God Is Beautiful The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an By Navid Kermani, Trans. Tony Crawford (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015. 400 pages.)

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Devin Stewart



God is Beautiful is the English translation of a work originally submitted as a
doctoral dissertation in Islamic studies at the University of Bonn in 1997 and
published as Gott ist Schön: Das ästhetische Erlebung des Koran in 1999.
Four printings since then attest to its popularity, which stems from its handling
of a fascinating topic – Muslims’ experience of the Qur’an. This subject has
been largely ignored in western scholarship, notable exceptions being art historical
investigations of Qur’anic calligraphy and Kristina Nelson’s work on
Qur’anic recitation. Rather than attempting a historical, linguistic, or grammatical
analysis of the Qur’an, Kermani here engages in reader-response criticism
to explain how the Qur’an both affected and continues to affect Muslim
readers. This work presents itself as an alternative path to the Orientalists’ negative assessments of the Qur’an as an aesthetic text, which implied that
Muslims’ claims about its beauty were simply the results of bias, devotion,
blind adherence to tradition, and imperfect understanding. Kermani divides
the discussion into six chapters, each of which investigates the topic from a
different angle.
Chapter 1, “The First Listeners,” discusses accounts of early reception of
the Qur’an, stressing that from the very beginning its appeal was its linguistic
beauty as much as the content of its message. He examines, among many others,
the famous example Umar ibn al-Khattab’s conversion after he heard the
beginning of Sūrat Ṭāhā (Q. 20) and was enraptured by its beauty and eloquence.
The aesthetic experience of the Islamic message was thus inseparable
from its theological or religious aspects. Chapter 6, “The Sufi Listeners,”
makes a similar point by focusing on the reception of the Quran in mystical
circles and especially on accounts of qatlā al-Qur’ān, figures who, upon hearing
certain verses, were so affected emotionally that they died on the spot.
Through its linguistic form, the Qur’an has a visceral effect on the hearer that
cannot be reduced to the mental reception of doctrine ...

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