Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika: “Muslims need new ways to approach their religious heritage”

The German Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it′s possible to find and develop a way of engaging critically with your own religious tradition, says Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika in an interview with Canan Topcu.

When did you first hear about Martin Luther?

Armina Omerika: I think I heard his name for the first time as a schoolgirl, in history lessons, but I don′t remember precisely when that was. For me, the figure of Luther is part of my general knowledge.

But many Muslims don′t even know about Luther′s existence, let alone his significance for Christianity – isn′t that true?

Omerika: I can′t say whether, what or how much each individual knows. And it certainly depends on a person′s educational background. The level of awareness of Luther among Muslims certainly also has something to do with the context in which they learn about Christianity.

In some Muslim societies – in the Middle East, for example – other forms of Christianity are more well known: Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. What people in Germany are often unaware of is that Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East actually studied the Reformation in depth during the 19th century, being sometimes even influenced by contemporary debates within German Protestantism.

Nevertheless, even people with a biographical connection to Christianity aren′t necessarily particularly well informed about Luther as a historical figure or his theological relevance.

From the viewpoint of an Islamic theologian, what stands out about Luther?

Omerika: The fact that Luther questioned the status of clergy keeps being picked up on by Islamic theologians – mainly because this institution doesn′t exist in Islam at all. In terms of the history of ideas, however, what is important to Islamic theologians is Luther′s image of Islam and Muslims and how it developed. It is well worth taking a closer look at the historical reception, the context and the reasoning behind such a negative image of Muslims.

In my view, it functioned as intra-societal criticism and had little to do with Muslims, particularly since Luther had absolutely no contact with Muslims; they weren′t part of his world. The criticism of Muslims was linked to criticism of the Catholic Church.

Is it actually important for Muslims today to study Luther?

Omerika: Yes, absolutely. One of the main arguments for studying Luther is the way he and his legacy are now being handled by Protestant theologians. The Evangelical Church in Germany, as well as colleagues in university theology departments, communicate and discuss Luther′s position on Jews, women, Muslims and social hierarchies quite openly. At the same time Christian theologians remain willing to pick up on other ideas put forward by Luther, building on them and bringing them to fruition.

The Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it is also possible for us to find and develop a critical approach to our own religious tradition.

The current “situation” in the Islamic world is often explained by the fact that there was no Reformation there. So does Islam need its own Reformation?

Omerika: I don′t think calls for reformation contribute much to the theological debate. Luther′s thought and work should be seen as a reaction to a very specific historical context. And that context can′t be mapped onto present-day Muslim societies. The problems that without doubt exist in the Islamic world are entirely different to those that existed in the German principalities of the 15th and 16th centuries; the crises in Muslim societies are the result of many factors such as poverty, the battle for resources, post-colonial problems, an absence of the rule of law and insufficient democratic legitimisation.

As far as Islamic thought is concerned: yes, it needs to reorient itself, the traditional texts need to be re-read and historicised. Traditional modes of thought should be examined to see whether their methodological and epistemological bases still provide a firm foundation today. Not just the content, but the processes by which we engage with the content need to be re-examined. There needs to be some thought given to whether the positions taken in the past still offer adequate solutions for Muslims today. The answer to these problems does not, however, lie in a reformation modelled on historical examples from another age.

Muslims certainly need new ways to approach their religious heritage – with a view to the present and the future – but what they don′t need is the approach favoured by radical factions: drawing on the past, a time when there were entirely different social models. Nor however do they need to draw on the Reformation, which for all its benefits, remains a historical phase that can never be recalled.

Canan Topcu

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

The theologian Mokrani: Message from Pope Francis adds new energy to the dialogue between Christians and Muslims

August 3, 2013

“We need to train our young people to think and speak in a way that respects other religions and their followers” is one of the key steps of the message that Pope Francis has addressed yesterday to Muslims around the world to mark the end of Ramadan. A very significant gesture, as pointed out by the Muslim theologian Adnane Mokrani, an Islamic theologian from Tunisia who teaches at the Vatican’s prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Mokrani – First, as a Muslim I am very happy to receive this message of peace and wishes from a great Pope. His name indicates interest in interreligious dialogue: Saint Francis is a symbol of dialogue with Muslims. So, the choice of the same name was a positive sign for interreligious dialogue. And it’s the first time that a Pope signs a letter so alive, so beautiful, open, a plea for mutual respect as a common basis of friendship, then, an appeal to young people respect other religions, and the leaders of other religions …

Pope Francis, who is returning from the experience of World Youth Day in Rio is addressing with particular attention to young people, their training, education …

Mokrani – This special attention to young people is very important to educate young people to dialogue, coexistence, common values ​​for humanity and a more peaceful, welcoming attitude … According to me, this is a common task, a common commitment that should be the goal of interreligious dialogue for the coming years.

How is this gesture seen in the Muslim world, from the media’s point of view, specifically how are these gestures of kindness, by Francis Pope taken by the faithful of Islam?

I believe that they receive positive reaction, despite the fact that the Islamic world today is taken by so many problems and challenges, and then the media is more interested in what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria: it is an very difficult. But in my opinion, this message may encourage people who are working in the field of interreligious dialogue, to move forward, to have hope and to find new energy. In my opinion, it is a message that gives hope and helps people who work in this field.

Christian manifestation against Islam in Valdocco, where two assaults of Sherif Azer took place in Porta Palazzo

July 25, 2013

Two attacks in the space of five days, the last happening as Sherif Azer left from the bank yesterday morning when two men threatened him. Sherif Azer, an Italian citizen born in Egypt and a Coptic Christian, became the victim of the Islamic world in the area of ​​Porta Palazzo. Sherif as the representative of the Coptic Christian community in Turin and vice-president of the “Save the Christians” was attacked and rescued by officers who continue to investigate the case. These are sufficient reasons to unleash the protest of a neighborhood that does not want to be known for violent acts or threats. The peaceful protest in the name of Sherif, took place last night on Rondò della Forca, on the corner of corso Valdocco.

A demonstration of solidarity against violence of Islam and in favor of law at Porta Palazzo, as well as solidarity with the victim of this story. Magdi Cristiano Allam just last night, launched an appeal asking the state to provide protection to Sherif Azer as he is a symbol of religious freedom and the defense of Christian civilization of Italy. Sherif, in fact, does not observe Ramadan and the Islamic fasting and this was enough to attract the antipathies of the entire Islamic world who see him as a kind of traitor. “Do not bow our heads in these abuses” said Allam “ Porta Palazzo, as in every other place in Italy, everyone does have a right to pray to the God whom they believe. This kind of retaliation is not tolerable.”

Allam echoed the opinion of Sherif Azer. “He who is not Muslim is seen as a sellout. I cannot even carry the crucifix at the risk of suffering a beating. This is terrorism, a cancer that Turin has to fight.” The parade that went through the whole center was also attended by many politicians. Including Vice President of the PDL citizen Silvio Magliano and regional councilors Augusta Montaruli and Giampiero Leo.

Book Review: ”The Daughters of Allah” by Nedim Gürsel

Allah’s Disempowered Daughters

In 2008, the renowned Turkish author Nedim Gürsel was charged with insulting Islam in his novel The Daughters of Allah. He was later acquitted. The novel has now been translated into German. Stefan Weidner read the book

Upon reading this book, it at last becomes apparent what has always been missing – from the western reader’s perspective – from even the best novels from the Islamic world. Although it has never been possible to exactly put a finger on it, these novels lacked an insight into the fundamental mindset, the spiritual substructure, woven of myths and legends, of the people about whom we are reading.

 

Pope Francis encourages “friendship between different religions”

March 20, 2013

Pope Francis wanted to give a strong signal to representatives of other faiths, “the Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions” said the Pope.

Francis greeted and thanked all those who belong to other religious traditions, “first and foremost Muslims, who worship the one God, those who are merciful and call upon him in prayer. I really appreciate your presence and your new willingness to grow mutual respect and cooperation for the common good. ”

The Islamic world gave a positive response, with the International Union of Muslim scholars who said they were ready to resume dialogue with the Vatican after the election of the new pope. The organization led by Yusuf Al Qaradawi had previously cut off all communication with Pope Ratzinger because of his position on Islam was considered hostile.

Saladin Ahmed’s ”Throne of the Crescent Moon” An Arab-American Fantasy Epic

Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon” is inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. In his review, Richard Marcus says the epic adds much needed diversity to the fantasy genre

Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn’t blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn’t prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either “swarthy” or “svart” while his heroes are universally pale-skinned by employing the well-worn “product of his times” argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can’t be offered the same out.

In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author’s imagination, or the fact that you can’t walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of ethnicities among the populace, it is a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale-skinned lovely.

A “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only” club

Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you’ll notice quite a difference from what you’d see on the street. It’s awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs, i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only.

This isn’t a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn’t look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

The combination of the book’s title and the author’s name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn’t be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myths and legends in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there’s a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full-length novel, and it’s not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of storytelling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers, he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past.

In this case he has looked to the ancient east African city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed’s descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Fighting ghuls and demons

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it’s true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he’s as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family.

As this story commences he’s forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he’s asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he’d been able to make peace with this trade-off, recently he’s began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.

Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you’re morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack.

The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men’s lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he’s picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn’t just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades.

Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor’s home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man, part jackal, who can’t be harmed by normal weapons, only by those made of silver. It’s only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survive the attack. For while Zamia’s silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would have gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its “blessed friend” sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn’t bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane.

The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince’s uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

Effortlessly convincing

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won’t be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over-explained and filled the story with unnecessary details, supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture solely through the deeds and thoughts of his characters.

Whether it’s something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you’ll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you’re more knowledgeable about.

However, don’t read this book because it’s different. Read it because its well written. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that’s something to look forward to.

”Young, German, Taliban”: What Causes Radicalization?

How does one explain the phenomenon of Salafism? And what causes young Islamists the world over to take up jihad? Wolf Schmidt offers some answers in his insightful book “Young, German, Taliban”. Albrecht Metzger has read the book

The recent riots in the Islamic world triggered by a crude film about the Prophet Mohammed once again demonstrates how deep the cultural divisions have become between the Islamic world and the West over the past decades.

Most Muslims regard it as taboo to ridicule religion, whereas most people in the USA and Europe have no problem with such insulting behaviour, even when directed against prophets, whether Christian or Muslim. These are differences that cannot be so easily bridged.

At the very least, non-Muslims should try to understand the nature of these religious sensibilities in the Islamic world and what can set them off. For many Muslims, the defence of religious honour is a way of challenging the political, cultural, and economic dominance of the West – even through the use of violence.

This disposition to violence is unsettling, particularly in a prosperous society like Germany, where most people appear to live well in comparison to other countries. Anxiety rises whenever religious motives are involved, as the notion of going to war for the sake of the cross is one that has been lost long ago.

The height of misunderstanding, however, is reached in cases where someone is prepared to sacrifice their life for a religion. Most people in Germany see this world-view as a relic from the Middle Ages.

Gardell: Breivik is not a mystery

June 4, 2012

 

Mass murderer Breivik is no mystery – are the words of History of Religion Professor Mattias Gardell (Uppsala University). Gardell was a witness called for by Breivik’s defense team on Monday (June 4). Breivik could also tell what formed him into a terrorist. The Swedish Professor (Gardell) analyzed Breivik’s over 1500-long manifesto. It mainly consists out of large chunks of text collected from various extreme right-wing and anti-Muslim forums and internet sites. Gardell was summoned as an expert witness who argued that Breivik’s ideas are shared by many people. “If they are to be incarcerated for (psychiatric) treatment, then you (the authorities) will have to build a very large care facility”, he said.

 

In the first psychiatric examination before the trial Breivik was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. These findings were primarily built on the assumption that he had delusionary images that the Islamic world is on the verge of taking over Europe. The psychiatrists also pointed out that Breivik had created new concepts, out of which national Darwinism  is prominent in his manifesto. These claims were dismissed by Gardell.

 

“It seems that they (psychiatrists) did not bother with making a web search of words such as cultural Marxism and national Darwinism. You would get a massive amount of hits,” Gardell said after the testimony. According to the Professor, Breivik is at his ideological core a fascist, who had built his ideology from ideas such as islamophobia, antifeminism, cultural conservative nationalism, and even white-power ideology. “Breivik is no mystery”, he said during the proceedings.

 

This analysis has been used by the defense team to demonstrate that Breivik is mentally sane, and therefore should be sentenced to prison and not psychiatric care. “If my expert opinion would contribute to sentencing (Breivik) to the hardest punishment mandated by the law, I would not lose any sleep over it”, Gardell comments.

 

The mass murderer himself was completely calm during Gardell’s presentation. One of the jurors even played a computer game during the proceedings, which was broadcasted by a TV-camera. Many of the defense’s witnesses have declined to appear in court. For that reason Breivik received extra time to present his personal experiences which had added to his hatred of Muslims. As a seven years old boy Breivik remembers getting his bicycle damaged by his friend’s father. Later his negative experiences were dominated by fights with Pakistani and Albanian gangs during the night life in downtown Oslo. Many of his accounts could not be verified.

 

Breivik had also mentioned that his political views were formed by the age of 15 when he had noticed that the media did not care much for the (social) problems he had seen. Breivik has a theory about why he had come to find himself in this situation of being accused of terrorism. He argued that his honor, as well the honor of the Norwegian people is vital to his worldview. “There are not many Norwegians who share this feeling.”

Signed: Peter Wallberg/TT

Obama and the Islamic World: One Year after Cairo Speech

By Muhammad Sahimi

Aside from the symbolic meaning of that choice –choosing Cairo as a place for delivering his speech-, we need to look at what the President and his administration have done to Muslims and the Islamic world ever since he took over in January 2009. I look at this at the levels of both Muslim individuals and Islamic countries. Let us consider first the developments at the country-to-country level….