Portrait of the Turkish Koran Expert Ömer Özsoy

A Modern Interpretation of Islam Instead of Missionary Work

In 2006, the Koran expert Ömer Özsoy from Kayseri in Turkey became the first Muslim theology professor at a German university. Arian Fariborz met with the renowned scholar and his students in Frankfurt

In 2006, the Koran expert Ömer Özsoy from Kayseri in Turkey became the first Muslim theology professor at a German university. Arian Fariborz met with the renowned scholar and his students at the University of Frankfurt

Koran expert Ömer Özsoy (photo: University of Frankfurt)
Ömer Özsoy: Trying to understand the Koran in its historical context and to interpret it in accordance with the times

​​The titles of his seminar alone – "The Language of the Koran between Oral and Written Forms" or "The Spiritual Heritage of Islam and the Challenges of the Modern" – make it clear that Professor Özsoy's classes don't offer the normal fare for Islamic studies.

The 43-year-old Muslim theology professor is open to a modern interpretation of Islam that is beyond the strict, traditional literal interpretation of the Koran and the spiritual heritage of the religion.

The Koran as something historical

"I work from the assumption that from the very beginning, Muslims viewed and accepted the Koran as something historical and orally transmitted. It couldn't have been otherwise, as the first Muslims, the first audience of the Koran, experienced it in this way."

"They lived as contemporaries to the revelation of the Prophet," Öszoy goes on to say. "Everything took place at the oral level. We have the first and second generations to thank for the scholarly branches, such as the basis of revelation, the Meccan and Medinian passages of the Koran."

Only about ten percent of what the Koran wants to convey can be found in the text. The rest requires interpretation in light of the times. Özsoy, therefore, does not regard the Koran as timeless and universally valid.

Everything is relative - the Koran too

And with this historical-critical viewpoint, the Koran expert also manages to rub many conservative Muslims the wrong way, as they claim that all injunctions and precepts found in the Koran are absolute and applicable to this day.

Ömer Özsoy, who received his doctorate from the University of Ankara and was named professor for Koran exegesis in 2004, belongs to the so-called "Ankara School" – an important reformist Islamic movement, which arose in the mid-90s at the University of Ankara.

Since becoming endowed professor in Frankfurt am Main in 2006, interest in his research and teaching methods has risen sharply, both among students and his colleagues.

Endowed Chair in the Faculty of Protestant Theology

It is also something of a novelty that Özsoy, one of the most important adherents of the reformist Islamic school of thought in Turkey, holds an Endowed Chair in the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Frankfurt.

The Master's program "Islamic Religion" within the framework of the Endowed Chair in Frankfurt is not envisaged as part of the special education to become an Imam or a pastor.

In addition, the program is not intended to train teachers of Islamic religion classes, as is done in Westphalia at the Wilhelms University in Münster's Center for Religious Studies, where a Master's program in Islamic Theology has been set up. Nevertheless, a number of students from Özsoy's seminars will pursue additional training to teach Islam in schools after completing their degrees.

The time is ripe

In addition to Özsoy's research and teaching activities centered on Koran studies, Islam and modernity, and Islam and Muslims in Europe, the Koran expert also hopes to intensify interreligious dialogue with colleagues of other religious persuasions within the Faculty of Protestant Theology.

Özsoy feels that the time is ripe, as such dialogue is currently stalled while the German side is increasingly and desperately looking for appropriate Muslim partners.

"Although I am new to Germany, I have the impression that somehow things aren't going right. On the one side are well-educated Christian theologians, who have studied Islam or even earned a doctorate in the field, and on the other side are plain workers or – in the best case – engineers or doctors, who are attached to Islam with all their heart and also feel responsible for their religion. Yet, this doesn't constitute a dialogue!"

"It is clear that discussions can't take place at the same level," Öszoy says. "And so the Christian side complains that it lacks appropriate, proven partners. Perhaps the university chairs in Münster, Erlangen, and here in Frankfurt will sooner or later help to resolve this impasse."

Arian Fariborz

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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