God is Beautiful

The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran

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Navid Kermani
Translator(s): 
Tony Crawford
  • Malden, MA: 
    Polity Press
    , February
     2015.
     400 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780745651675.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has been reviewed in JAAR by Todd Lawson. 

The aesthetics of the Quran is a growing and vibrant area of study, and God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Quran by Navid Kermani is an essential addition to this field. Originally published in German in 1999, the book makes the case for a new hermeneutical approach that focuses on the aesthetic dimension of the Quran. Kermani’s argument is that once we turn our attention to its recipients, the aesthetic experience of the Quran outweighs its linguistic meaning. While Western scholarship, rooted in philological studies, has focused predominantly on the semantic origins of the Muslim sacred text, Muslim thinkers across disciplines and history have all emphasized the sensory experience created by the Quran. Kermani demonstrates that the notion of the Quran’s beauty, and the power that it had over its listeners (including its opponents), is a prevalent trope in several Muslim traditions. Furthermore, he suggests that the aesthetic experience of the Quran has been a reality for its followers from the beginning—even prior to the development of the 9th century doctrine of iʿjāz (the inimitability of the Quran as Muhammad’s only miracle). Drawing on Jan Assmann’s concept of “cultural memory”, Kermani traces elements leading to the concept of iʿjāz back to the Quran’s taḥaddi verses, challenging its opponents to produce a work as eloquent or as stylistically sophisticated. 

Kermani belongs to a group of Quranic scholars who maintain that “salvation history” is a history worth examining, as it not only provides insight into the development of the Muslim community, but it also draws our attention to different facets of the Quranic corpus. To Kermani, the aesthetic dimension of the Quran can and should be phenomenologically observed—irrespective of the value judgment placed on the Muslim concept of iʿjāz. While the book argues for the “objective” value of the receptive experience of the Quran, it emphasizes the subjectivity of Western thought. God is Beautiful challenges our paradigmatic categories, namely the category of scripture—which implies a fixed text—as a dominant cross-cultural tool of analysis. Kermani insists the Quran is not necessarily the categorical equivalent of the New Testament or even the Hebrew Bible. Theologically, the Quran is better understood alongside other concepts, such as the Christological notion of the Logos; just as Jesus is the Word of God become flesh, the Quran is the Word of God become speech (168). Furthermore, Kermani problematizes our tendency to separate aesthetics, which includes artistic expression and experience, from content or ideology, thereby limiting and even distorting our understanding of the Quran. 

What is most impressive about Kermani’s writing is the way in which he skillfully navigates between the emic and the etic without collapsing one onto the other. This book gathers an incredibly broad range of discourse, including concepts found in traditional and contemporary Muslim accounts, theories articulated by Czech structuralists, and even references to classical and pop music. This interweaving of “insider” and “outsider” concepts from across genres accomplishes what is best noted by Jonathan Z. Smith—with regard to the study of religion—in his book Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press,1988): it makes familiar what is foreign or unintelligible. For example, Kermani’s description of the prophet Muhammad from the sīra traditions is placed alongside his discussion of the concept of the “artist-genius” taken from 18th century Romantic German philosophy. He also likens the oral and performative aspects of the Quran to an aria “created for the music hall” (155). Still, God is Beautiful is careful to not compromise the Muslim position regarding its sacred text, such as the insistence that the Quran is not poetry. While the Quran makes this claim, it demonstrates what Kermani refers to as “poeticity,” which makes its receptive experience possible and serves as a useful hermeneutical framework for the study of the Quran’s style and structure. Kermani argues that when we consider the treatment of the concept of shi‘r (typically translated as poetry) by the Quran and later Muslim traditions, we find that “the Quran is not poetry, because it is more, and more exquisite, than poetry” (76).

The book’s attempt to capture and organize the Muslim experience of the Quran is not without its limitations. Kermani’s overarching thesis, which privileges the sensory experience of the Quran over content, is at times overstated and begs the question: which groups of Muslims are excluded from this paradigm? Does the author’s emphasis on the performative and the oral/auditory experience of the Quran hold true for all Muslims, or does it exclude non-normative Muslim groups? For example, God is Beautiful does not consider the experience of non-Arab Muslims, which the author fully acknowledges, but also does not account for women who may not always have the luxury of attending public recitations—or Deaf Muslims, whose experience with the Quran is not defined through sound. However, considering the broad scope and breadth of Kermani’s book, such specifics cannot be fully attended to, and certain generalizations become inevitable. God is Beautiful offers a robust discussion through which one can explore other aesthetic features of the Quran and while the book is quite long, Kermani’s writing is extremely engaging. The six chapters are divided into sections that can easily be assigned as individual essays to graduate and undergraduate students, making God is Beautiful a brilliant book, sure to entertain general readers and prove useful to scholars of the Quran as well as other religion scholars interested in the aesthetic dimension of religious texts. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Halla Attallah is a doctoral student in Theological and Religious Studies at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Navid Kermani is a writer and Islamic scholar who lives in Cologne, Germany. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his literary and academic work, the most recent being the Buber-Rosenzweig Medal in 2011.

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