Goethe: The Sufi of Weimar

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Johann_wolfgang_von_goetheIt was in a small, black, hardbound volume of Iqbal’s Urdu verse, that I saw the name Goethe for the first time. Iqbal’s Baang e Dara had belonged to me since before I could read and it became an object of mystery, likely due to the manner in which it entered my psyche: in candlelight, and in my mother’s voice. Prone to studying shadows, I was terrified of power outages at night, so my mother lit me a candle and read Iqbals’ poems for children in Baang e Dara: the dialogue between a spider and a fly, a mountain and a squirrel and other adaptations of English poems, in her lucid yet slightly elfin voice. The pages were turned right to left but a non-reader sees a text of poetry much in the cubist’s way— shapes centered on the page, squares or long rectangles, with tightly woven letters inside and wide margins to roam free in.

Over the years, the binding slackened from wear only under the section of children’s poems. When I was older I perused the rest of the book and found the poems complex but I was drawn to the miraculous harmonies formed of Urdu’s polygenetic beauty; its Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish diction fitting as if synaptically, only in this poet-philosopher’s hands, to create a unique musical-intellectual whole.

I also found, to my astonishment, Iqbal’s poems addressing the greats belonging to a variety of cultures: Rumi, Shakespeare, Ghalib, Goethe, Hafiz, Ghazali, Blake, Emerson and other influential thinkers and poets. Iqbal’s century was changing the map fast, making his reflections on the learning of the East and West ever urgent. While rejecting the title “Sir” from the Raj, he continued to honor philosophers such as his own mentor (at Government College, Lahore) Dr. Thomas Arnold in his poems. Among great western thinkers, Goethe held a special place for Iqbal: Our soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It was not until I had realized the infinitude of Goethe's imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own.

Time and again, Goethe’s name stood out when I approached Iqbal’s poetry— there were many reasons for this, but the most memorable one was a typewritten response from the celebrated German scholar Annemarie Schimmel to my letter about my interest in Sufi poetry. She had read my poems closely and her brief letter was full of light and love. I heard the cosmic yes whispered in it, deep enough to give me a measure of patience, knee-deep as I was in raising my children while struggling to find time to read.

Yes has a way of flowering in some unknown darkness and resurfacing just when it seems to have faded away. A fragment of the Persian poet Hafiz led me to Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, or West-East Divan, a work with deep roots inGoethe’s knowledge of and love for Islam and Sufism. A modern English translation of Goethe by Martin Bidney reached me just when I needed it. Assembling ideas for a course I was teaching on transmutation of forms and primary metaphors across cultures, I wanted to hear the sound of the original German— my mother in law, a native German speaker, read some lines aloud as my son Yousuf read the English version; I heard Sufi wisdom borne by languages other than Urdu, my mother tongue.

Martin Bidney’s translation of Goethe’s Divan brings me “home,” which is neither a place nor a time but a yes. Thisrichly imaginative work layers classic mystic themes in twelve sections including Moghanni Nameh (The Book of the Singer), Ishq Nameh (The Book of Love), Hikmet Nameh (The Book of Wisdom), and Tekfir Nameh (The Book of Observations).

In his introduction, Bidney mentions that well-known lines of the West-East Divan come from the Qur’an, such as the following lines which are a variation of verse 142 of the second Surah, where, in Von Hammer’s version, archangel Gabriel tells the prophet, “Say: To God belongs the Orient, to God belongs the Occident; He leads on the right path whom He will.”

To God belongs the Orient,

To God belongs the Occident,

The Northern and the Southern lands

Resting, tranquil, in His hands.

(in “Talismans”, poem 5)

Goethe’s iconic stature as Germany’s Renaissance man probably demanded that his devotion to the Islamic faith be downplayed. In Bidney’s words: “Given the provincialism narrowing the views of many prospective readers, Goethe probably did not improve sales of the collection by coyly acknowledging, at age 68, that the book’s author did not wish to deny the imputation that he was himself a Muslim. But already at 23 he had written a poem in praise of the prophet Muhammad.”

Iqbal recalls Weimar as a garden where Goethe is buried (Gulshan-e-Weimar menh tera humnavah khwahbida hai”) and like the young people who wander the gardens of the Hafiz’s tomb, opening Hafiz’s book on a random page to find the wisdom they need at the moment, Goethe promises in his Hikmet Nameh (Book of Proverbs):

With Talismans will I this book bestrew.

So amplitude and balance there will be.

With a believing needle, prick and see:

Everywhere is a helpful word for you.