G.E. Lessing’s View of a New Islam

18th Century German thinker’s approval of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian’s work

by Dr. Peter Wilmer (Department of German studies, University of British Columbia, Canada)

The Light & Islamic Review (US), May/June 1992 Issue (Vol. 69, No. 3, pp. 8–10)

Editor’s Note: This article, received recently for ‘The Light’, is by coincidence timely for inclusion in this issue which commemorates the life of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The author has recently translated into German Maulana Muhammad Ali’s ‘English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Quran’, to be published shortly.

History of the False Image of Islam in the West:

Over the centuries, a great many different images have been associated with the word Islam in the West. Throughout the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century, the idea of ravaging Muslim hordes predominated in the imagination of Europeans; in medieval epics such as the German Rolandslied, the followers of Islam were viewed as heathens and put in the same category as the Huns — savage conquerors that only sought to destroy Western civilization and subjugate French, Italians and Germans alike under a tyrannical rule. Tales of horror depicting the slaughter of innocent women and children were widespread. As the West felt less threatened by the advance of Islam, its view of the Muslim world changed as well; the tales of atrocity were replaced by the romantic images of the Arabian Nights. The peoples of Islamic lands became more or less second-class citizens in the eyes of an imperialistic Europe. Today, the medieval myths have been replaced with the larger-than-life figures of Ayatolla Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and of Middle East terrorists.

Lessing’s Comparative Study of Monotheistic Faiths:

Such views are unmistakably subjective and hardly touch the surface of Islam; thus, the true nature of the religion remained hidden for many centuries until a certain Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, appeared in what is now Pakistan [sic: India] a century and a half ago. I wish to comment on the achievements of this remarkable man in a somewhat extraordinary fashion, by referring to the ideas of the leading figure of the German Enlightenment, G. E. Lessing (d. 1781). Lessing held remarkably tolerant views on monotheistic religions other than Christianity and often criticized the Lutheran Orthodoxy for its intolerance. However, his idea of Islam also suffered from the many misconceptions that prevailed in his time, eighteenth century Europe, something that is best illustrated in his Defence of Cardanus. Cardanus was a medieval monk who undertook an extensive comparison of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and was reprimanded for doing so. In his defence, Lessing severely criticizes this reprimand, since a Christian would have nothing to lose from such a comparison, whereas a Muslim or Jew could gain “an infinite amount” from it, i.e., they might be prompted to exchange their faith for “a better one”.

The question one must ask oneself is: “what deficiency did Mr. Lessing see in Islam?” A study of his other works on religion would indicate that he perceived the following imperfections:

  1. It was spread with the sword; people were forced to accept it.
  2. Limited tolerance towards other religions.
  3. Too little emphasis on love of neighbour.
  4. Too many temporal doctrines (e.g., punishment of adultery, descriptions of paradise).

To many enlightened Europeans at that time, this was indeed the state of affairs in Islam; a distorted view of the religion continued to prevail.

Hazrat Mirza presents True Islam:

It was only through Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad that the Western world, and to some extent the Muslim world as well, obtained a true picture of Islam. Had he lived another hundred years, Mr. Lessing would have seen that the true Islam permits the sword only for the purposes of self-defence; he would also have learned that Islam teaches that there is no compulsion in religion. Mr. Lessing would have found that the Prophet Muhammad openly practised charity towards all people, and that he encouraged his followers to do the same, and that the severe types of punishment, as in the case of adultery, are not enjoined by the Holy Quran at all. Finally, Mr. Lessing would have realized that the Holy Quran is much more metaphysical and metaphoric than many Muslims themselves realize, and he would have been especially happy to perceive that a true jihad is to be waged with the Holy Quran rather than the sword.

Restoring Divine Teachings of Religion:

To fully understand G. E. Lessing’s response to such a “new” Islam, we must first gain some insight into his view of perfection within religion. His many battles with the Lutheran orthodoxy of the time strongly indicate that the ideal religion emphasizes only those teachings which are truly of divine origin; Lessing, who believed in a merciful God, could not possibly accept that the stoning of adulteresses was of divine origin, and thus could never be considered an integral part of any “positive” religion. He would thus have seen Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s work as one of liberation: freeing the Islamic religion from the bondage of teachings that were of human origin — admirable work indeed.

Islam’s Teaching on Love and Forgiveness Stressed:

Central to Lessing’s interpretation of perfection within religion is the teaching of brotherly love, which is tied directly to the belief in a merciful, loving God. To him, the measure of religious excellence is precisely the degree of emphasis love of neighbour receives, and upon reading Maulana Muhammad Ali’s annotated translation of the Holy Quran, which I have had the pleasure of translating into German, he would have been pleased with the emphasis on alms-giving, the liberation of slaves, forgiveness of transgressions as an alternative to vengeance, as well as on tolerance, which Lessing considers one of the highest forms of love of neighbour. Mr. Lessing’s opinion of the work of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad would certainly be similar to that of many critics today: he too would consider him to be a much-needed reformer, an individual who wishes to dispel the many fallacies that surround Islam, and who seeks to present the truth of the religion, not only to those uninitiated, but also to his own brethren.

Hazrat Mirza not an Ordinary Reformer:

But we need not limit Mr. Lessing’s praise of Hazrat Mirza’s achievement to the praise due to any reformer. If we consider the former’s view of the actual function of religion in any given society, in the world as a whole, we shall see that Hazrat Mirza’s accomplishments exceed those of any “ordinary” reformer. According to G. E. Lessing, it is the task of religion to bridge the gaps that exist between individuals, between groups, between nations, so as to lay the foundation towards peace and harmony for all of mankind. In his great drama, Nathan the Wise, he envisions such a harmony. The main characters of the work are representatives of the three, as he refers to them, “positive” religions, of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, who overcome all inbred prejudices against one another to form a genuinely human family in the true sense of the word. Through his work of reforming Islam, of uncovering and abolishing false teachings, and through a true jihad fought with words rather than weapons of war, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad has been able to bring the real teachings of Islam to the Western world, to dispel a great many of the myths that have distorted communication between the Islamic world and Europe and America. Failure to understand the truth about Islam had led directly to intolerance, to a predominantly negative attitude towards anything associated with it. It has caused many Christians to forsake the love of neighbour which is such an integral part of their own faith. Thus, in addition to revealing undistorted Muslim teachings to the world, Hazrat Mirza has paved the way towards peace between Orient and Occident. Needless to say, our friend G. E. Lessing would have smiled, had he known of Hazrat Mirza, and he would have been pleased to note that many followers of the man of Qadian, notably Maulana Muhammad Ali, have carried on this great work.

Hazrat Mirza’s contribution to Survival of Faith:

In conclusion, the importance of creating a better understanding between Muslims and Christians would have more far-reaching consequences than the establishment of a permanent peace between these two great religions; the clarification of the teachings of Islam would enable more people to accept that faith as their own personal faith; however, what is vastly more significant is presenting a united front against the forces of evil that are threatening the world today. These manifest themselves in the form of materialism, corruption of moral values, selfishness, lack of respect for human life, and many others. In past centuries, vast amounts of energy had been expended by Christians and Muslims in combatting one another; in our present day and age, the same amounts of energy must be expended in opposing the forces that threaten the existence of any believing people, for we are under attack this very moment. Thus, while heartily agreeing with all of Mr. Lessing’s praise of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, I wish to add that perhaps this gentleman has contributed vastly in the battle for the survival of all faiths that celebrate the existence of the one true God; that indeed is a great accomplishment.