Education

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    The Difficulty of Teaching Islam
    Islamic Religious Instruction in German Schools

    Germany has been waiting for the introduction of denomination-specific Islamic religious instruction in schools for many. Finally, things have started to move but the process has been dogged by numerous problems and disputes.

    The introduction of Islamic religious instruction in schools is in line with paragraph 7(3) of Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, which states that ‘Religious instruction shall form part of the regular curriculum in state schools, with the exception of non-denominational schools. Without prejudice to the state’s right of supervision, religious instruction shall be given in accordance with the tenets of the religious community concerned.’ Religious instruction is considered a right of all Muslims and Germany’s federal states have either already implemented it or aim to do so.

    It is therefore indisputable that religious instruction in Islam should have a fixed place in the German education system. In accordance with the recommendation made by the German Council of Science and Humanities in 2010, the German federal government made tens of millions of euros available to establish academic centres for Islamic religious instruction at a variety of universities across Germany. The intention was for these centres to train the teachers of Islam needed to provide this religious instruction.

    Despite initial objections from some Muslim groups with close ties to their countries of origin, which had for many years integrated the teaching of Islam into the teaching of their respective mother tongues, most representatives of the Muslim community now agree that this religious instruction should formally fall within the state-run supervision of schools and should be provided in German.

    The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany

    Because a Muslim partner entity was needed to help prepare the introduction of denomination-specific religious instruction at schools, some of the larger Muslim associations in Germany joined forces and set up what is known as the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM), so that the various state branches of the KRM could act as this required Muslim partner for the various state governments. Some federal states accepted this offer; others sought their own solutions. For example, the federal state of Hesse works only with the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion (DITIB) and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The situation in the states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is very different. In both cases, the subject known as ‘Islamic Religion’ has already been introduced in a number of pilot projects. Here, preparations were made largely in conjunction with so-called ‘advisory councils’. Bavaria, on the other hand, is working with two models simultaneously: one is the provision of classes in Islamic Studies and other is the so-called ‘Erlangen model’, where parents’ associations and other Muslims who are organised at local and association level act as contacts for the authorities.

    By way of example, let us take a closer look at the advisory council model adopted by NRW and Lower Saxony. The state government of NRW, for example, emphasises that some Muslim organisations were given a significant say in both shaping the content of the subject (drawing up the curriculum, approving teaching material, etc.) and approving teaching staff at schools and universities, which it feels fulfils the requirement stipulated in the Basic Law that religious instruction shall be given in accordance with the tenets of the religious community concerned. The advisory council model was applied both at university level (namely at the University of Munster) and at state level. The state government of Lower Saxony has adopted a similar approach, especially when it comes to the granting of what is known as the ijazah, the authorisation that all teachers of Islam require.

    Which Islam should be taught?

    A faith-led Islamic theology is required at university level. However, just how far opinions can diverge even on this matter is illustrated by the current controversy surrounding Professor Mouhanad Khorchide, currently Professor of Islamic Theology at the University of Munster. For quite some time now, Prof. Khorchide has been the target of massive criticism, above all from the associations in the KRM, some of whom accuse him of being ‘too modern’, and some of whom say he is even passing on ‘false teachings’. In addition to numerous other reproaches, complaints have also been made that Khorchide is not teaching the Islamic ‘mainstream’. In December 2013, the KRM even went as far as to say that there were irreconcilable differences. Despite the ongoing dispute, Prof Khorchide is still a member of the Advisory Council for Islamic Religious Instruction in NRW.

    While Islamic Theology expects an internal perspective on religion to be taught, this does not mean that this internal perspective should come from an opinion that prevails within the religious community at any given time or place. It is not absolutely necessary to make the current faith orientation practised by a majority the sole subject of research and tuition. At the very least, a certain diversity of opinion must be possible.

    At all universities, future teachers are trained in accordance with a curriculum that has already been approved by university bodies and bodies set up by representatives of the Muslim community. However, if functionaries in certain Muslim associations create the impression that students in the individual departments are completing their studies under the supervision of a university lecturer who is not recognised by that association, then this is very disconcerting for the students in question. Many are just about to complete their degree courses or are right in the middle of them. They cannot simply switch universities, and fear that they are jeopardising their future career. By acting in this way, the associations are turning on the most defenceless people, and also the wrong people in this matter, namely: the students. This situation is robbing students of the possibility of choosing a university as they see fit, which is one of the rights enjoyed by students at German universities.

    It goes without saying that the state cannot assume responsibility for the content of theological instruction at a university. Nor is that its constitutional duty. On the contrary: the state is obliged to act in a neutral manner towards all denominations. It also goes without saying that the religious communities have to be involved in the process.

    Who speaks on behalf of the Muslims?

    However, Muslims in Germany are not organised in structures that have developed and evolved over the centuries, as is the case with the Christian Churches. Two aspects are problematic in this respect:
    • Who then speaks on behalf of Muslims?
    • Are there Islamic structures that can address the issues that need to be tackled, or does Islam in Germany have to adopt Church structures, i.e. does it have to organise itself in the same hierarchical way as the Christian Churches?
    Debate has been raging about the first question for years now, whereby no consideration has ever been given to the possibility that the answer to the second question could be inextricably linked to the answer to the first. This basically means, for example, that those people who see themselves as the representatives of many Muslims cannot allow Islam to be established in Germany at the expense of the fundamental tenets of Islam, nor can they promote any such move. Islam does not have a sole and single contact person and a religious leader, nor have Muslim communities throughout the history of Islam been administered centrally or had a clear hierarchy like the communities of the Christian Churches. However, just because the German state is not familiar with anything but Church structures such as these, and has thus far had virtually no experience of religious communities that do not have these structures, it does not mean that one cannot negotiate with religious communities that are structured in different ways. It is indeed possible. However, a little more flexibility is required of the state.

    The granting of the ijazah plays a key role in all of this. In the past, Islamic tradition had it that students learned what they needed to know from their teachers. Once they had successfully completed this process of learning, the teacher would grant them what is known as the ijazah (permission), which permitted that student to start teaching the material he/she had learned.

    So if the aim is to maintain the Islamic character of teaching, both in terms of methodology and content, maintaining at least this tried and tested traditional method would be most welcome. Instead, there are arguments about the orthodoxy of the individual graduates, and judgement is passed on them, something which reminds us of the practice of the Christian Churches. The German school authorities are having great difficulty adopting a flexible approach to this matter, and in many cases, the solutions they come up with are often in sharp contrast to Islamic views. Islam is in favour of making basic decisions at local level. If, for example, a prayer leader or a teacher does not meet the requirements of the community, he can look for another Islamic community. However, this does not impinge upon the fact that he is permitted to teach. Nor does it call into question the orthodoxy of his faith.

    Although the German Council of Science and Humanities has said that the academic qualification is the responsibility of the university alone and that the respective Islamic advisory councils can only raise objections on the basis of religious scruples, what exactly that means is not explained in any greater detail.

    For example, the fact that a marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man can be seen as an obstacle to the granting of the ijazah, even if the teacher in question has been teaching successfully and with the approval of the majority of the parents, pupils, and the head teacher at her school for years, should make us think.

    Courage to discuss matters

    The notion that students have to conform in every respect to a mainstream that is defined from outside also raises questions, regarding:

    a) the curricula that have been approved by most of the Islamic communities, and
    b) the concept of the freedom of research and tuition, which is required by all German universities.

    Teaching staff teach in accordance with a curriculum that has been approved by religious communities, among other bodies. However, this does not mean that students at university do not have to learn to deal with diverging opinions and trends, and to address them in a constructive manner. Unless they subsequently teach lower age groups, they will be confronted with diverging ideas at the latest when they enter the classroom. Moreover, pupils must be encouraged to raise different opinions in class and to question the opinions of the teacher.

    This kind of inner-Islamic discourse allows for a better exploration and discussion of the ‘mainstream’. It is also mutually enriching for all sides, and would be good for all denominations of Islam. After all, this is an old tradition: there has always been a diverse inner-Islamic discourse, which was especially lively in the early Islamic period. Many still look back with great pride on what Muslims achieved in a variety of areas, including the humanities. However, these achievements were only possible because early Muslims looked and thought outside the box, dared to go against the ‘mainstream’, and derived academic principles on the basis of the Koran that did not correspond to the fundamental vision of the world that prevailed during that period. For example, as early as the eighth or ninth century, Muslim scholars said that the world was not flat.

    Another example: Islam does not have priests who are appointed to positions by a superior institution such as the Church. Instead, prayers in the community have always been led by someone who was considered an acceptable prayer leader by that community. This way of thinking and acting is a form of grassroots democracy that has always been good for Muslims. From an Islamic point of view, therefore, universities cannot train prayer leaders (imams), only theologians. The same is true of the Christian Churches: a degree in theology does not make someone a priest; the Church provides further postgraduate training before ordination. This is why it seems a little strange that up until 2012 the following requirements were outlined in the ijazah ordinance for the state of Lower Saxony:
    • for male applicants: indication of the mosque generally attended for Friday prayers and the German-language manuscript of a khutbah written and presented there by the applicant himself;
    • for female applicants: details of the mosque generally attended and the provision of plausible evidence that the applicant is involved in the work of the community.
    Happily, this ijazah order has since been greatly improved, and criticism of it has been taken on board. It is to be hoped that these changed guidelines went hand-in-hand with a certain rethink with regard to content and that they were not just a formal concession in order to make it easier for the graduates to be hired as teachers, regardless of their theological views. Time will tell whether the relevant people in the German authorities and the Islamic associations really do handle the ijazah more generously.

    However, if internal Islamic debates about female prayer leaders for mixed-gender prayer (such as the one led by Amina Wadud in the USA in 2005, and also in the meantime in various places in Germany) are anything to go by, there is little to indicate that they will. In this respect, however, everyone involved should realise that this is a trend that cannot simply be ignored, and which must be taken into account when training teachers for Islamic religious education.

    Diversity is needed

    Generally speaking, the move towards denominational Islamic religious instruction is good and right. It should, however, be clear that it cannot be developed and managed according to the pattern of Christian religious instruction and its established traditions. Islam requires not only plurality of thought, but also an independent structure that all sides will have to develop together. As is stated in a number of declarations: ‘The self-image of Muslims, the diversity of the organisational structures, and the requirements of theological competence should be taken into account.’

    The diversity inherent in Islam must also be reflected. Disappointment with existing Muslim organisations is spreading among young people in Germany, even though this is the very generation that needs to be reached. It will only be possible to do so if the whole gamut of Islamic perspectives is taken into account.

    There is an old saying which is also applicable to the teaching of Islam at schools: ‘He who swims with the current will never reach the source!’
    Rabeya Müller is a Muslim theologian who is particularly committed to gender issues in Islam and to a progressive Islam and Islamic religious education in Germany.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2014

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