Islamic theology in Germany: Spanning the divide

Five German universities have been offering degrees in Islamic theology since 2010. How successful are these courses and how much influence do the universities have? Arnfrid Schenk takes stock

By Arnfrid Schenk

More than four million Muslims live in Germany and 750,000 pupils of Muslim faith attend German schools. Islam is one of Germany′s religions – that is no longer a provocative statement, but a simple fact. Nonetheless, Islamic theology was not offered by German universities for many years, nor were schoolchildren offered Islamic religious education in German.

The German Council of Science and Humanities, the leading advisory body in German education policy, therefore recommended in 2010 that degree courses in Islamic studies be established at German universities. This would allow theologians, imams and, above all, Islamic religious studies teachers to be trained.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research provided a total of 20 million euros in funding over the course of five years to pay for Islamic centres at the universities of Munster, Osnabruck, Frankfurt am Main, Tubingen and Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Annette Schavan, the minister of education at the time, was the driving force behind the project: she hoped to create courses in theology that would succeed in bringing religion into the present day. The new subject was also supposed to serve as a milestone in terms of integration.

New subject gets good marks

The subject was evaluated in 2016 to take stock of the progress made so far. The assessment given by Islamic scholars and theologians proved positive. As Federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka put it, the Muslim faith has found a home for itself in the academic and theological debate thanks to the centres.

Around 1,800 students, both male and female, have enrolled in the bachelor′s and master′s courses at the universities. Funding is to be made available for a further five years, while faculties of religious education and theology have also been established in Paderborn and Freiburg. Berlin is still discussing whether to follow suit.

Annette Schavan flanked by theologians Bulent Ucar (left) and Mouhanad Khorchide (right) opens the Centre for Islamic Theology at the University of Munster in 2012 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Pioneering theological work: ″the subject of Islamic theology is still in its infancy in Germany. Nonetheless, it is making good progress. There is greater freedom of thinking in Germany than is possible in most Islamic countries – an opportunity that should be seized,″ writes Arnfrid Schenk

The road has not always been smooth, co-operation with the Islamic associations proving to be one obstacle. These include for example the Ditib (Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), the Islamic Council and the Central Council of Muslims. Even though they represent only a good third of Muslims in Germany, over 80 percent of the mosque communities number among their members.

They are involved in the Islamic degree courses at the universities through what are known as advisory councils and they are supposed to have a say – rather like churches do in the case of Christian theological faculties – when it comes to personnel decisions and indeed teaching content. These associations are highly conservative and orthodox in orientation. For them, theology is the administration of religious scholarship. For this reason, many academics have warned of the risk of association officials being overly intrusive – which would undermine the freedom of research and teaching at a state university.Asserting their authority to interpret Islam

Munster is a particularly good example of just how difficult this co-operation can be. Mouhanad Khorchide runs the Centre for Islamic Theology there: he wants to renew Islam from the inside out, placing the central focus on the believer′s rationality and ability to speak and think for themselves. The association officials were worried about losing their authority to interpret Islam in Germany and claimed that the professor, who in their eyes was far too liberal, acted outside the boundaries of Islam and was not teaching in accordance with Islamic scripture. They demanded his resignation and had an expert report drawn up that was supposed to reveal his alleged errors. The university leadership stuck by Khorchide, since which time there has been a kind of truce between the two sides.

Filling staff positions poses another obstacle. Where are the requisite academic staff to be found so quickly? Not only should professors have a qualification in theological training, they should also be able to teach in German. It is not possible to find perfect candidates to fill all the necessary positions, though most of the initial difficulties have been overcome.

Many of the chairs have meanwhile been filled and a certain diversity has evolved, with centres focusing on different aspects: some concentrate more on Koranic exegesis and others more on Islamic law. In Munster, for example, one research focus is on the study of Islamic norms and their methodology, while Islamic religious education is one focus in Frankfurt/Giessen. What they all have in common is that they wish to enable a historically critical reading of the Koran and to serve as a bridge to the reality of life for Muslims in Germany.

Distinguishing between religious belief and academic study

And what are the students themselves interested in? ″Many of them are keen to deepen their faith rather than pursue academic study,″ says Harry Harun Behr, professor of religious education in Frankfurt am Main. Mouhanad Khorchide is also familiar with the challenge involved in making it clear to the students what it means to study theology at a secular university. Many of them still find it difficult to make a distinction between religious belief and academic work. ″They want to have their faith confirmed, yet the university is a place at which to reflect upon one′s faith.″ Khorchide believes that it will take one or two more generations of students before this really gets through to everyone.

The subject of Islamic theology is still in its infancy in Germany. Nonetheless, it is making good progress. There is greater freedom of thinking in Germany than is possible in most Islamic countries – an opportunity that should be seized.

The post-graduate programme in Islamic theology that the universities have jointly initiated with Stiftung Mercator is one step in this direction. Its goal is to address the shortage of Islamic scholars trained in Germany.

It already produced nearly 20 young academics with outstanding qualifications. They will shape theology in Germany in future and will represent Muslims in academia, schools and the public sphere – Islam made in Germany.

Arnfrid Schenk

© Goethe-Institut 2017