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German universities to train Muslim imams, teachers

HAMBURG (Reuters) - Germany announced Thursday it would fund Islamic studies at three state universities to train prayer leaders and religion teachers more in tune with Western society than the foreign imams preaching at most mosques here.

Two universities, Tuebingen and Muenster, are famous for their faculties of Christian theology and count German-born Pope Benedict among their former professors. The third, Osnabrueck, opened a course for imams this week with 30 students.

Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, several European countries have been seeking ways to educate imams at their universities rather than importing them from Islamic countries out of step with modern and multicultural societies.

Germany, whose state schools have separate religion classes for their Catholic, Protestant and Jewish pupils, also needs qualified Islam teachers for Muslims. Some states already offer Islam classes in their schools and more plan to do so.

“We want as many imams as possible to be educated in Germany,” said Education Minister Annette Schavan. “Imams are bridge builders between their congregations and the communities in which their mosques stand.”

The project was announced amid an emotional debate in Germany about the role of Islam. Central bank board member Thilo Sarrazin was forced to resign after publishing a book, to become a bestseller, accusing Muslims of exploiting the welfare state and making little effort to integrate.

President Christian Wulff said in a speech marking 20 years of reunification that Islam had won its place in German culture.

Plans to educate imams at universities have been hard to develop. France set up its program with the Catholic University of Paris after the Sorbonne declined because its professors thought it would violate the separation of church and state.

The Netherlands also opted for an institution with church links, the Protestant-founded Free University in Amsterdam. Some Muslims object to imam training at Christian schools.


In many other cases, Islamic education is run by Muslim groups over which local academic authorities have little or no control. Most imams for Turkish mosques in Europe, for example, are Turkish clerics sent by Ankara on four-year contracts.

Schavan told journalists in Berlin that Germany would need 2,000 imams and teachers if all states offered Islam courses. Berlin and Lower Saxony teach Islam to Muslim pupils in their schools and several cities in other states also offer classes.

Tuebingen and Muenster plan to launch their study Centers in the autumn of 2011. Both already have courses about Islam, but only as academic subjects and not as training courses.

Muenster’s first effort at educating Islam teachers led to an uproar when the professor, German convert Sven Kalisch, questioned whether the Prophet Mohammad ever existed or whether the Koran was dictated to him or derived from other texts.

The controversy surrounding Kalisch, who was removed from his university post in 2008, points to what could cause problems in future for the German project -- its plan to conduct what is called “historical-critical research” in Islamic theology.

The “historical-critical method” of theology emerged in Germany in the 19th century as a rigorous academic examination of the Bible. It debunked many myths about Christian history and doctrine and explained how its holy book was constructed.

The few theologians who apply this method to Islam keep a low profile because their findings are considered heretical by mainstream Muslims. Some have been threatened with violence.


Schavan stressed the importance of applying German academic rigor to Islam, a method hardly imaginable in the mostly tradition-bound theological schools in the Muslim world.

German universities can help Muslims develop “a theology that maintains the substance of their belief and translates it into a modern context. The universities can develop a historical-critical method for dealing with the Koran.”

The universities will have advisory councils with Muslim members to ensure the main schools of Islam are represented and the faculty and curriculum are acceptable to them.

Tuebingen University said in a statement that its council would work to ensure “that academic Islamic theology is accepted by Muslim congregations and that graduates of these courses have a chance to be hired as religion teachers or imams.”

Editing by Ralph Boulton