There aren't enough seats to serve all the applicants at the University of Münster's Center for Islamic Theology. But a political battle is brewing in Germany over how the religion should be taught.
Quiet murmurs permeate the sparsely furnished office of the student assistants. A Koran rests in front of Daniel Garske as he silently recites a few verses. It's part of his course of study in the Islamic theology program at the University of Münster. "First and foremost I am motivated by personal enrichment and the acquisition of knowledge," the 33-year old student says. "With the knowledge I gain here, I want to achieve great things in life. And also help Islam gain a different image in society."
Three years ago Daniel Garske converted to Islam. For the past year he's studied at the Center for Islamic Theology in Münster, the largest of four such centers in Germany where teachers of Islam and imams are trained. Garske is one of the few converts amongst the Muslim students. He wants to stay at the university, teaching and researching. In principle the Islamic theology program should also prepare pastoral practitioners, such as imams. Currently many Turkish communities in Germany import imams from Turkey.
Dispute over the 'correct doctrine'
It may take a few years, but Islamic theologians trained in Germany can be integrated into m osques in Germany, Daniel Garske says with confidence. The centers, which are supported by the German federal government with about 20 million euros ($27 million), are met with criticism by some Islamic organizations. As a result, the German Central Council of Muslims is keeping its distance and questions the teachings of the Münster-based center. One of the allegations says there's too little focus on what is allowed and forbidden in Islam. Behind closed doors, it's a hotly debated topic.
Last week, German Federal President Joachim Gauck visited the institute, a move the center's director considered supportive. "It's a great sign of appreciation," said Institute director, Mouhanad Khorchide. "With our center we are pioneers, because there is no other place like it in Europe that offers such training." Khorchide sees himself as a researcher. As a result he rejects strict, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran, as some conservative followers are demanding.
Good job opportunities for graduates
Behind the scenes, however, are not only questions of curriculum. Germany's four largest Islamic organizations say they feel betrayed by the politics. They say they should be sitting as advisors at the table in order to fulfil the same task that churches fulfil in advising Christian theological programs. But for the past year, this advisory role has yet to come to fruition because the organizations continue to suggest potential advisors who are then rejected by authorities under Germany's Federal Constitution. The proposed advisers have allegedly been suspected Islamic fundamentalists. And that is precisely what German politics wants to keep out of the education of Islamic teachers and imams. Ultimately that was an important reason for the grounding of the four centers, in general.
However, the political friction doesn't seem to bother the students. There are more applicants than availability: 400 Muslims are now registered in the Islamic theology and Islamic religious education courses of study. The latter want to become teachers, and their chances at finding a job look quite promising. In the coming years, nearly 2000 Islamic religion teachers will be sought in Germany.
Religion in academics
Mariam Sarwary wants to work as an Islamic religion teacher someday. The 25-year old student shares a biography similar to many here: parents from Afghanistan, herself born in Germany, two years of Koran lessons in the mosque, but at school her religion was not discussed, "Which is what I was missing a bit, this academic approach to the religion," Mariam said. "With this course of study, I can find that missing piece. And I think it's great to be able to pass along to the children exactly what was missing for me when I was in school."
The curriculum is only just being developed, but the attitude in which Islam will be taught is already visible when talking with the professors at the Center for Islamic Theology. Above all else, Mouhanad Khorchide says one must use intellect to understand religion. "The task of theology is to justify religion rationally and to take responsibility," he said, adding that it's not about an unquestioning acceptance along the lines of, "I live my religion because it's there." And with that statement, he also gives his critics a very clear answer.