Tuesday 19. October 2021
#182 - May 2015


'Euro-Islam' or 'Islam in Europe': which is it to be in future?


Ever since the attacks carried out by Muslim terrorists in Europe, there have been increasing calls for much-needed reforms to Islam.

Politicians, intellectuals and Christian theologians are calling on Muslims to bring Islamic theology into line with living in the modern world (democracy, equal opportunities, human rights, pluralism, civil society). The Islamic world has been grappling with this issue since Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, more than 200 years ago. For a thousand years, Muslims lived with a set of cultural, political and religious rules which gave their religion a sense of identity and were codified at a time when they held absolute political and religious power. They created a culture which had made considerable advances from the legacy of classical Antiquity. European colonialism brought Muslims face to face with the modern world and, since then, Muslims across the world have been calling for a renewal of Islamic theology.


A multifaceted interpretation of the Koran

Under the aegis of Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935), the Al-Azhar University in Cairo chose the method of reading into the Koran whatever one happened to be looking for. For example, they equated the term 'shura' ('gathering of clan leaders', a term found in the Koran) with the term 'parliamentary democracy'.  According to this interpretation, Muslims had lost historical knowledge and needed to return to the Islam of the earliest Muslims (Salafism). The current rector of the Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ahmad Mohammed al-Tawyyeb, was pursuing this line of thought when in February 2015 at a conference in Mecca, he denounced the historically false interpretation of the Koran which had led to an intolerant reading of Islam and now required partial reform.


There are roughly 15 million Muslims in Europe. Over the course of the last 50 years, they have migrated from Islamic countries and have brought to Europe various theologies, schools of law and political diversity. The only thing which unites them all is their commitment to their belief in one God, in the Koran and the Sunnah and the fact that they are members of a community ordained by God (umma) (Koran 3:110).


In Europe, Muslim scholars, imams and ulamas are faced with a twofold dilemma. Firstly, they represent a pluralistic minority without any political power and are unable to push through their classic model of society.


The Hadith, according to which "every person is born a Muslim, but it is society which makes them Muslim", does not apply where Muslims are in a minority. Secondly, they have come to realise that in the context of a diaspora they have no religious authority which they could use to usher in reforms by virtue of their office. Imams, intellectuals, religious representatives of the grandparents’ home countries, international Islamic organisations, Sufi brotherhoods and Islamists are fighting each other over who has the sovereign right of interpretation of Islam in Europe.


Shaping a Euro-Islam

The modern-day challenge resides, above all, at the theological level. People have been calling for Islam to be reformed since the 19th century. Bassam Tibi coined the term “Euro-Islam” in 1992 at a conference at the ‘Institut du Monde Arabe’ and attempted to find new words for the Islamic traditions within the Enlightenment. Tariq Ramadan adopted Tibi's term and propagated Islamic ethics for the European diaspora. It is not clear whether, via his Islamic ethics, he was seeking to islamicise modern life or to modernise Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood, followed by the Islamists, stand for the opposite, for an ‘Islamic essentialism’, which means that they deny the existence of theological and legal pluralism and reduce Islam to a few common rules: their ‘reading of Islam’ is heralded as the solution to all problems and is thus alienated as a political ideology.


Narin Tezcan, sociologist and professor in Leiden, warns Muslims against striving too hard to place the organisation of their fellow Muslims on an equal footing with that of the Christian Churches, thereby missing out on the opportunity to introduce necessary reforms. Malek Chebel calls for a theological reform, which in his view should start with the two pillars of Islam:  the Koran and the Sunnah. With regard to feminist theology, the confrontation with traditional views is intensified. Its advocates argue that the Koran is not fundamentally paternalistic, but has from the beginning been subject to a unilateral masculine interpretation. Verses which sound misogynistic are read and accepted as such. The most radical of all are the atheist Muslims, who would like to see all Muslim traditions banned.


For 50 years Muslims in Europe have confronted the challenge of building a new theological foundation for a religion within a civilisation whose most important pillar is Christianity. Given that they have no doctrinal authority, this must grow out of a consensual process. The road ahead is long, but Muslims may be running out of time.


P. Hans Vöcking

Georges Anawati Stiftung (GAS)



Translated from the original text in German

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