North Rhine-Westphalia is preparing a state-wide expansion of a pilot curriculum that introduces pupils to Islam. Students heading back to school on Thursday (23.08.2012) may soon have a new textbook: "Miteinander auf dem Weg" (On the Way Together).
The book's publisher claims it is the first textbook of its kind on the topic, presenting both facts and cultural norms and values. But Islam expert Michael Kiefer calls that marketing hype.
"We already have quite a few textbooks that look at Islam from an insider's perspective," Kiefer said, adding that what's new in "Miteinander auf dem Weg" is its detailed drawings and illustrations.
Settling on an interpretation
In textbooks for first and second graders whose reading skills will be very limited, incorporating strong visual elements is key, Kiefer said. The new publication offers colorful, approachable images in which protagonists Sarah and Bilal lead pupils through a slice of daily life that they can understand.
Kiefer considers the inter-religious segment of the book especially well executed.
"It's done very well because the kids can also pick up sound information about Judaism and Christianity there," Kiefer said.
The characters Sarah and Bilal are presented as the children of parents who immigrated to Germany. Sarah's parents are from Saudi Arabia, and Bilal's are from Turkey.
"I would have preferred for Islam to be shown with less of an emphasis on the perspective of immigration. After all, many Muslims living in Germany were born here and may even be fourth-generation German citizens," Kiefer noted.
Compromises and criticism
An author that does not just want to convey facts but also norms and values has to decide how much of the focus should be on traditional versus more modern interpretations of the Koran.
"Our intention was to create a textbook about Islam that can be supported by everyone," said publisher and author Mouhanad Khorchide. He noted that many in Germany's Muslim community hoped to see traditional Islam presented in the book.
Along with six additional authors, including members of Germany's four largest Islamic associations, Khorchide tried to incorporate the wishes of scholars, community groups, parents and students. The many tensions between traditionalism and modernity made compromises necessary, including in the depictions of Sarah, Bilal and other students in the book.
"The Muslim community would like to see the teacher wear a headscarf. But that is forbidden in Germany," Khorchide noted. The authors skirted the issue by using a male teacher.
At home, Sarah and Bilal's mothers do not wear any coverings on their heads. And in public, the book's characters are sometimes shown with and sometimes without scarves. That reflects students' experiences in daily life, Khorchide says, and these variations in the drawings allow female students some space to choose later between wearing a scarf or not.
The book has drawn criticism for a different compromise, though. The book uses the Arabic term "Allah" rather than translating the word for God into German. Critics have said this could be interpreted to mean that Allah is not God - or represents just a single god.
"I think that when you are behind a book like this, you can't make any compromises," said Islam scholar and publicist Lamya Kaddor. Kaddor added that Mouhanad Khorchide bears responsibility for the picture of Islam among the next generation of Germans. "If it gets to a point that pupils think Allah and God are not the same thing and that only our God is called Allah, while other people call their deity simply God - I couldn't support that."
Religion and reality
Mouhanad Khorchide, who leads the Center for Islamic Theology in Münster, will continue to deal with the conflicts that arise between tradition and modernity, state and religion. For example, his book claims that Muslims can pray to Allah everywhere they please - from a religious perspective. But German courts have issued rulings that would infringe on that right.
"Miteinander auf dem Weg" for first and second grade students is intended as the start of a series that would accompany Muslim pupils all the way through the final year of high school. There are also plans to produce corresponding materials for teachers. But the new curriculum has not yet been approved. Only then can the title "Miteinander auf dem Weg" be accepted by educational authorities as a textbook.