Navid Kermani isn’t that keen on taking part in TV debates any more. He dislikes the sense he’s being asked to either defend or denounce the whole of Islam. The well-known German-Iranian Islamicist prefers words, the way they ferment in readers’ brains and cause them to take a more complex view of life. He believes his task as a writer is to problematise things – question fixed identities; describe ambivalences; and avoid shallow, simplistic tags. ‘Talk to the people while you’re in Syria,’ a cobbler urges Kermani. ‘Every single person here will tell you a thousand truths.’ State of Emergency contains some of those truths. Previously published in German in 2016, it’s a collection of in-depth newspaper articles from 2005 to 2014 focusing on conflict zones around the world affecting Muslims.
Kermani’s style is nuanced and kindly, poetic and philosophical, he zooms in and out of perspectives like a novelist and is drawn to irresolvable tensions like a conceptual artist. He understands how places can exist in the heart and hopes of people as much as in the head – how one can cross the occupied territories of Palestine numerous times and not find Palestine; or be blissfully relaxed on the shimmering Dal Lake in Kashmir, far away from Kashmir.
It’s a shame the book lacks an introductory chapter that would allow Kermani to share more of his overarching expertise, but State of Emergency is a humane and timely reminder that there is no one Islam, no one set of Islamic views, values and beliefs, just as there is no one Western creed. In lieu of an Islamic pluralist theology, he quotes the 13th century poet Ibn Arabi: ‘My heart can take on any form/For gazelles a meadow, for monks a cloister… I follow the religion of love/Wherever its steed turns/I go that way.