From Islamic Religion to Muslim Denominations

Respected historian Dan Diner talks to Nader Alsarras about the consequences of secularisation in Europe, the necessity of change for Islam and the relationship between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

Dan Diner (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb)
Dan Diner: "Islam has the opportunity now to reacquire its own tradition, and one that was part of the tradition of the ancient world"

​​ You have talked about what you call the "confessionalisation" of Islam in the context of a Europe where Muslims and non-Muslims live alongside one another. Confessionalisation is a relatively new coinage that is usually employed by historians of the Reformation in Germany in the 16th and 17th century. What exactly did you mean by it?

Dan Diner: The secularism in which we live is a Christian form of secularisation. Our entire canon of knowledge, based on the institutions, the political theory, the law and so on, is a product of secularisation, but of Christian secularisation. The people who come here have a different canon, with different knowledge, with a different understanding of the law. And the transformation that they will have to go through will also change the way in which we see ourselves. At the same time, they will also have to change in view of the fact that the canon of beliefs within the Islamic religion – which, rather than just a faith, is a system which imposes order and regulates society in Islamic countries – is undergoing confessionalisation. That is the operative word.

"Confessionalisation" in this context means that here in the West, the individual confessions or denominations are all that remain of a once all-embracing religion. Just as a Protestant or a Catholic goes to church, or a Jew to the synagogue, but then afterwards goes back to just being a "person" on the street – German, French, Swiss or whatever.

Muslims will also go through this process. But because they come from a non-European, i.e. non-Western and non-Christian context we will be forced to think about the process of change they are going through and at the same time to re-examine and question this change, which we ourselves have gone through over a period of more than 400 years. That is the double movement I referred to. Our secular canon will undergo change while the Islamic religion will be transformed into a Muslim denomination.

​​ In your book "Versiegelte Zeit" (Sealed Time) you put forward the thesis that the stasis within the Islamic world can be understood in terms of the dominant and pervasive presence of the 'sacred' in all aspects of life. To what extent are Muslim immigrants bringing this understanding of the sacred to Europe?

Diner: The most important thing that comes with secularisation, and it began 400 years ago with us, is the gradual emergence of so-called spheres. We distinguish between the "intimate", the "private" and the "public". We would not do or say anything in public that belongs to the intimate spere. If someone breaks the rule, we notice and are irritated by it. So this division into spheres is a consequence of secularisation. In the Islamic world, these distinctions are not really made, at least not on such a fundamental level. The sacred, the presence of God in everyday life, so to speak, is much greater than it is for us in Europe. If someone in the Islamic world commits a crime or sins, then it is seen as something that concerns everyone, because the sin is perceived as having been committed against God.

Muslims who come to live in this part of the world are faced with having to re-think their sense of their own identity – and they are doing this. It is like a kind of negotiation process dealing with questions such as: Who are we? Why are we? What are we? What is the meaning of the veil? What does it not mean? Ultimately, all of these questions are an expression of secularisation.

Some people, such as Micha Brumlik, or the philosopher Almut Bruckstein, for example, claim that there are parallels between the current conflict with Islam in Europe and that with Judaism in the late 19th century, in terms of the hostility directed towards these two religions. To what extent do you see parallels between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe?

Diner: I don't entirely. I see parallels to the extent that the Jews, down to the present day, or at least until the beginning of the 20th century, were the only non-Christian religion in the context of European Christianity. In this respect they were the "Other". But that had more to do with the classic anti-Judaism.

In the 19th century anti-Judaism turned into anti-Semitism, which is about more than just religion. Quite the contrary in fact. Classic anti-Semitism seeks out the "invisible" Jews, not the "visible" ones, not the caftan Jews, not those one can identify as Jews. It was a reaction to modernity. Suddenly, people no longer understood what holds the world together. It was the Jews who were to blame for everything. 'The Jews control the stock market, the Jews are doing this, and the Jews are doing that.' It's a modern phenomenon.

Image of Ibn Sina, medieval manuscript entitled 'Subtilties of Truth', 1271 (source: Wikipedia)
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was among the Islamic philosophers who reintroduced ancient Greek philosophy into Europe

​​ There is a different reason for the hostility to Muslims nowadays; it is not the same. In terms of its xenophobia, in so far as that is what it is, they are very similar, but not in substance. If one says that 'caftan Jews were looked upon as strange or alien,' well, yes, that's true, but that was not what set off the anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was sparked off by the assassination of Walther Rathenau, or by the Dreyfus Affair, where no one had seen any Jewish association because he was a French officer. In other words, anti-Semitism is an image of the abstract and that which people did not understand. The stock markets collapsed, fortunes were destroyed. They didn't understand. They didn't understand modernity.

We often come across the expression "Judeo-Christian tradition" in the media, especially from the mouths of politicians. Has this just become a cliché, or can one say, as Almut Bruckstein does, for example, that this construction expresses a "favourite myth of the traumatised Germans."

Diner: It's an expression that belongs to the post-1945 American re-education programme for Germany. It was felt at that time that one should not talk about the Jews alone, so they were merged into the "good" Christian tradition. This is where the expression originated. So in this respect it is true to say that it is a classic German invention. There is something to be said in this connection, however, which may be important and relevant to our topic. There is common ground, of course, but Islam is an integral part of this common ground, namely the common ground of the ancient world. And the same holds true for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Islam today is faced with the challenge of re-examining its adoption of ancient Greek philosophy. It was Islam that reintroduced this philosophy into Europe, but, since the 12th or 13th centuries, it has disappeared from within Islam itself. Islam, therefore, has the opportunity now, to reacquire, as it were, its own tradition, and one that was part of the tradition of the ancient world.

If one examines the ancient world – Greece, Rome etc. – Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together. That would be common ground, a common ground, strangely enough, in Greek philosophy – or "falsafa" as it is called in Arabic. It is, therefore, the legacy of Plato and Aristotle, but it also belongs to the history of secularisation.

Interview: Nader Alsarras

© 2011

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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