Key research foci

Here you can find informations about our key research foci "Muslim Cultures in Europe" and "Muslim Cultures in South Asia"

Muslim Cultures in Europe

The presence of Muslims in Europe is by far not a new phenomenon. It was already in 710 CE when the first Arabs and North African Berbers landed on the Iberian peninsula, where they founded and held up a series of dynasties until they were defeated by the Catholic reconquista at the end of the 15th century. In Sicily, Muslims were ousted from power at the end of the 11th century whereas they managed to remain in power in Southeast Europe for almost six centuries and still form majority societies in some regions. Muslim cultures that arose under these conditions were of quite some importance for the cultural development of Europe.

Later, during the 19th century, social and political reform endeavours in some Muslim states encouraged their rulers to send students to European countries for further education. That is why, for example, the first Egyptian student group came to Berlin in 1853; and in 1915 the first mosque in Germany was established in Wünsdorf near Berlin. Since then, Muslims have been living in European metropoles.

After the Second World War, the situation took on a new dimension due to the arrival of the so-called "guest workers". Today, Muslims are an integral part of European societies, making an invaluable contribution to their economic and social welfare.

As yet, scholarly research has marked the presence of Muslims in European societies as "diaspora", even though scores of autochthonous Muslims live in Eastern Europe and the majority of Muslim migrant workers has decided to stay in (Western) Europe. Hence, the analytical view almost exclusively focusses on tensions between Muslims and their respective host communities. This relationship, however, can only be understood properly if it is scrutinised from different perspectives. This includes both the comparative study of the situation of Muslim communities within Eastern and Western Europe and the contrasting juxtaposition of newly emerged Muslim communities in Europe and the societies in their countries of origin.

Using a multi-perspective approach, emphasis is being put on the following aspects:

  • How do Muslim communities in Europe form their own institutional structures, e.g. in the areas of religious education, training of religious functionaries, or religious missionary work?
  • How can dialogue skills be acquired and applied and deficits in integration politics be eliminated?
  • What are the characteristics of the relationships between Muslim minority communities in Europe and their societies of origin?
  • How are Muslim identities constructed and discourses of validity conducted, also with regard to increasing numbers of genuinely European Muslims (converts and European-born Muslims, with or without a migration background)?

All of these questions are, seen against the background of the current political situation as well as demographical developments, of utmost importance.

Muslim Cultures in South Asia

A considerable number of Muslim migrants in Europe, especially in Great Britain, comes from countries in South Asia, notably from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Moreover, one of the world's largest concentration of Muslim population is situated in this region.

Hence, it is to the Chair's outspoken interest to build bridges with its research on Muslim cultures in South Asia between Muslim minority groups in Europe and the societies they originate from.

South Asia covers vast territories that are not only home to cultures influenced by Hinduism. Besides these, Muslims make up, as mentioned, a considerable group of population: ca. 500 million people on the Indian Sub-continent profess the Islamic faith, among them 174 million Pakistani and 145 million Bangladeshi Muslims in two predominantly Muslim countries, but also 161 million Indian muslims who, therewith, form the world's largest Muslim minority. The region encompasses almost one third of the world's Muslim population and increases by 2% per year. The region has been forming a centre of Muslim theological, intellectual, and political as well as literary activities for centuries and still represents multifaceted strenghts.

Particularly since the 18th century, significant political and intellectual impulses have been emanating from there which have had a lasting influence on the thinking of many other Muslim societies. One need only think of the collection of scholarly writings used in (religious) schools, the far-reaching networks of Muslim mystics and diverse missionary moevements, of Abu l-A'la al-Mawdudi, one of the most influential thinkers of political Islam, or of the controversy over the author Salman Rushdie - just to name a few. Another reason to focus on South Asia is the backlog that has to be cleared concerning the research on these cultures, for the Islamic Studies in German-speaking countries have traditionally been focussing on the Arab countries. The Chair of Muslim Cultural & Religious History at the University of Erfurt is doing pioneer work in this respect.

In its research on Muslim cultures in South Asia, the Chair puts particular emphasis on the period between the 17th and the 20th centuries. This period is characterised by the dissolution of the great Muslim empires and the emergence of new territorial principalities, social formations, and their struggle for representativeness. It is also the period in which concepts of reform within the Muslim educated elite unfold. Cultural encounters with the European colonial powers oscillate between acceptance and rejection. Puritanical movements exist besides syncretistic ones.

The Islamisation of South Asia had been promoted by Sufi orders, among others. At all times, up to the present day, these communities, which are often to be found on the fringes of orthodox religious understanding, have had an inherent potential to cultural, social, and political reform. Today, links between these groups also extend into Europe.

Likewise, the role of missionaries and their organisations should not be underestimated. As religious actors they occasionally appear in public in the role of representative players of civil society - they are deeper rooted in society than government officials that are often perceived as anonymous. Thus, it is not only the state that defines religion, but it is also religious powers that exert influence on the state.

Furthermore, it is the media that play a vital role for the understanding of contemporary Islam, for, similarly to Europeans, Muslims in South Asia have a rich literary heritage including poetry, novels, and short stories. The social relevance of this literature serves as a source for the reconstruction of the social structures of Muslim societies.

The sheer enormity of religion and its manifestation in South Asia are, without doubt, both perplexing and fascinating. It is arguable if the tensions that accompany this diversity, caused by globalisation and the homogenising vitality of modern nation states, can be soothed. In the end, these differences, even intertwinings, that are debated in discourses on Islam are part and parcel of the religious diversity of Muslim cultures in South Asia and, therefore, can only be understood as different facets of lived religion in the context of their cultural richness.