Goethe and Iqbal

For those of you who are looking for ways to mix up your history or literature surveys and expand students’ horizons beyond what remains the “usual fare” in many places, here are two different works that speak to each other across a century and can prompt your students to think about the interchanges between European and Asian culture in 1819 and in 1924–borrowings, appropriations, exoticism, cooperation, re-appropriation, colonialism, nationalism and decolonization, and so on.

The first is the famous German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous Western-Eastern Diwan (1819), and the second, written as a response to it, is the legendary Punjab author, lawyer, politician, and scholar Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s  Payam-e-Mashriq [A Message from the East], published in 1924. Iqbal’s preface contains fascinating analysis of where the world was in 1924, and how and why his work responds to and comments on European interest in Asian literature (what we would refer to today as “Orientalizing,” and which was referred to at the time as the “Oriental movement”).

Iqbal is widely regarded as the “spiritual father of Pakistan,” and his writings in Urdu and Persian have been widely translated. His comments here on the purpose of Payam-e-Mashriq, and what the world looked like in 1924 from what was then British India, are worth quoting in part (it is several pages long):

I need not say much about A Message from  the East, which has been written a hundred-odd years after  the West-Oestlicher Divan. My readers will by themselves appreciate that the  main  purpose  underlying it  is  to  bring  out  moral, religious and social truths bearing on  the  inner  development  of  individuals and  nations.  There is  undoubtedly  some  resemblance  between  Germany  as  it  was  a hundred years ago and today’s East. The truth,  however,  is  that  the  internal  unrest  of  the  world’s  nations,  which  we  cannot  assess  properly because of being ourselves affected  by it, is the fore-runner of a great spiritual and  cultural revolution. Europe’s Great War was a  catastrophe  which  destroyed  the  old  world  order in almost every respect, and now out of  the ashes of civilization and culture Nature is  building up in the depths of life a new Adam  and a new world for him to live in, of which  we get a faint sketch in the writings of Einstein  and Bergson. Europe has seen with its own  eyes  the  horrible  consequences  of  its  intellectual, moral and economic objectives and  has  also  heard  from  Signor  Nitti  (a  former  prime minister of Italy) the heartrending story  of the West’s decline. It is, however, a pity that  Europe’s  perspicacious,  but  conservative,  statesmen  have  failed  to  make  a  proper  assessment of that wonderful revolution which  is now taking place in the human mind.