A new report published Tuesday proposes a concrete solution to Germany’s ongoing dilemma about how to educate Islamic religious leaders. The goal is to create a seminar that would offer graduates of Islamic theology institutes in Germany the possibility to train as imams — thereby also curbing foreign influence on local Muslim leaders.
In recent years, the German Ministry of Education and Research has invested €44 million ($49.5 million) to finance seven Islamic theology institutes across the country. But due to a lack of practical expertise, which is not a part of the institutes’ curriculum, graduates do not qualify to work as imams — so those wishing to become imams must take on a separate training similar to a seminary for the priesthood.
The German Interior Ministry brought together representatives of religious organizations, government officials and experts for a two-day closed workshop as part of the German Islam Conference. A spokesperson for the ministry said the goal of the workshop was to “look at the status quo and the future perspectives on how to educate imams in Germany.”
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Pilot project envisioned
Rauf Ceylan, a professor of sociology at the University of Osnabrück, who wrote the “Imam Education in Germany” report released Tuesday to coincide with the workshop, suggests kicking off a pilot project in the state of Lower Saxony. Ceylan says the state was chosen because state authorities, the local religious communities and the Islamic Theology Institute of Osnabrück had already been cooperating for many years. “This doesn’t mean that the door is open only to students from Osnabrück or Lower Saxony,” he underlined. “It will be accessible to all” who want to become imams in Germany, he said.
If the imam seminar project can find funding, the goal is to train 15-20 participants in the first pilot group. The project includes two years of practical seminars for theology students, as well as experience working within religious communities during their theology studies, which would be in addition to compulsory internships and further education. The various activities are aimed at helping young leaders deal with current issues and create a networking environment for people from various regions with differing religious backgrounds.
Curbing foreign influence in Germany
Even though there are some Muslim communities already educating their own imams within Germany, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) remains Germany’s largest such umbrella organization with around 900 mosques. Under the auspices of the Turkish government, the organization trains, finances and sends imams to Germany. There are 4.5 million Muslims in Germany, of which about 3 million are of Turkish origin.
“It’s not just about imam education,” says Christoph de Vries, rapporteur for religious communities for the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU). “Above all, it’s about if we will allow foreign governments to influence children and believers in Germany.”
Read more: What to know about DITIB
Islam expert and sociologist Rauf Ceylan: Training imams is not just about religion
Who will pay?
Even though the German government is eager to prevent Turkish influence, there is no simple answer to the question of how to finance the education of imams in Germany. The new report suggests state and federal governments chip in to provide startup financing for the first five years.
Ceylan says that initial funding could be extended another five years, if necessary, while Muslim communities come up with a sustainable financing solution. But there is no question that they “need to figure out” how they can finance these structures.
The separation of state and religion in Germany doesn’t allow the government to finance religious activities. But Ceylan is convinced that startup financing could be possible, since an imam seminar is about “social work, consultation, social education — so not just about washing the deceased or other practical duties.” However, Abdassamad El Yazidi, secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), a Cologne-based Muslim umbrella group, believes that the political will is missing. “You can’t work with ‘imported imams’ forever,” says El Yazidi. “Turkey invests a lot of money in this. When the German government is ready to build something parallel to this, then they need to invest money.”
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Building bridges to German society
According to El Yazidi, the community is also ready to contribute its share. ZMD is not only interested in the education of future imams but also in continuing education for imams already working in religious communities, in particular those who need support in improving their German skills to be able to connect better with young people and to better understand German history and culture.
The CDU’s de Vries isn’t against startup financing. “If it is just about supporting at the beginning, that’s something else,” but it can’t be a “permanent arrangement,” he says. “There are many advantages of the state not being able to interfere in religious communities, but it also means that the communities have to take responsibility for their organization and activities.”
Another possible roadblock is that currently, not all of the umbrella organizations are willing to be a part of this new formula. This week’s workshop will not only be the first step to evaluate the willingness of religious communities but also to examine the further willingness of the federal and state governments regarding how much they are ready to invest, both politically and financially.
The “Day of Open Mosques” has taken place since 1997 on the Day of German Unity – Germany’s national holiday. The date was deliberately chosen to express Muslims’ connection to the German people and how they consider themselves part of German Unity, the Central Council of Muslims explains. About 100,000 visitors are expected – here, some are seen standing in front of Berlin’s Sehitlik Mosque.
On this day, Muslim communities want to give visitors an understanding of Islam, so where better than an actual mosque? Far more than just places for prayer, mosques also serve as gathering points for creating community and social interaction. The word “mosque” derives from the Arabic word “majid,” which means “place for prostration in prayer.”
Part of getting to know Islam is becoming familiar with its rituals and rules. One initial ritual before entering the mosque involves removing one’s shoes before entering the prayer room. There is a focus on cleanliness and purification: before each prayer, Muslims carry out a ritual ablution. Because worshipers touch the prayer rug with their foreheads, the carpets must always be clean too.
Most mosques offer guided tours, as seen above with this mosque in Hürth near Cologne. Here, visitors can get a picture of Islamic architecture, history and day-to-day life in a mosque, and hence understand more about how Islamic communities in Germany gather and build community.
The Merkez mosque in Duisburg, opened in 2008, is the largest mosque in Germany. Integration work is one of the focal points for Duisburg’s Muslim community. Besides guided tours through the mosque, visitors get the chance to attend noon and afternoon prayers. Afterwards, visitors are invited for a cup of tea.
Experiencing an Islamic prayer is one point of the agenda for the October 3 event. But the actual area for prayers is off-limits for visitors. As can be seen in the Sehitlik mosque here, visitors listen to prayers from a grandstand. The word for prayer in Arabic is “salah” or “salat,” which literally means “connection to God.”
This boy was given a chain with prayer beads during the Day of Open Mosques at the Frankfurt. The faithful move the beads through their fingers to repeat prayers and chants, just as is done in Christendom and Buddhism. This chain, consisting of at least 33 beads, is called “tasbih” or “misbaha” in Islam. The beads prove to be useful when reciting Allah’s 99 names.
Mosques in Germany open their doors for cultural understanding on other occasions, too. For instance, during the German Catholic Convention, Catholic nuns take part in guided tours, as seen here in the Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque in Mannheim. Such occasions offer an opportunity for Catholicism and Islam to cultivate a close relationship.
Mosques in Dresden invite visitors to cultural exchange as well. The Al-Mostafa mosque has already published a schedule of events: there will be lectures held by the imam about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran, as well as conversation hours to share refreshments, learn and discuss. In a city where the Islamophobic PEGIDA group made headlines, this offering is especially important.