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Criticism of religion - how does it work properly? "Enlightenment" of Islam

Abdel-Hakim Ourghi heads the Islamic Theology / Religious Education department at the Freiburg University of Education. A few days ago he and other reform Muslims presented a so-called "Freiburg Declaration". It is about a reform of Islam and an "enlightenment from which a Muslim community grows that wants to see itself as an integral part of European society".

Zafer Senocak lives and works in Berlin. He writes poems and essays, but also repeatedly expresses himself on Islam, especially against the politicization of his religion. Most recently published by him: "In your words. Conjectures about my father's faith".

In a five-part series of discussions with agnostic, Christian, Islamic and Jewish thinkers, we ask: Why do we need criticism of religion? When does it harm? When is it useful? Or are we just unlearning criticism of religion? Because the emotions in the religious debates are overturning. In a time of buzzwords, many people lash out with words. For example, the term "general suspicion" belongs to 'catchword speech'. Some say that Islam is placed under "general suspicion". The other side says that "critics of Islam" are placed under "general suspicion". Criticism of religion - how does it work properly?

The interview in full length:

Andreas Main: Five prototypes of the critic of Islam can be made out. Will my interlocutors fit into one of these drawers? That can be left open. One thing is only certain: self-critical reflection is possible with the Islamic scholar Abdel-Hakim Ourghi and the writer Zafer Senocak. Ourghi and Senocak have clear positions. Before I introduce the two of them in more detail - first a greeting to everyone. Good morning, Mr. Senocak in Prague!

Zafer Senocak: Good Morning!

Main: And good morning, Mr. Ourghi in Freiburg!

Abdel-Hakim Ourghi: Good Morning!

Main: You, Mr. Ourghi, head the Institute for Islamic Theology and Religious Education at the Freiburg University of Education. You have interfered more and more audibly in the past few months - especially critical of the Islamic associations. Mr. Ourghi, I suspect that you hate the question - nevertheless: Are you a critic of Islam?

Ourghi: No, I am called a critic of Islam. I live with that too. However: I am trying, let me put it, to understand my own religion, its historical origins in the seventh century and its historical development. Therefore I say that the criticism of Islam - it is more of a differentiated exercise of reason, because its essential task is the reflective study of the main sources of Islam and to try to understand these sources - let me say - first of all, more precisely hermeneutically and also to try to free them from historical alienation.

"Without fear of criticism"

Main: A few days ago you and other reform Muslims presented a so-called Freiburg Declaration in which you make your values ​​and your vision of Islamic reform clear. Nevertheless - how often do you get accusations, for example you are a "nest polluter" or something similar?

Ourghi: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, I live with this criticism and I accept it. However, I always welcome objective and nuanced criticism of my theses and even of myself. My main concern is that we - we Muslims - finally have honest and courageous discourse or debates with one another, without fear of criticism. If we all claim that Islam is peaceful - reality speaks otherwise. It is our job to turn Islam into a peaceful religion.

"Maintain and fight for the foundations of freedom"

Main: Zafer Senocak, you live and work in Berlin. You write poems and essays, and you repeatedly comment on Islam, especially critical of the politicization of this religion. You are currently at a poetry festival in Prague and are therefore sitting with our correspondent in the Czech Republic. Mr. Senocak, why do people often react so defensively when their own religion is criticized?

Senocak: Because you feel like a piece of identity is at stake. Incidentally, that is also my interest in Islam. I wouldn't call myself a critic of Islam at all. After all, I am not a theologian either; I see religion, faith as part of my identity, as an inheritance that has been passed on to me through my family. And in this sense I also look at them critically, because I also look at other things critically. That is a position of the writer. And what I advocate is that in Islamic culture this simply has to be possible. That was always possible in earlier times - and again and again it was not possible and dangerous. And in modern times, in times in which we live, we simply have to stand up for the right to express opinions that may differ from certain dogmatic positions. And that is why it is a matter of maintaining and fighting for this liberal basis, especially in the Islamic world, not only here in Europe.

The writer Zafer Senocak (imago images / Horst Galuschka)

Main: But to understand this Islamic world today or certain dogmatic currents, as you have just described them - if the premise is correct: Why are many Muslims these days particularly sensitive to criticism?

Senocak: Yes, I think ... I was recently in Morocco and I was badly attacked by many students there because of my last book "In Your Words", in which I deal with my father's faith. From my point of view from a very melancholy, inquiring position, not at all from a polemical one. But my statements, such as how one could perhaps read the Koran differently, etc., were immediately linked to a nest pollution or an attack on Islam. And they weren't even theology students. They were German studies students. That means, basically, the ability to read texts with different differentiations and also to discuss them critically has been lost. And that is the basis of freedom. If we lose that, then we have no chance at all. I have a feeling that this is increasingly a psychological attitude.

That means, basically, many people in the Islamic world have the feeling that they are being attacked, and have been for 200 years. Colonialism certainly still plays a role in people's minds. Politicians, including populist politicians, keep refreshing this when it comes to running democratic elections, so to speak. One must not forget that in almost all democratic elections, Islamic forces repeatedly emerge very strongly in Islamic geography when these elections take place. In other words, it shows that there is such a basis in the population to enter the Kulturkampf. And of course Islam, the traditional interpretation, the Salafist interpretation, the Wahhabi interpretation, the dogmatic interpretation of Islam form a good basis for entering into this struggle.


Main: On the positive side, Mr. Ourghi, you go so far as to say that criticism of Islam is a gift for Islam. Can you give examples of how criticism has or could lead to positive changes in Islam?

Ourghi: Perhaps please allow me to say briefly ... We do not have the term "criticism of Islam" in Arabic. We tend to have what is known as self-criticism. The term "criticism of Islam" was deliberately avoided in the Muslim discourse. One is afraid - let me say - of criticizing the canonical sources and the person of the prophet. If we take a close look at the sources, the Koran, then we find that Mohammed - for example in Sura 18, verse 110 - was a person who was fallible, who is also so often criticized in the Koran for Example in sura 80, verse 1-10 or in sura 2, verse 272. That means that the criticism of Islam is theoretically founded.

Now when we talk about Islam ... we have to talk about Islam in a plural form. There is not just one Islam. And this pluralistic - let me put it another way - perspective in Islam is also a basis for criticizing yourself, questioning yourself and others within the Muslim community or within the reception, the canonical sources. Well - I would like to point out when it comes to criticism of Islam: This is not a blatant rejection of Islam and its followers. It is simply a matter of understanding or - let me put it another way - questioning the ruling structures that have established themselves in the history of Islam and trying to free this Islam from these historical alienations as well. In other words, the criticism of Islam is more of an enlightenment à la Kant philosophy and one tries - I shall say - to reason, that is, to understand it. By the way - between the eighth century and the thirteenth century we had the so-called ratio school: They emphasized freedom, freedom of expression. They only refer to the Koran and they have categorically rejected the tradition of the Prophet, the so-called Sunnah.

That means that we Muslims today are afraid of criticism because we are afraid to deal with ourselves. Ultimately: This criticism - the criticism of Islam is about the development of Islam and primarily to understand Islam in its current situation here in Germany. We must not downplay the world in which we find ourselves. That is why I always speak of a European Islam that moves within the framework of an enlightenment program.

"Islam is held captive by very conservative associations"

Senocak: Basically, Islam is held captive by very conservative associations and communities. You just have to say that. And this discussion between these conservative, very closed communities and thought structures and the opening up to a critical way of thinking that is also at home in the Islamic tradition - that is completely correct - is unfortunately not actually taking place. That's the problem. Whether this is Germany, whether it is Turkey, whether it is Arab countries. In Germany we have a free social system. This is an advantage.

But if I may remind you, for example, since the end of the 19th century we had also made great efforts in the outgoing Ottoman Empire, and we also in the young Turkish republic, to find new approaches and also to connect with a rationalist, Enlightenment interpretation of Islam. And all of that seems a bit lost today or in the fog. And that has to be awakened and brought out again, and not only in Germany. To be honest, I find this limitation to Germany completely nonsensical, because geography does not play a role here, it is about structures of thought. And we live in the age of the internet. We do not live in the age of national borders.


Main: Criticism of religion - how does it work properly? That is the central question this week, in this program. Maybe the two of you can come up with a few rules that need to be followed.

Senocak: The basic question for me is that it must be possible for someone who comes from the Islamic culture and has this origin to be able to leave it as well. That means that the Muslims who were once born Muslim and perhaps no longer believe in this religion, they must also be able to express this publicly and not have to disguise themselves as Muslims. I don't understand that at all. One can also be critical of the Islamic faith. And that is the basis of every liberal order. And that is not possible today in large parts of the Islamic world.

When I hear something like that, that people like that have to fear for their lives in Europe too, it is simply a state of affairs that we cannot endure. For me this is really step one. And step two is actually a critical reading of sources, thinking about them and also discussing them with others. There will always be both orthodox and conservative interpretations. There is that in every religion. They also have their right to exist. But that must be able to coexist. If necessary, there must also be a schism, a division, as there is in Judaism. It is also an interesting story that these comparisons do not take place at all, although Islam actually has a lot in common with Judaism in its development into modernity.

"Mohammed was fallible"

Main: Maybe Mr. Ourghi is the schismatic.

Ourghi: Well, I would like to point out that Muslims today can be aware of the fact that the text of the Koran is no longer where the Prophet Muhammad stood in the seventh century. I have developed a few points for criticizing Islam. And first and foremost it is about the Medinan Koran, with its legitimation for violence against non-Muslims, even today against Muslims and the oppression of women. This Koran, which was or was revealed in Medina between 622 and 632, has a historical-political model and is valid for the seventh century.

The second point - it is about a geographically dogmatized image of the prophet, namely that if we question the prophet and his political actions, this must not be taken as an insult. We just want to emphasize that the Prophet Mohammed was simply fallible. In addition, we are talking about the so-called tradition of the Prophet, the so-called Sunnah. This is a posthumous human construct that arose two centuries after the Prophet's death. And there are many falsifications and also a few traditions that actually do not fit at any time. In addition, we also want to question the so-called conventional-classical tradition of knowledge. And we would try to reduce it to its time, the context in which it was created.

Our main concern is to understand Islam according to its current situation and especially in the Western context, because we live here in the West. In addition, I advocate the autonomy of the sources, namely the Koran. And this autonomy presupposes freedom of interpretation.

Main: If Islam had gone through something like an Enlightenment - this keyword was mentioned - through a reform, what does this Islam look like? This as a final question for you. What is the core of your Islam?

Senocak: That was just described very well. Basically, it's really about a critical review of both the sources and the historiography. Because Islamic historiography as you have it today, as it is passed on, as I also learned it as a child, is a legend. That's not historiography. And the characters that appear there, these hero characters, they probably lived very differently and fought very different battles. And to work this out has been done to a large extent. There has been research on Islam over the centuries. So we can't hide that either. The fact that this has mainly happened in the West only shows that science is cross-cultural in terms of civilization. That is not a culture-limiting story of how science is carried out, but science has methods and these methods must also be applied to the Islamic religion. That's it.

"Religion is a private matter"

Main: What is the core of your Islam, Mr. Ourghi?

Ourghi: So my core - let me say - of my Islam and the Islam of many liberal Muslims, that religion is a private matter that emphasizes the individuality of people and, first and foremost, that one also has the courage to simply embrace Islam and its historical manifestations to question. It's not about rejecting religion, it's about understanding it hermeneutically and trying to enliven this from this religion, which also contains tolerance and charity. However, by trying - I shall say - to deal with unpleasant questions.

Main: I am quoting from an essay by Mr Ourghi. "Without criticism of Islam, the Islamic faith becomes a dangerous religion, especially if the religious truth is presented as absolute, inviolable and unchangeable." That would then have to apply to all religions?

Senocak: For any ideology - yes - and religion, yes.

Main: What would change? What consequence would that have?

Ourghi: So, if you will allow me a moment ... this absolute possession of an exclusive truth ... it must be bid farewell, in all three monotheistic religions. Furthermore, we followers of the three monotheistic religions, we must also recognize atheists.We have to talk to each other, discuss and just learn from each other and not be afraid of the other. We Muslims are here as a minority, and we also have to show this willingness to learn something from the other. I discover my own identity through touch or encounter with the identity of the other. And I think that's the climate, the tolerance that we need right now. And if someone criticizes Islam, then one must not fear for his life.

Main: Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, Islamic scholar at the Freiburg University of Education, and Zafer Senocak, writer from Berlin. Thank you both to Freiburg and Prague. Thank you for taking the time.

Senocak: My pleasure.

Ourghi: With pleasure.

Main: And tomorrow in the third part of our series on the question "Criticism of religion - how does it work properly?" I have an appointment with the Catholic theologian Gerhard Kruip and the Protestant science journalist Martin Urban. Both have dealt self-critically with their own denomination in their own way.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.