A debate on the Quran between Mouhanad Khorchide and Hamad Abdel-Samad

Two controversial contributors

In a new book – Zur Freiheit gehört, den Koran zu kritisieren: Ein Streitgespräch (It is a part of freedom to criticise the Qur’an: A disputation) – two of the most prominent voices on Islam in Germany, Hamed Abdel-Samad and Mouhanad Khorchide, debate the nature of the Quran and of the Islamic faith. The publication has sparked considerable public interest, also because its two authors have been at loggerheads on many issues of theological and political significance.

In recent years, Abdel-Samad has emerged as a reformed former Muslim Brother and a self-styled critic of Islam, publishing a salvo of controversial popular books imputing a fascist predisposition to Islam and presenting the Prophet Muhammad as a maniacal proto-terrorist. While these books have earned Abdel-Samad public notoriety, journalistic and especially scholarly observers have widely dismissed his theses as exceedingly crude.

In contrast to that Mouhanad Khorchide, Professor for Islamic Theology at Münster University, has published widely on his understanding of Islam as a religion of mercy. His reliance on theological positions and historical-critical methodology have been ostracised by a range of Muslim associations in Germany; and after receiving death threats from conservative radicals, Khorchide has been under police protection.

Attempting a serious debate

In a discussion of the book and its theses on the ZDF’s Forum am Freitag TV show ((http://www.zdf.de/forum-am-freitag/forum-am-freitag-5989636.html)), the authors nevertheless manage to engage each other in a serious conversation beyond mere polemics. Both authors show themselves desirous of activating what they refer to as ‘Islam’s silent majority’ and to equip this majority with the necessary theological tools to defend their faith against the depravations of jihadist interpretations. Moreover, they decry the tendency of contemporary theological debate to degenerate into a shouting match in which the opposing sides bombard each other with competing quotations from the Quran, each party eager to have its preferred textual passage count as a piece of ‘evidence’ demonstrating the – peaceful or violent, democratic or authoritarian – essence of Islam.

Whilst viewers of the TV debate could be impressed by the willingness of Abdel-Samad and Khorchide to enter into such an ambitious dialogue, it was also difficult to avoid the feeling that, as their discussion wore on, they began to fall into the very trap they had sought to avoid: beginning with a series of Abdel-Samad’s interventions, both discussants gradually came to rely rather heavily on quotations from the Qur’an; and both sought to use shreds of the text to prove their respective arguments about the true nature of Islam as a religion.

Abdel-Samad, for instance, alleged that the term ‘man’ occurs 61 times in the Qur’an; “and in all of these 61 verses, ‘man’ comes away negatively”. From this assertion, Abdel-Samad derived the assertion that “young people who ask themselves: ‘what does God want from me?’ are ultimately led to death, not to life” by the Qur’anic text. In Abdel-Samad’s view, the only ray of hope is the fact that most Muslims don’t read the Qur’an, or (if they do read it) don’t understand its message – also because the Quran is, according to Abdel-Samad, not only a violent but also incomprehensible and primitive book.

Sustaining nuance in the current political climate

At least in the TV debate of the book’s theses, the rhetorical prowess of Abdel-Samad has a certain edge of the quiet Khorchide: the discussion has Khorchide struggling to defend his perspective on the Quran against Abdel-Samad’s assault. Khorchide manages to make a number of memorable points – presenting, for instance, his view of how the Quran as a text of ongoing divine communication might be read in a meaningful way by Muslims today. Yet the viewer is still left with an overall sense that nuance is difficult to sustain in a public debate that pits an eloquently presented black and white narrative à la Abdel-Samad against the more complex analysis that Khorchide seeks to put forward.

The book form of the debate might be somewhat more suited to Khorchide, insofar as it might enable him to deploy a well-thought out answer to Abdel-Samad’s stark attacks. Nevertheless, the difficulties in developing an ambitious and theologically serious argument about the Quran faced by Khorchide are emblematic of the current state of the public debate in Germany and Europe. In fact, as his critics have noted, Abdel-Samad shares the fundamentalist Salafi understanding of Islam that he claims to fight; the sole difference being that he castigates what the Salafis find admirable. Neither of them can actually accommodate a more nuanced understanding of Islam as a lived religion or of its foundational texts.

In this respect, one of Khorchide’s points from the TV discussion rings true: the message that readers derive from the Quran tell us far more about the nature of the interpreter in question than about the nature of the Quran. The fundamentalist “must ask himself: ‘with what eyes of hate do I actually read the Quran?’” Perhaps Hamed Abdel-Samad, too, ought to take this question seriously.

French Council of the Muslim Faith creates ‘theological council’ to counter radical discourse

May 8, 2016

The CFCM, the organization that governs the 2,500 mosques in France but is often criticized by French Muslims for its lack of concrete action, has taken steps to increase its religious presence.

The 2015 attacks and the success of Daesh in recruiting hundreds of youths shed light on the need for a theological council. “This new body provides our organization with a new dimension, which is no longer solely focused on administrative tasks and management,” CFCM president Anouar Kbibech stated, referring to its creation as an “historic day.”

The first meeting was held Sunday in Paris, where “all interpretations” of Islam were represented–except Salafists–including the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Tablighi Jamaat.

The Council is made up of 22 members, including the Imam of Bordeaux Tareq Oubrou, liberal member of the UOIF. It will meet twice yearly, ‘exceptional’ circumstances notwithstanding, and will give “advice,” as Kbibech prohibits using the word ‘fatwa,’ which has a ‘reductionist connotation.’

The committee “will be able to provide counter-discourse based on accepted theological arguments, in response to discourse circulated on social media, notably among young people,” according to the CFCM statement.

“On subjects such as jihad or hijra we need advice issued by competent and credible leaders,” said Kbibech. According to Kbibech, establishing a theological council was a “prerequisite” for the project of imam certification in order to ensure that preachers in mosques respected Republican values.

The new council can “recommend” imams after interviewing or a written exam, Kbibech explained. According to the leader, the council will “complement” the committees of religious expertise already established by certain federations, notably the theological council created one year ago by imams in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Muslim girl sent home from school in France over long skirt

May 6, 2016

A teenage Catholic girl who converted to Islam has been banned from attending a school in the eastern Paris suburbs because her skirt is too long. The principal of the school in Montereau-Fault-Yonne told the 16-year-old that the length of her skirt meant that it was an “ostentatious religious symbol” – something forbidden in state schools in France since 2004.

A meeting will be held at the school with the pupil’s parents to try to resolve the dispute, following a rash of similar incidents in other French schools last year.

Long skirts if worn as a fashion statement are allowed in French schools. Long skirts worn as sign of allegiance to Islam – or any other religion – may fall foul of the 2004 law which, enforces the principle that state schools are secular.

The council of state, the final arbiter of the meaning of French laws, has been asked to rule on the “long skirt” issue but has not yet done so.

The girl has been named only as K De Sousa, French of Portuguese origin. She converted to Islam, with the blessing of her family, a year ago. The French education system investigated whether she was part of a radical Islamic movement and decided she was not.

Her mother Marie-Christine de Sousa told L’Obs: “My daughter respects the law. I respect her religion. Until now, the school has made no comment on the way she dresses.

“Apart from chattering in class, she has no problems and doesn’t say much about her conversion. People shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”

K De Sousa wears a headscarf in public but takes it off when she reaches school, as the 2004 law demands. The law was enacted after a series of rows in French schools about the wearing of headscarves. It was broadened to ban all “ostentatious religious symbols” to avoid seeming to stigmatize Islam.

A handful of schools in France have begun to interpret long skirts won by Muslim girls as a religious symbol. Most do not. The education board covering K De Sousa’s school admitted that dialogue between the school and her family had “not gone entirely serenely”.

“Talks will resume on Monday,” a spokesman said. “It is in everyone’s interest that this young woman should pursue her schooling normally. A long dress or skirt is not, in itself, a motive for excluding a pupil.”

Gay imam helps young Muslims balance religion, sexuality

March 11, 2016

Growing up in Algeria, Shaira had almost everything a young man could wish for. But he also had a big secret.

In a land where homosexuality is still a crime and a sin, he was forced to live a secret life, hiding that he was gay from everyone — even his closest family.

Shaira, 26, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, hasn’t been back to Algeria since he went to study in France four years ago. His family still has no idea of his sexuality. Sahira has sought help from a gay imam from Algeria who is working with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) association in Marseille. The Le Refuge group says it has helped 26 gays find shelter and start a new life in the ancient port city in the past year. Some eventually go back to their families.

Homosexuality is a criminal offense in much of the Middle East — punishable by imprisonment or, in countries like Saudi Arabia, by death.

In Algeria, homosexual acts are punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine. Islam considers homosexuality a sin. Men having sex with each other should be punished, the Quran says, but it doesn’t say how — and it adds that they should be left alone if they repent. The death penalty verdict instead comes from the Hadith, or accounts of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The accounts differ on the method of killing, and some accounts give lesser penalties in some circumstances.

The Islamic State group (IS) has taken this to an extreme. Videos the group has released show masked militants dangling allegedly gay men over the sides of buildings by their legs and dropping them head-first or tossing them over the edge. It is believed that at least three dozen men in Syria and Iraq have been killed by IS over accusations of sodomy.

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is an Algerian-born imam who now works in Marseille and runs an association of French Muslims and gays. He has known the discrimination faced by the young people who come to Le Refuge for help.

“Personally I have received quite a lot of threats, but I saw more people come to encourage me … saying you are an embodiment of real Islam,” Zahed said.

The local head of Le Refuge in Marseille, Christophe Chausse, says the group tries to counsel young gays about how to cope with the constant conflict between their sexuality and their religion.

“For them, there is a real dilemma between — ‘I am or I feel homosexual’, and ‘I have my religion, my faith which prohibits it, so I cannot live this homosexuality,’” Chausse said. Shaira cries as he talks about this conflict that he battles every day.

“Everybody is telling me — ‘you are gay, you are Muslim and this is not normal,’” Shaira said. “But I feel that I have the same right to have a religion as everybody else. Even if I’m gay.”

With Noorassur, Sonia Mariji takes a chance on Islamic finance

February 28, 2016

Sonia Mariji constantly repeats the phrase, stating it was the “greed crisis” of 2008 that pushed her to become involved in Islamic finance. At age 44, Sonia Mariji refuses any communitarian association with her business. In 2012, she created Internet Noorassur, her insurance brokerage company based on the principles of Islamic finance.

After Chelles, she recently opened her second agency in Melun, and hopes to open others in Nantes, Argenteuil, or Aulnay-sous-Bois. She reportedly has over 1,500 clients already, most in Chelles, the others on the Internet and claims to have started the first franchise network that is in accordance with the Qur’an. “It’s another type of finance, more ethical, and it is called Islamic but it could have another name, such as ‘participatory,’ even if there is a room for worship in each agency. But I wanted to keep its name. There’s no reason to hide it.”

Noorassur offers life insurance developed by Swiss Life and is working toward offering health insurance. “There’s no obligation to be Muslim to work with us,” she said. “It’s true that our first clients will most certainly be Muslims because there are no alternatives. But we will have clients from every background. There are non-Muslims who go to halal butcheries. The important part is to be offered the choice.”

And to have a more ethical choice. After obtaining an internal business studies diploma in Bourg-en-Bresse, Mariji, born in Morocco, worked in a life insurance company for ten years. “The 2008 crisis bothered me. I felt like I had in part caused it. I worked with companies that invested in subprimes. And I thought people would sleep better knowing where their money was going, what enterprise it was supporting.” Mariji then became interested in ethical finance, via socially responsible investments, and attended a conference at the University of Paris-Dauphine, which offers a master’s in Islamic finance.

“Islamic finance offers possibilities for ethical contracts. And there is certainly a market to work with,” she said, while assuring that she acted “with conviction.” “If I wanted to make more money and have less worries I would have stayed in traditional finance,” she said. “It’s not easy to learn about this. I spend my time teaching.” This has not prevented attacks on an agency in Nantes, whose window was broken even before it has opened, or death threats received in Chelles.

Despite all of this Mariji remains positive, convinced that her vision of things could create a better vivre-ensemble. “It lessens the frustration felt by people who feel that there are no available financial options,” she argued, “it’s going to lift spirits and show there is no reason for fear.”

Expansion of Islamic Theology Teaching at German Universities

February 10, 2016

Faculties of Islamic theology at German universities will continue to expand over the next few years, following a string of deals struck between universities and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The federal government financially supports research and teaching in Islamic theology at the universities of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Frankfurt/ Gießen, Münster, Osnabrück, as well as Tübingen. Aside from engaging with scholarly questions of theology and jurisprudence, university programmes have focused on the education of teachers for Islamic religious education at primary and secondary schools. They have also begun forays into the formation of imams. With student numbers growing relatively quickly, the Islamic theological faculties at Osnabrück and at Frankfurt will begin to offer new degree programmes in the area of social work. These programmes will be centred on questions of the provision of Islamic welfare and care for a Muslim public, comparable to existing Christian-tinged social work curricula.

The Central Committee of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) declared itself satisfied with the progress made so far. A parallel development has been occurring in the context of the German scholarship system: aside from being eligible to apply to the main existing national-level scholarship foundations, gifted Muslim students can also become part the state-funded Avicenna scholarship programme, which provides financial support as well as a range of academic opportunities with an Islamic focus. Again, the Avicenna programme parallels existing state-backed Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholarship institutions.

Accessing the Quran: Interview with Ahmad Milad Karimi

February 10, 2016

In an interview with Qantara.de, Ahmad Milad Karimi, professor for kalam in the Faculty for Islamic Studies at Münster University, offered a survey of the state of Islamic thought and theology in Germany. Karimi, who published a German translation of the Quran in 2009 that sought to capture the book’s poetic spirit and make it accessible to a German-speaking public, identified the need to “break through the foreignness of the Koran and the Islamic tradition” as the most important objective facing Muslim intellectuals in Western Europe. According to him, “[t]he greatest challenge is that Islam is not currently communicated well enough.” In this respect, the task of Muslim scholars must not primarily be to distance themselves and their religion from atrocities committed in its name; what is needed instead is a bold vision of the religion and the richness of its tradition: “We gain nothing by continuing to distance ourselves. We can only gain if we succeed in formulating debates ourselves, launching discourse and practising responsibility.”

Burger King to acquire Quick, will offer halal

Burger King is going halal in France, aiming for the business of that nation’s estimated 5 million Muslims, according to a new report.

English-language local reported that the U.S. burger chain recently took over the Quick chain of fast-food restaurants in France and is planning to make about 40 of them, about 10 percent of the total, totally halal.

That means they would scrap all pork and bacon products from their menu and require that the beef and chicken be certified halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic religious tradition.

The report said such restaurants have proven “to be winners” in a nation where there are more Muslims than anywhere else in Europe.

According to Le Parisien, the Bertrand Group, the biggest shareholder of Burger King France, is just following through on plans it announced when the acquisition was made public.

The details include that while most of the more than 400 Quick locations being acquired by Burger King will, in fact, become Burger King brand outlets, about 40 will remain labeled Quick, and will serve the Muslim community specifically.

The Quick chain already had multiple locations specializing in the halal food demanded by Muslims, and local franchisees confirmed that demand is strong.

The French halal market is estimated to be more than five billion euros, the report said.

The Local said French authorities just days ago approved the plan for Burger King’s takeover of the 405 Quick outlets.

The reports in France explained that the move was thought to be part of Burger King’s continuing attacks on McDonald’s – the big player in the fast food industry across France. It has about 1,300 stores. The reports said Quick employed 19,000 people and had $1.12 billion in revenue last year. More than 820 million of that, in euros, was in the French market.

The plan has a surge of Burger King locations in France from about 30 suddenly to well over 400.

Burger King also plunged headlong into the homosexual social-advocacy campaign across the United States in recent months.

Study reveals progress in accepting Islam in Germany

A study released by the Social Democratic affiliated Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation reveals progresses related to legal arrangements between the State and Islamic associations, allowing Islam to be part of everyday life. The study has been conducted by the ´Center for Islam and law in Europe´ in the city of Erlangen.

Although Islamic associations are not treated equal as Jewish and Christians institutions, for instance they are not accepted as corporate body under public law, most Federal States initiated regular communication with Islamic associations and implemented Islamic religious education at German Universities.

The study recommends to institutionalize Islamic associations as corporate body under public law facilitating Muslim life in Germany.


The study (in German):