For the Mystics


Visions of the Hereafter, Hieronymus Bosch, 1490 – 1515

by Steven Felicelli

Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity,
by Navid Kermani. Translated by Tony Crawford,
Polity Press. 272 pp.

Those who see only a rigid dichotomy of fiction and reality fail to recognize the significance of even the most subjective and improbable testimonies of faith…
—from Navid Kermani’s God is Beautiful

With the penetrating eye of Roland Barthes, bursting heart of a love-drunk Rumi and ironic conscience of Günter Grass, Navid Kermani, a Muslim scholar and German novelist, appraises the iconic history of Christianity. The exegetic essays of Wonder Beyond Belief are more psalms than scholarship and they strike an ardent, yet impartial tone rarely registered in this invidious epoch of human history.

While conservatives keep their distance and liberals approach on eggshells, Kermani throws his arms around the Other, at once embracing and wrestling angels who (irrespective of their appearance in the Quran’s repressed prologue) are wondrous strange. Though the kid gloves come off, this Islamic scholar maintains a philosopher’s good faith and uncensored wonder of a child as he has a playful go at everything from Eucharist gewgaws to the Crusades to the parallels of Islamic black light and Bosch’s Visions of the Hereafter.

Alternately repulsed and seduced—sometimes simultaneously—by Christian art, history, and ritual, Kermani refuses to revile or recoil from what at first sight can appear monstrous or absurd. Looking for love in all the wrong places, he delves into the hagiographies of Art History to find medieval Khomenis (Saint Bernard, Pope Innocent III) and abused progeny (Isaac, Queen Simonida), but also saints worthy the name, like Saint Francis of Assissi—around whom Kermani will build his rhetorical, interfaith church.

Before we encounter Francis, however, we are introduced to his contemporary counterpart, the Italian Jesuit turned Syrian monk, Paolo Dall’oglio. We approach his monastery in the Syrian desert with two nuns and Kermani himself, disquieted by the presence of “a few dark men with white cloths around their heads…carrying rifles”. Rebels and al-Assad’s men alike have their reasons for kidnapping and/or executing Christians and though we fear the worst, the men turn out to be friendly Bedouin hunters (yet another faction in the partisan chaos that is Syria today).

Father Dall’oglio is not within, however. He was kidnapped in 2013 and there has been no news of his life or death since. His beloved Deir Mar Musa monastery, once an interfaith beacon to Christians and Muslims alike—accommodating up to 50,000 pilgrims a year—is now a besieged bastion of peace, love and understanding.

Accompanying the socio-political lamentation and pleas for theological détente, there are the illustrations of Christian art presented as critical points of departure. From a Fifth Century mosaic through an extended tour of the Renaissance to Karl Schlamminger’s ‘muqarnas’[1] cross, Kermani scrutinizes, interprets and more often than not marvels at each devotional image. The obvious irony being that a Muslim is compelled to reject all images—at least those which mimic the work of God. Enter Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass panes for the south transept of the Cologne Cathedral, which one critic suggests would be more suitable for a mosque. Why? While Christian (Catholic) art tends toward the figurative (iconic), Islamic art aims at the infinite, inexpressible nature of God, which Richter’s carefully conceived and then chromatically randomized windows typify.

While the interfaith paragons of Dall’oglio and Saint Francis personify his thesis, it is the recurring presence of Sufis and Caravaggio which exemplify Kermani’s ecstatic, yet down-to-earth style.

… I have been thinking for so long now about the beatitude and searching for it myself I admit, in which pleasure and prayer, sense and God feel like one, and for the Islamic mystics indeed are one.

Corporeal and spiritual kindred of Christ, Caravaggio and Sufi mystics attend the reader through the former’s earthy ordeals and the latter’s erotic adorations of God. This tonal thrust is most striking in the essay (more a riveting short story) Beauty, regarding Botticelli’s Christ Carrying the Cross. Therein, the androgynous, red-robed Christ carries a seemingly weightless cross—likened to a dance partner—and an optical disillusion (of Kermani’s receding perspective) reveals Christ’s figure as that of Venus in the clamshell.

As we come to the end of this annotated, frame by frame filmstrip, we close on an image of Saint Francis of Assissi’s ‘Cartula’, “one of only two extant manuscripts in Francis’ own hand”. Its text and scrawled image seem to support Kermani’s (corroborated) [2] contention that Saint Francis of Assissi was a professed friend of Islam.

While the Christian world waged three Crusades against the Saracens within Francis’s lifetime alone, he marched, with no weapons, with no protection of any kind, and with no money or possessions, with just one barefoot brother, into the camp of Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, the enemy and anti-Christ, and called out, apparently aware of the Islamic greeting salam alaikum: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’

It is a hand of friendship the Sultan apparently took hold of and though the fear was that Francis would be executed on arrival, he and a group of Christians prisoners were reportedly feted and bid farewell instead. This historical accord retraces a line of flight from the adversarial ideologies now practiced all over the world, as Kermani cites his source’s theory about the “long, roundish figure below the tau cross” which appears on the Cartula. Is it perhaps the head of the aforementioned Sultan? A pictorial homage to Saint Francis’ brother from another faith? It is difficult to tell from the reproduction and so Kermani and a Catholic colleague visit the Sacro Convento in Assissi to get a better look. It is there our docent, who has edified and regaled beyond the call, will leave us with/in this final scene.

So what was the verdict? Had Francis, in fact, doodled the image of his Muslim friend on the Cartula? Upon closer inspection, is it al-Malik al-Kalim below the tau cross? Was it? We (author and reader) so want it to be (have been) and are left with that wishful thinking—above and beyond what was or wasn’t. Is or isn’t.


[1] muqarnas: a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture, the “geometric subdivision of a squinch, or cupola, or corbel, into a large number of miniature squinches, producing a sort of cellular structure”, sometimes also called a “honeycomb” vault.

[2] The theory originally proposed by Michael F. Cusato.

About the Author:

Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels, Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment (Six Gallery Press), White (Purgatorio Press) and various film and book reviews. He was born in Chicago and lives in the Bay Area.