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“We Place Value on a Theology of Diversity”

Interview with Founding Director Michael Borgolte on the Berliner Institut für Islamische Theologie (Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology).

Michael Borgolte
Prof. Dr. Michael Borgolte,
Photo: Matthias Heyde

On what exactly will research be conducted at the Institute?

Prof. Dr. Michael Borgolte: Freedom of research means that the scholars at the Institute themselves decide the contents of their research. Nobody can dictate this to them; they are only limited by the titles of their professorships or other positions. But the HU especially strives to appoint and employ scholars who work comparatively within Islamic traditions and teachings and who embrace dialogue with related disciplines and inter-religious comparison. In addition, Islamic theology should always be open to questions and problems of society in a globalised world. Will the Institute have a particular focus or emphasis?

The Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology places value on a theology of diversity and will, in particular, give due consideration to both Sunni and Shia teachings in a comparative perspective. It pursues its scholarly objectives in close cooperation with Christian theologies, as well as with other studies related to religion at the HU and in Berlin’s research landscape as a whole. In light of Berlin’s approximately 300,000 Muslim residents, an equally important task of the Institute is the training of young theologians, who, on the basis of rational penetration into Islamic articles of faith, prepare for teaching in schools, as well as for work in mosques, civil society and welfare services.

What programmes of study can be expected?

The following programmes are planned for training Islamic theologians and religion teachers: A mono-bachelor’s programme in ‘Islamic Theology’; a combined bachelor’s programme in ‘Islamic Theology’ with teacher training option (core subject and secondary subject); a master’s programme in ‘Islamic Theology’ (consecutive); a teaching-related master’s programme (Master of Education, 1. and 2. subject; consecutive); a master’s programme in ‘Islam and Society’.

What interdisciplinary approaches in research and teaching are to be found at the Institute?

All the professorships have been designed to cooperate with various faculties at the Humboldt-Universität. Thus, for example, close cooperation with the Law Faculty and the History Department will make sense for the Professorship in ‘Islamic Law: Past and Present’; ‘Islamic Religious Education and Practical Theology’ will, of course, have exchanges with the other pedagogical fields and programmes and with the Christian theologians; ‘Islamic Philosophy and Fundamental Beliefs’ will look for interlocutors among the philosophers and theologians, including with representatives of Jewish Studies.

But the partnerships cannot be limited to the environment of the HU itself; rather, they will take advantage of the scholarly riches of Berlin as a whole. Thus, for example, the Professorship in ‘Islamic Textual Studies’ (Quran and Hadith) will benefit from the research work on an historical-critical edition of the Quran at the ‘Corpus Coranicum’ of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. There are also plans to take up the Institute’s specifically interdisciplinary accent by way of a professorship in ‘Comparative Theology in Islamic Perspective’, for which an application has been submitted to the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

In what domains of society will future graduates be able to work?

Apart from working in schools as teachers of Islamic Religion, graduates of the Institute can prepare for serving as imams in mosques, for work in Islamic spiritual counselling (as prison chaplains, among other things), and for work in journalism. Needless to say, with the appropriate qualifications, an academic career is also open them.

There is an Institute for Islamic Studies at the Free University of Berlin. What is the difference between Islamic Studies and Islamic Theology and where is there possible overlap?

The textual bases of studies in both subjects are largely the same, but the types of questions pursued are different. Whereas Islamic Studies is a form of predominantly text-based scholarship, like many others, the aim of Islamic Theology is to guide understanding of Islam’s foundational religious texts without coming into contradiction with Islamic belief. The rational scholarly methods are the same, but in theology, the basic truths of the faith may not be violated or suspended. Islamic theology is already taught at five German universities. What distinguishes the Berlin Institute from the other five venues?

The crucial difference is to be found in the equal emphasis given to Sunni and Shia teachings and in the comparison between Islam’s two most important currents. In addition, the Berlin Institute fosters comparisons with other religions, for which purpose not only the HU, but the region of Berlin-Brandenburg as a whole offers numerous opportunities.

To what extent is there a justification for Islamic theology to be present in a university as a scholarly discipline?

In principle, every field of scholarship that is committed to truth and to the instruments of theory formation and methodology has its place in a university of the standards of the HU. Thus, what is at issue is less providing a justification for its presence than the question of whether the cosmos of scholarship at a university can do without theology: including, among others, also Islamic theology.

There was a great deal of discussion and also criticism concerning the choice of the associations involved in the Advisory Board. What criteria were used in making the selection and what consequences does this choice have for research and teaching at the Institute?

All religious communities have the constitutionally guaranteed right to determine the contents of their religious teachings themselves. Christians exercise this right via their churches: this is to say that they are able to participate in determining programmes of study and professorships. Because Islam does not have any church or church-like institution – Muslims do not even have to belong to a mosque – it is difficult to find a vehicle for the religious self-determination of Islam in Germany.

On the recommendation of the Council of Science and Humanities, advisory boards are formed at all institutes of Islamic theology. These advisory boards are supposed to exercise the religious rights of Muslims. In order to ensure the greatest possible representation or social empowerment of Muslims, one has to turn to the associations with the largest memberships. Thus, the HU and the Berlin Senate could in no way select whatever associations they found most politically palatable, since this would have amounted to an arbitrary use of their power. This is why encouraging the largest associations, in the sense indicated, to participate in the Advisory Board was unavoidable, even if those associations are regarded as conservative. The widespread demand to take ‘liberal’ associations into account could not be met, because the latter represent only a very few mosques; whereas the conservative associations represent between 300 and 900 mosques, the liberal ones reach a magnitude of 6 mosques.

Co-opting liberal associations would have involved an encroachment on the part of the government and of the HU, since the latter have no right to tailor Islam in Germany according to their own preferences. – In the Advisory Board itself, three associations name one voting member each; in addition, there are two Muslim professors or lecturers. Since all decisions have to be taken by at least a two-thirds majority, the three associations cannot put through any decision on their own.

To what extent can members of the Advisory Board influence the professorship appointments and do they have a say in determining the contents of research and teaching?

Neither the Advisory Board as a whole nor the associations in particular have the right to participate in appointment committees or to make personnel recommendations; the lists of candidates must, however, be presented to them for approval or rejection. The same goes for the curricula. Research is, if course, completely free; attempts to exert influence on the part of the Advisory Board would be constitutionally inadmissible and null and void.