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A few days ago, I read an interview with Yana Korobko the Ukrainian Orientalist, who became Muslim. She revealed a most important piece of news. She said, “Numerous Orientalist convert to Islam after years of study and research. They travel to see up close and touch the reality of Muslims in their communities. The road to Orientalism will lead inevitably to embracing Islam, if the Orientalist isn’t afraid of the reactions of those around him.”
The Hungarian Orientalist Gyula Germanus is one of those orientalists, who converted to Islam. The Egyptian writer Akkad has described him saying: “He is ten scholars in one.” How cannot that be? He mastered eight languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, German, Hungarian, Italian and English. And has the honor membership of many scientific academies, including the Iraqi, Egyptian and Syrian ones. In addition to this, he is a member of the Institute of Oriental Research in London, and the Italian Mediterranean Academy of Sciences. He has also been the Secretary-General of the Hungarian Pen Club.
Germanus has been born in Budapest; capital of Hungary in 1884 to Christian parents. His story with Islam began when he was sixteen years of age. He was leafing through a folder that contained pictures, when his eyes fell on a carved wooden plate. The pictures depicted the image of the eastern society through a story teller talking to his audience huddled around him. Germanus saw a light in this picture, and a vibrant culture that he did not see in European society. “I’ve felt an overwhelming nostalgia to know the secret behind this light that dispelled the darkness in this picture.”
In the following years, Germanus decided to study history and Languages at the University of Sciences in Budapest. He learned both Turkish and Persian languages, which led him to the study of Orientalism. His brush with languages has kindled his love in the Orient and its civilization. This step has awakened his interest in Islam, which was the spirit of the East and the driving force of its renaissance.
In 1902, Germanus visited Bosnia. His mind buzzed with distorted ideas about Muslims, and misconceptions that misrepresent Muslims. The books of his Orientalist teachers are bursting with fallacies that traditionally accuse Muslims of barbarism, violence and cruelty.
However, these lies have turned a laughingstock; they soon will be revealed and uncovered in his first contact with Muslims. He has imagined that the two men sitting across from him in a Sarajevo cafe were plotting to kill him. He said, their daggers strapped to their waist, “their head covers, and their odd appearance have given rise to a strange feeling within me. I was intimidated by their awful appearance. I remembered then bloody stories I've read in fanatical books that talk about the intolerance of Muslims. I have noted that they were whispering to each other. This sight has filled my childish imagination with feelings of panic. He thought they soon would be planting their daggers in the chest of this curious infidel. I wished I could have emerged unscathed from this frightening place, yet; I didn’t dare to move.
Few minutes of friendly talk with these Muslims were enough to turn the ideas nestled in his fertile imagination upside down. “Their faces lit up and with affection overflowing with tenderness, they invited me to their homes. Instead of stilettos penetrating my bowels, they overwhelmed me with their hospitality. Such was my first encounter with Muslims.”
The Orientalist Germanus completed his studies at the Universities of Istanbul and Vienna. In 1906, he wrote his first book titled: “The history of Poetry of the Ottomans.” This has been followed by another on the history of the Turks before obtaining a doctorate in 1907.
Germanus returned to Budapest in 1912, to teach the history of the civilization of Islam and Eastern Languages in Laurent Anovic University for nearly fifty years. His life has been filled with travels and studies that have honed the experience this erudite Orientalist. These have enhanced his intellect, and made him into a distinguished personality in contemporary European thought.
However, all this prominence hasn’t been enough to provide Germanus with serenity. “I have found a thin trivial line in the books of science and knowledge nonetheless; my spirit remained thirsty. Hence it was longing for the serendipity of paradise. I quenched my mind’s thirst, but my soul remained parched; I had to denude myself of everything it’s clinging to. I am hoping to recover my loss through meditation and inner experience. I seek to purify my soul through the fire of torment, the same way soft steel becomes rigid when subjected to cold water.”
In the years 1929 and 1932 Germanus studied Islamic history at the Universities of Delhi and Lahore. At the invitation of India's great poet Rabindranath Tagore, he carried his main concern and traveled there. His journey will be met with luck. In a dream, he saw the Prophet (PBUH) talking to him: “Why all the worry? The road is ahead of you. The true path is open in front of you. It is as safe as the ground, walk it at a steady pace with the light of faith.”
On the following Friday, Germanus announced his conversion to Islam among a crowd of eminent Indian Muslims. He spoke to them in the Shah Jehan Mosque in New Delhi: “I came from distant land to acquire knowledge not available in my country. I have come seeking your inspiration, and you haven’t failed me.”
Germanus added: “I carried on talking about Islam and the role he played in the history of the world. I mentioned the miracle that Allah had allowed His Messenger (PBUH) to perform. I have explained the reasons for contemporary Muslims decline, and the reasons that enable them to regain their past glory. It is an Islamic wisdom that everything functions according to Allah’s command, but Allah says in Sura Ar-Ra’d, verse 11: (“Allah does not change a people's lot, unless they change what is in their hearts.”)
Many things have led Germanus to Islam, including its full compatibility with science. Hence, unlike other beliefs, science and faith are attuned to each other. “There’s not a single word in the teachings of Islam that hinders the progress of a Muslim, or prevents increasing his share of wealth, power or knowledge. And there is nothing in the teachings of Islam that cannot be achieved practically. It’s a great miracle distinct from others. Islam is a religion of enlightened mind; it will be the belief of free men.”
Therefore, the learned Germanus sees no surprise in the spread of Islam. He said it is the “religion of enlightened minds, and I know in my country and in Europe enlightened men of the noblest families who respect Islam. They are about to embrace it as their faith, even is secrecy.
Germanus also saw in Muslims the opposite of what he has read about them in the Orientalist books. “I found treasures in the hearts of Muslims outweighing the value of gold. They gave me a sense of love and brotherhood; they taught me charitable work and the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Muslims should hold tightly to the moral values which characterize them. They shouldn’t be dazzled by the glitter of the West. It’s just that, nothing more than a hollow phony sparkle.”
Germanus took pride and cherished Islamic values and recommend them everywhere he went. He once addressed an intellectual forum in Algiers telling them: “I strongly and courageously urge all Muslim brothers to uphold ethics. They are the spiritual tenets of our Islamic religion; and safeguard Muslim law, which is based on ethics. However, the creed and beliefs of the philosophy of western legislation have been established on human ideology driven by political considerations only. On the other hand, Islamic law is the product of faith and the conviction that the universe is merely a regular and coordinated creation of a moral spirituality. The basis of faith is the revelation. Hence, its implementation is based on the law of inference and conclusion of logical thinking. It’s also based on ephemeral and worldly explanation, and physical conditions.”
Since the day he embraced Islam, Germanus was eager to learn Arabic. It is the key that will open the gates to Islam’s treasures. “I had the power of faith and the firm certainty; two elements that prompted me to learn this language regardless of the obstacles and the difficulties. First, I started studying Arabic without a teacher, and through books I have obtained from European libraries. Then, I embarked on reading the Holy Qur'an with the help of language dictionaries. Later, I have memorized by heart the meanings of important and complex words. I followed this program for several months. Finally with the grace of God and His support, I became familiar with its origins. Over time, I have overcome all odds, and I started to understand Arabic with ease and capability, although I have not heard an Arabic native speaker in my life.”
To understand the importance of mastering the Arabic language and its minutiae, Germanus traveled to Egypt. He sought knowledge throughout Al-Azhar University’s halls. There, he met its eminent scholars and writers. Henceforth, he set his sights to “complete all aspects of my studies in Arabic literature, and in-depth study of the branches of the true religion. This will enable to fend off attacks of those who slander or distort the greatness of Islam in Europe.”
Germanus has also toured the Arab countries’ capitals, and delivered very interesting lectures. From there, he traveled to Makkah to perform his first pilgrimage. He chronicled his journey into a book titled “Allahu Akbar” The book’s introduction also included the story of his conversion to Islam. He included an explanation of the fundamentals of Islam.
Since embracing Islam Dr. Abdul Karim Germanus never spared any efforts to work relentlessly for his eternal religion and language. «I wish to live a hundred years, to fulfill my desire to serve the language of the Qur’an. Studying the Arabic language needs a century of traveling the paths of its beauty and culture.” He died in 1979 without completing one hundred years. Nevertheless, he has left a scientifically distinct and enriching legacy in religion, language and history topics. He has penned nearly a hundred books. Among his writings, we mention the most important of his collection: “Modern Movements in Islam," and “Prominent Scholars of Arabic literature.” He also wrote, “Between Two Thoughts," and “Leading Civilizations” as well as “Cultural Relations between Arabs and Central Europe” and “The Holy Qur'an" and « Study in Arabic Linguistic structures."
However, it’s unfortunate that Germanus has authored these books in Hungarian, German and English languages. Albeit rendered into many international languages, they haven’t been translated into Arabic yet.
Dr. Munqith Bin Mahmoud Al-Sakkar
Researcher at Muslim World League
Translated by Sadok Salehi
Translator at Muslim World League