Rauf Ceylan: "The Preachers of Islam"

Scholastic Offensive

In his new book, Rauf Ceylan reports on the daily lives of imams in Germany. According to the professor for religious studies, imams are the key to a new Islam. By Thilo Guschas

Prayer time in the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin (photo: dpa)
"Unsatisfactory": Most Friday sermons in Germany's mosques are characterised by poor theological standards, Rauf Ceylan criticises

​​ At first glance, it seems that there is no other topic as well-trodden as this one – imams in Germany. Even those with absolutely no interest in the subject have already been exposed to countless reports on "preachers of hate," while the media, with its fondness for repetition, has portrayed imams as an obstacle to integration, although within their communities, they are regarded as role models.

There is nothing particularly new about the subject of Rauf Ceylan's latest book ("Die Prediger des Islam", i.e. "The Preachers of Islam"), except, however, his approach. Rauf Ceylan is the first to have gone to the trouble of simply searching out for himself those people about who so much has been spoken.

This treasure chest of a book consists of some 40 interviews conducted by Ceylan. It quickly becomes clear that imams are not some sort of religious robots, having led strictly pious lives since their early childhood. Take the 43-year-old Ismail Z., who recalls with a sigh how he had received offers from the Turkish premier league, but left his dreams of a football career to languish. Under pressure from his father, he became an imam.

"Import imams" from Turkey

By documenting such stories, the author has done his part in sweeping away old clichés. Ceylan, however, does not restrict himself to purely descriptive writing. "If I were to pass school grades on all of the Friday sermons I sat through," he says, "then the average result would be 'unsatisfactory.' The listener usually has no other choice than to grit his teeth and be patient until the khutbas (sermon) is over."

​​ The reader recognizes at once that these are the unrestrained insights of an insider. Ceylan is in his early thirties and already a Professor of Religious Studies in Osnabrück. Born in Duisburg, his Kurdish parents taught him Turkish – his key to the mosque community. And he brings along to his job the intellectual tools of a doctorate level social scientist.

Ceylan portrays an image of a community of spiritual leaders, who, for the most part, are struggling with the excessive demands of their duties. The majority of these are "import imams" from Turkey, who are posted to Germany for a period of four years – usually just the amount of time it takes them to get accustomed to life here.

In addition, they are overwhelmed by the variety of tasks they are expected to perform, most of which they have not encountered in Turkey, where, in contrast to Germany, they usually only have to conduct the Friday sermon. Here, they also serve as spiritual councillors, marriage conflict mediators, debt advisors, and accompany mosque-goers on their rounds through government bureaucracy. And on top of all this, they are caught between the pincers of the community and the mosque's board of directors.

German social welfare and Islamic law

Not all imams deal with these difficulties in the same way. Ceylan proposes a typology consisting of four groups of Muslim spiritual leaders. One of these he terms the "Prussian imams," those upholding conservative values, who, according to Ceylan's estimates, make up three quarters of all imams in Germany. They promote traditional role models for men and women and are fixated on authority.

On the other hand, they are not at all prone to expressing extremist positions. This is because one of their highest values is maintaining a balanced social order, as demanded by the Koran. "The German state calls it social welfare, but in principle, it is adhering to a requirement of Islamic law," explained one of these imams. Suddenly, Islam assumes a totally different perspective. From the viewpoint of the "Prussians," Germany as a social welfare state is even more Islamic than Turkey.

The greater picture

The Salafi imams, the "preachers of hate," form another one of these groups. Despite Ceylan's impressive and illuminating portrait of their decline into religious extremism, this inevitably remains the least original part of the book. Long before Ceylan, hordes of journalists have attempted with an almost religious fervour to fully document the psychology and development of these "hate preachers" and there is simply very little new to add.

Rauf Ceylan (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Against scholastic ossification: "Islam as a whole must be thought out anew and the key here is the imam", Rauf Ceylan postulates

​​ A completely different type of imam falls under the "intellectual-offensive" category. They promote an image of Islam that is independent and rational. Ceylan observes how these avant-garde imams tend to turn away from their communities, which they regard as too old-fashioned, and establish their own, new circle of followers.

Separated from the vast majority of German Muslims, they do present a potential for renewal that perhaps won't completely fizzle out, but will nevertheless remain extremely limited. "The next generation will work things out" is a painfully wrong tenet here.

The only solution according to Ceylan is that the West must train its own imams. The purpose is not to somehow find a quick mend for integration. Instead, Ceylan is concerned with the greater picture – Islam as a whole must be thought out anew and the key here is the imam.

Even the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the elite school for anything to do with Sunni Islam, has supposedly "ossified scholastically" long ago. Ceylan's bold vision sees Western imam study programs as perhaps someday providing a "newimpetus for theology in Islamic countries".

Thilo Guschas

© Qantara.de 2010

Rauf Ceylan: "Die Prediger des Islam" (The Preachers of Islam), published by Herder Verlag, Freiburg 2010.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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