Navid Kermani’s new book: Conversations about God

WHow do you talk about something that eludes language? Navid Kermani has now written a book about what God means to him as a devout Muslim, and he repeats nothing in it more than that God cannot be put into words. Most books dealing with religion try to get out of this contradiction by dealing with other books, i.e. with ideas, customs, values, historical developments. Kermani didn’t want that. For him it would be like that, he writes right at the beginning, as if you were describing a person’s clothing, but not the person themselves.

Instead, his book is designed as a conversation with his twelve-year-old daughter in order to fulfill a promise he had made to his father shortly before his death: to teach the granddaughter “Islam when it’s gone, our Islam, Islam, with which I grew up, the Islam that he too had experienced as a child in Isfahan, the Islam of our ancestors”. So now, while the daughter is at school, her writer-father writes down every evening what he wants to tell her about his faith in the evening, and the next day he takes up her numerous objections as he moves on to a new chapter. It’s not just a narrative tweak to make the austere subject more accessible. This form belongs directly to the content, as Kermani understands it, to the paradox of speaking about something unspeakable.

Like you smell an apple

Strictly speaking, Kermani tells his daughter, grandpa didn’t believe in God at all. “He saw God, he understood God, really, like you grasp something with your hands, he smelled God, like you see an apple, grasp it, smell it.” How can you pass on such an experience otherwise than within the Family that grandpa knows with all his peculiarities? In this book, Kermani manages to make us readers part of this family and get to know Grandpa before we even become familiar with what he has seen.

Such a centuries-old tradition-perpetuating conversation between generations about common human experiences, however, is by no means common practice; It has long since been replaced by discussions about abstract principles, about rules and values. But in the Navid Kermanis family, whose parents came to Germany from Iran in 1959, this kind of tradition seems to have remained present at least as a memory, as a possibility. The special thing about his book is that the family tradition goes together with the familiarity with other traditions that he has as a German citizen, and with all sorts of knowledge and scruples that a contemporary can only have.

Navid Kermani: “Everyone should come a step closer from where they are.  questions about God”.  Hanser Verlag, 240 pages, 22 euros.


Navid Kermani: “Everyone should come a step closer from where they are. questions about God”. Hanser Verlag, 240 pages, 22 euros.
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Image: Hanser Verlag

So he comes to the astonishing conclusion: “Yes, I am a Muslim because I was born in a Muslim home. But I became a Muslim because God can be found in every other house.” He sings the praises of the diversity of the individual traditions (a “result of swarm intelligence” that embeds divine truth in everyday human life) and at the same time notes that that the underlying experience is amazingly similar. It is the wonder of the mystics and poets of all religions who saw themselves “surrounded by infinity” in everything they encountered in life.

The usher said it all

This is also reflected in the somewhat enigmatic title of the book. It comes from an incident in the eleventh century, when the famous Islamic mystic Sheikh Abu Said came to Tuz and the usher, faced with the overcrowded mosque, shouted: “Everyone should come a step closer from where they are.” left again, with the explanation: “Everything I wanted to say and all the prophets have said, the usher has already said.” Kermani, for his part, describes the best possible effect of his book that Christian, Jewish or Buddhist readers reflect on their own tradition , in which you could find the essence of what he represents, accompanied by numerous quotations from the Koran.

This should not be confused with enthusiasm or arbitrariness. The book itself is an example of the rigor, curiosity, and patience that Kermani expects from believers. It doesn’t stop at poetry, even if beauty is a serious argument for this author; it does not evade the skeptical questions raised by the history of religions and Islamism in particular. But he also insists that the scriptures themselves raise the crucial questions.

And the daughter? Her criticism and reservations about her father’s poetic exuberance are only indirectly apparent. In the end it is said that she is not convinced: “Who or what God is,” she still does not understand. All that remains for her father is to hope for her own experiences. No less than his explanations, the daughter’s doubts are part of the reality that this intelligent, thoughtful and warm-hearted book describes.

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