Islamic theology at German universities: successes and limitations of an unprecedented experiment

For many decades after the arrival of Muslim ‘guest workers’ from Turkey, Morocco, and other Muslim-majority countries, German authorities were happy to outsource the provision of religious services to Imams and preachers sent by the Muslim immigrants’ countries of origin. Since the Muslim workforce would ultimately return home, it was unnecessary and even counterproductive to grant Islamic religiosity a permanent presence – or so the reasoning went.

‘Domesticating’ Islam

It was only around the turn of the millennium that perceptions changed. After the events of September 11, 2001, authorities took a securitised perspective on Islam. Fears about the uncontrolled flourishing of a radical underground religious scene appeared to call for the creation of more transparent structures of Islamic learning.

Members of the Muslim community also began to voice a critique of the prevailing arrangement: they bemoaned the fact that Imams knew little about life in Germany or Western Europe and could not provide guidance on many issues that mattered to believers, and especially to younger audiences.((See Ceylan, Rauf (2009). Prediger des Islam. Imame – Wer sie sind und was sie wirklich wollen. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder. ))

Establing new chairs

In 2011, then, the German government – taking cues from the country’s ongoing Islamkonferenz, an (often controversial) forum bringing together state authorities and various Muslim figures and organisations – decided to fund the creation of several university departments of Islamic theology.

Subsequently, several university chairs were established – at Tübingen, Frankfurt/Gießen, Münster, Osnabrück, and Erlangen/Nuremberg. State funding, initially granted for five years, has since been renewed. Overall, the Ministry for Education and Research has spent € 36 million on these new faculties.(( https://www.bmbf.de/de/islamische-theologie-367.html ))

Training school teachers

Yet while the formation of Imams for Germany’s mosques has been on the agenda of these university departments, their main focus has been the training of teachers for Islamic religious education classes in public schools.

The understanding of secularism anchored in Germany’s constitution is not marked by a laic attempt to cleave apart public and religious life in a stringent manner. Instead, the German ethos is one of cooperation of state and religious bodies in the public sphere. Consequently, the country’s public schools offer confessional courses in religious education adapted to the pupils’ faith.

Expanding employment opportunities for graduates

Many of Germany’s 16 federal states – who are each individually responsible for their own educational sectors – rapidly expanded their offerings of Islamic religious education in the 2000s. Ever since, they have been in dire need of skilled teaching personnel to fill vacant positions.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Of the currently 2,000 students enrolled in degree courses in Islamic theology, most will seek employment as secondary school teachers. Others might staff the ranks of Germany’s expanding Islamic social welfare sector. Confessional institutions run by large Catholic and Protestant charity organisations play a pre-eminent role in various fields of pastoral care, including in care for the elderly. Now, with the ‘guest worker’ generations ageing, there is a growing demand for Islamic offers in this domain.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/wohlfahrtspflege-der-religionsgemeinschaften-muslimische.886.de.html?dram:article_id=346493 ))

No progress on the formation of Imams

What the centres for Islamic theology have not accomplished so far, however, is to foster a new generation of Imams that could preach in German mosques. In fact, students themselves express little desire to pursue this career – a stance for which a number of reasons can be adduced.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 ))

First of all, given their lack of firm legal status in Germany – they are not recognised as a ‘corporations of public law’ and thus do not hold a status comparable to Christian churches or Jewish congregations – many Muslim communities have extremely limited financial wiggle room. They are, consequently, at times not in a position to pay the salaries of a fully-trained Imam – and students of Islamic theology are reluctant to accept employment with extremely meagre pay.

Continued reliance on clergymen from abroad

The organisation that could most easily avoid this financial trap is DİTİB, the country’s largest Islamic association with roughly 1,000 Imams. Yet DİTİB is a subsidiary of the Turkish government’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and as such only employs Imams trained in and funded by Turkey.

To be sure, DİTİB spokesman Zekeriya Altuğ has affirmed that the mosques of his organisation will gradually move towards relying on German-trained Imams.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 )) Altuğ has also stressed DİTİB’s overall willingness to emancipate itself from its Turkish superiors.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/f-a-s-exklusiv-ditib-will-unabhaengiger-werden-14386218.html ))

Yet it remains doubtful whether the organisation will be either willing or capable to accomplish such a manoeuvre in the near future, particularly given the recent reassertion of central control from Ankara.

Distrust between theology chairs and associations

Scepticism about the suitability of potential Imams trained at German university extends beyond DİTİB, however. The 300 mosques of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) do fund their Imams through private donations, without relying on a financially strong state backer. Nevertheless, they have not embraced the idea of turning to graduates of Germany’s Islamic theology seminaries.

It seems likely that this reticence is linked to disputes over personnel choices and over the content of the curricula at Islamic theology faculties. On both of these matters, the more liberal-leaning faculties (with backing from universities and public authorities) and the more conservative Islamic associations have often clashed bitterly.

‘Liberals’ vs. ‘conservatives’

Generally, the liberals have had the upper hand, to the chagrin of their opponents. Consequently, Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the ZMD, criticised the tendency to “see university institutions as counter-models to the mosques”.

He claimed that the dichotomisation into “enlightened” university Islam and “backward” practices of mosque communities “does particular harm to the reputation of university institutions. For after all it is the congregations that are supposed to employ the graduated Imams one day.” In other words, the ZMD’s constituent communities continue to be suspicious of the ideological orientation of the university degree holders.(( http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/deutschland/imam-ausbildung-in-deutschland-studierende-wollen-nicht-imam-werden-aid-1.6046869 ))

Managing students’ expectations

At the same time, members of the ‘liberal’ university teaching staff have themselves expressed some dissatisfaction with their students and their outlook on the Islamic theology curriculum.

According to Harry Harun Behr, Professor of Religious Education at the University of Frankfurt, many students “seek to deepen their faith, not to work scientifically. When I tell them that the Qur’an is the result of a theological discourse, they don’t want to hear.”(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Professor Mouhanad Khorchide of Münster University concurred: Many students “want to have their faith confirmed”, he asserted, “but university is a place to reflect on faith”. According to him, it would take at least two or three additional generations of students for this point to be accepted across the board.(( http://www.zeit.de/2016/07/islamische-theologie-universitaet-fach-studium-bilanz/komplettansicht ))

Positive results

A little more than five years after the creation of the new faculties, policymakers as well as Islamic scholars and theologians nevertheless continue to see the experiment in positive light.(( https://en.qantara.de/content/europe-and-its-muslims-islamic-theology-in-germany-spanning-the-divide?nopaging=1 ))

Academic observers have stressed that, among other beneficial contributions, the establishment of departments of Islamic theology has helped to bring a more adequate and more intellectually sophisticated Muslim voice to current debates; debates which are all too often controlled by questionable “Islam experts” without any solid theological credentials.((Antes, Peter and Rauf Ceylan (2017). “Die Etablierung der Islamischen Theologie: Institutionalisierung einer neuen Disziplin und die Entstehung einer muslimischen scientific community”. In Antes and Ceylan (eds.), Muslime in Deutschland: Historische Bestandsaufnahme, akutelle Entwicklungen und zukünftige Forschungsfragen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. )) Indeed, Muslim theologians have not shied away from weighing in on controversial issues.

Islamic theology’s struggle for independence

Thus, there are encouraging signs. They might enable Islamic theology at German universities to transcend its twofold challenge: first, like any new academic discipline, it needs to establish itself and find its own turf – institutionally as well as intellectually. This, by itself, is not an easy feat to accomplish.

In the case of Islamic theology, a second and more particular hurdle presents itself, linked to the inherently contested nature of the study of Islam itself. The most powerful factions seeking to gain definitional authority and dominance over the field are conservative Islamic associations on the one hand and public authorities on the other hand.

While the latter are ostentatiously more liberal than the former, they are nevertheless bent on enforcing their security agenda and on creating a state-backed ‘moderate’ Islam. If Islamic theology wants to come of age in Germany, it must shake off the demands of both sides and strive to cut its own path.

‘Freiburg Declaration’ by ‘secular Muslims’ starkly reveals fault-lines among German Muslim associations

A ‘secular’ and ‘European’ Islam

“We are dreaming of an Islamic reform”: this is the opening phrase of the ‘Freiburg Declaration’, a manifesto launched by a group of self-declared ‘secular Muslims’ from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.(( http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ )) The leading initiator of the Declaration is Abdel-Hakim Ourghi,  Head of the Islamic Theology department at Freiburg University of Education.

Over the course of the Declaration’s paragraphs, writers and signatories develop their thoughts on an “enlightened” and “European” Islam that cherishes religious freedom as well as human diversity in all its forms. Their stated ideal is “a Muslim community that conceives of religious faith as a personal affair between God and the individual and that is not afraid of questioning its own religion critically” in view of evolving circumstances and realities.((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

Subsequently, the text lays out a charter of “values” that include rejection of all forms of discrimination, equality of men and women, and an endorsement of “religious-ideological neutrality” in public service, which, according to the Declaration, necessitates that Muslim women do not wear a headscarf when fulfilling public functions. ((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

The text closes with a series of “goals” the signatories seek to reach, including a “historical-critical analysis” of the Quran, the “propagation of liberal-Islamic ideas and concepts”, the schooling of female imams, and the extension of “humanistically-oriented Islamic religious education” in public schools. The signatories also seek a reconfiguration of the discussion panels bringing together state and Muslim representatives so that “members of a reformed liberal Islam” are represented next to “members of conservative federations”. ((http://saekulare-muslime.org/freiburger-deklaration/ ))

Liberals vs. conservatives

The last point – the composition of state-convened panels and councils – touches on a particularly raw nerve. Many such fora exist at local, regional, and national level in Germany. Their remit includes debate on a range of issues, including the official recognition of Muslim associations (and the consequent conferral of legal, fiscal, and political privileges), as well as the introduction of Islamic religious education at public schools. The creation of these councils has picked up pace since the founding of the German Islam Conference (DIK) in 2006.

While the signatories of the Freiburg Declaration evidently estimate that “a reformed liberal Islam” has been underrepresented in these contexts, other observers have come to the opposite conclusion, arguing that the state staffed especially the DIK with handpicked – and consequently compliant – ‘liberal’ or ostentatiously ‘critical’ Muslim representatives. ((http://www.islamiq.de/2016/09/18/dik-staatliche-steuerung-durch-kooperation/ )) The Freiburg intervention is thus only the latest salvo in a protracted political battle over who can claim to speak for German Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish DITIB federation and the other large established associations have maintained an icy silence after the Declaration’s publication, which they must view as another assault on their legitimacy. By contrast, the text was approvingly reprinted on the website of the Kurdish Community in Germany (KGD), whose chairman Ali Ertan Toprak is one of the main signatories. ((https://kurdische-gemeinde.de/freiburger-deklaration-wir-traeumen-von-einer-reform-des-islam/ ))

That a Kurdish representative should take such a position against the ‘Islamic establishment’ is hardly surprising after the altercations of the past weeks and months, in which DITIB was often castigated for being a pawn in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and complicit in the post-coup crackdown of the Turkish President. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/26/amidst-political-controversy-german-ditib-association-vows-greater-emancipation-turkish-state/ )) The politics of religious organisation and institutionalisation in Germany are thus not just a purely domestic political game; rather, they also reflect the geopolitical turn of events elsewhere, especially in Turkey.

Fault-lines among ‘liberals’

However, Ourghi’s initiative also received harsh criticism from the fellow ‘liberal Muslims’ he claims to represent. The Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB) swiftly issued a statement clarifying that it did not support the Freiburg Declaration. In its communiqué, the LIB’s board accuses Ourghi explicitly and personally of “having become the accomplice of racist and Islamophobic discourses”. “A ‘liberal Islam’ stops being liberal where it unreflectingly falls into line with marginalising discourses of mainstream society”, or so the LIB asserted. ((http://lib-ev.jimdo.com/ ))

Indeed, Ourghi has a history of having fall-outs with other liberals: a few years ago, he accused Mouhanad Khorchide, Chair of Islamic Theology at Münster, of having plagiarised one of his books. However, while Ourghi’s claims were published in the large Austrian Der Standard newspaper, he was subsequently unable to substantiate his accusations with evidence. Somewhat paradoxically, Ourghi’s intervention against Khorchide was celebrated by the ‘conservative associations’ that Ourghi regularly criticises: given the fact that these federations have their own axe to grind with Khorchide – whose theses they regard as too freewheeling – they gladly used Ourghi’s attack as ammunition in their own fight with the Münster theologian. ((http://www.zeit.de/studium/hochschule/2014-01/khorchide-muenster-islamische-theologie-kritik ))

More recently, Ourghi has increasingly positioned himself publicly as a ‘critic of Islam’. When controversial writer Hamed Abdel-Samad published his latest popular science book on the life of Prophet Muhammad, Ourghi was one of the very few voices defending Abdel-Samad’s stark theses, which were widely disparaged in the scientific community as overly crude and even Islamophobic. ((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2015-12/hamed-abdel-samad-islamkritik-buch ))

The publication of the Freiburg Declaration is thus a further episode in the long-standing struggle for power and public recognition between various Muslim factions in Germany. In these struggles, theological differences, personal enmities, and jockeying for political influence intermingle freely. What arguably none of the various actors in this game foster is the much-needed further development of political dialogue and institutional structures that would benefit German Muslims. It almost appears that the further development of such frameworks – including the extension of religious education, or the progressive realisation of social, fiscal, and other privileges that the German constitution grants to all religious communities – need to be obtained not because of but in spite of the public interventions of those who claim to represent German Muslims.

New Centre of Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen

30.09.2011

The University of Tübingen opened the first German Centre of Islamic Studies/ Islamic Theology last week. The centre is one of four new centers for Islamic Theology nationwide (as reported) dedicated to the study of Islamic Theology to train, for instance, future imams or teachers for Islamic religious education. However, the interest by aspiring students has remained far behind expectations  and, so far, only 24 students have enrolled.

Islam in German Schools

08.07.2011

The federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony are planning to introduce Islamic religious education in state schools, starting at the beginning of the school year of 2012/ 2013 (as reported). The new subject is not only meant to impart knowledge and introduce children to Islamic practices, but also offers opportunities to promote tolerance and acceptance for people of different faiths. However, currently, the states are concerned about the lack of teachers to successfully implement these plans in practice.

 

To enable potential teachers for Islamic education to complete basic (and obligatory) university studies in theology, Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, is planning on introducing (and funding) Islamic Theology at four universities throughout Germany. The universities of Münster/ Osnabrück and Tübingen, for instance, offer some courses in the next academic year. Similar to the lack of teachers, the demand for lecturers and professors cannot be met domestically. Therefore, personnel will initially be recruited from abroad.

Plans for Islamic Education in Schools More Concrete

06.05.2011

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is planning on introducing Islamic religious education in approximately 130 schools next year. To date, it is uncertain, however, how many of the 320,000 Muslim students want to participate in Islamic education. Therefore, the need for additional teachers cannot be determined yet; roughly 60 teachers will complete an additional course in Islamic education this summer.

The state government considers the introduction of the new subject to be a milestone towards better integration and praises the cooperation with the Muslim umbrella organization Koordinationsrat der Muslime (KRM), which unites the four largest Muslim organizations in Germany. However, other Muslim organizations, such as the Alevi Community, have criticized the initiative, as the KRM does not represent all Muslims in Germany.

German university starts seminars for imams

7 October 2010
They intervene in cultural conflicts, marital disputes and dealings with the German authorities: Muslim spiritual leaders deal with the everyday and the soul. Osnabrück University has become the first in Germany to offer seminars for imams. Many hope it will prove a boon for integration.
For the first time ever, imams are going to be trained at a German university. It is a development long fought for by many German politicians.
The signal sent out by Osnabrück could hardly be more important. The German state is creating partners in its dialogue with Islam: imams trained in state institutions. Almost 100 imams and other religious counsellors (for example voluntary helpers in the Muslim communities) have expressed an interest in the program. The university only has 30 places on its one-year course. Among those taking part are men and women from Bosnia, Arabic countries, and Turkey.
As of Oct. 11 they will take classes in religious education and how to link religious ideas to the everyday life of Muslim children, young people and others in the community. How should they mediate when parents do not want their children to take part in school trips? How should they advise Muslims whose partner belongs to another religion. “It is also about respecting other religions, it is about people making it clear that Christians and Jews are also devout,” said Rauf Ceylan, professor for Islamic religious education at Osnabrück University.

Islamic Religious Education: Everything Still the Same

19/21 September 2010

One year following the debate raised by Mouhanad Korchide’s study of Islamic religious education in Austria, not much has changed. In Korchide’s report, it was discovered that 40% of teachers did not have a pedagogical background, while 33% felt overwhelmed by the workload – partly due to a lack of fluency in German. Meanwhile, 27% stated that they were opposed to the declaration of human rights, as it was incompatible with Islam.
The uproar led the Minister of Education Claudia Schmied to propose a “Five-point-program” in February 2009, so as to assure better conditions for students and teachers of Islam; however, one year later even the new syllabus has not been approved. The proposal which had been drawn up by the commission in charge of the question was sent back by the Department of Religious Affairs due to technical concerns, while the subsequent proposal has not been fully inspected. Without a new syllabus, there have obviously been no new textbooks.
One of the main problems is the lack of personnel. This has led to a practice whereby students of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria’s (IGGiÖ) Islamic studies program have been employed even before finishing their degrees.
Finally, in response to the earlier uproar, Minister Schmied has stated all Islamic religious instructors will be required to sign a new employment contract. In this contract they will state their commitment to democracy, human right, and the constitution – something not required of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, nor of Orthodox religious instructors.
According to Aly El Ghoubashy, a large part of the problem lies with the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGiÖ), and its leader Anas Schakfeh. El Ghoubashy, a religious instructor who was suspended in February 2009 due to his criticism of the IGGiÖ, says that Schakfeh “represents only himself,” and that the IGGiÖ is “not a church.” He argues that the state needs to take on a larger role with regard to Islamic religious education in Austria so as to balance the influence of the associations, and to avoid the “importation” of imams and instructors from abroad.

Turbulent times at Münster: high expectations for the chair of Islamic religious education

The University of Münster, being the first to offer teacher training for Islamic religious education, does not come to rest. While the university has selected a most suitable candidate for the chair, the Lebanese Austrian Mouhanad Khorchide, the decision has to be approved by the Islamic associations. Some therefore claim that the associations have too much influence over this position at a state university, after they have already urged professor Sven Muhammad Kalisch at the same department to step down, after he had doubted the existence of Prophet Mohammed.

Meanwhile, Khorchide has taken up teaching on a temporary position. One of his main goals is to bring Islamic theology in harmony with a modern life and to show that there are no contradictions. School children should not have to make a decision whether to be Muslim or European, but should feel that they are both.

Mouhanad Khorchide to become successor for the chair of Islamic religious education in Münster

Austrian-Lebanese Mouhanad Khorchide is top short-listed candidate for the chair of Islamic religious education at the University of Münster in Germany. Khorchide, who studied sociology and Islamic studies and taught religious education in Austria, caused a heated debate with the publication of this PhD thesis in 2009. One of the results of his thesis on Islamic religious education in Austria was that one fifth of Muslim religious teachers in Austria are radical in that they reject the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Politicians demanded stricter guidelines and some Muslims accused him of defamation.

The chair in Münster is the only one for Islamic religious education in Germany and has its own special history. Predecessor Sven Muhammad Kalisch has stirred controversies by doubting the existence of the Prophet Mohammed. Islamic associations vehemently criticized Kalisch and despite significant public support he had to step back from the chair in 2008. The reoccupation is to take place soon, but depends on the approval of the Islamic associations.

Muslims in the Balearic Islands unable to receive an Islamic religious education in public schools

Spanish law allows for a course on Islamic religious education in public schools upon request. However, during the last academic year, none of the 35 students who applied for the course had their request granted.

So far this year no one has applied for the lessons. Members of the Islamic community have complained about the situation.

The Islamic community in the Balearic Islands is estimated to be between 30,000 and 35,000 people.