The Terror of God
- It is an exercise in comparative literary history, drawing out a neglected strand in the literature of monotheism, East and West: the figure who, without abandoning religious belief, hurls insults and challenges at a God who seems to be characterised by nothing but malice, incompetence and wild impulsiveness. Jewish and Christian sources are not neglected, but Kermani spends more than 100 pages discussing the 13th-century Persian poet Faridoddin Attar of Nishapur, who specialised in elaborate stories-within-stories combining Muslim piety with ferocious anger against God. Kermani will not convince every reader that Attar is a shining star of world literature, but he makes a good case for seeing him as a master-craftsman in a long tradition of dissing God, or what he calls “counter-theology”.
Attar was of course drawing on patterns he would have known, directly or indirectly, from the Hebrew Bible: not only the furious character of Job, but also Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah and the poet of the Psalms – all of whom were inclined to haggle with their maker like a shyster in the souk. Christianity, on the other hand, has its origins in a blaze of optimism, and Christians have always been reluctant to hold their God responsible for evil; but they too had begun to take up the counter-theological tradition by the 14th century, when – according to Kermani at least – the achievements of Attar and other Islamic poets started to seep into Europe through Spain and Italy, leaving their mark on European literature as a whole, most notably in the darker passages of Petrarch, Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare.
For the past 200 years, mainstream Western thinkers have liked to think of themselves as bold explorers, venturing deep into a god-forsaken wasteland whose existence was not even suspected before the dawn of European modernity. But if Kermani is right, their themes are far from new. When Stendhal said that “God’s only excuse is that he does not exist,” he was only continuing a tradition of angry piety handed down from the Hebrew Bible and medieval Islamic poetry. And the same applies to Heinrich Heine, who returned to religion during his terrible final illness in order to indulge in the pleasures of blasphemy. The vehement atheisms of many other heroes of modernism – of Nietzsche, Mahler and Kafka, or Adorno, Bloch, Beckett, Camus and Sartre – also have their roots, if Kermani is right, in the ancient soil of counter-theology. Kermani will not win the consent of all his readers – he is too wayward and unusual a thinker to seek it – but it is impossible not to admire his range, his energy and his boundless intellectual generosity and inventiveness.