The Moment of Awakening – A Hungarian Orientalist Finds Islam
The journey of Abdul-Karim Germanus (formerly known as Julius Germanus) to Islam transformed his life forever. He once described his conversion as his “moment of awakening.”
Germanus was a university professor in Hungary who spent half of his life defending Islam and the Arabic language. After having freed himself from the troubles of youth and the oppression of traditions, he became attracted to Islam.
The Beginning of the Path
Germanus was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1884 and was raised as a Christian. Immediately after graduating from the University of Budapest, he decided to specialize in the Turkish language. So he traveled to the University of Istanbul in 1903 to study Turkish. In only two years, he was able to master the Turkish language and excelled in speaking, reading, and writing it.
During his time at the University of Istanbul, he came across an exegesis of the Qur’an in Turkish. This marked the beginning of his transformation and his interest in Islam and the Qur’an. The exegesis enabled him to understand Islam from the original sources, and he saw in the various exegeses which were available in several languages, the fallacies which were taught about Islam by Christian missionaries.
Motivated to learn the truth about Islam, he decided to conduct research in which he compared what the Christians were writing about Islam to what was really written in the Qur’an and Sunnah. He also endeavored to read Turkish translations of Hadith in order to study the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from authentic sources.
Back to Europe
Germanus returned to Hungary from Istanbul and found his former professors, who were reputable Orientalists, speaking falsely about Islam. He argued with them about the true character of Prophet Muhammad and the many hadiths attributed to him. After clashing with his professors, Germanus decided to study the Arabic language after he found that Turkish was full of many Arabic words. He pursued Arabic and soon became proficient in it, he then went on to master Persian.
He excelled in the study of languages, and, in 1912, was appointed professor of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish as well as Islamic history at the Hungarian Royal Academy in Budapest. He was later appointed to the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Economics in Budapest.
After working for a short time at the University of Budapest, the Bengali-Indian poet, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), one of Bengal’s greatest figures, invited Germanus in 1928 to teach as the chair of Islamic Studies of Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, Bengal. He stayed in India for several years and it was there he publicized his conversion to Islam in the Great Delhi Mosque. Henceforth, he was known Abdul-Karim. He was given the privilege of being able to give the weekly Friday sermon at the mosque.
Friendships with Poets
Germanus’ great desire to learn more about Islam and Muslims led him to meet one of the most prominent Muslim poets of the time. He enjoyed a friendship with the famous Pakistani Muslim poet, Muhammad Iqbal. They would have long conversations, delving into important issues facing Muslims. They also would discuss the scholarship of Orientalists and the activities of Christian missionaries.
Germanus and Iqbal differed over their views on missionary activities. Whereas Germanus believed that the propaganda spread by European Christian missionaries was a problem, Iqbal believed that the problem lay in Muslims’ lack of unity and opposition to anti-Islam missionaries. Their long dialogue ended with the problem of Orientialism and the shortcomings of Orientalist scholarship.
Germanus also formed a strong relationship with the famous Egyptian writer, Mahmoud Timour. Timour wrote about Germanus’ journey to Islam in one of his books:
When I [Timour] was speaking to him, I asked [Germanus], “What is the story of your conversion, Hajji? Germanus combed his fingers through his beard and then responded, “It was a moment of awakening for me because Islam is the true religion. Enlightened minds and free thinkers find tolerance in Islam, in its doctrine and in the Shari`ah. They find truth is Islam which convinces them of its validity. With Islam, free thinkers set themselves loose from the oppression of traditions. I know many intellectuals who, as soon as they free themselves of the troubles of youth and the oppression of traditions, secretly become Muslim and conceal their faith and submission to Allah in the depths of their hearts.” Timour responded, saying the following: His answer did not cure or entice me with its excessive details, I asked him “Can’t you tell me about what attracted you to Islam? “He became less agitated and said, “One thing attracted me to Islam, it is the essence of all things, and that thing is the religion of purity, the religion of cleanliness, of both the body and spirit, and social behavior and manners and the human feeling.
Germanus’ love of the Arabic language brought him to Cairo, Egypt, where he furthered his studies of classical Arabic. When he first arrived to the port city of Alexandria, he was surprised with the way the locals responded to him. They would laugh when he spoke Arabic because he was speaking classical Arabic! When they spoke to him in their colloquial dialect, he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Germanus became very angry and screamed out, “I am here in order to learn the language of the Qur’an from you! Why do you respond with laughter and ridicule?”
Germanus found himself back in the University of Budapest and worked as a professor of history and civilization for more than 40 years. He published several research papers calling for the revival of classical Arabic in the Arab world. He wanted to bring back classical Arabic, which had died out just as Latin had in Europe. He dreamed of a time when all Arab countries would speak the same form of Arabic that would tie Arabs to their rich heritage and history.
Throughout his academic career, Germanus waged a war with European Orientalists who supported colonialism. He would use evidence and rational arguments, although he was confronted with much antagonism. As a result of his disputes with Orientalists, he was fired from the university on the grounds that his attitude was not appropriate.
Despite mounting opposition against Germanus, his students sided with him and his ideas. They praised his works and saw that his work had huge influence throughout academia in both the West and the Muslim world. Because of this support, he was able to continue in his position as a professor of history despite protest from Orientalists colleagues.
Mahmoud Timour, Germanus’ good friend, wrote three plays in colloquial Egyptian Arabic that he dedicated to Germanus to inform him, in a courteous way, that he had written in the colloquial Egyptian dialect in order to educate Egyptians and to raise their level of culture.
Germanus responded to Timour, saying, “The colloquial dialect is only a modern language, it cannot express deep sentiments and emotions, nor can it reveal our innermost feelings. On the other hand, classical Arabic can best express our most minute feelings of yearning to perfection.”
Germanus was calling for Timour to stop writing in colloquial Arabic and to work on refining his skills in writing literature. Eventually, Timour became a member of the Academy of Arabic Language in Cairo and improved his literary writing skills in classical Arabic.
Mahmoud Timour was fascinated by Germanus’ personality and sought inspiration from him for his story, “The One Who Asked Allah for Help,” in a collection of short stories called Behind the Veil. The story narrated the journeys of a traveler who went to Cairo, lived in the neighborhood of Al-Hussein, and adopted an Egyptian lifestyle. He would wear a long white robe and stroll the neighborhood in his flowing Arab clothing. He was always anxious to prayer Fajr in the mosque and to hear the voice of the muezzin (the man who calls for the prayer) in the silence of the night.
A Lifetime of Activity
The mid-20th century, scholarly organizations in the Arab world were looking to catch up with the modern world. They hoped to make more connections with Western scholars and so they elected Germanus to the Scholarly Organization of Iraq in 1962 as an overseas member, he was also elected as a member of the Arabic language academies in both Cairo and Damascus.
Back home in Hungary, Germanus endeavored to bring together all of the Muslims in his country, Muslims only numbered between 1,000 to 2,000 at that time. He established an organization which ran Muslims’ affairs in Hungary and which was able to convince the Hungarian government to recognize Islam as one of the official state religions.
In addition, Germanus was one of the few Europeans to ever have visited the holy sites in Makkah and Madinah when he traveled from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in 1935. He wrote a memoir of his journey to the holy sites in Hungarian called, Allahu Akbar, which was translated into several languages. He went on Hajj for a second time in 1939.
Germanus was married to a European woman who was Christian at the time of their marriage. However, his wife also eventually converted to Islam with the help of the famous author and academic Ahmed Abd Al-Ghafur Attar.
Germanus can be credited with having motivated the Egyptian writer Muhammad Huseyn Haykal to perform Hajj. Haykal recorded memoirs of his trip in In the House of Revelation, and in the introduction, he wrote the following:
I was fiddling with the radio signals on different stations until I reached the Budapest broadcast. And the very first thing I heard from the broad was the voice of the presenter say, “I was in the middle of a huge crowd of people who were circumambulating the Ka`bah. All around me I heard the phrase, ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.’ And when I finished the circumambulation, I walked between the two mounts of Safaa and Marwa.”
So I [Haykal] said to myself, “Is this European professor, who is talking about the truth of Islam, more truthful and strong-willed than I am that he has already visited the sacred sites?
Germanus wrote about Islam in various European publications. In one article he wrote:
I am an European man who didn’t find my home in being enslaved to gold, power, or domination. I was influenced by the simplicity of Islam and in the respect it had in the eyes of Muslims. … The Muslim world will keep its true essence through its spirituality and its supreme example. And Islam always preserves its foundations of freedom, fraternity, and equality between all human beings.
He also wrote the following in another article:
Islam transcends by elevating humans from an animal state to the height of refined civilization and I hope, or rather I expect, that Islam will once more be able to achieve this miracle at the time when great darkness will surround us.
Germanus wrote many books, including The Greek, Arabic Literature in Hungarian, Lights of the East, Uncovering the Arabian Peninsula, Between Intellectuals, The History of Arabic Literature, The History of the Arabs, Modern Movements in Islam, Studies in the Grammatical Structure of the Arabic Language, Journeys of Arabs, Pre-Islamic Poetry, Great Arabic Literature, Guidance From the Light of the Crescent (a personal memoir), An Adventure in the Desert, Arab Nationalism, Allahu Akbar, Mahmoud Timour and Modern Arabic Literature, The Great Arab Poets, and The Rise of Arab Culture.
Germanus passed away on November 7, 1979 after having served the cause of Islam and Muslims for nearly 50 years.
By Yasser Hejazi
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