was based upon a principle which is “contra naturum”: the expectation of endless growth and endless created value.

At the end of the second part of the play, Faust has to acknowledge that he does not possess the magical powers he needed.

The director of the German Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, referred intelligently to the poet’s vision when he asked: “Did Goethe identify a key problem of monetary policy?” In a talk the banker described how today the technique of creating money manifests as “political and economic power”: “Central banks create money by granting loans to commercial banks in exchange for securities, or by purchasing assets from them such as bonds. This means that in principle the financial power of a central bank is unlimited, since it does not have to first acquire the money which it hands out or with which it pays, but instead can basically create it from nothing.”

There are numerous contemporary linkages to Islam’s life-practice in the field of economics which one could mention. One only has to think of the obligation to pay zakat with a genuine means of payment and not with a promise to pay. Faced with the biggest financial crisis in human history, many Muslims are today reflecting on the meaning of Islam’s economic laws. Furthermore the economic re-evaluation of the way people live – the idea that they ought to keep ‘fit’ to perform in capitalism – has engendered many questions, and even strange doubts such as whether fasting is still appropriate these days.


3a) Goethe and religion
Goethe, typically, approached religion both practically and theoretically.

Goethe had been reading the Quran since the early 1770s. In 1814 he observed Muslim Bashkirs praying. In 1815 he began to learn the Arabic text of the Quran. In 1819 Goethe published his famous West-Eastern Divan and, famously, “did not refute the suspicion that he himself was a Muslim.”

His engagement with Islam and the Orient was in accord with the longing of many German thinkers and poets for what was foreign and ‘other’. But this tendency did not entail a static attitude, rather the ability to travel, both inwardly and outwardly. (Humboldt: How can you have a worldview without viewing the world?)

Upon purchasing some oriental manuscripts in Weimar, Goethe wrote to his minister colleague C.G. von Voigt in 1815: “To be precise, studies of this kind into which one immerses oneself are a kind of Hegira; one flees from one’s own time into distant centuries and places.”

Goethe’s engagement with Islam, which was practically self-taught, was of course for a variety of reasons not entirely without its contradictions, but it was frequently indicatory. Goethe astutely recognised a core belief of Islam – to name but one example – as the acceptance of destiny and the drive to overcome opposites and form a doctrine of unity. This was why Goethe did not shy away from encountering Muslims openly, rather he viewed it as a spiritually enriching opportunity. Goethe was self-confident enough to recognise man’s own existential question answered in Islam.

In the following quote which I like very much (11 April 1827 J.P. Eckermann: Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life) we learn a lot about the recognition process which was characteristic of Goethe and which he applied to his perception of Islam.

“…What is remarkable are the teachings with which the Mohammedans begin their education. As the foundation of their religion, they establish in their youth the conviction that man cannot encounter anything but what an all-guiding Divinity has long ago decreed; this equips and reassures them for their entire lives, and leaves them needing little else.

… there is basically some of this belief in each and every one of us, without us having been taught it. ‘The bullet that does not have my name on it will not hit me,’ says the soldier in the battle. And how should he keep up his courage and spirits in situations of extreme danger without such confidence? …

[It is] a doctrine of a Providence which remains aware of the smallest detail, and without whose will and permission nothing can occur.

The Mohammedans thereupon begin their teaching of philosophy with the doctrine that nothing exists about which you cannot say the opposite. They exercise the minds of their youth by having them find and articulate the contrary opinion of every proposition, which inescapably leads to great skill in thought and speech.

Then, once the opposite has been claimed about every proposition, the doubt arises as to which is actually true. But they do not remain in the doubt. Rather, it drives the intellect to examine more closely and to ascertain; and, if performed correctly, from there derives that certainty which is the goal in which man finds complete reassurance. You can see that this teaching is lacking nothing, and that for all our systems we are no further on, and that absolutely nobody can get any further.

This philosophical system of the Mohammedans is a wonderful yardstick which one can apply to oneself and others in order to determine one’s actual intellectual level.”

Given these sensitive and sophisticated reflections, we today, faced with debates of a much coarser nature, might ask ourselves whether Goethe’s close involvement and engagement with Islam and the spiritual aspirations which emerged from it were indeed, as Nietzsche claimed, without any kind of succession. Goethe of course was not afflicted by the cynicism of Muslim today’s assassins. The process by which he recognised Islam was almost unique.

The renowned Goethe researcher Katharina Mommsen also looks in vain for active emulation: “This leads us quite obviously to a taboo which still seems to dominate the traditional reception of Goethe in Germany: Goethe’s inclination towards Islam remains today, for many Goethe researchers, if not an outrage then at the very least an embarrassment.”

Rüdiger Safranski also asked somewhat sceptically in his biography “how serious the poet was about religion, about Islam” and whether his acknowledgement of Islam was merely “coquetry”. The biographer doubts the poet’s willingness to submit himself to a religion of strict laws. Goethe had, after all, years before the publication of the Diwan – in Dichtung und Wahrheit – spoken only of the “natural religion”: “The general natural religion requires no belief because the conviction that a great, effulgent, guiding Being conceals itself behind nature in order to make itself felt by us – such a conviction occurs to every one of us.”

One might be tempted to note with some irony that the biographer Safranski is oddly unable to envisage the idea, or should we say the possibility, of a ‘liberal Muslim’. But even Safranski acknowledges and admires the foundational insight of human, religious experience and selfhood which in the final assessment characterises Goethe’s relationship to religion: “Belief in one’s own god always lifts the spirits because it reminds man of the unity of his own interior.”

Goethe’s affinity for a philosophy of unity is one of the preconditions for understanding Islam. However we may wish to locate Goethe’s religious thought, his engagement with it remains important as an example of a mode of recognising something in a complete way. It is precisely because Goethe combats the politicisation and economisation of man that he indicates the possibility of an unideological yet consistent philosophy of unity.


Allow me to finish with a comment about religion itself. The term ‘religion’ is essentially a Christian concept which arose late on in Europe. It is often associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who, in 1799 – at the same time as Goethe – published his famous discourse On ReligionSchleiermacher separated the “feeling that there is a god” from knowledge and action.

The term religion, as well as theology, suggests that belief no longer attempts to connect to practice in a technical world. In today’s Europe it is almost impossible for people to conceive that religion entails, in addition to morality, instructions for action or something that could formulate a solution to current problems.

But according to Goethe’s teachings, “active life” always entails theory (Anschauung – or view) and practice, action and knowledge. There is no doubt that Goethe’s contribution towards the formation of our identity is most welcome to us as German Muslims. It ranges as we have seen from a relaxed attitude towards politics, to a recognition of the magic of the new techniques of finance, to a respect for creation, all the way to a cheerful realisation of unity. Only by reintegrating these aspects in an active life can we resolve the hiatus left in the poet’s wake.

*This text was delivered as a talk in Bonn on 11 June 2015.