Man, Woman and the Sphere of our Political Future

Rais Abu Bakr Rieger

Saturday, 29th June 2019

First of all I want to thank Amir Umar del Pozo for the organization of this wonderful gathering and also Khadija Martinez for her efforts and all the energy she has put into organizing the women’s conference. Also I want to thank Ibtisaam for a brilliant, very balanced summarization of the women’s conference. There was a very serious side to it, but there was also the joy of the gathering shining through. I received it as very powerful and ambitious, but never ideological. In fact one expression came into my heart, which is: sober drunkenness.

When I am asked to give a talk the title has usually very significant words; like in this case: Men and women. It is a habit of mine, to go immediately to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe1, just to look where something appears which has to do with men and women. In fact the first quote I found is from “Poetry and Truth”. It is a quite charming quote, Goethe says: “Men age, women change”.

On a more serious note I briefly want to justify why Goethe is relevant here. I think one reason is that I was always fascinated that Goethe lived in a time of transition. You all know the polar phenomena like the monarchy and revolution, these new techniques of power appearing, all these impacts of secularization and enlightenment, etc.

Goethe moved in 1775 from Frankfurt, which was a relatively big city at that time, to Weimar with only 6,000 inhabitants; a village basically. So what drove him to leave the comfort of Frankfurt and move to Weimar? He was very attracted by the possibility of connecting spirituality and power. He hoped to become a man of action and knowledge.

But there was also another reason why he was fleeing from Frankfurt, which I think was to flee the bourgeois life. I don’t think he wanted to marry, to put it simply. He didn´t just want to live as a jurist. So somehow instinctively he felt: I have to move to Weimar. Now, what happened to him in Weimar is of great complexity, but also to do with men and women.

If you are familiar with the biography of Goethe, lots of women appear: Friederike Brion2, Marianne von Willemer3, Corona Schröter4, Frau von Stein5, Charlotte Kestner6 – and now it’s your part to say: and so on. [smiles] On that, we may say horizontal level, women appear as artists, advisers, lovers, muses, friends – it is a whole, complex world.

Goethe of course is very attracted to all of them. Because he says in the world-famous Faust, giving a reason for it, which is: because the disposition of women is so closely linked to art. His view on men on the other hand was much more hierarchical in its nature. So all these kind of hierarchical positionings, like teacher–student, ruler–subject; it was a society of classes. So it was a tremendous form of hierarchy, in fact. The expectations on Goethe were to give these very intelligent answers to everyone. So he had rings of followers, and famous people who were very close to him, serving him, such as Eckermann7 and Riemer8. But it was hierarchical and linked to loneliness, which I believe the women he received were a cure for this loneliness.

It was a good fortune in his life that the great exception appears, in his great friend Schiller9. In fact, at the beginning his relationship was slightly in danger because it started very hierarchically. Initially Goethe received Schiller stiffly, as if he was allowing Schiller to kiss his hand, but after a short while they were meeting on the same level and when Schiller died, Goethe could not stand to attend to his funeral, such was his regard for him.

Just two examples of powerful women, who connected to Goethe in his lifetime, were linked to art and politics. One was Marianne von Willemer, she was an actress, singer and dancer from Austria. Goethe was a friend of her husband. Goethe was quite close to her in 1814/15, a kind of platonic relationship. She appears in the West-Eastern Diwan as “Zuleika”. So the meeting with her appeared immediately into his art, as part of his poetry.

Another woman who was quite influential for Goethe was Anna Amalia10. Women were not that active in the political scene of Weimar, but Anna Amalia was the exception and she was brilliant. In 1759 she began to run the state administration of the duchies of Weimar and Eisenach on behalf of her under aged sons. She was a great woman, politically powerful, rich and very interested in art, philosophy; in fact she gave to her foundation five thousand of her own books to create the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, which is world-famous and the largest book collection in her time.

Coming back to the subject of “Men and Women”, Anna Amalia was also famous for her round tables, gathering women and also men sometimes, but at one point she was commenting –and I never found where, I’ll do a research on it [smiles], but I believe it’s true– she commented: When men appear it slightly destroys the atmosphere. And you know why: there is immediately this kind of hierarchical approach men often have.

There is a very interesting summation of Goethe’s view on women. In an essay Rudolf Steiner11 wrote in 1889, talking about Goethe: “Whatever he encountered in life and in history, he searched for the point where he could perceive the influence of a higher power. That is also what he always looked for in women and perhaps found. Man becomes removed from nature and from the immediacy of perception if he seeks to exhaust his spirit in a one-sided life-purpose. He becomes dry, pedantic and unnatural.” And again: we face this natural situation of men who take on a profession, who are in hierarchies, being dominated by one aspect of life.

I want to invite you now on a slightly adventurous trip in this absolutely unbelievable book: Goethe’s “Faust”. I have already skipped many things from my talk because I don’t want to lose time which I really want to dedicate to Faust and since it is an impossible task, you and I have to be fresh. Before we enter into Faust, we may remind ourselves on a very general statement Goethe has put in front of us and which explains his general view of the world:. He says: “In art and poetry I am a polytheist, in nature I am a pantheist and in morals I am a monotheist.”

This is important to reflect on for a second on the spirit in which Goethe has written his world-famous play. Obviously he is acting in the field of art and poetry. In that field he is a polytheist. What does that mean? To make it very short: He is absolutely free! He doesn’t care about religious conventions. He plays with elements and forms of mythology, traditions. He is absolutely free. In morals however he is not.

Now, in the introduction to Faust, which is called “Prologue in Heaven”, the Lord explains the nature of men – and I think that is wonderful. He gives three fundamental statements about the nature of man:

First: “While a man strives, he errs”.12 (Amazing!)

Second: “A good man, in his darkest yearning, is still aware of virtuous ways.”13 To explain this: whatever may appear in you or outside of you which is dark, disturbing, challenging, maybe leading you away – the Lord is saying, commenting on this phenomena: all that may be but you know the right way.

Third: It is a bit after the prologue, some angels sing the third advice: “Whoever keeps striving, we can redeem.”14 We could also say: We can save. We can also say: We can welcome.

This reminds me a bit on a statement of Jacques Lacan15, the French psychoanalyst, who commented once on the human situation: “You can be guilty only of one thing: if you give up your desire.” We may add to that as Muslims: – because by the nature of any desire, it will lead to Allah. But that only in parenthesis.

Now another important personality of Faust appears in a conversation with the Lord, who is called Mephistopheles. He is an evil character. I don’t think Goethe used the word “devil”, but he is an evil character. And he is characterized thus: He is “the spirit who always denies”. So whenever somebody says “yes” Mephistopheles will say “no” and he describes himself as a kind of “force”:

“That always wishes evil, but always works out the good.” Extraordinary! Because he is related to the Lord, but doesn’t understand the human being. So he is evil in his character, he wants destruction, he wants evil things, he is nihilist, he wants that people give up, so he tries hard. But in the end he also creates the good.

Now there is one other aspect of the Lord, commenting this condition humaine, which Goethe puts in a slightly ironic tone. I’d like to read the German now, just to give you an example of his poetry:

Des Menschen Tätigkeit kann allzu leicht erschlaffen,

er liebt sich bald die unbedingte Ruh;

Drum geb ich gern ihm den Gesellen zu,

Der reizt und wirkt und muß als Teufel schaffen.”16

“The deeds of men are easily put to sleep

They love their undisturbed rest.

That’s why I give them over to his keep,

Who as the devil puts them to the test.”17

I paraphrase that because our translator is not prepared for such spontaneous interventions. This is a very ironic statement of the Lord. We will later see that this irony can easily turn into another tone – we will talk about that. But he is basically commenting on the human situation, and why Mephistopheles is appearing.

The Lord is basically saying: Yes, the human being tends to retire, the human being wants some kind of silence and being relaxed, he wants to be comfortable. That is why I, the Lord, have created Mephistopheles, that he doesn’t become too comfortable. You see the irony? I mean, in the 21st century exactly this turns into total cynicism. And I will come back to this later. Please keep it in mind.

So now the play continues, and now the main character appears, which is Faust. And Faust is characterized by Goethe as somebody who has a tremendous thirst for knowledge. He really wants to know everything. He has a tremendous yearning for power, because he wants to be a man of action. He wants to change everything and he also has a yearning for splendour and glory and wealth. But trying to be like that he reaches into a kind of crisis and he makes the famous statement, characterizing himself:

Da steh’ ich nun, ich armer Tor,

Und bin so klug als wie zuvor!”18

“And here, poor fool, I stand once more,

no wiser than I was before”19

And then he makes a very fundamental decision, realizing his state, which is basically desperation: he moves towards magic. He calls for magic forces, where in the end he will understand this whole world, all its inner laws, and he expects a big empowerment by these magic forces of the world.

The next thing, which happens, is that Mephistopheles appears, because Faust, in his restlessness, calls for magic, and they make a strange bet. This bet, Faust offers to Mephistopheles, is that if Faust says, “Stay, beautiful moment!”, if he ever reaches a point where he says, “Oh wonderful moment, stay!” then he will die and Mephistopheles wins the bet. So what does Mephistopheles do? He creates amazing situations to make Faust say: “Oh moment, stay on!”

So which new character will appear, do you think? In fact, a very singular description of a woman appears, called Gretchen. And Mephistopheles prepares Faust for the meeting with her. It is quite funny and modern at the same time. He gets some witches and they prepare a drink, which if you drink you become very young and attractive, because Faust is an old man. So he is in that kind of state now. What also happens to him is that he looks into a mirror and he sees a nearly hard to bear women appear, called Helena. We come to this aspect later.

So he meets Gretchen and she is a very singular woman, whom Mephistopheles says is exemplary. She is characterized by Goethe positively as naive, but in the good sense of the word, meaning good-hearted. She has some beauty and is also sensitive. She has natural sensitivity and is the absolute opposite of Mephistopheles and his magic, so she immediately feels that there is something wrong. She senses that Faust is a difficult character and has a pact with Mephistopheles. She knows immediately! Then she asks him the famous fundamental, the “Question of Gretchen” (Gretchen-Frage), which in German has become a generic term for posing key questions: What do you think about God?20

This was a conventional question at that time, influenced by Christianity. But it is more important than this and I link it more to her natural sensitivity. She is not clever and does not have much of knowledge. She is not driven to power and all that but she knows how to check, how to analyse him. So she asks him this famous question but Faust is alert and knowledgeable, although weak in essence. Gretchen sees that he is not really following Christianity, nor does he believe in God, but she continues the relationship although unsure. Mephistopheles pushes for it, saying to Faust: She is an attractive woman, isn’t she? You should meet with her soon, don’t wait for marriage and this kind of thing! That’s old-fashioned! Just go for it!

Now for Gretchen this ends in terrible tragedy, because in the course of events, which are too long to explain now, her mother is killed and then her brother is also. So in the last scene of Faust, Part One, Gretchen is in prison, desperate. Her whole life was turned upside down. She even killed her own child, which was the result of the night she had with Faust. She is devastated. Now Faust wants to save her, and he opens the prison so she can go with him, but suddenly she turns into this amazing, majestic figure. She could flee the situation, but she says: No! I accept my guilt and I understand my lesson. I want to return to the Lord. I have nothing left in this life. Only the Lord can save me. In fact she is saved, redeemed, and that’s the end of the Faust, Part One.

Now, there is a second part of Faust, a must read, a great work! Now everything is multiplied, becomes bigger, greater, wilder, more chaotic. Goethe opens up a world too large for a stage any more. Faust Part One, you could perform on this very stage. It is almost romantic: There is Gretchen, Faust, and this strange Mephistopheles; there’s the Lord, who comments with irony, and now in Faust Part Two, Goethe turns into a vision because he destroys all the walls of Part One and it becomes vast. Goethe is able to create an expansive description of life, glory and joy and on the other hand deep darkness, unbelievable torture, struggle, wars, unbelievable –how German…

But also the figures: before Faust was a scholar, a little older, in a crisis, but now appears as a representation, as a Gestalt of all the people looking for knowledge, everybody! And Mephistopheles appears as the Gestalt of all the evil, of all criminality, of all criminals of all the evil acts of the world. Goethe’s language capacity is based on eighty thousand words and is like a symphony.

And now Helena appears. If Gretchen was a singular woman, how can we imagine Helena? She comes from Greek mythology. In the second part of Faust she represents the beauty of all women! She causes wars. Hundreds of men die for her and so she becomes a monumental figure.

This departure from part one and the opening up of modernity in part two, everything is there! Faust and Mephistopheles create paper money for the emperor and they conquer the whole world! Faust now wants to colonize countries. Everything is without measure any more and absolutely true for today.

So in the middle of this chaos there is a wonderful moment where Faust and Helena meet. It is a monumental scene, totally in the imaginary, fantasy-like, because the background of Faust, representing of the Middle Ages of Germany, meets Helena, representing Greek mythology. But forget all of that. Just the meeting is wonderful. Because we move from the imaginary, this artificial freedom of Goethe, to the symbolic. What is the symbolic? Language, and the way they meet linguistically is just unbearable, because Helena listens to Faust talking and she speaks in the tone and rhythm of Greek mythology. But she hears Faust and this is a new tone for her, because he talks in rhymes, in fact, in northern German rhymes, from another time. And so they meet. It starts when he realizes that Helena listens to him, to the language. And he says:


Gefällt dir schon die Sprechart unsrer Völker,

O so gewiß entzückt auch der Gesang,

Befriedigt Ohr und Sinn im tiefsten Grunde.

Doch ist am sichersten, wir üben’s gleich;

Die Wechselrede lockt es, ruft’s hervor.21


If my people’s speech already pleases you,

O, you’ll be delighted with our singing:

It completely satisfies the heart and mind.

But to be sure of it, we’ll practise too: 

Alternate speech entices, calls it, forth.22

Faust says, OK, let’s go into the language, together. Then comes the part, when the lovers of Faust faint in sheer delight:


So sage denn, wie sprech’ ich auch so schön?


You’ll tell me how to speak with lovely art?


Das ist gar leicht, es muß von Herzen gehn.

Und wenn die Brust von Sehnsucht überfließt,

Man sieht sich um und fragt –


It’s easy, it must pour forth from the heart.

And if the breast then overflows with yearning,

One looks around and asks –


wer mitgenießt.


– who else is burning.


Nun schaut der Geist nicht vorwärts, nicht zurück,

Die Gegenwart allein –


ist unser Glück.


Not backwards, forwards is the spirit’s sight,

This moment now, alone, –


– is our delight.


Schatz ist sie, Hochgewinn, Besitz und Pfand;

Bestätigung, wer gibt sie?


Meine Hand.


She’s treasure and commitment, wealth and land:

What confirmation does she give? –


– my hand.

This shows the power of language. It is an amazing moment, seeing how language unifies them completely! We sometimes have these conversations. And if we are fortunate, it sometimes turns into rhyme. And there is no dialectics any more. It’s like you say this and the other completes it. That is language: the capacity, the power of language.

Now, I would like to leave Faust, because I would also like to say something political today. What happens in Faust? The encounter with Helena seems to be that decisive moment where Faust should say now “Oh moment, stay on!” And indeed he is very close to saying it, but what happens? There comes a tremendous disturbance to the situation, which is a war, so powerfully real that this whole symbolic and imaginary world just disappears. So Faust doesn’t even have the time to say it. It is something quite magical. Goethe does not want that this is the solution, because he wants the story to move on. Just to summarize: Faust’s love will remain unfulfilled. And he moves totally to the real and basically becomes a politician.

Now I want to talk briefly about a thing called “politics”. And it is good that we are a bit tired. [smiles] – Men and women – what a world! But let’s talk about politics. Goethe knew that this whole fantasy in a sense of the meeting between Faust and Helena cannot work, not even for Goethe, because time moves on. He knows that life is changed upside down, through the philosophical project that “God is dead”, through new technological, economical techniques of power. So Goethe knew already that what will come up now will change the relationship between men and women totally. Let’s name it very briefly, because you know it better than I do: Ideologies appear, which create workers and revolutionaries. Who cares any more about men and women? Then democracies appear, citizens, then the economy appears, creating debtors, consumers – I mean who cares about man and woman? And the technological world appears, creating “users” – who cares about man and woman?

We are now in the middle of Faust, Part Two. I would now like to highlight one aspect of politics which I think is part of this conference. It is basically a thought, which I am very interested in because it describes the neutralization through politics. It is a thought from a man called Wael B. Hallaq23 from an amazing book of his called “The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament”24 Hallaq argues in his book that it is a contradiction to say “Islamic state”. It is about all the things Hajja Aisha Bewley has already pointed out in the women’s conference. Just one quote of Wael B. Hallaq’s book:

“The Shariah, the paradigm of Islamic legislative power, did not possess a political will, at least nothing comparable to the will of the state. The Shariah was about the society and far less about politics. It was about the moral, social character, not political society, one of many secondary concerns.”

In another quote he describes this neutralization I am interested in:

“Modern Islamist discourse assumes the modern state to be a neutral tool of governance, one that can be harnessed to perform certain functions according to the choices and dictates of its leaders.”

So a leader may think to just use the state to govern, but in fact it’s the other way round, the state governs him.

In fact I want to suggest something very practical in this conference now and I am not saying this just to praise somebody. But this book – Aisha Bewley: Democratic Tyranny and the Islamic Paradigm25 – is a must-read. Its last twenty pages, the chapter “The Islamic Paradigm” is a must-read for all of us. I think it is the most brilliant summary of something I found very difficult to express correctly. And it has to be said: Hajja Aisha Bewley from my point of view matches Carl Schmitt26, Wael B. Hallaq and this kind of category. And one suggestion, if you agree, would be to create a meeting with Wael B. Hallaq and Hajja Aisha Bewley because I feel they are like brother and sister in a sense.

Now, coming to the end – you give me ten minutes – I tend to be open to the things that come to me and when I was asked to talk about women and also about our concrete political situation of our community, I was thinking about my experience. So I opened myself up and waited for the first four impulses. And I just want to share it with you, without claiming any law or any norm behind it. I just want to share it with you.

The first thought I had, in terms of experience, I ask twenty men: who is your leader? They come up with one. Big sacrifices of course on the way. [smiles] But in the end, in my experience they come up with one. You ask twenty women “who is your leader?” they usually, in my experience, come up with three or four. And I think it is wonderful, because there is no possibility for the women to be that ideological, that uniformed, that unified, which men are. To the cost of enmity, loneliness and all that. And I also understood Ibtisaam that it is not the aim to say “one”. I think this is very important. Please receive this as a very positive statement!

The second thing which came to me is a very short statement of Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst again, which goes along this way, which is: “La femme n’existe pas.” Of course he is not stupid and saying the woman is not existing. What he says it that the woman is not existing. Just coming briefly back to the Faust, maybe through magic, which is fashion, ideas of beauty and so on, or through politics or ideologies, one day we may say: “La femme existe.”

Then just two other short things, which came to me, simple things, fundamental truths: Behind every strong man stands a strong woman. One hundred per cent confirmed by my experience. And the message works positive and negative, which we see in many marriages in fact – may Allah lead us to total harmony! I saw the most fantastic man easily broken by a wrong marriage. Unfortunately. I have seen men privatized, mobilized, destroyed, activated by women. Which is very dangerous for us as men. Because there is a deep connection between the men’s ambition for power and his relation to his wife. I can tell you, with a happy marriage – what can happen to you? … What can happen to you?

Needless to say, that of course also many women are destroyed by men. Often they are victims of male aggression. The whole subject of unhappy marriages is a topic for another day.

To come to the end, I want to leave now all the structure of politics I have in mind. I just want to tell a short story, which I am not telling because of its private aspects, but because of the political side, because it is linked to Granada. When I came here as a young man and my plan was to marry Fatiha, the Shaykh received us, majestically, and he said: Yes, but there is one condition! I was worried and thought: I hope I don’t have to do a course in Oxford English! Or much more difficult: to have to become somebody who memorizes the Qur’an by heart! So I was really nervous about it. The Shaykh said, the condition is: three days of separation. And I thought, oh that is very good. But I tell you, looking back to my life experiences, these were the three longest days of my life! That was really irrational. They brought me to the darkest sides of the moon. I mean I experienced restlessness, impatience – all those things – it was amazing!

And then the community of Granada created this amazing feast. So it was separation, followed by gatheredness. And this, because we are late in time, is my only political point today: we may need sometimes separation, but also gatheredness, which creates an “us”. And I think Fatiha and I got an instruction, without realizing it in that sense. And this is the “us”. And in fact, politically commenting, we may have slightly overstressed the separation, in terms of politics. We – men and women – should meet more often as Ibtisaam just described it to us.

In fact our friend, Hajj Abdalaziz, rahimahu Allah, once told me a story. He said, he went to Shaykh Muhammad ibn Al-Habib, and asked him – basically a very European question: “Shaykh Muhammad, how can we keep a marriage happy?” Shaykh Muhammad ibn Al-Habib was amused (perhaps thinking: these Europeans!) and said: “Don’t you know?” And Hajj Abdalaziz said: “No”. The Shaykh: “Have many, many guests!”

And I think that “us” is the base of our politics, but we don’t want to be politicised. We want to govern according to the law of Allah, which is given. Perfect. Some things may change, but the fundamentals are there. So what do you mean with politics? It is about us and Allah.

And may Allah give us a good destiny! [Amin.]

Thank you!


Goethe: Faust [English]:

Goethe: Faust [German]:,+Johann+Wolfgang/Dramen/Faust.+Eine+Tragödie/Faust.+Der+Tragödie+zweiter+Teil/5.+Akt/Großer+Vorhof+des+Palasts

1 (Frankfurt am Main 1749-1832 Weimar)

2 (1752-1813) daughter of a pastor

3 (1784-1860) singer, actress

4 (1751-1802) singer, actress, composer

5 (1742-1827) lady-in-waiting

6 (1753-1828) real-life model for Werther’s love

7 (1792-1854) wrote “Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann” (1836-1848)

8 (1774-1845) Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer, philologist, writer, librarian

9 (1759-1805) Friedrich Schiller, one of the most important German playwrights; medical doctor, poet, philosopher, historian

10 (1739-1807) duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach

11 (1861-1925) Austrian philosopher, founded anthroposophy, Waldorf education

12 “Es irrt der Mensch, solang’ er strebt.” (Faust I, Prologue in Heaven)

13 “Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange / Ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewußt.” (Faust I, Prologue in Heaven)

14 “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, / Den können wir erlösen.” (Faust II, last act)

15 (1901-1981)

16 Faust I, Prolog im Himmel

17 Faust I, Prologue in Heaven

18 Faust I, Nacht

19 Faust I, Night

20 Faust I, Martha’s Garden

21 Faust II, 3. Akt, Innerer Burghof

22 Faust II, Act III Scene II: The Inner Court of The Castle

23 born 1955 in Nazareth, scholar of Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history

24 2012

25 Norwich, 2015

26 Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) jurist, political theorist

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