"Muslims need new ways to approach their religious heritage"
When did you first hear about Martin Luther?
Armina Omerika: I think I heard his name for the first time as a schoolgirl, in history lessons, but I don′t remember precisely when that was. For me, the figure of Luther is part of my general knowledge.
But many Muslims don′t even know about Luther′s existence, let alone his significance for Christianity – isn′t that true?
Omerika: I can′t say whether, what or how much each individual knows. And it certainly depends on a person′s educational background. The level of awareness of Luther among Muslims certainly also has something to do with the context in which they learn about Christianity.
In some Muslim societies – in the Middle East, for example – other forms of Christianity are more well known: Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. What people in Germany are often unaware of is that Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East actually studied the Reformation in depth during the 19th century, being sometimes even influenced by contemporary debates within German Protestantism.
Nevertheless, even people with a biographical connection to Christianity aren′t necessarily particularly well informed about Luther as a historical figure or his theological relevance.
From the viewpoint of an Islamic theologian, what stands out about Luther?
Omerika: The fact that Luther questioned the status of clergy keeps being picked up on by Islamic theologians – mainly because this institution doesn′t exist in Islam at all. In terms of the history of ideas, however, what is important to Islamic theologians is Luther′s image of Islam and Muslims and how it developed. It is well worth taking a closer look at the historical reception, the context and the reasoning behind such a negative image of Muslims.
In my view, it functioned as intra-societal criticism and had little to do with Muslims, particularly since Luther had absolutely no contact with Muslims; they weren′t part of his world. The criticism of Muslims was linked to criticism of the Catholic Church.
Is it actually important for Muslims today to study Luther?
Omerika: Yes, absolutely. One of the main arguments for studying Luther is the way he and his legacy are now being handled by Protestant theologians. The Evangelical Church in Germany, as well as colleagues in university theology departments, communicate and discuss Luther′s position on Jews, women, Muslims and social hierarchies quite openly. At the same time Christian theologians remain willing to pick up on other ideas put forward by Luther, building on them and bringing them to fruition.
The Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it is also possible for us to find and develop a critical approach to our own religious tradition.
The current "situation" in the Islamic world is often explained by the fact that there was no Reformation there. So does Islam need its own Reformation?
Omerika: I don′t think calls for reformation contribute much to the theological debate. Luther′s thought and work should be seen as a reaction to a very specific historical context. And that context can′t be mapped onto present-day Muslim societies. The problems that without doubt exist in the Islamic world are entirely different to those that existed in the German principalities of the 15th and 16th centuries; the crises in Muslim societies are the result of many factors such as poverty, the battle for resources, post-colonial problems, an absence of the rule of law and insufficient democratic legitimisation.
As far as Islamic thought is concerned: yes, it needs to reorient itself, the traditional texts need to be re-read and historicised. Traditional modes of thought should be examined to see whether their methodological and epistemological bases still provide a firm foundation today. Not just the content, but the processes by which we engage with the content need to be re-examined. There needs to be some thought given to whether the positions taken in the past still offer adequate solutions for Muslims today. The answer to these problems does not, however, lie in a reformation modelled on historical examples from another age.
Muslims certainly need new ways to approach their religious heritage – with a view to the present and the future – but what they don′t need is the approach favoured by radical factions: drawing on the past, a time when there were entirely different social models. Nor however do they need to draw on the Reformation, which for all its benefits, remains a historical phase that can never be recalled.
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin