The Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to the French Revolution, undermined the church’s authority in Europe. While the church previously controlled all the information on Islam and Prophet Muhammad, this began to be questioned with the Enlightenment. The details on the prophet, in particular, were investigated once again, which manifested itself in the fields of culture, arts and literature.
Anti-Islamism under the control of the church lost influence; however, the hatred took a different form this time. For instance, Voltaire, a prominent French Enlightenment writer, pushed all his humanist ideas to the background and targeted Prophet Muhammad. He prepared a disparaging stage play featuring imputations about him, which formed a basis for many radical secularist plays.
Despite all these publications that fueled hatred in Europe, there were also those who praised and defended the prophet. German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most prominent writers of world literature, is the poster child of this.
Because Goethe was the son of a well-heeled and intellectual family, he had a strong educational background. He received private tuition in ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, English, Italian, as well as in theology, natural sciences, history, geography, mathematics, painting and music. Again, as a child, he was introduced to tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” by his mother and grandmother.
Although it was not his strong suit, he studied law at the university at the insistence of his father. He did not enjoy it but graduated from law school and was entitled to advocacy.
His acquaintance with the famous humanist writer, theologian and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) during his school years in Strasbourg is one of the turning points in his life. Herder was one of the researchers who had a positive view of Islam. He also advised Goethe to read the Quran.
He showed how the Arabs protected their faith and culture through the miraculous language of the Quran and the deep meaning it contains as an example to him. He also suggested if the Germans, who dominated Europe, had classic books in their own language, Latin would not be dominating the German language.
For this reason, Goethe always meticulously prepared his works to contribute to the German language. Indeed, in 1774, his first novel, “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”), had broad repercussions. Reflecting feelings, thoughts and psychology of youth, the book gained a great reputation worldwide and has been translated into 64 languages so far.
It also took him 60 years to write his magnum opus, “Faust,” a world classic that he would call “the work of my life.” The second part of the book was published posthumously.
Eastern diwan in West
No doubt, one would write pages on Goethe’s life and each of his works. One of the most important masterpieces that distinguish him from his contemporaries is the book of poetry called “West–Ostlicher Divan” (“West–Eastern Diwan”).
In eastern literary tradition, “diwan” is a collection of poems by one author, in which they array their poems according to their types and the last letter of their rhymes. Goethe wrote this poetry book as a nazire – a parallel poem in the same meter and rhymes with another poet’s poem – to Persian poet Hafez.
Goethe got to know “Divan of Hafez” through historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), about which he says: “I found Hafez’s poems, with Hammer’s translation, the last year in 1814. … His collected poems made a great impression on me that I realized that I should also be productive in the face of him. Otherwise, I would not have been able to stand in front of this powerful personality.”
Goethe was invited to Weimar by Duke Karl August in 1775. This is the second milestone in his life. During the 57 years he stayed here, he was involved in many other works besides his scientific and literary works, from inspecting mines and irrigation canals, to choosing the uniforms of the small Weimar Army as the duke’s special embassy adviser.
His acquaintance with Islamic works, especially the Quran, boosted his interest in the Prophet Muhammad. He read the Quran several times and even wrote some surahs in Arabic. He collected these review essays under the name “Koran-Auszüge” (“Summary of the Quran”). This text, which appears to have studied at least two-thirds of the Quran, is currently in the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf.
In 1799, something that was very undesirable for Goethe happened: the duke asked him to translate Voltaire’s play. When he finally translated it in 1800, he laid bare his discomfort in his letter to the duke: “My prince’s desire forced me to translate Voltaire’s drama ‘Mahomet,’ which would be very strange to some. I owe him a lot.”
It was strange for him to translate Voltaire’s play, and he was unwilling because of his reverence and admiration for the prophet. He had written a praiseworthy poem called “Mahomets Gesang” (“Muhammad’s Song”) when he was just 23 years old.
His poem starts with “See the rocky spring/Clear as joy” in reference to Prophet Muhammed. He symbolizes the prophet as a river of joy which takes its source from eternity and says any obstacle could stand against him later on in the poem.
He wrote “Mahomet’s Gesang” in preparation for a drama called “Mahomet,” praising Prophet Muhammad contrary to Voltaire. However, this drama was never published and remained a draft. It is most likely that he learned that it is not appropriate to portray the prophet in Islam and stopped it out of respect for him.
“Mahomets Gesang” was first published anonymously in 1774 in the literary newspaper, “Göttinger Musenalmanach,” under different titles. Goethe’s teacher Herder, in a letter to a friend, praised this poem, saying: “In ‘Göttinger Musenalmanach,’ there are two poems by Goethe that you must read. They are worth the whole of this almanac.”
One of the most detailed reviews of the poem is by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In his analysis in aesthetics courses, he explained the poem, saying: “Thus, the brave rise of Muhammad, his rapid spreading of his religion and his gathering of all peoples under one religion has been successfully depicted through a symbol of a powerful river.”
After reading the poem, German poet Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, one of the masterminds of Romanticism, said “Goethe’s poetry is the dawn of pure beauty and true art.”