Islamic Studies, according to the formal criteria defined by the German universities, is one of the ‘small subjects’ – in terms of subject area, however, it is up there with the largest. It would be comparable, if such a thing existed, with Occidental Studies. Its subject is Islamic religion and culture, or (to be more precise) the ways and forms in which this religion and culture develop within certain societies, not only defining the faith and religious practices of Muslims and being reflected in their philosophy, law, literature, art and architecture, but also influencing their social, economic and political conditions. This apparently straightforward formulation conceals fundamental methodological questions, which found expression in the ‘Orientalism’ debate of the late 70s/early 80s. Ever since, the controversy has continued to inflame emotions within Islamic Studies and related disciplines: can we, inspired directly or indirectly by eighteenth and nineteenth-century theories of cultural spheres (and fully in line, by the way, with the beliefs of Islamic ‘fundamentalists’), speak of Islam as a unified and unifying force, which has shaped Muslims regardless of time and space, i.e. from the seventh century to the present day, and from Morocco to Java, Omdurman to Gelsenkirchen, in a particular, comprehensible way? If that is not so, however, and ‘Islam’ rather varies according to the time and place – as other religions and cultures are supposed to – then what is the decisive factor that makes a particular society “Islamic” (the mere religious affiliation of the majority of its members, specific legal norms, social formations, political legitimacy patterns and structures?), and allows us to speak of an "Islamic world", "Islamic Art" or an "Islamic economy"?
This is an issue that Islamic Studies shares with other oriental disciplines, as well as with a specialist subject such as Jewish Studies. In addressing it, the discipline makes its own contribution to a comparative cultural and social science. The questions involved are not of a purely academic nature: their political relevance and sensitivity emerged clearly enough in the recent debates about a "clash of civilizations" – if not a "war of civilizations" – in which Islam was assigned a central role, next to Confucian China, as an opponent of Western civilization. Such diverse events as the Gulf crisis of 1990-91, the Rushdie affair and the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to the scholar Annemarie Schimmel have revealed just how beset with problems the attitude of a German public (and not just the much-maligned Media) towards Islam and real, flesh-and-blood Muslims still is – not least the growing number of Muslims living in Germany – and have highlighted the corresponding importance of the academic study of Islam and Muslims.
Methods and Aims
Islamic Studies clearly has a characteristic set of objectives, but it has no methods of its own. Depending on the subject or specialization concerned, it prefers to draw on the methods of the corresponding discipline(s), which so far have mostly been philology, history, law, religion and literature, although now the political and social sciences are gaining ground. Interdisciplinarity is therefore already inherent in Islamic Studies; the students acquire the appropriate skills most easily through their choice of second major subject or minor subjects. Extensive language skills are also a prerequisite of successful scholarship in the Islamic field: Arabic is mandatory for all students as it is the language of the normative sources – the Qur'an and the Sunnah (prophetic tradition) – and of a large part of the classical tradition. Students majoring here must also at least learn one other ‘Islamic’ or oriental language spoken by Muslims: usually Persian or Turkish, but sometimes Hebrew or Urdu. Arabic is justifiably considered a difficult language; Turkish is not exactly easy either, and Persian only seems easier at first because, unlike the first two, it belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. In addition to English as the international academic language, skills in French are also required in most cases, as is Latin in some faculties.
All in all, the degree course in Islamic studies thus makes considerable demands on students, for which they have not usually been prepared at school. They have neither, with a few exceptions, learned Arabic there, nor have they learned anything substantial about Islamic history and culture. The first semesters are therefore usually dominated by language acquisition; a normal period of 8-9 semesters until completion of the former Magister, nowadays BA+Master,is as hard to achieve here as it is in Chinese or Japanese Studies. In all events, a minor in Islamic studies is recommended only to highly motivated students – notwithstanding that, it can help broaden your horizon considerably as a counterbalance to the Eurocentric perspectives and theoretical approaches that dominate the large disciplines.
The breadth of the faculty contributes significantly to its appeal: the issues are too diverse and the gaps in research are too large for boredom to set in. There are virtually no beaten tracks and only a few washed-out topics. A certain degree of specialization in particular periods (usually early Islamic, medieval, or modern history), 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 clearly reflected in the different titles under which it is offered at universities, ranging from an Institute of Islamic Studies to an Oriental (or Orientalist) Seminar and even a Department of History and Culture of the Middle East. These names, without it always being evident straight away, can conceal very different orientations within the field of study. At some universities, moreover, Islamic, Arabic, Semitic, Turkic and/or Iranian Studies are all under one roof, whereas at others they are organized as separate institutes, each with its own study regulations, and sometimes even associated with different faculties. Students who are wondering whether to enroll, or to change from a different university or subject, are therefore best advised to check the study regulations and the courses actually on offer at an early stage, to make sure that the degree program at the university of their choice will indeed accommodate their own interests.
In terms of the number of permanent academic staff, the institutions are all too small to be able to cover the full range of the subject. All of them give students a basic knowledge of the normative tradition (in essence, the Qur'an and Sunnah) and of literature, law and history, with a general emphasis on the (Arab) Middle East. At some universities, such as the Free University of Berlin, Arabic literature, including that dealing with religious law, is simultaneously taught at institutes dedicated to Arabic studies. The history, languagesand literature of the Muslim Turkic peoples are accommodated mainly by independent institutes of Turkic, Ottoman, or Central Asian studies. In contrast, the history and culture of Islamic Iran often form part of the regular degree program in Islamic Studies, while Iranian Studies at German universities mainly concentrates on pre-Islamic Iran (with the exception of Bamberg and, to a certain degree, the FU Berlin). Altogether, then, teaching focuses on the languagesand regions that have shaped classical Islamic culture. Less attention is paid to the Muslim societies of South and Southeast Asia and of sub-Saharan Africa (here the exceptions are Bayreuth, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and currently Bochum), in which the vast majority of Muslims live – and not just since yesterday. The privileging of an Islamic ‘center’ at the expense of a non-Arab ‘periphery’ is often lamented, but it draws its justification from Islamic tradition and is unlikely to be overcome, given the increasing scarcity of jobs and resources for the foreseeable future. Even the creation of new extra-mural research bodies such as Berlin’s Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) at which experts on Islam, India and Africa work together, will only be able to counter this to a limited extent. Disciplines whose work is not primarily text-based, such as sociology or ethnology, are still poorly represented within the subject. Islamic art and architecture will in future at least be represented by a professorship (Bamberg).
History and Trends
Islamic Studies is a child of theology (in particular Protestant theology) and oriental philology, for which the first professorial chairs on German soil were established in the 1830s. As early as 1845, theDeutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society) was founded, which first published its journal in 1847. Both still exist today, although the Society – which did not change its old-fashioned name even after the ‘Orientalism’ debate – is now open to experts not just in Oriental Studies, Indian Studies, Japanese Studies and Chinese Studies, but also African Studies. In 1887, Berlin saw the creation of the Seminar for Oriental Languages, which was merely attached to the university, as it was intended primarily to train “practitioners”. Islamic Studies did not succeed in establishing itself as an independent academic discipline in Germany, however, until after the turn of the century, when Carl Heinrich Becker (1876-1933), later to be the Prussian Minister of Culture, took over the newly created Chair of the History and Culture of the Middle East at the Hamburg Colonial Institute in 1908. Unlike their counterparts in the major colonial powers of England and France, German Orientalists had barely come into contact with Muslims up to this time. Their work had remained based entirely on classical texts, guided by questions relating to philology and theology, alongside which only history and law, if that, had been able to hold their own. An interest in the modern age had not developed until the time of the German Empire, gaining momentum when Germany became active in the region as an ally of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but losing it after both countries were defeated. Up until the end of the Second World War, the subject was dominated by philology, especially in the National Socialist era. Next came very different new approaches in East Germany, where Oriental Studies were included in Asian and African Studies under the influence of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and primarily concentrated on the present; its main centers were Leipzig, Jena, Halle and Berlin. In West Germany, by contrast, the upheavals in the Middle East during the Seventies and Eighties – the oil boom, the Iranian revolution and the rise of political Islam, in particular – heightened the awareness that the study of contemporary developments could be necessary, legitimate and worthy of a serious Islamic Studies program. At the same time, the realization grew that the analysis of literary texts was not sufficiently served by merely deciphering them, transcribing them correctly, translating them and perhaps classifying them in a historical context, and that recent methods and theories of studying literature needed to be reviewed in order to keep up with developments in the discipline itself. Researchers interested in the legal and historical aspects of Islamic Studies underwent similar experiences. Overall, although professional circles still remain skeptical of theory to some extent, especially when it emanates from those who do not speak the Oriental languages, the younger generation in particular is nevertheless clearly turning to systematic analysis with a theoretical basis.
Currently, Islamic Studies is represented at all the major universities, usually with two chairs and two to four research staff including foreign-language lecturers; the students usually number between 200 and 400. Islamic studies has long ceased to be an ‘exotic subject’. Although traditional interests preponderate, the dominance of philology has been broken and an engagement with modernity has become acceptable. Finally, there is one development that should not pass without mention: whereas in the states that once formed East Germany, regional research institutes have been downsized and vacancies mostly filled with academics with a background in Classical and/or Literature Studies, the authorities in those of the western federal states more heavily affected by spending cuts are considering plans to combine Islamic, Arabic, Iranian and Turkish Studies – and even Jewish Studies – into a "Middle East" regional research body. Whether this will achieve more than merely ‘rationalizing away’ jobs, buildings, library stock and technical resources, and whether it improves the diverse, but unpredictable, career prospects of graduates remains to be seen. It is, in any case, one of the ironies of history.