No one must be allowed to capture the flag
Rumours have been circulating for some time of references to Islam in Uwe Eric Laufenberg's new production of Parsifal which opens in Bayreuth on July 25th, and today comes news that the opera's conductor Andris Nelsons has pulled out for unspecified reasons four weeks before the opening night. Although the more lurid rumours about the production have been dismissed by Laufenberg, they do seem to have at least some substance as he is quoted as saying that there is a reference to Islam, albeit brief, in the new production. Which leaves me wondering whether Laufenberg has read The New Wagnerian by Ian Dallas, who is better known as the Muslim teacher and prolific author Abdalqadir as-Sufi.
Although Abdalqadir as-Sufi has achieved a degree of notoriety as a preacher, as Ian Dallas he knows his Wagner and The New Wagnerian certainly cannot be dismissed as a fundamentalist tract. In it he quotes Wagner as speaking in a letter to Hans von Wolzoen of "the future meaning and significance... of the historically intelligible figure of Jesus of Nazareth.. who must first be cleansed of the distortion that has been caused by Alexandrine, Judaic and Roman despotism" and tells how writing to Mathilde Wesendock in 1859 Wagner noted that the Grail had been previously not a cup but a stone which Wagner said "could be traced back to the earliest sources, namely the Arabic texts of the Spanish Moors". Ian Dallas devotes eight pages to a detailed analysis of Parsifal which highlights its Islamic references. My more detailed 2012 post Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner? quoted the paragraph that closes both that analysis and the whole book*, and that conclusion bears repeating here:
And so, the Grail was nothing other than the Black Stone of the Ka'aba, the central shrine of the world's last religion, purified judaeo-christianity, Islam. Makkah is named in the Qur'an as the Mother of Cities, and thus the 'birthplace of all nations' and the Ka'aba is named the 'primal shrine of all mankind'. Embedded in one corner of the Ka'aba stands the Black Stone which every muslim raises his lips to and kisses when he arrive dusty and exhausted as a pilgrim, kisses as if quenching his thirst. This is the extraordinary tale that Wagner has, partly despite himself, and partly aware, chosen to tell the world in his farewell revolutionary message. Both the Bey of Tunis and Abd al-Hamid II, Caliph of Islam, contributed to the foundation of Bayreuth, they had not yet heard Parsifal, but their hearts drew them to this most spiritual of men among men in an age of darkness. When Parsifal ends in its vast serenity, 'One of the most beautiful edifice in sound ever raised to the glory of music' as Debussy described it, a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal - symbol of peace which in Arabic bears the same root 'S-L-M' as pure religion itself, Islam.Ian Dallas is right to challenge the Christian hegemony of Parsifal, and is right again when he identifies the legend as an expression of pure religion. But he is quite wrong to supplant one Abrahamic religion with another that is supposedly more 'pure'. Pure religion rises above the dogmas and conceits of any established religion, as does Wagner's most beautiful edifice in sound. Established religions and despotic forces - which all too often have overlapped at Bayreuth and elsewhere - must not be allowed to capture the flag of great art, of which Parsifal is one of the supreme examples.
When I wrote about The New Wagnerian in 2012 it was out of print and difficult to find. But it has since been republished in paperback and Kindle formats. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).