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Islamic success story

Christoph Strack / mllJanuary 16, 2013

New Islamic theology courses at German universities are proving highly popular, even abroad. The courses were announced only three years ago, but they are already changing the German religious landscape.

A Muslim reading the Koran Photo: Rainer Jensen dpa/lbn
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Islamic theology is finding its place in German universities at a pace which is surprising many. German academics even speak of Germany acting as a magnet for talent from other European countries.

"There's never been such a process before at European universities," says Reinhard Schulze, who teaches Islam at the University of Berne in Switzerland.

Lecturers at German universities, speaking at a meeting of experts with the German parliamentary education committee, said they were convinced that there would be a rapid increase in the teaching of Islam.

'A matter of justice'

Katajan Amirpur of the University of Hamburg said that setting up new theology courses had been "a matter of justice." Mathias Rohe from the University of Erlangen felt that establishing the courses at universities had provided a "very big boost." Bülent Ucar, a specialist in the teaching of Islam from Osnabrück, took the opportunity to thank the politicians at federal and state level for their commitment over the past years.

There was an unusual level of optimism and an unusual amount of praise for politicians, but there are still problems which are mainly due to the way in which religion is organized in Germany. Unlike with the Christian churches and the Jewish community, there is no formal arrangement for dealing with the Muslim community.

The signing ceremony
In Bremen, the state has signed an accord with the Muslim communityImage: Bremen, Senatspressestelle

Only recently, the two city states of Hamburg and Bremen took a first step. But even there, the Muslim associations don't have the status of "Corporations in Public Law," without which they find themselves not entitled to cooperation with the state and financial support.

The need for academic training has been felt for a long time. The federal government estimates that 2,200 teachers will be needed for the planned development of Muslim religious education in schools. And there are over 1,000 imams in Germany, many of whom have never had any academic training, and who would provide a ready market for further education.

Centers of Muslim theology

The German Council of Science and Humanities provided the initial impulse for the establishment of Muslim theology as a university subject in 2010. The council, which is the most important advisory body for the government in the academic field, examined theology at universities for three years, and only after much discussion did Islam emerge as an issue.

"Initially, Islamic studies and Islamic theology weren't an issue at all," remembers Schulze, who was part of the council’s working group. "That was the logical conclusion of a productive examination of the field of academic theology in Germany."

Prominent figures cut the tape at the center Photo: Franziska Kraufmann dpa/lsw
The center at Tübingen was formally opened exactly a year agoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the end, the federal education minister, Annette Schavan, set up four centers of Islamic theology in Münster/Osnabrück, Tübingen, Frankfurt/Giessen and Nürnberg/Erlangen which all came into operation in 2010 and 2011.

Language problems

There are plenty of challenges in many different areas. One is the confrontation with what the academics call "lay theologians" - fundamentalist preachers or believers.

Katajan Amirpur has set up an "Academy of World Religions" in Hamburg, which is intended to bring Muslims into academic exchange with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others. Several other experts spoke about the need to get the various branches of Islam to talk to each other. And Rohe, who has been active in the field for some time, talked about the difficulty of finding suitable candidates for the many new professorships.

That's a problem which has now been solved at all the four centers. Rohe pointed to other teething problems, but he saw every reason to be optimistic. Another issue, though, was inadequate skill in both the German and Arabic languages.

As well as the professors and the politicians, the committee also heard from a student in his first semester. Enes Erdogan described the new course as "a dream come true." The move from a tough inner-city part of Berlin to the university in Osnabrück was "the first time in my life that I had moved house" - a fact that illustrated what a major break in his life the course had been. At home in Berlin he had "had to put up with a lot" as a result of the lack of knowledge about religion: "People give religion a very high status, but they don't know much about it," he said. It was a matter of identity.

A girl in a headscarf takes part in a school class Photo: Bernd Thissen
Teachers are needed for Islamic religious education in schoolsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Erdogan doesn't yet know who will finance a future job for him, but he thinks it quite possible that he will work in the field.

'Very exciting'

Thomas Rachel, junior minister in the education department, followed the discussion closely and told Deutsche Welle afterwards that it had shown that the development was a "historic" one, comparable with the rise of protestant Christian theology after the Reformation 500 years ago. Muslim theology would be firmly established in German universities, and thus also in German society.

Rachel said it was "very exciting" that the decision in favor of Islamic theology at universities had led to it quickly becoming very popular among students from abroad. Schulze reported that Swiss, French and British students were specifically seeking out courses in Germany. And some of his colleagues said they had even seen interest from students in Muslim countries in Asia.