The inclusion of Muslim theology in the universities of the Old Continent

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

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L'enseignement universitaire.jpgReview of Francis Messner and Moussa Abou Ramadan (eds), L’enseignement universitaire de la Théologie musulmane. Perspectives comparatives, Cerf, Paris, 2018.


One of the most hotly debated aspects of Islam’s presence in Europe is the training of Muslims, something quite rightly deemed to be a sine qua non for the construction of a European Islam. The book edited by Francis Messner and Moussa Abou Ramadan (both professors at Strasbourg University) analyses this theme from a specific, but central, perspective: the teaching of Islamic theology at university. Indeed, if there have been numerous initiatives organized by Muslims themselves to ensure an intergenerational transmission of the faith (starting with the courses taught in the mosques), it is clear that the “real” training issue primarily concerns the possibility of integrating Islamic sciences within a programme of higher studies.


There are generally two reasons why this type of training is considered crucial. On the one hand there are public order considerations. These, as Jean-François Husson writes (paraphrasing a joke attributed to Napoleon about the role of the parish priest) are well summarised in the saying that “one imam is worth two policemen,” (p. 154). On the other, there is the need to guarantee Muslims an appropriate “spiritual care:” one that is rooted in the Islamic heritage but also able to reckon with the European context. The current situation is distinguishable more by its deficiencies than by its successes, however. Examining the Spanish case, Ferriero Galguera writes, “There are courses teaching Islam in the state schools. There are also Muslim chaplains in the hospitals and prisons. We know, in addition, that Islam is an integral part of our history and our culture. But we lack serious, in-depth studies in Islamic theology. We do not even have the legal tools to regulate them. And I fear that this is a lacuna that is common to many other member states in the European Union” (p. 147). In fact, the first hurdle that the projects for including Islamic sciences within university teaching have to get over is the problematic status of theological disciplines (and “denominational” teaching, in particular) in various European countries. This difficulty is then exacerbated by the European Islamic communities’ internal fragmentation, which complicates the task of identifying interlocutors with whom to develop shared itineraries.


The first problem is less significant in the systems where theology is welcomed by the public universities. This is the case in Germany, for example, where five centres hosted by the Theology Faculties in the Universities of Tubingen, Osnabruck, Munster, Frankfurt and Nuremberg were set up between 2011 and 2012 to teach the Islamic religious sciences. However, as Omar Hamdan, one of the professors tasked with this type of teaching at Tubingen, explains, “the teaching methods applied in the Western centres offering the sharia sciences can be distinguished from those practised in the East, where subject-acquisition occurs through mnemonic learning and a direct transmission of information and knowledge” (p. 243). A similar programme was introduced in the Netherlands and at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, in particular. Here, in the context of an Islamic Theology Centre attached to the Theology Faculty, a three-year licence in Islamic theology and a master’s in Muslim spiritual guidance have been set up. These courses provide for modules on Islamic disciplines and, alongside them, “contextual courses” on Islam and European culture (p. 191). However, even in the legal contexts that made this type of approach easier, there was no shortage of difficulties. Describing the journey that resulted in the Vrije Universiteit project, Yaser Elletthy says that finding figures to represent Muslims is “in reality, a problem” (p. 183) and that “teaching Islamic theology in a Western university context involves numerous subtleties when compared to the same teaching in the Muslim world” (p. 192).


Different paths have been followed in other contexts. This occurred in Belgium, for example, with the project for continuing training in “Religious Sciences: Islam” organized by the Catholic University of Louvain between 2007 and 2015. Here, as Abdessamad Belhaj explains, the desire was to contribute to developing a “reflective, university-level Muslim theology” (p. 216) founded on convergence and cross-fertilization between human sciences and the Islamic sciences, rather than their mere juxtaposition. Mehdi Azaiez has a similar vision. In his teaching of Islamic theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (Louvain’s Flemish counterpart), he relies on modern critical methods, particularly when approaching the Qur’anic text.


A further possibility is to be found in the Islamic Institutes of Higher Education. These are private bodies that have sprung into being from the 1990s onwards (particularly in France) in order to respond to “the expectations of young Muslims seeking an Islamic training that might follow the paths of a return both of the religion and identity-related processes” and the “urgent need for the training of religious cadres, in the context of an Islamization or re-Islamization of part of the French population” (p. 285). Of these, the al-Ghazālī Institute of the Grand Mosque of Paris and the European Institute of Human Sciences (also in Paris) stand out in particular. As Samir Amghar notes, with the exception of the al-Ghazālī Institute and a few others, these centres “spread an Islam that is strongly marked by the Muslim Brothers’ ideology” and despite their attempts to adapt to the European context, they remain places that disseminate an “Islamic normativity” (p. 320).


The variety of these experiences demonstrates that no one model has established itself and suggests that it will be hard for any single one to do so. Indeed, the experiments tried out reflect the plurality both of the Islamic presence in Europe and of the institutional frameworks of the countries in which Muslims live.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Where European Muslims Are Trained”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 135-137.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Where European Muslims Are Trained”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: