Category: Non-fiction

Stefan Weidner
Mohammedanische Versuchungen
[Mohammedan Temptations]

Review

It is difficult to describe Stefan Weidner’s book because it doesn’t fit into any of the usual genres. It includes a bit of pretty much everything as well as being a highly subjective book about culture and religion – but a book in which subjectivity is underpinned by and based on a profound knowledge of that cultural and religious terrain that is in the West so often grossly oversimplified and called the „Arab world“.

Weidner shares with the reader the research into Islamic worlds that he began as a seventeen-year-old when he back-packed to Algeria and Tunisia before turning it into his career in a variety of ways later on. Highly respected as an Arab Studies expert and translator in large swathes of the Arab world, he uses all sorts of different literary forms in his „narrative essay“ as he himself calls it. Weidner manages to find the perfect narrative form for all the diverse material, scenes, situations and atmospheres that he describes. He crafts each narrative form individually, perfectly matching each one to its particular content. Thus for example his tone is intially sober when he recounts a visit to the „Dead Cities“ of Syria, describing the „Stylites“ or „pillar-hermits“, an early Christian sect who spent their lives squatting ascetically atop high pillars. But then the text starts to gain in intensity; he switches to the present tense, and the thoughts and furious preachings of Saint Simeon hit the reader with their full force, just as if the narrator had witnessed them in person.

The central theme of the book isn’t the West’s relationship with the Islamic world, but the nature of religion per se and how these two cultures, so very different from one another, deal with their own and other religions. Aware that knowledge of Islam in the western world lacks both depth and subtlety, Weidner takes his readers by the hand and allows them relive the crucial moments of his own discovery of Islam. Thus the author himself is the link between these five „chapters“, so different from one another where location, form and time are concerned. The book begins and ends with two shorter sections detailing Weidner’s first intensive encounter with the Koran. The seventeen-year-old Weidner bought the text in a bilingual edition at the end of the aforementioned journey despite financial concerns. After initial difficulties, it fascinated him to such an extent that the religious texts didn’t just offer him spiritual grounding during the stormy sea voyage to Europe but also opened up the possibility of an alternative to his own country which he can now see in a more detached and critical light.

The three central chapters cite locations in Algeria, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt where Stefan Weidner is mostly invited to lectures. He recounts conversations, discussions and even disputes about historical and current topics, and depicts some ambivalent and provocative characters: there’s the Lebanese dancer Ariane, who was sent to Germany as a child and would now like to dance the Koran according to the rules of eurythmics; or the Syrian economist who studied in Cologne and plunges the Germans into a whirl of contradictory ethical debates with his saying that „work makes life sweet“. And then, not least, there’s the representative of a fundamentalist form of Islam, himself open to change, who bases his belief in the superiority of his religion upon, among other things, the fact that it doesn’t think in years as the West does, but in centuries.

Weidner’s theoretical reflections are presented to the reader in the form of lectures that always start off with a formulaic introduction and end with public discussion. These essay-like texts form the theoretical core of the book; this is where the expert Weidner develops questions on various diverse topics.

So for example he uses one of these lectures to take issue with Samuel Huntington’s work on the clash of cultures. In the same lecture he uses an analogy from the world of computers to develop an image of Islam as „hardware“ (as a matrix to which the world has to adapt) or as „software“ which for its part can be made to adapt to actual events. Crucial so far as the co-existence of all the cultures and religions on earth is concerned is the question of which version of Islam (and other religions, too) will ultimately become generally accepted.

In a further lecture he looks into the possibility of deconstructing religious texts using modern methods of discourse analysis, and points out the dangers of devaluing them thus.

Finally, he addresses an audience of students at Al Azhar University in Cairo on the contradictory notions of reality harboured by western and Islamic cultures. To do so, he analyses a saying of the „Grand Master of Arab Mysticism“, Ibn Arabi: „the possible has its own taste within the realm of existence.“ He links his commentary and reflections on this saying to the question of „what is reality?“ – and this enables him to return to Huntington’s theses.

Weidner’s book is extraordinarily explosive where he recounts discussions – whether they be fictive or drawn from actual experience – using his own western and a foreign Islamic voice. The discussion with the Islamic Theology students that concludes his lecture breaks a taboo because they reject the idolisation of Mohammed. They want to turn Mohammed back into a mortal by demanding a Hollywood film be made about his life – something that would contravene the ban on the making of images. This, they said, would mean that the Koran alone would be the Word of God and would thus be completely valid, while large parts of Islamic law would be shown to be created by humans and would thus lose their infallible status. In this view, Muslims could then become true Muslims once again, rather than being „Mahommedans“.

With his book „Mohammedan Temptations“, Weidner has pulled off a coup on multiple fronts. For one thing, he shares with the reader his personal experiences and reflections vis-á-vis his exploration of religion and mysticism in general and Islam in particular. At the same time his knowledgeable and multi-layered accounts offer an introduction both into the structure of the Koran and to the various fundamental issues currently under discussion in the Arab world. By using a narrative style shot through with subjectivity, he ultimately affords us an insight into the state of his generation and their sometimes unresolved-seeming relationship with their own country.

Weidner’s book is bound to provoke heated discussion in the West and Arab countries alike. And – so one would hope – it will contribute to a better mutual understanding between cultures.
Heike Friesel

By Heike Friesel, 19.09.2005

Translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby