Is it true that Islam created Europe?

Rethink Islam"Muslims must find their own way into the future"

Christiane Florin: Since the beginning of the year, a series in "Day by Day" has shown what it means to live Islam - between birth and death, between prenatal diagnosis and post-mortem conceptions of heaven. This series is supplemented by the aspect: Thinking Islam. A book with this title was recently published. Or rather, an essay on intellectual history. The author is Frank Griffel, a German Islamic scholar who teaches at Yale University in America and is particularly familiar with Islamic philosophy. Because of the time difference, we recorded the conversation. "Try to understand Islam" is the subtitle. Mr. Griffel, which misunderstandings make understanding particularly difficult?

Frank Griffel: I think two things are important here: on the one hand, there is the expectation we have of religion in general and, on the other hand, it is the expectation we have of the history of other societies.

"Islam has no church - an important difference"

Christiane Florin: What do you mean by that specifically?

Stylus: On the one hand: as far as religions are concerned, we basically only know well the religion that we practice ourselves. Other religions often work very differently, and it is often difficult to imagine how this is really different from our religion. As for Islam, I give as an example the fact that Islam never had a church. That in itself is a very, very important difference that we often don't consider when we talk about Islam.

On the second thing, the history and history that different societies have: We often expect societies outside of Europe to have developed in the same way as we did. And of course the Reformation and the Enlightenment play an important role when we talk about religion. Many religions that are practiced outside of Europe have had no Reformation or Enlightenment - the same applies of course to Islam.

Colonization changed the Islamic world

Florin: What do you think of demands that are repeated mantra-wise: Islam needs an enlightenment, Islam needs a reformation - at least Islam, which has arrived here?

Stylus: On the one hand, it must be said that Islam, of course, actually caught up with the Enlightenment and the Reformation - namely in the 19th century: After the confrontation with European colonial powers, a secular political system was established in the entire Islamic world, which was in the same way and Way how we have developed a political system over centuries that separates religion from politics.

However, it happened very differently to us. Where this happened organically, out of itself, out of our own ideas, in the Islamic world it was imposed by the West. And that leads to special situations in the Islamic world, which of course also arise when Muslims live among us in Europe.

"We often do not see the negative side of the education"

Florin: At one point in your book you write: "Enlightenment thinking legitimized colonization." When we speak of the Enlightenment, with a Christian character, or at least coming from Christian countries, does that smack of oppression, colonization, or lack of freedom in the Muslim world?

Stylus: What I mean by that is that the colonization that occurred in the 19th century - one can even say in almost every case - was legitimized by the fact that these societies, the Islamic societies, were brought into a modern age by the European colonizers become. In many cases this also led to secularization, for example. And we see that in the 20th century there is then a counter-movement in the Islamic world, in many ways. One phenomenon, for example, is Islamic fundamentalism, which directly opposes this secularization.

In fact, on the one hand, education is something very, very positive for us, but we often do not see the negative side of education. Namely the idea that with our progress that we have achieved, we then also try to carry this progress to different regions of the world - often by force.

The invasion of Egypt by French troops in 1798 (imago stock & people)

Florin: 1798 - Napoleon in Cairo. Why is this date so important to this day?

Stylus: Because it was the first time that a European power brought an army into an Islamic country and defeated the army there, creating a colonial regime. At the same time, it also means that many ideas from Europe are carried into the Islamic world. Napoleon wanted both: Napoleon wanted to take Egypt militarily; and Napoleon wanted to fertilize Egypt with ideas of the Enlightenment, and also with ideas of democracy - in his understanding. But it did not work. That moment, when the ideas are carried into the Islamic world, that this happens at the same time as violence, has not been forgotten in the Islamic world.

"A society that has already adapted very, very much"

Florin: What does the word "progress" sound like to Christians? And how does it sound to Muslims?

Stylus: I think we have to admit that it sounds the same to Muslims and Christians. Today, in the 21st century, all people in the world live in societies that are driven by progress. What I'm trying to show in my book is that it wasn't always like that.

That, for example, Islam, before it came into confrontation with the European world, developed a society that was not built on progress, that was not dependent on progress. And what I mean by that, dependent on progress, we can express, for example, that we always need an increase in the gross national product, that we always need new things, that we concentrate on something new. We don't see any of this in premodern Islamic societies - they develop in a different way. But after 1798, after the confrontation with European colonization, these societies can no longer develop and, like our societies, are shaped by progressive thinking.

Florin: What does that mean today? There are "critics of Islam", to put it cautiously, who accuse Muslim countries of precisely that up to now - or even more so today? That they are not interested in progress, in education, in invention.

Stylus: When we think about Islam today, above all we see a society that has already adapted very, very much, that has also adapted, for example, to thinking about progress. At the same time, of course, Muslims also deal with their own history: And they see that their societies were structured quite differently in history. And I think that we as non-Muslims should take into account that Muslims ultimately have to find their own way into the future and that it cannot be us who should tell them: So and so you have to be, you have to be like us 'You have to expect progress, you have to create progress.

Greater freedom, greater insecurity

Florin: An important word when looking at the history of Muslim countries is that of tolerance for ambiguity - this was also stated by the Islam expert Thomas Bauer, who we also had here on the show some time ago - i.e. the ability to withstand tensions. To what extent can a look at history help today? Because you have to say: So much of the tolerance for ambiguity cannot be seen - at least not in the public image of Islam or the various Islamic states, whatever the plural is called.

Stylus: Yes and no. For one thing, it is true that Islamic societies today in the 21st century are not fundamentally different from Christian societies. Which is why the great tolerance of ambiguity, which Thomas Bauer and other researchers, for example, saw in premodern Islamic societies and still see there, no longer exists today. That's right.

At the same time, however, you have to realize that there is still a lot of tolerance for ambiguity when we talk about religion. Islam knows no church, Islam knows no institutions that determine what the "correct" Islam is. Islam knows no Pope, Islam knows no bishops. All of these are things that continue to generate, shall we say, greater freedoms in Islam - and thus also generate greater uncertainties and greater ambiguities than we see in Christianity, for example.

Florin: And he doesn't know any inquisition either.

Stylus: For example, this is a very, very typical prejudice that we have when we think about religions. We believe that all religions are and were like Christianity - meaning that there is a conflict between belief and knowledge, and that religious institutions have turned against science. If we look into Islam, the history of Islam, we see that it was not.

Where the church has suppressed progressive and critical ideas, we see that such ideas could unfold much, much more freely in Islam. And then also lead to a synthesis - that is the second aspect that goes together with tolerance for ambiguity. In Islam we do not see these ideas colliding confrontationally, but rather we see that they are often combined in a synthesis - critical ideas with what we might sometimes call orthodox ideas.

Fundamentalism has no tradition

Florin: "Trying to Understand a Religion" is the subtitle of your essay. Who is the audience? Are these Muslims? Non-muslims? Now please don't say it's all.

Stylus: I think it's both - on the one hand the Muslims in Germany, as well as the non-Muslims in Germany. By "we" I mean first and foremost the non-Muslims, the German majority society, which realizes that Muslims live among them and that Islam has become part of Germany. At the same time, however, we also know that Islam is not part of German history. And we have to try to understand the history of Islam on its own.

Islam has long since become part of Germany (dpa / Horst Ossinger)

Florin: But self-awareness should also be important for Muslim fundamentalists. So as old as they claim that their fundamentalism is, or their traditionalism, it is not at all. The tradition is actually that of ambiguity.

Stylus: Correct. This conflict is taking place within Islam, between fundamentalists on the one hand, who, as I write, only emerged in the 20th century and turn against the secularism that is being carried into Islamic societies from outside, and traditionalists who say: We can continue to live as Muslims in the same way as we have done for centuries. This is a conflict in which we, as non-Muslims, actually have nothing to say. The only thing we should care about is to understand this conflict well - and to create freedoms so that it can be resolved within Islam without external pressure.

One chance lies in returning to one's own values

Florin: What do you think of demands like Euro-Islam or German Islam or - you live in the USA - American Islam? So an Islam that is compatible with the majority society?

Stylus: Correct. These demands are not unfounded. I think there is, however, a difference when we look at what is happening in America and what is happening in Europe. In America the pressure to integrate is not quite as great as in Europe. In Europe there are strong demands on Islam that are manifested precisely in the history of Christianity. To say that Islam needs a reformation, Islam needs enlightenment, only if it really does it can it be a European Islam. Of course we can approach them with demands, but we cannot dictate to them how to respond to these demands.

Florin: Does Islam need not less, but more Middle Ages?

Stylus: It couldn't hurt Islam to have a little more Middle Ages of its own. Although at the same time I have to say: It is wrong to speak of the Middle Ages in Islam. But it would be good for Islam, it would also be good for Muslims, if they took a closer look at how their own societies, how their own religions functioned, before confronting European colonialism. Tolerance of ambiguity, synthesis - these are all things that can still fertilize Islam today.

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

Frank Griffel: Think Islam. Try to understand a religion. Reclam 2018. 102 pages, 6 euros.