Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Islamic theology in German universities has two fascinating articles up today about the difficulties and possibilities present in the introduction of Islamic theology to German universities, following recent recommendations from the Wissenschaftsrat (I'm assuming this is the relevant report, although I haven't been following these developments and don't know for sure). 

I will use the term "Islamic theology" here since I think the sense it makes to anglophone theologians outweighs the limitations of its distinctly Christian provenance, although the preferred term for the German universities is apparently "Islamische Studien". The interview with Peter Strohschneider gets into these nomenclature difficulties more extensively:
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.
Strohschneider also discusses the make-up of governing bodies charged with making decisions about the institutional future of Islamic theology, and the balance of religious institutional structures against state and academic interests.  Here I think there are a good deal of parallels with problems that arise in Christian theological inquiry, where the relationship between theological work and ecclesiastical authorities on orthodoxy and pastoral matters are often ambiguous.  Despite these ambiguities, Christian theology at least enjoys a long history of conventional practices within the secular academic setting, and so benefits from a basic familiarity with the problem if not its viable solutions.

The second article, "Lateral Thinkers Wanted" by Klaus von Stosch, touches on considerations that will be more relevant for those of us actively involved in theological inquiry already.  Indeed, much of what he says sounds vaguely familiar, and while the distinctions he draws within Islam wouldn't exactly map on to distinctions within Christianity, one can easily imagine a similar sort of thing being done for Christian theological inquiry.  Stosch speaks of "modernists" and "conservatives" within Islam, following the predictable characteristics of either category.  The inevitable (though we still act as if it is a fresher option than previous dualisms) Third Way is then introduced,
So what we have left is the third group of Muslims, who on the one hand affirm our liberal democratic order and the secular organisation of our communities without reservations, but who at the same time bring with them a sensitivity for the dialectics of information and the social processes associated with those. Only this group can, through theological reflection, expose the emancipatory potential of Islamic thinking and establish a dialectical relationship between Islam and our society. Only this group succeeds, in fundamental solidarity with the values of the constitution, in revealing the liberating potential of the Koran for the victims of modernisation.
While I find the seemingly imperative hunt for such mediating panaceas a bit tiresome, I'm not intending to dismiss Stosch's point.  These are all relevant concerns and useful responses to them.  I'm not in a position to say how accurate a description of the Islamic situation this is, but certainly from my own religious vantage point the whole thing resonates and sounds plausible as an outline for the possibility of future Islamic theological inquiry in the German universities.

One contribution I would make to all of this reflection is to consider the relationship between theology on the one hand as a relatively speculative and philosophical discipline and on the other hand as tied much more to the canonical tradition of texts and laws for a given faith.  Often I think that "theology" as we normally identify the inquiry is a creature of the secular situation... and I mean "the secular situation" as something going more than a dozen centuries back rather than simply during the last few modern centuries.  The nature of theology as a detached rational inquiry not entirely concerned with the tradition of ecclesiastical texts (i.e., theology as non-exegetical inquiry) only seems to arise when discourse follows norms determined by certain philosophical possibilities, and when the purpose of inquiry is to pursue truth by these various open-ended discursive processes rather than by an examination and development of a statutory tradition of some sort. 

The philosophical sort of theology is already quite at home within the secular academy- perhaps not always as a welcome presence, but at least as something that is recognizable and has played a role in the development of the arts and sciences with which it is included.  Exegetical inquiry, on the other hand (and here I'm thinking things like midrash, fiqh, canon law, biblical exegesis, etc.) does not seem to have the same sort of relationship with academic inquiry.  With the exception of Christian biblical exegesis (which through philology and textual criticism has made unique inroads into recent secular academic institutions), most of these exegetical disciplines are heavily institutionalized within their associated faiths and work independent of the secular academy.

Much of the difficulty presented in the articles over how to understand "Islamic theology" and how it should be represented seems to turn on this sort of internal division present in the Abrahamic theological sciences.  There is of course a long tradition of Islamic theology engaging with Aristotle, Plato, and on these bases with Jewish and Christian thought.  For this reason, I don't think that identifying an Islamic "theology" recognizable to the secular Western academic tradition needs to betray any sort of Islamic particularity.  But this applies (as in Christianity and Judaism, probably) primarily to the philosophical sort of theology, and not to the text- and tradition-based inquiry that will have more trouble within secular institutional settings where Islam isn't quite so native (I make this distinction rather than simply speaking of secular institutional settings simpliciter because the same concern for native/foreign status is present in other faiths.  For instance, Anglican ecclesiastical law is a more recognizable presence within British secular institutional contexts than in the U.S. simply because the Anglican presence is native to the development of secular learning there.  One might argue the same for biblical studies as a sort of Protestant native to German, and through their influence to Anglophone, secular institutional contexts.  Islamic "exegetical" theology isn't foreign to German secular inquiry because Islam is inherently non-secular, then, but rather because the German secular academic tradition has not been informed by the Islamic tradition to the extent that it has been by the Protestant tradition).

The point, then, is that the varying classes of assimilability that are so vexing for Stosch may be more a matter of differing tasks within theological inquiry and differing native secular soils within which those tasks are being planted.  While the modern/conservative liberal/anti-liberal binaries are certainly identifiable and worth talking about, I'm not sure that they're quite so central to an explanation of the complexities facing Islamic theology in the universities... or for that matter, Christian theology in the universities.


  1. I think this kind of misses the point, or the points, I should say.

    The major issue here is integration. Germans have long had a problem of integrating their Turkish population, due to a very complex situation involving (many think overly) rigorous citizenship requirements, educational problems, etc. (e.g. here's a translated Spielgel piece:,1518,603588,00.html)

    As one of the Islamic Studies professors said regarding integration, there are over 2600 mosques in Germany and he doesn't know any with European in educated Imams. That's a disaster of huge proportion when you then factor in the rapid growth rate of Muslims in Germany, the already very bad track record of Turkish integration, the fact that 1/5 of Imams in Germany tend towards so-called Fundamentalism and many think it's essential imams receive training in Muslim countries, and, finally, the ever-increasing need for immigrants due to Germany’s unsustainable demographic trends, which are representative of other parts of Western Europe.

    So, this is fundamentally not a some academic issue for the theologians to stroke their beards over; it represents an attempt on the part of German society to gain some control over a situation that threatens its identity and stability.

    And it's an attempt whose success, at least, am dubious of. Not that it shouldn't be tried, but one has to ask, first, who would go to these programs?

    Let's think about this. The Turkish population is the second largest immigrant group, it's obviously almost entirely Muslim, and it has, unfortunately, an atrocious educational record in Germany. Now, combine the wretched educational and social situation of most of the Turks with the fact that about only twenty percent of German students go to University, and that's out of the roughly thirty percent who attend Gymnasium (which is practically required to go to university, even though it's theoretically possible to take the Abitur even if one didn't go to Gymnasium), a decision which children make normally before 12. I haven't found numbers on this, but my very safe bet is that Turkish students are disproportionately underrepresented in Gymnasiums, never mind universities, due to their integration problems (many can't speak German well; and Germans know this and don't like it).

    Let's assume a few students go to these programs; by then, they will probably be so unlike the majority of their community, that they will be major tension between Germans' holding them up as representatives and their own community's acceptance of them.

    And all of this ignores the more immediate problem of how the Islamic teaching would be received in schools.

    From one article: "The chairman of the Orthodox Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya, also signaled his willingness to cooperate 'if we are actually able to participate in deciding about teaching and teachers.'" That is a very big if, because there are already problems in Germany, as in France (Bowen talks about this in his Why the French Don’t like Headscarves), with Muslim organizations and the idea of “representation,” so the government obviously likes to have representatives who accord with its outlook, and not always people who actually stand for the majority views of the group in question.

    Moreover, Bekir Alboga is cited in the same article saying that Ditib, the largest coalition of mosques in Germany (which receives its imams from Turkey), sees “no need for Imams from German Universities.”


  2. Sam, I can appreciate the extent to which the problem is one of integration in Germany. I like to think that I'm not so much missing this point as I am considering another aspect of the problem. I suppose I am looking at this as "some academic issue for the theologians to stroke their beards over" ... but I am a student of theology, after all. It stands to reason that these questions are important from my context, whether or not they are "fundamental" to the situation as a whole. Perhaps they're not. Does that mean one simply shouldn't speak of them?

    In speaking to the societal questions, I imagine I'm at quite a disadvantage because of the large differences between the U.S. and various European countries concerning such identity issues. Here a solution to the lack of social integration of Muslims and a primarily foreign-trained Muslim leadership would be to bring such training into the U.S., but certainly wouldn't involve doing so at state schools (the same goes for Christian theological training, of course). In Germany the situation is different, and state involvement in these questions brings up more ambiguities for the relevancy of religious and political identities. I think, though, that I've addressed this to a certain extent in discussing the way that Protestant thought (even the more exegetical/ecclesiastical aspects of it) may be more comfortable within the German schools than Muslim thought (even the more philosophical/rationalist aspects of it), which simply don't enjoy the sort of history of identification that various Christian traditions do.

    I do appreciate that the problem is more complex than what I've discussed here, and I leave it to others to give further input (you've done a great job already; many thanks for the information and links). But I wouldn't be so quick to assume that the theological divisions I've outlined against Stosch's more ideological ones don't also contribute to an understanding of the stakes of societal integration. After all, when we're talking about "majority views of the group in question", we're presumably talking about something specific, aren't we? I take it that the theological contours would be relevant to such views as much as anything else.

  3. Evan,

    Fair enough. My first line probably sounded more combative than it was; to explain it would have been its own post, but my summary statement is that on this issue I am inclined to draw on my Marxist/Critical Theory sympathies and suggest that the issue really is not fundamentally about academics, theology, etc. and that, whatever role these things may normally play, in this issue they are pure superstructure (to use an old, and I know much questioned, yet still useful binary).

    The fact is that, much as I love Germany and its theology and philosophy (and here I am studying German theology and philosophy in Germany), it, the theology, is a dead, pure and simple. That is, it does not represent or speak to or for any living, growing body of believers. It speaks for a wonderfully rich, I think terribly important, tradition, but that tradition is very far removed at this point from its living origins, and thus its relationship to the culture and the church are quite different than the relationship, say, between theology among evangelicals and evangelical churchs, or between Scriptural interpretation and Muslim communities. That alone points to what will amount to a tension whose supersession is hard to foresee, at least in any positive vision. I mean here the fact that Islamic theology (following your usage, with due caveats noted) exists in a radically different relationship to Muslim communities than does German university theology to ecclesial communities.

    Indeed, I was speaking to a German pastor recently who said that the state church will presently announce that it soon will be bankrupt (it may have already done this, I'm not sure). While Germans state churches are closing, new mosques are being founded at an astonishing rate (indeed, in another German newspaper article the projected number of Islamic teachers necessary for the school-system, based on the current growth rates and existing number of Mosques, was 2000 - 2000 state-approved teachers.

    Anyway, I know you know the problem is complex, etc.

    My point is here, for once, I really do think academics as such have very little to do with what's going on, and that a far more interesting theological or philosophical reflection can be generated by attending philosophically and theologically to the substructural issues that are guiding this movement to incorporate Islamic confessional study in the university.

    I think German theology - and I've become much firmer about this since I came to Germany - can't be understood in any large sense without attending to broader issues in the government and culture, which for all practical purposes control theology, not in some sinister way, but simply in all the old-fashioned, inescapable factors necessary for institutional life: money, appointments, public legitimation, etc.

    Indeed, while this point ultimately extends far beyond what I can or ever would say on a blog, I think a great weakness of even the great German theologians, like Barth, was a failure fundamentally to question to its core the very institutional structures that made their existence possible, viz. state-propped churches, universities, etc.

    The failure to due this - understandable, as its rooted in a survival instinct - is still present in a lot of academic theology, and it's because of things like this and a host of other areas of (what strike me, and others who live here but hail from the US) misdirected attention that I have little hope for the long term success of ventures like this, much as I recognize their importance as attempted solutions to real problems.

    But this gets us far afield, or at least afield of what is proper on blogs.

  4. The fact is that, much as I love Germany and its theology and philosophy (and here I am studying German theology and philosophy in Germany), it, the theology, is a dead, pure and simple. That is, it does not represent or speak to or for any living, growing body of believers. It speaks for a wonderfully rich, I think terribly important, tradition, but that tradition is very far removed at this point from its living origins, and thus its relationship to the culture and the church are quite different than the relationship, say, between theology among evangelicals and evangelical churchs, or between Scriptural interpretation and Muslim communities.

    This, I think, has some application to my division within theology between "exegetical" and "philosophical" aspects of our work. As I see it, the "exegetical" work-- following scriptural texts in a faithful and close fashion, attending to the institutional needs of the faith, etc.-- is really what is fundamental about "theology" as a specialized reflection upon the lived faith of a religious people. Were all of the "philosophically" oriented theologians to lose their jobs tomorrow, we would lose a good deal of very rich consideration, but the churches would certainly recover from it and do well enough without it. It seems that a loss of a strong exegetical tradition, or tradition of church order, or liturgical study would be much more devastating because of the extent to which it would impact the daily lives of believers. While there are surely differences, I imagine something like this applies to Islam in a relatively similar way as it does to Christianity.

    In light of your points about Germany this becomes pretty obvious. The growing Islamic and Christian bodies are those that attend to the lived faith, and what will strengthen them is not necessarily what the German councils of education are looking for in their universities; it is not necessarily what the Christian theology programs have in these universities, either.

    I don't know what to say to all of this. As you and I can both appreciate, there is something worth preserving in the university theology of a place like Germany, and to this extent I think such programs would benefit Islamic thinkers as well. At the same time, I (and I think you to) don't put so much stock (and don't have so much hope) in the necessity of such programs for the health of Islam or Christianity... what is probably most important is to have ecclesiastical structures that can support such training in Germany (or in the U.S., or wherever else). The western university tradition strikes me as an important place to establish a theological voice, that is, but not because this university theology will be a knowledge-foundation for religious bodies themselves. That, I think, has been demonstrated well enough in history. My sense is that theologians should come to university for the sake of the university, and not come to it expecting the university to be anything in particular for the sake of the church (mosque, etc.)

    It is its own "mission field", that is... not in the sense that we need to try to convert it necessarily, but in the sense that the university is its own space where an articulation of the reasons of the faith can be made to the end of critical scrutiny and inquiry toward the attainment of real knowledge and thought.