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08.08.2021

German Imams in the Making

By Lena Dreier


Opening on 15 June, Islamkolleg, a university training site for Imams, is the first academic institution in Germany to offer such training. It will professionally educate both Imams and graduates in Islamic theology in preparation for their work in religious communities. The training is undertaken in German, and covers topics such as political education, Muslim chaplaincy or Quranic recitation. It is funded by Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Inneres und Sport (the Lower Saxony Ministry of Internal Affairs and Sport), and co-operates with Zentralrat der Muslime (an umbrella organisation, that represents only a minority of German Muslims) alongside other smaller religious associations, such as Islamische Gemeinschaft der Bosniaken in Deutschland (the central umbrella organisation of Bosnian Muslims in Germany). While Islamic theology was established as a university discipline eleven years ago, Imam training had never formed part of theology courses until now, a situation noticeably different from that for Catholic and Protestant theology. This has changed with the opening of the new centre. The provision of such training is central to the motivation behind the academic discipline of Islamic theology, as the discipline was conceived to create a class of German, ‘democratic’ Imams, that German society has been calling for since debates over Islamism came to the public fore.

News of the inauguration of Islamkolleg was spread by the famous German journalist Deniz Yücel, and another Twitter user commented: “And the tolerant #Friedensstadt [city of peace] is the right place”. In this way, the commentator linked Islamkolleg to Osnabrück, the city where the peace of Westphalia was concluded in 1648, ending the Thirty Years War in Germany. The second of the twin treaties of this peace was signed in Münster, where no Imam training takes place. Another Twitter user criticised this deficiency; the Islamic theology department in Münster is considered to be liberal, making it a perfect candidate for the provision of liberal Imam training. By linking Islamkolleg to the Westphalian peace, Islam is discursively connected to general questions of religion and to the current relationship between state and religion. To understand what the opening of Islamkolleg tells us about the state of this relationship, one must ask, what is the position of the new institution in different areas of tension?


Between various Islamic theological branches


Islamkolleg was co-founded by Islamic theologians, and is a partner of Islamic Theological Centre Osnabrück. It aims to bring Islamic theological and practical training together under one roof. Though the former institution was not founded solely by theologians from Osnabrück, its purpose reflects the pre-existing culture in the city, of being more open to including practical training than other locations (for example in Frankfurt or Berlin). From this point of view, Islamkolleg promotes distinctions within the discipline, between more research and more practical orientated centres focussing on ‘competences’. Within the field of Islamic theology, there are religious categories to describe these different positions: Münster is often called ‘liberal’, while Osnabrück is described as being ‘more conservative’. Although within Islamic theology these categories are almost universally used only in quotation marks, their existence nonetheless highlights distinctions based on theological as well as religious positions. In this sense, it is to be expected that Islamkolleg will manifest Osnabrück’s position within the field, supporting university as a place for ‘more conservative’ students. This means positioning itself closer to Islamic communities, and closer to traditional understandings of Islam. But it will also manifest Osnabrück’s expertise in vocational education, promoting and developing the necessary skills for work in one of the Islamic umbrella organisations or communities. Islamkolleg therefore increases and widens the differentiation within the field of Islamic theology in Germany.

Between political and religious claims

Islamkolleg co-operates with various small religious organisations. It is notable, however, that their list of partners does not include any larger such organisations, though even these would only represent a fraction of the Muslims in Germany. Samy Charchira, co-director of Islamkolleg, argues that it takes time to foster trust from the others. But the missing partner religious communities are also a sign of competition, as DİTİB (Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion e.V., a branch of Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs) has also offered Imam training in Germany since 2020. Other communities, too, have their own longstanding training centres (e.g. VIKZ, Verband der Islamischen Kulturzentren). The training offered by such communities may differ in language and curriculum, however DİTİB is comparable to Islamkolleg in now offering training in German, and in trying to establish practical training.1 At the moment, however, it is to be assumed that the DİTİB training does not share Islamkolleg’s focus on political education.

Referring to Islamkolleg’s positioning with respect to the political sphere, co-director Samy Charchira explained that some of the bigger religious communities are not co-operating with the institution, because they suspect it of promoting political interference in their religious affairs.2 For them, Islamkolleg seems to tie itself too closely to the German state, and thus to political interference in religious freedoms. But the training in the religious communities is also partly financed through state funding – from Diyanet, for example. The freedom of religion from political interference is thus discussed here not in general terms, but specifically in terms of potential interference from the German state. But Samy Charchira is hopeful: he establishes the Kolleg’s independence through its academic freedom, and uses the university as a symbol for securing religious freedom.

Between co-operation and religious autonomy

In the discussion on Islamkolleg, different relationships between the state and religion are negotiated: between a model of co-operation, and a model of stronger religious autonomy from the state. In the latter, religion falls within the purview of communities, umbrella organisations, and associations, but not of state institutions. In the co-operative model, some areas are jointly the responsibility of state and religion, as is legally the case for theology in Germany. Education and training of religious professionals (for example pastors or chaplains) are defined as common matters of religion and state by German law. In contrast to other disciplines, such as engineering or architecture, the state is not permitted to independently provide training in the religious professions. Some religious communities, through their co-operation with Islamkolleg, support the co-operative model, while others seem to prefer a more autonomous model between religion and German state.

In the long term, German Imam-training also indicates that the two models can exist side-by-side: in Islamkolleg, religion and state are co-operating, in other religious communities training is independent from state money. It remains to be seen whether believers will differentiate between an Imam trained at a German university, and one trained elsewhere. It depends also on whose services are preferred by the believers, for reasons of language or culture, for example. There is a tendency for younger believers to speak only German (or at least for German to be the only common language between them), and to prefer Imams with knowledge of their life-worlds. In the long term, the question of who pays future Imams is an economic one due to the limited financial means of mosque associations.

Within various European models of training Imams and new Islamic knowledge

As the life-worlds and daily lives of Muslims in a minority context are very different from those in a Muslim majority country, Islamkolleg is part of a broader trend in establishing new Islamic knowledge in European and Muslim-minority countries. While calls for a new ‘democratic’ class of Imams were universal in public discourse around Islam in almost all European countries, the Muslim education teaching institutions (‘METIs’) that were established saw a variety of approaches. The form these institutions take very much depends on the culture of secularity in the country: With the new programme of laïcité in France, there were calls for a new form of Imam training, but it has proved difficult to bring together the state and Islamic communities in co-operation. Additionally, a private institute (Institut Européen des Sciences Humaines) already trains Muslim students from different European countries and is popular among young Muslims not only from France. It is independent from the state, and does not support political purposes. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the University of Sarajevo has a long-established history of Islamic theology and Imam training, but has offered Imam training in a special programme since 2002.3 In Britain, various models of Muslim education have been established. Dar-al-Ulooms exist side-by-side with university programmes such as Cambridge Muslim College, with their dean Timothy Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad).4 These institutions, differing even in their structure, show very clearly that new Islamic knowledge in Europe connects different knowledge traditions and ideas of religious education. From this perspective, Islamkolleg is a new version of the German co-operative model of secularity, and it symbolises a change towards adaptation of the religion-state-relation to Islam. As the role of Imams is constantly changing, Islamkolleg is just another manifestation of a changing role: for example, Imams in minority countries now have to manage a wider range of tasks than they would in a Muslim majority context. The institutionalisation of new Imam training institutions is therefore symbolic of the change towards an extended role for Imams and religious professionals, especially in Muslim minority countries.

Conclusion

The discursive claim, in social media, to the Peace of Westphalia is more of a symbol than a historical continuity. The peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, through peace treaties signed in Osnabrück and Münster. Islamkolleg is symbolically connected to German religious history, and to a normatively positive historical event. But it is neither a war, nor a religious conflict, that Islamkolleg attempts to solve. This symbolic valorisation of Islamkolleg demonstrates an attempt to perpetuate both a particular understanding of Islam as political topic, and a co-operation between state and religion. For some more academically oriented actors in Islamic theology, it may sound strange that it is the more vocational university that uses academic freedom to justify co-operation with the state and with religious communities. This argument should be the focus from a perspective interested in questions of secularity and religion: that religious training is legitimatised through appeals to academic freedom. And far away from this discourse, what happens as a result of the new establishment? The establishment of an academic Imam training in Germany is driving differentiation within the Islamic-theological and religious field. It is another form of new Islamic knowledge production in Muslim minority countries, and of the negotiation between religious and political actors over their areas of co-operation and separation.

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1 https://www.ditib.de/detail1.php?id=689&lang=de; last accessed on 29.06.2021.

2 https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/zdf-morgenmagazin/imam-ausbildung-102.html" l "xtor=CS5-65"; last accessed on 28.06.2021.

3 Begić, Esnaf: Islamische Bildungsperspektiven mit bosnischen Impulsen an deutschen Hochschulen. Brückenschläge II. Akademie der Diözese Rottenburg-Stuttgart. https://www.akademie-rs.de/fileadmin/user_upload/download_archive/interreligioeser-dialog/111118_begic_islamische-bildungsperspektiven.pdf, last accessed on 29.06.2021.

4 Sidat, Haroon (2018): Between Tradition and Transition: An Islamic Seminary, or Dar al-Uloom in Modern Britain. In: Religions 9 (10), S. 314. DOI: 10.3390/rel9100314