Education and Language

Islam at German Universities? The Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology

Logo des Graduiertenkollegs; © GKITLogo of the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology; © GKIT

These days, teachers of Islamic religious education can be found in Germany, and now imams are also to be trained here for the country’s Moslem communities. But by whom? A new PhD programme seeks to promote academic Islamic theology in Germany.

Noha Abdel-Hady in Hamburg is researching a topic which many Germans find hard to believe even exists: Islamic feminist theology and fatwas – or religious rulings – for women. “In early Islam, even well into the seventh century, there were important female scholars of Islamic law”, says Abdel-Hady, going on to explain that women in the twentieth century, particularly in Egypt since the 1970s, have been reconnecting with these roots. By way of an example, Abdel-Hady cites Soad Saleh and Abla Al-Kahlawi, two female scholars who to this day stand for a reform-oriented Islam and with whom she has also spoken for the purposes of her doctoral thesis.

Female theologists in the majority so far

Member of the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology: Noha Abdel-Hady (on the right); © Stiftung Mercator/Marisa KlasenAbdel-Hady is one of seven PhD students who enrolled in the autumn of 2011 in the first year of the newly founded Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology. Stiftung Mercator will be inviting applications this year for eight additional places on the course. The foundation is funding the project with 3.6 million euros, spread over six years. Among the seven young theologists are just three men, but four women. Like Noha Abdel-Hady, Nimet Seker is also addressing an aspect of feminist theology. Most of the PhD students were born or grew up in Germany, and all studied here. They come from Turkish, Iranian and Afghan families.

The new PhD programme is supraregional in structure, with research centres in Hamburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Paderborn, Frankfurt, Erlangen-Nuremberg and, since November 2011, Tübingen. Its director is Professor Omar Hamdan and the programme is coordinated by Mouhanad Khorchide in Münster. Like most of his colleagues, Khorchide so far has mainly been involved in training teachers of Islamic reglious education. For some years now, Germany’s federal states have been gradually introducing religious instruction for Moslems into schools, yet there are still far too few qualified teachers. The next step is to provide university training for imams in Germany to replace those who are generally “imported” from the countries of origin of Moslem immigrants and, like Christian priests spending time abroad, often remain in Germany for only a few years.

The German model for religious integration

Members of the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology; © Stiftung Mercator /Marisa KlasenIt is gradually becoming clear that this is all part of a kind of master plan to integrate Islam into the German school and university system. On the one hand, teachers and spiritual leaders are to be trained at state institutions, while on the other hand religious content is to be determined by religious communities rather than by the state, which is why denominational religious education and theology are taught. It is not difficult to identify in this approach the specifically German way in which Christian churches are represented at university and school level. Evidently, Islam in Germany is to be dealt with in the same way. Abdel-Hady welcomes this development, explaining that academic thinking is by no means an alien concept to Islam. “Incorporating Islam into the German university structure will now establish a common basis for dialogue between religions and in society”, says Abdel-Hady.

Who represents the Moslems?

Nonetheless, this process finds itself repeatedly confronted with one particular problem: there is no central organization of Islam as there is with the Christian churches. For this reason, Germany’s federal states have brought the umbrella organizations of the Moslem associations – the Central Council of Moslems and the Islamic Council – into the advisory committees of the institutes of Islamic theology. Here they have the right of veto when lecturers are appointed – a right they are happy to take advantage of. One well-known case was the conflict surrounding Münster professor of Islam Sven Kalisch. He resigned from the religious education teacher training programme because he had expressed doubts about the historical existence of Mohammed, with the result that the Islamic associations on the advisory committee no longer viewed him as tenable.

Members of the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology; © Stiftung Mercator /Marisa Klasen

No such advisory committee model was adopted for the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology, however. “Islamic associations have no say in the selection of candidates or their research projects”, says Janfelix Engelhardt from Stiftung Mercator. He does not regard the acceptance of the young academics as later instructors of Islamic religious teachers and imams as a problem. “So far, we have attracted no criticism from the Islamic associations. After all, our candidates come from the Moslem community and are well connected there.”

There is criticism from another corner, however, which is also regularly directed at the Islam conferences staged by Germany’s federal minister of the interior: the Islamic associations in Germany, it is claimed, are by no means representative of practising Moslems living here. Only a minority is organized in these associations. What is more, the largest single association, the Turkish union Ditib, is controlled directly by the Turkish state – as the journalist Ahmet Senyurt pointed out in a programme broadcast by Westdeutscher Rundfunk when the Post Graduate Program Islamic Theology was launched.

“Taming” or participation?

University of Münster - castle; © WWU/Peter GrewerIt is already clear that those involved in “Islam at German universities” take different views of this joint project. Politicians, for instance, like to talk about its “valuable contribution to integration”, as the then interior minister Thomas de Maiziére (CDU) put it. Münster constitutional law expert Christian Walter spoke openly of the state’s “legitimate interest to tame [Islam]”.

This sparked criticism from one of the PhD students taking part in the programme. “Participation is the key word, not integration”, wrote Nimet Seker in an article published in “Christ und Welt”, a religious magazine. Islamic theology and Islamic religious education should not be misused for political ends. At the same time, however, Seker also expects some degree of integration from Islamic religious instruction. “Unfortunately, national identities still play a role in some mosque communities”, she writes, so she views “joint learning by pupils of Bosnian, Arab, African, Turkish and German origin” as a great opportunity.

Gregor Taxacher
is a theologian who works as an editor for German broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk and as a freelance author (specializing among other things in Christianity, Judaism and Islam) in Cologne.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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