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

Reviewed by:
  • Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity by Navid Kermani
  • Florian Hild (bio)
Navid Kermani (trans. Tony Crawford), Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity (Polity, 2017), 272 pp.


Navid Kermani contains multitudes: born in Germany to Iranian parents, he is a practicing Muslim who is at home with Goethe and Hannah Arendt just as much as in reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Cologne’s football stadium. Stephen Greenblatt called Kermani “one of the greatest Muslim writers and thinkers in the Western world.” He is a novelist, an orator, a thoughtful commentator on current events, and one of the rare voices that speaks with love and erudition about the Middle East and the West. Just as Goethe turned outward to write the West-Eastern Diwan from 1814–19 when all of Europe turned inward, Kermani seeks and lives the exchange between Orient and Occident at a time when Western authors give lip service to “intercultural dialogue” but often lack knowledge of the East and sometimes even of ourselves. “Shapeless fogs don’t encounter each other,” Hermann Hesse said, and Kermani gives shape and substance to both Islam and Christianity in his recently translated book, Wonder Beyond Belief.

In this beautiful book (whose German title Ungläubiges Staunen literally means “wonder without belief and which Kermani originally wanted to call My Own Christianity), a fictionalized Kermani, assisted by an equally artful Catholic friend, makes his idiosyncratic way through Christianity by meditating on 40 works of Christian art. In these three- to 17-page essays, ranging from the first known depiction of the Madonna to a screenshot of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped and probably executed by ISIS in 2013, Kermani engages with the Christian faith in an irreverently pious and affectionately skeptical way. As it meandered leisurely past sculptures of an ugly Jesus, ancient mosaics, churches, Da Vinci, Gerhard Richter, Albrecht Dürer, and many more beautifully reproduced works of art, Wonder Beyond Belief taught me more about Christianity and Islam than seems possible in such a deceptively light and breezy read. The book invites [End Page 684] jumping around, re-reading, comparing, and meditating on the many literary and theological gems Kermani offers to readers.

After I read Wonder Beyond Belief and took the liberty of asking Mr. Kermani which essays he’d like to see translated into English first, I suggested a striking one about a crucifix. His response was: “No, not ‘Cross,’ please.” This aversion to sensationalizing his work or himself seems typical: Kermani resists categorization, avoids talk shows, and prefers to give long radio interviews instead; a prostrated Muslim under a cross was not the first impression he wanted to give an American audience. He suggested “Love II” instead: a meditation on El Greco’s Christ Bids Farewell to His Mother. “I thought I saw two lovers, or, to be precise, two who love each other not like mother and son,” he writes. Mary as the archetypal mother is venerated in Kermani’s Islam, and many chapters in Wonder Beyond Belief deal with maternal love. In “Love II,” though, Mary looks too young to be a mother and Christ does not look like a son. “Only someone who knows she is entirely safe with her lover looks with such self-abandonment. And indeed he looks at her with eyes that simultaneously covet and protect. This is less a savior than someone who himself was saved by love.” Kermani then describes the contradictory nature of the painting’s title and its apparent content. At one point in “Love II” he writes that “as an outsider, that seems a bit strange to me,” referring to the inconsistency of the farewell motif and the biblical account of Jesus’s last days. It is precisely his outsider’s perspective, the incredulous awe he feels when contemplating Christianity through the lens of art, that gives Kermani’s book the refreshing and stimulating power which leaps off every page. The naïve and curious narrator of Wonder Beyond Belief can wonder where an insider can’t. He ends “Love II” by wondering about El Greco’s wonder regarding the mother and her divine son: “Is it not bewildering that the very two human...