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Paths to Peace – Religious tolerance in Persian and German literature

The Iranian visiting scholar  Dr. Rana Raeisi and the  Potsdam literary scholar adjunct Prof. Dr. Brunhilde Wehinger. Picture: Karla Fritze

The Iranian visiting scholar Dr. Rana Raeisi and the Potsdam literary scholar adjunct Prof. Dr. Brunhilde Wehinger. Picture: Karla Fritze

The path to other religions and cultures is inspiring, enriching – and yet has always been a very difficult one. In the name of religion, wars have waged for thousands of years. People are displaced, forced to hide their beliefs, or even killed for believing in the “wrong” God. But is there really a correct faith, the one God, the true religion? Why is it that living peacefully side by side, let alone the peaceful coexistence of the world’s major religions, appears so unattainable? German philologist Dr. Rana Raeisi of the University of Isfahan and adjunct Prof. Dr. Brunhilde Wehinger of the Institute for Arts and Media at the University of Potsdam are exploring together the concept of religious tolerance.

They discovered that the works of Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad  Rumi (1207–1273) and of German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) have a lot in common. In June 2014, Raeisi, a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholar, first met her Potsdam advisor Brunhilde Wehinger. They instantly hit it off and decided to undertake a joint book project.

For the two literary scholars, Rana Raeisi and Brunhilde Wehinger, tolerance is the key to the peaceful coexistence of people and religions. Their joint research project looks into the idea of tolerant coexistence in Rumi’s poems and Lessing’s dramas.

Rana Raeisi has made the long journey from Isfahan in Iran to Potsdam four times. As a German philologist she began to learn German 17 years ago and has been teaching German as a foreign language at Isfahan University since 2011. “German is very logical – like mathematics,” she says. “There are very concrete rules that, in a way, make learning the language easy.” Raeisi came to Potsdam for the first time in 2009 to work on her doctorate on a linguistic subject. In the summer of 2014 she returned to research religious tolerance – and Wehinger, her advisor during her three-month stay, was immediately on board with the plan.

Raeisi developed the idea to research the topic when reading Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. In its Ring Parable, the dramatist shows that the coexistence of three world religions need not be a problem and can be peaceful. Raeisi interprets the parable told by Lessing’s principal character Nathan as follows: “All religions are revelations of God. Who can say that their religion is the genuine one? Those who say so have to show it in their deeds. And how can they show it? By doing good things!”

Raeisi discovered that Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, who is not very well-known in Germany, had formulated this idea many centuries earlier in a very similar parable, the “Story of the Grape”: Four men with a gold coin want to buy something that pleases everyone. But they cannot understand each other since the first man speaks Greek, the second Persian, the third Arabic, and the fourth Turkish. They eventually get into a fight and start hitting each other. A fifth man who had overheard the conversation understood that each man had proposed spending the money on grapes. So the fifth man buys grapes for everyone and ends the dispute. Rumi commented: Knowledge can help prevent dispute, and enemies can become friends. “The differences between religions are like differences between languages – just formal ones. The meaning is the same.” Raeisi assumes that this parable, like Lessing’s, also applies to various religions.

Wehinger was quite excited about the links Raeisi had discovered between the two writers. They are now jointly writing a book about “Rumi and Lessing and the idea of tolerance – a comparison”. As an expert on Enlightenment literature, Wehinger is able to see that the messages of the Persian poet Rumi and the German Enlightenment figure Lessing have a lot in common. “Enlightenment means knowledge, access to other cultures, criticism, and, above all, communication.” These values connect these two seemingly different poets. Wehinger, too, is convinced: “If people were aware that it is just the language they do not understand, while the meaning is the same, a lot of fighting and violence could be avoided.”
At first glance, these two writers seem hardly comparable: They lived in different epochs – Rumi in the 13th century, Lessing in the 18th– and came from different cultural backgrounds. What they have in common, however, is an interest in travel and the search for a kindred spirit. Born in Saxony, Lessing moved to Berlin and befriended Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn; he later worked at Hamburg’s National Theatre, and he died in Brunswick. Rumi was born in Balch, in present-day Afghanistan, one of the cradles of Persian culture and literature during the Middle Ages. Together with his murshid, a Sufic spiritual guide, he travelled to Aleppo and Damascus, present-day Syrian cities. In Konya, Turkey he met his dear friend Shams Tabrizi with whom he shared a deep spiritual connection.

And the religious backgrounds of the two poets seem to be just as different: Rumi is considered one of the founders of Sufism – an order of Islam known for its asceticism and mystical spirituality; Lessing came from a devout Christian family. “Both poets grew up in families with very strong theological convictions, and both turned away from the orthodoxy of their fathers,” the two researchers discovered.
The Mevlevi order, one of the best-known Sufi orders, traces back to Rumi. Its followers are called dervishes, and they whirl for hours until ecstasy kicks in; for them, dancing is a form of prayer. So Rumi dedicated himself to dancing and music – artistic practices held in low esteem in Persia at that time. Lessing did something similar with regard to the theater: His family did not approve of him writing plays. “Such forms of expression were not part of the religious tradition,” Wehinger explains. Music, dance, and theater were too emotionally charged in the eyes of the orthodox fathers. Both writers expressed themselves poetically. “Lessing was a sharp, critical, and argumentative person who sought out discussion,” Wehinger explains. Rumi’s “humanitarian, enlightened personality” expressed itself in his mystical love-poetry and dance.

When reading the works of the two poets together, the researchers are surprised time and again by the degree to which their ideas overlap. The grape in Rumi’s story and the ring in Lessing’s symbolize religious tolerance and general interpersonal tolerance. “Knowledge, education, and humor are the prerequisites for peaceful coexistence. These values were cherished by both poets,” Raeisi comments.

“At the University of Potsdam, Enlightenment research plays a major role, and the history of our region obliges us to do so,” Wehinger states. After all, in his 1685 Edict of Potsdam, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, granted asylum to the Huguenots who had been persecuted in France for their Protestant beliefs. Frederick the Great brought this religious tolerance into the 18th century and nearby Berlin became a center of Enlightenment in Europe.

The two researchers agree on the objectives of their joint effort. “With our research project we want to make the modernity of the Persian poet better known in Germany and increase attention for Lessing’s reasoning and the importance of the theater in 18th-century Iran.” The project is very dear to their hearts. “I am a religious person,” Raeisi says with a smile. “But I rank humanity higher than religion.”

The Researchers

Adjunct Prof. Dr. Brunhilde Wehinger has been teaching at the Department of General and Comparative Literature as well as Cultural Studies with a focus on European Enlightenment at the Institute for Arts and Media at Potsdam University since 2008. Between 2004 and 2007 she served as Deputy Director of the Research Center for European Enlightenment in Potsdam.


Institut für Künste und Medien
Am Neuen Palais 10
14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: wehingeruni-potsdamde

Dr. Rana Raeisi is an Assistant Professor for German as a Foreign Language at the University of Isfahan, Iran. She studied German Language and Literature at the University of Tehran, where she earned her doctoral degree with a thesis on “Contrastive Grammar. German-Persian from the point of view of linguistic typology.”


E-Mail: r.raeisifgn.ui.acir

Text: Jana Scholz
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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