Is learning Arabic a requirement for Muslims

Department of History and Cultural Studies

What is Islamic Studies?

Gudrun Krämer

According to the formal criteria of the German university, Islamic studies is one of the so-called small subjects - but according to its subject it is one of the very big ones. It could be compared, if such a thing existed, at best with an occidental studies. Its subject matter is the Islamic religion and culture, more precisely: the way in which this religion and culture are expressed within certain societies and not only determine the belief and religious practice of Muslims, and are reflected in philosophy and law, literature, art and architecture , but also have an impact on their social, economic and political conditions. This apparently so simple formulation conceals fundamental methodological questions that were expressed in the "Orientalism" debate at the end of the 1970s, which has since then also moved Islamic studies vigorously: Can one then, directly or indirectly inspired by the cultural group theories of the 18th The 19th and 19th centuries (and, by the way, quite in line with the beliefs of Islamic "fundamentalists") speak of Islam as a unified and unifying entity that Muslims across time and space, ie from the 7th century to the present day and from Morocco to Java , Omdurman to Gelsenkirchen, in a certain, tangible way? But if this is not the case, "Islam" rather presents itself differently depending on the time and place, as is also assumed by other religions and cultures - what is the decisive factor that makes a certain society "Islamic" (the mere religious affiliation of the majority of its members, specific legal norms, social formations, political legitimation patterns and structures?), and which allows us to speak of an "Islamic world", "Islamic art" or "Islamic economy"?

Islamic Studies shares this question with other orientalist disciplines, but also with a subject such as Jewish Studies. In their processing lies their contribution to a comparative cultural and social science. The questions are not of a purely academic nature: their political relevance and explosiveness has emerged clearly enough in the most recent debates about a "clash of civilizations", if not a "war of civilizations", in which Islam is central alongside Confucian China Role as an opponent of western civilization. Events as diverse as the Gulf Crisis of 1990/91, the Rushdie Affair or the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to the Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel have shown how problematic the handling of Islam by the German public (and by no means only the much-scolded media) is and actually existing Muslims - not least the growing number of Muslims living in Germany - is still and how important scientific engagement with Islam and Muslims is accordingly.

Methods and Claims

Islamic studies presents a characteristic question, but no method of its own. Rather, depending on the subject or specialization, it draws on the methods of the respective specialist discipline (s), whereby so far philology, history, law, religious studies and literary studies have primarily come into play, but political and social sciences are now also gaining ground . Interdisciplinarity is therefore already established in the subject, and the students can best acquire the relevant knowledge by choosing the second major or minor. Comprehensive language skills are also a prerequisite for successful Islamic studies: Arabic is compulsory for all students as the language of the normative sources Koran and Sunna (prophetic tradition) as well as a large part of the classical tradition. Major subjects must also learn at least one other "Islamic" or Oriental language spoken by Muslims, usually Persian or Turkish, more rarely Hebrew or Urdu. Arabic is rightly considered a difficult language, Turkish is not exactly easy either, and Persian only initially appears easier because, in contrast to the first two, it belongs to the Indo-European language family. In addition to the academic language of English, knowledge of French must be proven in most cases, and in some faculties still also in Latin.

All in all, studying Islamic Studies makes considerable demands, for which students are normally not prepared at school. With a few exceptions, they can neither learn Arabic there, nor do they learn anything worth mentioning about Islamic history and culture. The first semesters are therefore mostly dominated by language acquisition; a standard period of study of 8-9 semesters up to the completion of the Magister can be kept as little as in Sinology or Japanology. In any case, Islamic Studies is only recommended as a minor subject to the highly motivated: But as a counterbalance to the Eurocentric perspectives and theoretical approaches that dominate the major subjects, it can help to significantly expand your horizons.


The breadth of the subject contributes significantly to its appeal: the topics are too diverse and the research gaps too large for boredom to arise. There are hardly any well-trodden paths, and only a few exhausted topics. A certain specialization in certain epochs (usually early Islamic history, medieval or modern), areas (Middle East, India / Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa) and disciplines (literature, theology and philosophy, law, history) is inevitable. The diversity of the subject is already reflected in the names under which it appears at the various universities, ranging from the simple "Institute for Islamic Studies" to "Oriental" or "Orientalistic Seminar" to "Seminar for History and Culture of the Front" Orient "is enough. Behind these designations, without this being always immediately recognizable, there are specialist representatives with very different orientations. In addition, at some universities Islamic Studies, Arabic Studies, Semitic Studies, Turkic and / or Iranian Studies are united under one roof, at others they are divided into independent institutes, each with their own study regulations, and sometimes even assigned to different faculties. It can only be recommended to the first-year student, change of location or subject, to check the study regulations and the actual course offerings in good time in order to ensure that their own interests are also taken into account in the desired location.

In terms of the number of permanently employed academic staff, the institutes are all too small to be able to offer the full range of the subject. Basic knowledge of the normative tradition, essentially the Koran and Sunna, as well as literature, law and history are imparted everywhere, with the focus generally on the (Arab) Middle East. Arabic literature, including religious law, is taught at some universities, such as the Free University of Berlin, at their own institutes for Arabic studies. The history, languages ​​and literature of the Muslim Turkic peoples are mainly based at independent institutes for Turkic Studies, Ottoman Studies or Central Asian Studies. In contrast, the history and culture of Islamic Persia often form part of the regular Islamic studies course, while German Iranian Studies is mainly devoted to pre-Islamic Iran (exception: Bamberg, to a certain extent also FU Berlin). The teaching focuses on those languages ​​and regions that have shaped classical Islamic culture. The Muslim societies of South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (the exceptions here are Bayreuth, the Humboldt University in Berlin, currently also Bochum), in which the vast majority of Muslims have not only been living today, receive less attention. The privilege of an Islamic "center" to the detriment of a non-Arab "periphery" is often lamented, but is justified with regard to the Islamic tradition and, in view of the increasing scarcity of positions and resources, will hardly be overcome in the foreseeable future; Even the establishment of new, non-university research institutions such as the Berlin "Humanities Center for the Middle East", in which Islamic scholars, India and Africa researchers work together, will only be able to counteract this to a limited extent. The disciplines that are not primarily text-based, such as sociology or ethnology, are still poorly represented within the subject. Islamic art and architecture will at least be represented by a professorship (Bamberg) in the future.

History and tendencies

Islamic studies is the child of theology, especially Protestant theology, and oriental philology, for which the first chairs were established on German soil in the 1830s. The Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (DMG) was founded as early as 1845, and in 1847 it published its "Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländische Gesellschaft" (ZDMG) for the first time; Both still exist today, whereby the DMG - which did not change its antiquated name even under the influence of the Orientalism debate - includes Africanists as well as the Orientalists, the Indologists, Sinologists and Japanologists. In 1887 the seminar for oriental languages ​​was established in Berlin, which was only affiliated with the university because it was primarily intended to train "practitioners". Islamic Studies was only able to establish itself as an independent academic discipline in Germany after the turn of the century, when Carl Heinrich Becker (1876-1933), in later years Prussian Minister of Culture, took over the newly created chair for the history and culture of the Near East at the Hamburg Colonial Institute in 1908. In contrast to the colonial states of England and France, the German orientalists had hardly any contact with Muslims up to this point, their work remained entirely based on classical texts, guided by questions of philology and religious studies, against which history and law could at best assert themselves. An interest in modernity did not develop until the German Empire, received new nourishment when Germany became active in the region as an ally of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and resigned again when both sides were defeated at the end of this war. Until the end of the Second World War, philology maintained its leading position, especially during the Nazi era. Completely new then are the approaches in the GDR, where oriental studies were also included in the Marxism-Leninism-oriented, primarily contemporary-oriented Asian and African studies, which mainly concentrated on Leipzig, Jena, Halle and Berlin. In the Federal Republic, on the other hand, it was only the upheavals in the Near and Middle East of the 1970s and 1980s - the oil boom, the Iranian revolution and the spread of political Islam above all - that heightened awareness that dealing with contemporary developments was necessary, legitimate and serious Islamic scholar could be worthy. At the same time, the realization grew that for the analysis of literary texts it was not enough to decipher them, to transcribe them correctly, to translate and possibly to classify them in a historical context, but that the connection to the specialist discipline was sought through the examination of newer literary methods and theories had to. Representatives interested in law and history had similar experiences. On the whole, there has been a certain degree of skepticism towards the formation of theories in specialist circles, especially when it comes from those who are not proficient in the oriental languages; the turning of the younger generation in particular to systematic, theory-led questions is nevertheless unmistakable.

Islamic Studies is currently represented at all major German universities, usually with 2 professorships and 2-4 academic staff including lecturers; the number of students is usually between 200 and 400. Islamic Studies has not been an "orchid subject" for a long time. Classical interests predominate, but the predominance of philology has broken and the preoccupation with modernity has become socially acceptable. Finally, one development cannot go unmentioned: While in the area of ​​the former GDR the regional scientific institutes were dismantled and vacant positions were often filled with representatives of classical and / or literary studies, in some "old" federal states particularly affected by the austerity pressure, Islamic studies is being considered , Arab studies, Iranian studies and Turkic studies, even Jewish studies, to be bundled in a regional academic focus on the "Middle East". It remains to be seen whether this will achieve more than rationalize away jobs, rooms, library and material resources, and improve the diverse, but at the same time incalculable, career prospects for graduates. It is definitely an irony of history.