Germany experiments with training, certifying imams

December 9, 2010

As Islamic life and society claims an ever-larger place across
Western Europe, imams increasingly are being asked to provide guidance
to their immigrant and native-born Muslim congregations.

But that
leads to the question: Who provides guidance for the imams? New
educational and certification programs in Germany and neighboring
Austria hope to be the answer.

It's becoming increasingly clear
that imams who are telling their Muslim congregations how to respond and
adapt to their new homes were themselves trained and educated far from
Europe. Often basic concepts—such as democracy or church-state
separation—don't resonate with either Islamic spiritual leaders or
their flocks.

A new educational program in the western German town
of Osnabrück is a few weeks into an experiment to help imams learn
about European society so that they in turn can give better advice to
their followers.

A similar program is about to see its first
graduates in Vienna, and two other German universities are also working
on similar ideas.

Supporters of the German programs eventually
want to go beyond filling knowledge gaps on Western society to providing
university degrees for would-be imams or Islamic teachers in grade
schools.

"There's a deficit here in the area of civic studies,"
says Rauf Ceylan, a professor of religious studies at the University of
Osnabrück who has been instrumental in creating the curriculum. The
imams "have really discovered a need here."

In some ways, grafting
Islamic education onto the German system is simple. The country has a
long tradition of providing religious education in grade schools, and
university degrees in religious studies can be a springboard into the
clergy or to becoming religious education teachers.

But whereas
Germany's Catholic and Lutheran churches have hierarchical structures
that allow a central curriculum, Islam has no central decision maker.
That's left Ceylan wondering who to pick as a representative for Islam
as he develops his imam education program.

"We had to try to find a
way to pull the Islamic model in," Ceylan said. "We settled on an
advisory council model," which includes members of all major Islamic
groups as well as theologians, academics and politicians.

Getting
all those groups to agree on one curriculum could prove a challenge, but
"it's absolutely possible," said Chris­tine Langenfeld, a law professor
at Georg-August University in Göttingen. "The curriculum has to make
sure that the different influences of Islamic society are included."

In
practical terms, that means different curriculum plans could reflect
different theologies within Islam, such as Sunni or Shi'a or Sufi. The
various Mus­lim groups will have to be "flexible," she said. "They can't
expect that the curriculum exclusively reflects their beliefs."

Erol
Purlu, public affairs director with the Association of Islamic Cultural
Centers, said he's confident that the different Muslim groups can
eventually agree on a curriculum. "I think we've got a long way ahead of
us," Purlu said. "But if we work together, it will happen."

There
are other matters to be worked out, such as salaries and acceptance of
the trainees as spiritual leaders. Currently most religious education
teachers in Ger­man grade schools are professional teachers, with no
formal ties to their church.

In addition, even if curriculums can
be drafted and the first class of imams can be graduated, some wonder
whether Germany's Islamic communities will accept imams trained in
Germany rather than in traditional centers of Islamic culture. "These
imams will have to fight for acceptance," said Langenfeld.

So far,
Ceylan is optimistic. An ex­tended education program meant for 15 imams
was expanded to 30 after 100 attended an informational evening and 50
applied. "We see that the need is there. They are seeking us out," he
said. "They don't have these kinds of opportunities in Islamic
countries."  —RNS