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The Terror of God: Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 4, Autumn 2012
pp. 494-497 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0055

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Terror of God: Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt by Navid Kermani, 2011. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, xiii + 266 pp., £55.00 (hbk). ISBN: 978-0-7456-4562-1.

The Terror of God is a masterful work on 'Attar's Musibatnamih (The Book of Suffering). Recently translated from its original German (Der Schrecken Gottes, Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, München, 2005), it is one of the few extensive works on the poet Farid al-Din 'Attar of Nishapur, after Helmut Ritter's 1955 Das Meer Der Seele. The author, Navid Kermani, terms the Musibatnamih 'Attar's most grim and forbidding text, and probably one of the darkest works in the whole of world literature' (32). The subject is fascinating, controversial and fertile: it is a journey into the history and philosophy of theodicy as developed by Islam and the other Abrahamic traditions in conversation with each other through 'Attar's poem; Kermani's own experiences; the biblical narrative about Job; and glimpses of Eastern and Western thought, art, and literature. The book is embellished by geometric Kufic calligraphy (known in Persian as khatt-i banna') by Karl Schlamminger preceding every chapter, each piece representing one of the 'names of God' connected with the subject of the chapter.

The Terror of God is an academic book sui generis. Academic because of its methodological rigour, its accurate philological stance and the competency used to approach the subject. Sui generis because the approach is highly self-reflective, but not the way, for example, post 1970s anthropology is self-reflective. It is self-reflective because the atonement vis à vis the existence of suffering, injustice, and evil in the world - which is the theme of the Musibatnamih - is inevitably approached by the author through pondering his own experience. A declaration of belief opens the book and provides it with an overall colouring, which is strange in an academic work, but does not reduce its academic stature. The reader is warned that the one who is writing is a believer who has retained the religion inherited from his parents because it prevents him 'from standing still' (2). [End Page 494]

Chapter 1 ('Job's Question') begins with personal recollections to set the background and highlight the major problems of theodicy. Characters from Kermani's family are vividly portrayed, and their simple yet articulated faith is offered as a specimen and as a paragon stone. The author dwells in particular on Aunt Lobat, a pious relative whose faith was terribly shaken by a debilitating illness. The episode serves as a starting point for the author's discourse, and will come full circle only at the end of the book.

Aunt Lobat's dreadful experience serves to pose the fundamental question, central in the flow of the book: how is it possible to reconcile the divine attributes of love, justice, and omnipotence as recognised by monotheistic religions? In Islam, the author says, these attributes assume an even more absolute meaning, as the Qur'an sees in the world a perfect manifestation of the Creator's mercy (14). The fundamental problem of the existence of evil and suffering in the light of an omnipotent God, a problem shared by all monotheisms, is tackled at the outset: 'The logical objection that God, in His omnipotence, could easily have spared humans their suffering by creating them without a predisposition towards evil, is opposed by verses in both the Bible and the Koran that present suffering as God-willed' (15). The same chapter then briefly introduces Farid al-Din -'Attar's life and work - his living away from the somehow fashionable contemporary Sufi scene and his fate in the constellation of Persian poetry, and his becoming a sort of legend, the like of the legends he himself had written about in his Tadhkirat al-Awliya'.

Chapter 2 ('The Book of Suffering') presents 'Attar's Musibatnamih, going through a summary of the story, interpolated with the translation of relevant pieces. But the journey through the text is unfolded by the author's connections with modern philosophical and theological thought as well as with Western literature: Pascal, first of all, but also Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Büchner...