Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Allah’s Message in the Quran

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Most people are familiar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s epic conclusion in the choral piece “Ode to Joy.” The words being sung in German are from a poem of the same name by Friederich Schiller, one of the greatest German poets. Their meaning is below:

Examining the words of this poem, and the story of how Beethoven was driven obsessively to compose the music to most effectively present those words to a world suffering from war and conflict — the same problems we find in the world today — I found to my surprise these words express what in essence is the message of the Quran: all people are brothers on equal terms before God, and we are to act accordingly in justice. And it goes farther than that. 

Joy in the Quran

If you read the poem’s text, you can see it begins with the word Joy! in an emphatic statement “your magic power binds together/ what we by custom wrench apart,/ all men will emerge as brothers…” Schiller is essentially saying that joy is the supreme motivation that brings us together, inspired by God’s creation/providence — exemplified in “nature” and in human relations for those who’ve “mastered that great challenge.” 

Allah describes these very things, His creation and human relations at their best as being His gifts to us, exuding joy. In human relations, as mentioned in the poem (here the German weib means “wife”) “if you’ve earned a steadfast wife:”

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves spouses that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. (30:21)

With regard to nature, His creation, Allah says:

Is He not best who created the heavens and the earth and sent down for you rain from the sky, causing to grow thereby gardens of joyful beauty which you could not [otherwise] have grown the trees thereof? Is there a deity with Allah? No, but they are a people who ascribe equals. (An-Naml 27:60)

This translation got the word baheej right, as it means joyful beauty not simply “beauty” in itself. Without that understanding the connection here couldn’t be made (which is why we must constantly refer to the Arabic and review translations). 

And the earth – We spread it out and cast therein firmly set mountains and made grow therein of every joyfully-beautiful pair (Qaf 50:7) 

This photo, and the featured photo under the Title, are by the author.

This directly corresponds to “all creation drinks with pleasure…from Nature’s breast,” where the original German simply says “nature” not “Mother Nature.” 

The power of “joy” itself is also aligned with these ayat below in Surat Al-Layl contrasting the person whose life is made difficult and one whose life is made easy or fulfilling: 

As for one who gives and is reverent (92:5), and trusts in goodness (92:6), We shall ease his way unto ease (92:7). But as for him who is stingy and self-satisfied (92:8), and denies goodness (92:9), We shall ease his way unto difficulty (92:10).

The word translated “goodness” here is al-husnaa whose meaning goes beyond goodness to mean “the very best,” that which is most beautiful and fulfilling, one could say “joy-inspiring.” So to trust in such ”goodness” as a reality requires an appreciation of and gratitude for what is good and beautiful. And as you can see in the aya above, this can make the difference between “ease,” which is the life we want, and “difficulty,” which is commonly caused by war and strife. The word al-husnaa also refers to the promised reward in the Hereafter. 

Allah has promised the believers, both men and women, gardens through which rivers flow, therein to abide, and goodly dwellings in gardens of perpetual bliss: but Allah’s goodly acceptance is the greatest [bliss of all] — for this, this is the triumph supreme (9:72)

Yet despite the universality and hope of this message, Schiller who wrote the poem “Ode to Joy” was dismayed over the wars surrounding him at the time, as described below:

Schiller died considering his “Ode to Joy” a failure — an idealist’s fantasy unmoored from reality, a work of art that might have been of service perhaps for him, perhaps for a handful of others, “but not for the world.”

But it nonetheless was so powerful to Beethoven that he was driven to incorporate the words and their meaning as a chorus into his 9th symphony, which was entirely an innovation at the time, to bring the message with the music. Of course, songs have always existed, but not in the art form of symphony at the time. And by incorporating the two, he brought to his people, and the world, that message in a powerfully effective way.

And so Beethoven, after going deaf, a lengthy illness, the death of a brother and of friends, and after Napoleon’s armies invaded and occupied Vienna where he lived, wrote “What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” He was surrounded by a world where those seeking power and domination in this world through war and destruction had their way. In such a world, Schiller’s words motivated him to work tirelessly to finish and even direct at last the premiere performance of his ninth symphony with its choral finale “Ode to Joy,” to thunderous and repeated applause. But he couldn’t have imagined its impressive legacy after he died. 

Beethoven as a young man.

The words read “Join if in this whole wide world there’s just one soul…” as if to say “join hands with those who trust goodness even though just a few.” Here we recall that after prophet Mohammad received the first revelation of the Quran, his wife Khadijah was the first to hear and believe in it. “If you’ve earned a steadfast wife” — and after her, just one soul believed, Abubakr Al-Siddiq, in the beginning. But that was enough; all things start small and grow incrementally during which time one must struggle. Despite being given the words of the Creator of the heavens and the earth, prophet Mohammad had to struggle against those who fought to suppress that message of truth and justice. But this very struggle is part of what inspires us.

You can hear Beethoven’s music presented so powerfully by 10,000 musicians in Japan, singing in German. They too must have felt the power of the message too as you can see in the video how they joined together. It transcended entirely different cultures and languages, and was adopted by the European Union as their anthem. 

And if that is impressive, imagine millions gathered together for the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah every year (the last two years, however, restricted due to Covid), from all walks of life and parts of the globe, to worship Allah and share their faith in peace and harmony with one another. 

But both Europe and the nations where Islam has been the dominant religion are under renewed threats of war (now in Europe in Ukraine, war having a short time ago wracked Syria leading to its demise and two million refugees), violence (by the Modi regime against Muslims, the Chinese against Uighurs), and oppression (torture regimes in Egypt, Myanmar and elsewhere). At such a time, who can think of joy?

Brotherhood/Sisterhood

The idea of “all humans are brothers” is central in Islam but does not come without Allah’s will. And here we read the final stanza. 

Do you kneel down low, you millions?

Do you see your Maker, world?

The words “ihr stürzt nieder, millionen?” imply “are you kneeling already? Are you ready for the light?” The word “nieder” means “low;” the very next line asks us to look up above the “starry firmament” or the heavens/sky. The Quran similarly asks us to bow and prostrate in humility before our Creator so He will bring us together and so we can look up to the celestial realm of Allah’s higher values. 

And hold fast to the rope of Allah, all together, and be not divided. Remember the blessing of Allah upon you, when you were enemies and He joined your hearts, such that you became brothers by His grace. You were on the brink of a pit of fire and He delivered you from it. Thus does Allah make His signs clear to you, that you may be rightly guided. (3:103)

O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good – that you may succeed. (22:77)

And we read the final words of Schiller here, bringing us full circle to faith in the Almighty, All-Merciful.

True to heaven’s mighty plan,

Brothers, run your course now. …

Search for Him above the stars,

Above the stars He must be living. 

Of course, we know that Allah is Living, and not only “above the stars” but “closer than your jugular vein.” And we know that victory does not come without a struggle. 

Truly God has purchased from the believers their souls and their wealth in exchange for the Garden being theirs. They fight in the way of God, slaying and being slain, a promise binding upon Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran. And who is truer to His pact than God? So rejoice in the bargain you have made. That indeed is the great triumph. (9:111)

The penitent, and the worshippers, and the celebrants of praise, and the wayfarers, and those who bow, and those who prostrate, and those who enjoin right, and those who forbid wrong, and those who maintain the limits set by God; and give glad tidings unto the believers. (9:112)

So it is in our cooperation and struggle with our fellow human beings in the path of Allah (which is that very cooperation ”in goodness and reverence” per 5:2) to overcome the forces of darkness and their insistence on the supremacy of the selfish interests of those with power and money over the “millions” who long for compassion and faith – it is in this that our true triumph lies, the supreme triumph of which is with the loving God envisioned by Schiller and Beethoven, and indeed “above the stars,” which inspires millions in “Ode to Joy,” and even more millions in the Quran, which advises people of faith to join hands and seek common ground, enjoining what is right — what we all intuitively recognize as truth and indeed beauty as well — and prohibiting what is wrong — all forms of oppression, injustice, and destruction of each other and the earth, our shared home. 

Say, “In the bounty of Allah and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate.” (10:58)

So Allah will protect them from the evil of that Day and give them radiance and happiness (76:11)

And We shall root out whatever of rancour is in their hearts — as brethren, on raised couches, face to face (15:47)

1959, People’s Republic of China’s 10th Anniversary: Central Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with Friedrich Schiller’s poem translated into Mandarin.

The historical video shown above is from an article about the significance of Beethoven and his 9th Symphony in China, where he has always been among people the most popular classic composer from Western culture.

And it’s not just Beethoven’s music that endures. “His life story is still taught in schools. People still read about Beethoven’s life and his struggles, and it inspires them.” (This article was published in 2016.)

Certainly it’s time to show the world the power of the Quran’s message too as a liberating force in the highest sense, not a set of rules, rituals, and restrictions, but freedom from tyranny, dogma, and oppression — not a perpetrator of tyranny as are the dictators ruling a number of nominally ”Muslim” countries, which the Quran so powerfully opposes.

An implicit question: Was Beethoven muslim in the universal sense of “one who submits to God alone?” And can a person be considered “muslim” with such faith as expressed in a great work of art or music, or is making a statement about their faith truly not ours to decide? At this point in history, we need more cooperation, not less, and to that end, it is time to rethink the boundaries we set upon “religion,” as many are indeed doing at this very moment.

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