Islam in Goethe’s Works

Edibe Nuray Saatcı
6 minutes

As is well known, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the most famous poets and writers of Germany and the world. Goethe’s knowledge and curiosity were not limited to literature; he also developed himself in natural sciences, painting, music, philosophy and theology. He started to learn many languages at an early age and was interested in French, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. He studied law and served as Minister of State.

Goethe, who grew up in a Protestant family, was well versed in Christian religious doctrine and the Bible in both language and content. In his eighty-three years of life, he searched for the truth and the reason for human existence, and in this context he studied many religions. According to Prof. Katharina Mommsen, an expert on Goethe, Goethe closely researched the Islamic religion and found it close to his own understanding of religion, especially in matters such as the unity and manifestations of God, submission to God, fate, accident and faith in prophets.[1]

Goethe, who started reading the Qur’an at the age of 23 on the advice of his theologian and philosopher friend J.G. Herder, edited a German summary of the Qur’an (Koran-Auszüge) consisting of 11 verses. At a young age, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) He wrote a 72-line poem in praise of Muhammad called Mahomets Gesang (Ode to Muhammad). Islam, the Qur’an and the Prophet. In his later years, Goethe’s knowledge of Muhammad was supplemented by the Dîvân of Shamsüddîn Muhammad Shîrâzî (d. 1390), known as Hâfız, who lived 400 years before him, translated by the historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (d. 1856). Impressed by this work, Goethe began writing his second great work, the East-West Dîvânı, at the age of 65.. East West DîvânıThe poems in his book contain Islamic concepts, references to Qur’anic verses and Sufi motifs.

The East-West Dîvân was first published 200 years ago in 1819. The first edition is over 500 pages in volume and consists of two parts. In the first part, some 250 poems are grouped under 12 subject headings. Goethe called each of these titles “The Book”. The second part contains encyclopedic information. In this section, he provides information about Islamic concepts, Eastern culture, the Qur’an, the Prophet, Eastern geography and history, which are mostly referred to in the poems in the first section(Notes and Explanations/Noten und Abhandlungen).

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Figure 1: Cover of the 1819 edition of the East-West Dîvânı [1]

Goethe also mentioned his thoughts on the Qur’ân in his poem “Is the Qur’ân eternal?” in the Book of Sâkî in his East-West Dîvân:

Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sey?

Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sey?
Darnach frag’ ich nicht!
Ob der Koran geschaffen sey?
Das weiß ich nicht!
Daß er das Buch der Bücher sey
Glaub’ ich aus Mosleminen-Pflicht.[1]
Is the Quran eternal?

Is the Qur’an eternal or not?
That’s not my problem.
Was the Qur’an created afterwards?
I don’t know that either!
I believe that it is a book of books because I am a Muslim.[2]

For Goethe, nature is the proof of God’s existence and God is manifested in nature. The belief that God’s names are manifested in the universe was very important to Goethe and he noted the following verse from the Qur’an: [3] To Allah belongs the East and the West (the whole earth). Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah. Verily, Allah is the All-Bountiful, the All-Knowing. (Al-Baqarah 2/115)

In his poem “Talisman” in “The Singer’s Book”, he writes about the 115th verse of Surah al-Baqarah. Based on the verse, he says:

Gottes ist der Orient!
Gottes ist der Okzident!
Nord – und südliches Gelände
Ruht im Frieden seiner Hände.[4]
The East belongs to Allah!
Allah owns the West!
North and south field
He is at peace with His power.[5]

Convinced of the idea of seeing God in everything, Goethe published the posthumous edition of his East-West Dîvân, “Metrukat” (Gedichte aus dem Nachlass). [6]) in the 26th chapter of Surah al-Baqarah. He wrote a poem with a reference to the verse. The verse reads:

Allah does not hesitate to give the example of a mosquito, and even more than that, a being. Those who believe know that it is a truth from their Lord. The disbelievers say, “What does Allah mean by this as an example?” (Allah) leads many astray by it and guides many. He leads astray with it only the transgressors.

Buch des Sängers
Sollt’ ich nicht ein Gleichnis brauchen,
Wie es mir beliebt?
Da uns Gott des Lebens Gleichnis
In der Mücke gibt.
The Singer’s Book
Like I like it,
Shouldn’t I use a metaphor?
Likewise, Allah gives us the example of life in a mosquito.[8]

While everyone is aware of Goethe’s Faust, which he called his first and my life’s work, his second great work, the East-West Dîvânı, is not widely known. The fact that a world-renowned German poet, especially in his work titled East-West Dîvânı, makes references to the verses of the Qur’an and includes Sufi motifs is important in terms of Islamic Sufi literature and culture and offers a wide field of research. 18. and Given the conditions of the 19th century and the ignorance and prejudices of Europe at that time about Islam, Goethe’s research on Islam and his approach to another religion is a unique example even for today’s people.

[1] Goethe, West-östlicher Divan, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 2018), 92.

[2] Goethe, Dîvânı East-West, 5. Print. Translation. Senail Ozkan (Istanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat, 2017), 277.

[3] As mentioned earlier, Goethe read and studied the Qur’an and translated some of the suras that interested him. These surahs are available in the Koran Compendium (Koran-Auszüge); cf. Mommsen, Goethe and Islam, 2015, 28.

[4] Goethe, West-östlicher Divan, 3. Edition, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 2018), 12.

[5] Goethe, Dîvânı East-West, 5. Print. Translation. Senail Ozkan (Istanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat, 2017), 175.

[6] Goethe’s East-West Dîvâncontains unpublished writings and poems written in connection with the dîvân. Only some of these were attached to the back of the dîvân as “Metrukat” by some publishers.

[7] Goethe, West-Östlicher Divan, 3. Edition, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 2018), 280.

[8] Goethe, Dîvânı East-West, 5. Print. Translation. Senail Ozkan (Istanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat, 2017), 77.

[1] Goethe, West-östlicher Divan, Accessed September 9, 2019,

[1] See Katharina Mommsen, Goethe und der Islam, 4. Edition, (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2015), 20, 25.

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