Lamya Kaddor on Being a Muslim German Woman

Questioning Tradition

Lamya Kaddor, an expert in Islamic Studies and religious pedagogy, advocates a contemporary interpretation of Islam and is fighting to prevent both Muslim fundamentalists and Western critics from taking over the debate. Ulrich Schwerin read her new book

Lamya Kaddor teaching Islamic Studies in a school (photo: dpa)
Lamya Kaddor, an expert in Islamic Studies and a former teacher of Islamic Studies at the Centre for Relgious Studies (CRS) at the University of Münster, Germany, strives to take a conscious and critical look at her religion

​​ If the world changes, but Islam remains the same, the gap between religion and reality grows. This is why the principles of Islam must be re-interpreted to ensure that it remains relevant to modern life.

This is the starting point for Lamya Kaddor's reflections in her book Muslimisch – Weiblich – Deutsch! (Muslim, Female, German), which she subtitles "My path to a contemporary Islam".

By blending personal recollections, theological reflections, and political pleas, she formulates her vision of an Islam that befits modern German society. She investigates why most German Muslims have not yet arrived at such a modern and enlightened understanding of their religion and lists the obstacles she feels are preventing them from doing so.

Criticism of those who resist change

Born in the city of Ahlen in western Germany in 1978, Kaddor belongs to a generation of Muslims who have only ever heard of the culture and traditions of their parents' native countries and, consequently, their views on religion, but have never actually experienced them first hand. While others hold fast to these hand-me-down views, despite the fact that they are quite obviously no longer adapted to life in modern-day Germany, Kaddor began questioning these traditions even as a child.

As she grew older, she strived to take a conscious and critical look at her religion, not least when she read Islamic Studies at university. Having worked for years as a teacher of Islamic Studies at a primary school and a vocationally oriented Hauptschule and become active in the field of religious pedagogy, she got involved in the building up of two departments at the University of Münster for training Islamic theologians and religion teachers.

​​ She came to national prominence in 2008 as one of the editors of Saphir, the first German school textbook on Islam, and a Koran for children that was critically acclaimed and harshly criticised by representatives of Islamic associations to an equal degree. As a devout yet modern Muslim woman, Kaddor is also battling in Germany against both conservative representatives of Islam, who refuse to let go of their hand-me-down views and stoutly reject any interpretation of their religion that is not in line with their own, and a discourse that is becoming increasingly critical of Islam.

In the German debate about Islam, there is no shortage of critics – and in particular female critics – who on the basis of their own negative experiences write sometimes very personal books that paint a picture of Islam characterised by honour killings, forced marriages and genital mutilation. In doing so, they willingly feed existing prejudices. And when at the end of their respective books, the authors free themselves from the shackles of Islam and seek refuge in the West, it can give German readers the sensation of being a saviour.

In favour of a more balanced interpretation of Islam

Just like the Islamists, the critics of Islam are of the opinion that there is only one true, eternally valid Islam. Kaddor tries to deconstruct this one-sided image and to hold up a more balanced interpretation of Islam that reflects the cultural variety of Islam and its historical ability to change and transform. Although she herself does not always fully resist the temptation to portray her own interpretation of the Koran as the (only) correct one, she does indeed come very close to providing a contemporary interpretation.

​​ In line with her historical, critical analysis, she argues that many of the apparent contradictions between religion and modern life could be done away with by putting the relevant passages of the Koran in their historical, content-related context, thereby revealing their actual meaning.

Kaddor doesn't wear a headscarf because, as far as she is concerned, they were used in the days of Mohammad to protect women. She feels that this protection is no longer necessary or can no longer be provided by the headscarf alone.

In a conscious effort to provide a readable, real-life portrayal, Kaddor peppers her book with little stories from the day-to-day life of her Syrian family and her time as a teacher of Islamic Studies. We hear stories of discussions about the nature of God conducted while chopping parsley and people fulminating against superstition while supping cups of sweet mocha. She also devotes a lot of space to her pupils and their parents, which provides a good insight into the mindset of young German Muslims.

Many of her pupils' knowledge of Islam is dominated by the things it forbids them to do, whereby in the case of gender roles, this has much more to do with tradition than with religion. For example, when Kaddor draws her pupils' attention to the fact that the ban on premarital sex applies equally to men and to women, the boys in the class acknowledge her point, but still insist that an exception should be made for them.

Expectations regarding Islamic Studies in the classroom

What is encouraging is that Kaddor has to a certain extent succeeded in uncovering the hypocrisy of such ideas and calling them into question in her classes. One has to agree when she says that teaching Islamic Studies at school has a key role to play in helping young Muslims develop a conscious and critical understanding of religion. However, she is also quite right when she warns against expecting too much of the classes. Religion classes alone, she says, cannot ensure that children will grow up to be loyal citizens.

Much of what Kaddor demands of both German society and its Muslim members in the final chapter of her book is neither surprising nor entirely new. Nevertheless, she is right when she draws attention to the fact that both the wholesale rejection of Islam and the Muslim insistence on holding fast to Muslim traditions are inadequate solutions because Islam is in Germany to stay and a certain degree of adaptation is unavoidable.

As astonishing as it may seem, in view of the current heated debate, it is sometimes necessary to state the obvious.

Ulrich Schwerin

© 2010

Lamya Kaddor, Muslimisch – Weiblich – Deutsch! Mein Weg zu einem zeitgemäßen Islam (Muslim, female, German: my path to a contemporary Islam), Munich, C. H. Beck Verlag.

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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