Explain religion from people's everyday lives

Long, pitched roofs on two multi-storey yellow-red brick buildings that are connected by a central wing: The horseshoe-shaped ensemble, in which the Islamic and Catholic theology of the Humboldt University started their studies in autumn, exudes something sacred .

The house was built in 19. Century as forensic medicine of the Charité. Today it is a bright place to study and a meeting place for Muslims and Catholics who teach, research and learn in the immediate vicinity. You go the same way, you share office and seminar rooms.

The rubric “Theology of Diversity”, which describes the program of an inner-Islamic polyphony from Sunni and Shiite perspectives, shapes the character of the Muslim Christian double institute as a whole. This is demonstrated, among other things, by the main topics of two women scientists, Almila Akca, head of a research group on “Islamic theology in the context of science and society”, and Teresa Schweighofer, professor of practical theology at the Catholic Institute.

Religion from below at the Islam Institute

Akca conducts research on everyday Muslim practice in the Federal Republic, which, although connected with the written evidence of Islamic tradition, often goes beyond this. In this way, people develop their religious identity not only by reading and praying theological literature, but also on a daily basis, based on their social relationships and their respective living environment.

Schweighofer, from Austria to Baden-Württemberg Berlin has come, has dealt in her scientific work a lot with life rituals beyond denominational and canonized processes. What she explores can perhaps best be described as “theology from below”. “When asked what theologies people shape from their everyday life, I see, for example, great overlap with the junior research group of the Islamic Institute,” says the Catholic. So there is not only spatial proximity, but also many starting points for theological exchange and planned joint events.

Das Institutsgebäude der Islamischen und der Katholischen Theologie in der Hannoverschen Straße in Mitte.

The house in Mitte was once built for the Charité. Now Islamic and Catholic theology are at home here. Photo: Rüthnick Architekten

For a spirit of openness stands in particular the founding director of the Islam Institute, Michael Borgolte, who was always available for inquiries over many months in which the conservative Islam associations were represented on the theological advisory board of the institute. Finally, together with the associations, the university management and the State Secretary for Science, he found a way to found the institute that was viable for the time being. The appointment negotiations are still ongoing for most of the six professorships envisaged. After all 55 but students started their studies in autumn.

Skepticism of the students

A team from the Tagesspiegel was now invited to visit the double institute on request. Journalists as onlookers in the seminar on the hadith – the transmission of words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad? A student cannot hide a certain skepticism from the press; he would rather not give his name. He has had the experience that many media reports are clichéd and abbreviated about Muslims and Islam, he says. He does not want to serve as a cue for this.

Mohammad Gharaibeh, his professor, understands the careful attitude. Muslims are still perceived in large parts of the majority society as “the others”, says Gharaibeh, who at the youngest institute of the Humboldt University is still teaching as a visiting professor on questions of Islamic history of ideas. For many actors from politics, society and the media, the attributes “German” and “Muslim” are still not compatible. In this country, people often only discuss “Muslims” in the context of security and migration issues, says the theologian. “Muslims must finally be taken for granted. I hope that the foundation of the Berlin Institute can make a small contribution to this. ”

Eurocentric approaches

But also in relation to the teaching program of the Islam Institute students themselves express reservations – for example, that the dedicated Islamic theological voices at the institute could possibly be neglected. Indeed, Almila Akca's research into contemporary religious everyday practice, for example, is more of a cultural-scientific than a genuinely theological endeavor. So fears a 20 – year-old student who has just moved to Berlin from NRW to study Islamic at the BIT Studying theology, the institute could possibly pursue the confession-free Islamic studies with other means under the false theological flag.

In addition, one had to make sure that the lectures and seminars did not serve postcolonial and orientalist discourses who describe the Muslims primarily from a western perspective and thus distorting from the outside, says the young man.

Student der Islamischen Theologie im Seminar-Raum.

Student of Islamic theology gets to know the hadith. Photo: Stefan Weger

But even if he has a certain skepticism regarding the theological content and a supposedly Eurocentric “bias” of the range of courses, the student from NRW is happy about the foundation of the Berlin Institute. As soon as possible, he wants to switch to the teacher training course for Islamic theology, which is due to start in the next winter semester. It is quite enriching to be in a house with the Catholic theologians, who are not alien to him anyway, as he says. “In the debate, opposites are sometimes constructed that hardly exist in reality.” He would also look forward to an intensive exchange with Jewish theologians. Because especially in the religious education of 21. Century diversity of perspectives is absolutely necessary.

Men and women together in the prayer room

For Almila Akca diversity of perspectives and “polyvocality” are the all-important terms anyway. The theologian can understand the students' concern about Eurocentric approaches – but still considers them to be unfounded. So one can look at religious phenomena with ethnographic, cultural-scientific and sociological methods without revealing the theological meaning. In order to illustrate this idea, she tells an anecdote from her empirical research.

Once Akca observed how the opaque curtain that men and women were still pulling away during the celebration gradually rose in a mosque room Had separated prayer neatly. The two groups became visible to each other and mixed after the prayer. “According to the normative idea, this is not possible in a prayer room,” says the scientist. In everyday religious practice, however, people would rarely orientate themselves solely on the wording of the Koran, Bible or Torah.

Unlike the cultural studies approach, which only describes this fact, theology takes a closer look what that means for faith. Theologically, one could conclude that beyond the literal exegesis of texts, cultural practices are also important if one wants to interpret human relationships with God. “The people in the prayer room felt a community, they gained an edifying experience from their everyday cultural activities,” says Akca.

Muslim voice diversity has long been the rule

This annoying thing with the truth at all. Until the dawn of modernity, a colorful bouquet of theological perspectives was the rule in the Islamic world. Central church structures and authorities like in Christianity could never succeed in Islam. With the beginning of colonialism, the western principle of an exclusive truth was imported into Islamic societies, says Akca. “Of course there were sometimes efforts to enforce absolute truths beforehand. With the beginning of modernity, however, this intensifies. “Above all, the government has now tried to knit a general concept of religion.

Mohammad Gharaibeh in seinem neuen Büro an der HU-Berlin.

In the new office: Mohammad Gharaibeh, first visiting professor at the HU Institute for Islamic Theology. Photo: Stefan Weger

Mohammad Gharaibeh also advocates a historical view of theology. His field of research is the Islamic history of ideas of the post-classical era, especially the phase between 1200 and 1800 Christian calendar. Gharaibeh's main concern is to free genuinely religious content – such as Muslim ethics – from its historical ballast – such as context-related jurisprudence – which was then justified on the basis of Islamic theology for reasons of legitimation. “Theology was of course influenced by its historical and social environment and is not simply transferable one-to-one to the present day,” says the researcher.

Ideological look into the past

In the end, an ideological look into the past always runs the risk of clearing up history in order to give current forms of life and action the appearance of timeless validity. He himself wants to get away from the question “what is or was Islam?”. What interests Mohammad Gharaibeh in particular is what circumstances have influenced the thinking of Muslim scholars in each case; why these ideas have prevailed and others have not. “I want to analyze the production of knowledge and the interpretation of religion in the context of the actors' everyday life.” In this way, the diversity of Muslim scholarly history as well as the historical changeability and social adaptability of Islamic theology can be demonstrated, says Gharaibeh.

The exchange between Sunni and Shiite perspectives – a nationwide program of Berlin Islamic theology – is much better possible if one does not start from just one tradition. For example, the question of how to deal with the prophetic material, which sayings go back to Muhammad and which are not, has been answered very differently by Sunnis and Shiites. But both ask about the authenticity of traditional words and deeds.

The seminar on the prophetic tradition comes to an end and the student with the skeptical attitude towards the press explains the hadith analysis to the guests: “It is like journalism – at the beginning there is the checking of sources.”

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