The Congress "Horizons of Islamic Theology"

A disintegration of Islam?

Academics from all over the world met to debate Islam at the congress "Horizons of Islamic Theology" in Frankfurt in early September. But the event was overshadowed by the acts of terror being perpetrated in the name of the faith by Islamic State and other extremist organisations. By Claudia Mende

The academic discipline of Islamic Theology is still in its infancy at German universities; to be exact, it is just four years old. Since 2010, chairs for Islamic Theological Studies have been established at five third-level colleges.

This fledging subject made its first public appearance at the international congress "Horizons of Islamic Theology", which was held in Frankfurt in early September. 175 academics from Europe, the United States, the Arab world, Turkey and South Africa debated new interpretations of the Koran, political theology and feminist approaches, but also questions concerning bioethics and teacher training for teachers of Islam.

Delegates included several of the world's best-known proponents of a reform-oriented Islam such as Abdolkarim Soroush from Iran and the liberation theologian Farid Esack from South Africa. In the words of Bekim Agai, managing director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Culture and Religion at Frankfurt's Goethe University, the aim of the gathering was to "document the spectrum, breadth and relevance of Islamic theology as an academic subject."

Muslims have at last arrived in Germany's academic landscape. But the new field of study is already under renewed threat from the "decay of its subject", as Berne-based scholar of Islam Reinhard Schulze put it in his opening address. According to Schulze, the latest events in the Middle East and the brutal activities of the extremist organisation Islamic State are evidence of a "disintegration of Islam" that is picking up pace to a terrifying degree.

Schulze went on to say that Middle Eastern societies are in a state of epochal upheaval. The area where societies live by a traditional understanding of Islam with a consensus on common values is rapidly shrinking. On the peripheries of this area, he said, we are on the one hand seeing manifestations of a conduct that can only be described as inward-looking, with people cheerfully indulging in consumerism, for example in the Gulf states. On the other hand, we have the "ultra-Islamic groups" – from Salafists through to Islamic State – that are laying claim to a massive area; in some cases overrunning these societies completely. What can theology do to counter this?

Abdolkarim Soroush (photo: ISNA)
The Iranian theologian and regime critic Abdolkarim Soroush sees Islam "as a 'series of interpretations', rather more comparable with a stream of approaches than with a clearly defined core set of religious credos," says Claudia Mende

The limited influence of progressive thinkers 

When Abdolkarim Soroush invoked the huge diversity of interpretations and approaches within Islam, he sounded almost desperate. Soroush, who was born in Tehran in 1945 and is one of the most eminent Islamic thinkers of our time, sees Islam as a "series of interpretations", rather more comparable with a stream of approaches than with a clearly defined core set of religious credos. In drawing a distinction between religion itself and religious knowledge, which can never encompass the whole truth, he is considered a significant critic of a politicised Islam.

But Soroush illustrates just how limited the influence of such Islamic reformist thinkers is in Iran and the Arab world at present. He has been living in exile since the year 2000 and teaches at universities in the US and Germany. His criticism of the monopoly of the Shia clergy in Iran is barely discussed in his native country these days, and in Europe he lacks a sounding board for his ideas.

The critical debate about and discussion of tradition is in full swing and has been further accelerated by the failure of the "Arab Spring". However, this debate is being mainly pursued by Muslims in the western world, in Asia or Turkey.

This made a presentation by the political scientist Heba Raouf Ezzat from Cairo University all the more interesting. She approached the Koran from a social-science perspective and examined the gradual politicisation of Islam over the last one hundred years. For example, she said, the phrase "Allahu Akbar", originally uttered in praise of the greatness of God, has now become a battle cry, in some parts at least. Other theological terms from the Koran such as "tamkin" (empowerment) also now have a political connotation.

Heba Raouf Ezzat, who has also taught at the renowned London School of Economics, views the eastern sense of inferiority since the colonial era as a major cause of this paradigm shift in the understanding of the Koran. She went on to say that a defensive stance has led to the rejection of philosophical and social-scientific impulses from Europe, which could have been enormously beneficial. Instead, she said, people "read what they were looking for into the holy scriptures." Muslim scholars must now do more to resist an ideological reading of the Koran and must return to its spiritual core: the relationship between God and human beings.

Participants at the congress "Horizons of Islamic Theology" in Frankfurt (photo: Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main)
According to the Berne-based scholar of Islam Reinhard Schulze, who gave the opening address at the "Horizons of Islamic Theology" congress in Frankfurt, the latest events in the Middle East and the brutal activities of the extremist organisation Islamic State are evidence of a "disintegration of Islam" that is accelerating at terrifying speed. Pictured here: participants at the congress

Muslima theology

This grappling with tradition has also entered a new phase for feminist Islamic theologians; the debate has become more intense. For the first generation of Islamic feminists, the Koran is not fundamentally patriarchal, but was interpreted by men over the centuries and therefore given a biased reading. Icons such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, both scholars in the US, were inspired by attempts to read even misogynistic-sounding verses in a way that is acceptable for women. But younger female theologians are adopting an increasingly critical view of the two pioneers.

Another speaker at the congress, Jerusha Tanner Lamptey of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, preferred to talk about a Muslima theology rather than feminist-Islamic theology. As far as Lamptey is concerned, there are also Koran verses that cannot – even with the best will in the world – be read in a manner that promotes an egalitarian gender balance: sura 4: 34, for example, stipulates that it is a wife's duty to obey her husband. It will be the task of the younger Islamic feminists in the US and Europe to find convincing responses to this dilemma.

It is also perhaps easier for those on the peripheries of the Muslim world to adopt a stance on the latest developments relating to the Islamic State. One of the sharpest critics attending the Frankfurt congress was the South African Farid Esack. He expressed a sorrow currently being felt by many Muslims, a deep sense of regret that several Koran texts can be read as justification for the barbarity of a terrorist group. This is set to have momentous impact on the internal Islamic debate.

Claudia Mende

© 2014

Translation from the German by Nina Coon

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