Islamic Studies in Germany

Fostering Intellectual Islam

In future, centres for Islamic Studies are to be set up at German universities to train Muslim religious scholars. Eren Güvercin spoke with Peter Strohschneider, chairman of the German Council of Science and Humanities, about these plans

Peter Strohschneider, chairman of the German Council of Science and Humanities (photo: University of Paderborn)
"If Islamic Studies as theology develop well at German universities, it will create something one might call a German vocabulary for the intellectual self-reflection of Islamic faith," says Peter Strohschneider

​​ The recommendations of the German Council of Science and Humanities call for the establishment of study courses for imams and Muslim clerics at the state universities. You say that the course in "Islamic studies" is an intellectually challenging discipline. In what way?

Peter Strohschneider: Islamic Studies, in the sense of a scholarly, theological self-reflection on Islamic faith and the religion of Islam, represent a challenge both for the academic disciplines already established at the universities as well as for the kind of Islamic Studies we're talking about themselves. The challenge consists simply in the fact that religious, intellectual, cultural and linguistic differences pose a crucial issue for Islam, and that these differences must be dealt with intellectually. Challenge is used here in a very positive sense.

Scholarship and science draw their life from intellectual challenges and from the ability of scholars to allow themselves to be perplexed, to perplex one another. And in this sense the institutionalisation of an Islamic theology at German universities is not only important for intellectual self-reflection by the Muslims, not only a vital project for reasons of integration policy, but also an intellectual, structurally significant project.

Why do you use the term "Islamic Studies" and not Islamic Theology? And what will become of the "Islamwissenschaften"?

Peter Strohschneider: The difference is that Islamic Studies as a theological subject are connected with a belief in Islam, while "Islamwissenschaften" are not. We suggested the term "Islamic Studies" even though it has some risks, for example the fact that in English it is equivalent to what we call in German "Islamwissenschaften", the subject we are trying to distinguish it from. We deliberately avoided using the word "theology" because it comes from the Christian tradition, but the problem is that the only terminology available in the German language has been shaped by Christianity or concepts with a traditional Christian background.

"Islamwissenschaften" are studies that are not bound up with a certain confession, similar to Literature Studies or History Studies. Islamic Studies in our sense by contrast is a confessional course of studies in the structural sense, just as Protestant Theology and Catholic Theology are.

Photo: dpa
Private imam school in Berlin: The confessionally neutral state is not permitted to intervene in planning the content of the curricula, nor is it allowed to check whether there are any religiously motivated objections to teachers, i.e. professors, Strohschneider explains

​​ In order to put the requisite cooperation between the state and the Muslim community on solid ground, the Council of Science and Humanities proposes setting up theological expert councils for Islamic Studies at the universities in question. The Islamic associations are also to be represented on these councils. There are some critics, however, who think the associations are represented too strongly in a council model of this sort.

Peter Strohschneider: We are aware of this problem. Indeed, we on the Council of Science and Humanities saw this coming from the start. But we are not making a proposal for the council that would establish exactly who should represent whom, but rather only want to make the principle clear. And the principle is that three groups should be represented on this council.

First, representatives of Muslim associations. These associations do not have church status; they are trying in some cases to achieve the legal status of a religious community, but this is always controversial. There are pitched social and socio-cultural battles amongst the Muslims to attain a monopoly here. At the same time, these associations are an important voice of Muslims in Germany; we can't simply ignore them.

Second, Muslim public figures should sit on the council because the majority of German Muslims are not organised into associations; and third, theologians. These might be Germans, along with – I assume – probably foreign theologians as well, because the parallel case would be the participation of churches.

Islamic religious class at a german school (photo: dpa)
"Greater audibility, greater diversity and better means of articulation": According to Strohschneider, Islamic Studies will be a suitable course of study for imams and qualified personnel for Islamic religious instruction

​​ If you were to invite church representatives to participate in a similar body, you would already have theological authorities included because all church representatives have studied theology. This is different in the Muslim associations, because the relationship, so to speak, between the community and the theological level is simply different in Islam than under Christian church constitutions.

The function of the councils is such that the confessionally neutral state is not permitted to intervene in planning the content of the curricula, nor is it allowed to check whether there are any religiously motivated objections to teachers, i.e. professors. But according to our church laws, parishes and religious communities must be able to make objections. The state therefore needs someone to address when issues arise in the course of this cooperation, and under these circumstances this addressee can only be some sort of council, organised in accordance with concrete local conditions.

Which social implications might this project have in the long term?

Peter Strohschneider: If things go as planned, namely if Islamic Studies as theology develops well at German universities, then it will on the one hand play an important role in the Islamic discourse in Germany, because it will create something one might call a vocabulary, a German vocabulary, for the intellectual self-reflection of Islamic faith. It will most certainly have an effect on the universities as a whole.

And it will lend the voice of Muslims in what is still the Christian-dominated majority society greater audibility, greater diversity and better means of articulation than are available today in some cases. I would view this, if not in terms of integration policy then in the socio-political regard, as an extremely desirable and necessary effect in our increasingly pluralistic society.

Interview: Eren Güvercin

© 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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Comments for this article: Fostering Intellectual Islam

i want to study islamic studies

asha08.09.2013 | 22:39 Uhr