Reading the 18th Century, 04/17/17: Nathan the Wise 2 or Lessing and his Muslim Characters

Friends – I spent some time talking about Lessing’s plea for interfaith tolerance and understanding in a previous post about Nathan the Wise, a play written in German in the late 18th Century. You can read my thoughts about it here, and I recommend doing so before continuing with this post.

Today, I’d like to talk for a few moments about how Lessing engages in a positive portrayal, not just of Judaism, but of Islam, and notably of one of history’s most famous military leaders, Saladin.

Saladin figures as one of the main characters in Nathan the Wise, and Lessing goes to great lengths to show Saladin as a thoughtful, intellectual and spiritual person. When we first see Saladin, he is engaged in playing chess with his sister, Sittah. And she is winning! (more on her in a moment). Far from being an aggressive warmonger, Saladin is a serious high-minded leader who wants peace and who mourns the hostilities with Christians:

It was not I who first unsheathed the sword.
I would have willingly prolonged the truce,
And willingly have knit a closer bond,
A lasting one—have given to my Sittah
A husband worthy of her, Richard’s brother.

We discover early on in the play, that Saladin dreams, not just of peace, but of a family tie between the Christian King, Richard the Lionhearted, and his own family.

Throughout the drama, Saladin is portrayed as deliberative, fair, and open minded. Significantly, it is he who asks the crucial question, towards which Lessing’s play has been leading us.

Of these three
Religions only one came be the true.
A man, like you, remains not just where birth
Has chanced to cast him, or, if he remains there,
Does it from insight, choice, from grounds of preference.
Share then with me your insight—let me hear
The grounds of preference, which I have wanted
The leisure to examine—learn the choice,
These grounds have motivated. . .

This wonderful question prompts Nathan’s famous “ring parable.” But as an intellectual and great leader in the group, Saladin is — appropriately — the person who puts the explanation into motion.

Finally, when a conflict threatens to scuttle the friendship between the 3 faiths, it is Saladin who is the voice of reason. He warns the Christian Templar against fanaticism:

Nathan is my friend, and of my friends
One must not bicker with the other….

Move with caution.  Do not
Loose on him the fanatics of thy sect.
…. Be not from spite

To any Jew or Mussulman a Christian.

It’s worth pointing out that Saladin’s sister Sittah, is just as smart as he is. Although a more minor character, she is the better chess player, and matches his intellect easily. She is also the person who serves as the critical mouthpiece of the play; she is the person who criticizes both Christianity and Judaism for some of those religions’ foibles. She is a brilliant person.

I wanted to revisit Nathan the Wise because it offers such a terrifically positive picture of Muslims, and by implication, of Islam. I think this is a crucial point to keep in mind when we think about the books that the Founding Fathers read and admired.

We don’t see alot of positive portrayals of Muslim people these days.

But, when I visited the Muslim Association of Puget Sound for a presentation this past Friday, I thought about these portrayals, and how spot-on they are. The people – both men and women – that I met during my visit incarnated – just about absolutely – the graciousness, intelligence, openness and perspicacity of Lessing’s characters. Every person I spoke with – ranging in age from 13 to 50 – exhibited the curiosity, wit, kindness and perceptiveness of the Muslim characters in The Nathan the Wise.

Do you want to know what Muslims are really like?

Try reading Lessing’s late 18th Century masterpiece.

Adapted by EDWARD KEMP
Directed by BRIAN KULICK
dress rehearsal photographed: Friday, January 15, 2016; 2:00 PM at Classic Stage Company, New York; Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

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