God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran
by navid kermani
wiley, 400 pages, $45
According to the Islamic doctrine of iʿjāz, the Qur’an is an inimitable book, a miracle. Western scholars, pointing out grammatical errors and other infelicities in the text, have long criticized this doctrine. In God is Beautiful, Navid Kermani responds to this criticism by focusing on the reception of the Qur’an by Muslims as a perfect—and beautiful—book.
Reading Kermani’s book brought to my mind a moment about twenty years ago when I was sitting in a taxi in Damascus along with a Syrian Muslim man. I found myself increasingly bothered by the loud volume of the Qur’an recitation blaring out of loudspeakers at a nearby mosque. My fellow passenger had a different experience. He turned to me and shouted blissfully, “Praise God! Do you hear that? It’s the word of God!”
Kermani also has a story about taxis in God is Beautiful. He recounts hearing Qur’an recitation in Cairo’s cabs and asking the drivers why they liked to listen to it. He continues: “The answer I heard again and again was, ‘It’s so beautiful!’” Kermani argues that this sentiment is nothing new. Muslims have long valued the Qur’an for its aesthetic value, particularly when it is recited. To this effect he tells the story of an early ascetic, Muslim ibn Yasār, who, entranced by a Qur’an recitation, kept still even when his house caught on fire.
Kermani also argues that the Muslim’s relationship to the Qur’an is fundamentally different from the Christian’s relationship to the Bible. While Muslims tell stories such as that of Muslim ibn Yasār or of those who converted (most famously, the second caliph, ʿUmar) upon being entranced by the beauty of the Qur’an, Christians do not tell such stories about the experience of hearing the Bible. In fact, some Christians—notably the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann—emphasize the poverty of the Bible’s language, celebrating the Bible as a sermo humilis (“a lowly discourse”) which reflects the humility of Christ himself.
Kermani insists that only Christian piety surrounding Christ (not the Bible) can be compared to Muslim piety surrounding the Qur’an. As Christ is the Word of God to Christians, the Qur’an is the Word of God to Muslims. Whereas Christian theologians debate the question of the human and divine in Christ, Muslims debate the question of the eternal or created nature of the Qur’an. And whereas the Eucharist is the central ritual in Christianity, the recitation of the Qur’an is the central ritual in Islam.
While Kermani’s (surprisingly frequent) comparisons of Islam and Christianity are never unkind to Christianity, his work is nonetheless that of a pious Muslim. He speaks of iʿjāz as a “wondrous dogma,” and refers to the early Suras of the Qur’an “bursting with energy” and to the “serenely sermonizing” long verses of the late Suras. He describes the “seductive composition” of Qur’an chapter 26, and celebrates the Qur’an’s “break with aesthetic norms.” Indeed, Kermani—with the possible exception of his portrayal of Muhammad as an “artist” or “genius” in the European sense (whereas Islamic tradition would see him more as the mouthpiece of the angel Gabriel)—says little in God is Beautiful that would challenge orthodox Muslim ideas.
Perhaps it is Kermani’s piety that explains the ambiguity in his description of the Islamic sources. In the opening of the book, and occasionally thereafter, he admits that most of what we find in those sources (by which I mean not the Qur’an but other Islamic literature including the hadith) are late and unreliable. At one point he declares: “Let me emphasize once more that none of the traditions presented in the following is considered historically true.” Yet he often writes as though these traditions are historically true. He does not seem to realize, for example, that the story of the Christian Ethiopians crying when they hear the Qur’an recited is certainly an exegesis of Qur’an 5:83 (“when [Christians] come to understand what has been bestowed from on high upon this Apostle, thou canst see their eyes overflow with tears”). Kermani even imagines that this story demonstrates the power of the mere sound of the Qur’an (“since we cannot assume that [the Ethiopians] spoke Arabic”).
It is certainly Kermani’s piety that explains his conviction that the Qur’an is unique in the history of world literature. Kermani does not expect that every reader will agree with him (or, as he puts it, “sway to the rhythm of the Qur’an recitations”), but he does expect them to see an extraordinary quality in the book. To him the Qur’an is poetic, but different from poetry, more than poetry. The Qur’an reflects but surpasses the poetic culture of the Arabs at the dawn of Islam. To this end Kermani notes an idea frequently repeated in Islamic writings: that Moses was sent with natural miracles to a culture fascinated by magic, Jesus with healing powers to a culture fascinated by medicine, and Muhammad with a literary miracle to a culture fascinated by poetry. The Qur’an, in the words of the Egyptian Amin al-Khuli, “is the pride of the Arabic language.”
he Qur’an has had a remarkable effect on the Arabic language, which, at least on a formal level, has remained extraordinarily stable over the past 1,400 years. Its hold on the language is still observable today. Kermani points out how many conservative and fundamentalist Muslims (including Osama bin Laden) attempt to speak in a register of classical Arabic that is unadulterated by colloquialisms or foreign words.
Kermani misses, however, the historical connection between the language of the Qur’an and the Semitic language that surrounded it at the time of Islam’s origins: Syriac. Those who know Syriac literature, and in particular the tradition of metric homilies and hymns known respectively as memre and madrashe, find the Qur’an to be rather familiar. The aesthetic qualities of Syriac authors such as Ephrem—known as “The Harp of the Spirit”—were highly cherished. Like the Qur’an, the memre and madrashe are shaped by formal concerns (although meter more than rhyme), were publicly recited, and were meant for the edification and conversion of the audience. Many memre (especially those by Jacob of Serugh) begin with prayers in which the author asks God to speak through him. It is also telling that the very word “Qur’an” seems to derive from Syriac qeryana, the name for the lectionary in Syriac-speaking churches.
On other counts Kermani demonstrates immense learning in God is Beautiful. He writes with authority on Aquinas, Enlightenment and romantic thought, and German philosophy generally. He knows classical Muslim thinkers, from philosophers such as Avicenna to mystics such as Ibn ʿArabī, and modern Muslim thinkers including the Egyptian line of Amīn al-Khūlī, Muhammad Khalafallah, and Naşr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd, and poets such as the Syrians Nizār Qabbānī and Adūnīs. He criticizes sharply German Orientalists such as Theodor Nöldeke and Rudi Paret (and is more friendly to others, such as Angelika Neuwirth). He also ingeniously pairs Western and Muslim intellectuals who have come to analogous insights, for example Umberto Eco and the exegete Zamakhshari on the nature of poetry, or Schopenhauer and the historian Ibn Khaldūn on the nature of prophecy.
More importantly, Kermani’s basic argument about the importance of the Qur’an’s beauty in Muslim thought is convincing. Muslims do not love the Qur’an simply because they believe in its message (indeed, in some places the Qur’an is so obscure that the message is difficult to understand). They love the Qur’an above all because they find it beautiful.
There are indeed beautiful passages in the Qur’an: its light verse (Q 24:35), which opens, “God is the light of the heavens and the earth,” or the strophic hymns of Sura 54 and 55. Yet one wonders whether Kermani would find anything not beautiful in the Qur’an. He admits that certain passages, for example on legal matters, are perfunctory. Yet what about passages which have grammatical errors—as when the Qur’an uses the wrong case for “Sabaeans” in 5:69 (the Qur’an gets it right in 2:62)—or passages which encourage violence, such as the permission to beat one’s wives in 4:34 or to crucify those who “make war on God and his messenger” in 5:33? Are such passages also beautiful?
Kermani also underestimates the problems posed to the doctrine of iʿjāz by the complications of textual variants to the Qur’an. If the Qur’an is perfect exactly as it is—every letter, every word (“not a single word of the Qur’an can be replaced,” Kermani explains)—then what is one to do with the reality that there are seven (or, perhaps, ten) different “readings” of the Qur’an (which involve changing letters and, on occasion, words), not to mention the reports that major differences in the Qur’anic text are said to have existed before the caliph ʿUthman burned all versions but his own? Exactly which Qur’an is the perfect Qur’an? Kermani refers to the pious tradition that God himself, through the Prophet, intended the Qur’an to be read in seven different, equally canonical manners, but it is surprising that he does not recognize this tradition as an attempt to solve the real problem of an unstable, uncertain text.
One might also point out how subjective the experience of the Qur’an’s beauty seems to be. Kermani makes much of a book by the medieval scholar Thaʿlabi that tells the story of those who were so overcome by the Qur’an’s beauty that they died upon hearing it. Yet Islamic tradition also includes different accounts, such as that of Muhammad’s scribe Ibn Abi Sarh who, suspecting that Muhammad was making up revelations, left not only the Prophet’s service, but Islam as well. In the modern period, it is true that there are a growing number of converts to Islam who would eagerly attest to the Qur’an’s beauty (and perhaps attribute their conversions to it), but there are also growing numbers of ex-Muslims who are less impressed.
While the Qur’an is broadcast publicly on loudspeakers in Arabic-speaking cities such as Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo, many there (for example, Christians) have not been convinced that it is the word of God although they hear it over and over again. Kermani states that the listener of Mozart’s Requiem knows it is beautiful because he knows it is by Mozart. One might add that pious Muslims know the Qur’an is beautiful because they know it is the Qur’an.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is a professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.