Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Ömer Özsoy {*}

Between Defense and Conformity

Koran Hermeneutics in the European Context


From: Herder Korrespondenz, Spezial2/2009, P. 35-38
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Koran as revelation emerged in a particular historical epoch. How can the intentions of the Koran be revived in new situations, not least in view of the minority situation of Muslims in Europe?


It is generally assumed that the Muslim immigrants in Germany have brought along their ideas about Islam from their countries of origin - including the habits of hermeneutic interpretation and everyday practices. Like the native converts, they belong to the international Islamic community, which internalizes the intellectual heritage of Muslims and thus the loyalty to the Koran and the Prophet, and which sees itself as the current part of Islamic history. In a globalizing world, the international cross-linkages contribute to this self-understanding.

One of the main features of the Muslim memory that characterizes the relationship to the Koran is the proclamation of the Prophet Muhammad as God's Word. In the Islamic faith the Koran is regarded as God's revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. Besides the fact that theologians and philosophers argue about whether this was done verbally, and ask to whom the Arabic formulation of the revealed things is owed (God, Gabriel as the angel of revelation or Muhammad), all Muslims believe from the start that the text of the Koran is of divine origin and has been faithfully passed on by Mohammed. Since this belief is based on Koranic and prophetic statements, it is authentically Islamic. In Islam under this pre-condition the dogmatic scope of a faith based on revelation is limited.

The conviction that the Koran is an authentic collection of revelation is also important. According to Islamic historiography the Koran consists of revelation units, which the Prophet Mohammed received and proclaimed between the years 610 to 632. The revealed words of God were from the beginning received not only as a divine guidance, but also as recitation or liturgical text.



That's why one already in the lifetime of the Prophet attached particular importance to both learning the obtained revelations by heart and to writing them down. Thus, the so-called consonantal skeleton of today's Koranic text was compiled from the Koran copies and traditions of the Prophet's companions. The mainstream of Western research on the Koran agrees with the Islamic scholarship in the scientific conviction that "the typeface of the Koran preserved until today renders the contents of revelation which the companions have heard from the mouth of the Prophet" (Rudi Paret).

The reading of the Koran is also the access to a dialogue with God. From the Islamic tradition about the origins of Islam and from the Koran it appears that the Prophet's companions - after they were convinced that Mohammed was the messenger of God among them and communicated His messages - have always assumed that God would give them all the necessary clarifications and further instructions. The conviction on which this expectation is based was self-evident for the witnesses of the revelation and passed on from generation to generation as the only tradition of the Koran reception.

Since then the faithful include themselves and their situation when reading the Koran. After all, it is accompanied by the following questions: What does God want from me? What am I to do and what not? For the devout Muslims the Koran can therefore never only be the object of scientific research. They find themselves rooted in a world of meanings [Bedeutungswelt] that are determined by the Word of God, revealed in the Koran. The belief of the Muslims that they turn to God through the Koran has also hermeneutic character, but first and foremost it is understood existentially. The search for dialogue with God through the reading of the Koran is not only characteristic of the text fundamentalists but a fundamental attribute of the Muslim existence; it distinguishes the Western research on the Koran from the Islamic Koran interpretation.

After all, the Koran is a canonical text. The first generation of Muslims was able to observe the Koranic revelation, whereas this remained denied to the later generations, since the Prophet was no longer alive. The latter regarded the Koran as a written text, while the first generation has received it as a literal speech directed at it.

The real reason for the change in perception was that the Koran was for future generations no longer an open process, which was related to the circumstances of their life and dealt with their current conditions, but it was now a completed separate entity. Their perception of the Koran is reflected in their contributions to the interpretation of the Koran, as they have dealt with the Koran as a written text and increasingly focused on questions of grammar and linguistics. Already in the second generation the Koranic exegesis thus changed from understanding a speech to discovering the contents of a written text. When these findings and methods took root as theoretical sciences of Islamic theology, the Koran became completely a pure reference text.

Furthermore, the Sharia law is important as a trans-historical world order. One of the key issues which Islamic scholarship is dealing with until today stems from the fact that the Koran and the Hadith, the canonical reference texts of Islam are limited and unchangeable, while new problems arise about which is not talked in those texts. Almost every book about exegetical issues and hermeneutics of laws is concerned with the question of how to treat the developments in the world outside the Koran.

From the early exegetical traditions we gather important approaches, which make the close connection of the Koranic revelation with its time of origin a subject of discussion: the Meccan and Medinan passages of the Koran, the occasions for the revelation of individual passages in the Koran, and not least the so-called abrogating and abrogated commandments and prohibitions of the Koran. Beyond this historical awareness the following principle has been developed, inter alia. The regulations of Koran and Sunna are universally valid, even if they are based on certain historical or local events. In Sunni Islam this principle gained acceptance, since one was convinced that every new problem could be solved by relating it via conclusion by analogy to a reference text, and thus under Sharia law.

The main features of the Muslim self-understanding presented here apply also in Europe and not least in Germany. The attempts of hermeneutic renewal made by Muslim intellectuals or by the at least partly rootless young generation can hardly disguise the fact that the majority of Muslims cling to the traditional lifestyles of their countries of origin. The often propagated and predicted Europeanization of Islam takes place only reluctantly; the naturalization of Islam is in an early stage: The settling in of Muslims, in the sense of a European or German Islam, is still far from being reality. Diaspora-Islam is omnipresent.



The unmistakable difference between the Diaspora situation and the Muslim life in the country of origin consists in the difficulty as a religious minority to live in a non-Islamic society without compromising one's own belief system and practice of religious life, and thus to be exposed to an adaptation pressure in view of the new socio-cultural conditions.

The majority, which is clinging to tradition, is in an almost irresolvable dilemma of an either-or option: either to diverge from one's own religion or to disassociate oneself from the social environment and to be condemned thus to remain eternally a stranger. Either the strange reality or one's own religion thus remains inaccessible.

Less contradictory is the situation of those reform-oriented Muslims who are anxious for their eclectic inventiveness rather than naming and shaming the adaptation pressure. The secular Muslim has at most slight pangs of conscience when he wants to get identity-establishing characteristics of culture out of the religion of his ancestors, and e.g. would like to name a child after the grandfather, but then he does not do it, because he wants to protect it from defamation.


Muslims are Cautious in View of Reform Debates

These differences should not lead us to the misconception that there are no commonalities. The more religious relations are defined on the base of merging ethnic, national and regional cultural traditions, the more the traditionalists, reformers, and partly also the secularists are approaching each other. The fear of heteronomy prevailing in the Diaspora leads to alliances between all the camps, which become consciously or unconsciously the defenders of their own religion and culture, especially in situations experienced as crisis. The result is often an apologetic attitude, which affects also the language. One defends one's own life circumstances, including religion without being aware of the nature of religion.

Thus, a certain Muslim reserve to the debate on reform, renewal and enlightenment of Islam can be explained - not least because it is often experienced as an invitation by outsiders, in Germany, too. Muslims are here and act in the sense of "essentialist", i.e. they have no interest in changes in their religion. There is no denying, however, that this kind of essentialism is provoked especially by the Koran itself, because some Jewish and Christian groups in Arabia in the time of origin of the Koran, about which we know, unfortunately, still very little, are reproached by the Koran for having falsified their own religion.



In the widespread conclusion that the value systems of Islam and the modern present time are incompatible at every level, the traditionalist and secularist are in agreement. Such extreme approaches, which are advocated in Germany and elsewhere, are not presented in the public discourse where the Muslim representatives often act defensively. Germany's Muslims rather tend to reform approaches that take a promising middle course in order to resolve the apparent conflict between the Koran and the present time.

Regarding the reform-oriented Koranic hermeneutics in Germany, one must admit, however, that it either starts from exclusively Islamic beliefs and that the respective interpretations are not rationally understandable, or it displays almost no consistent methods, how the respective interpretations are derived from the Koran.

It remains then only to state that the collision of a defensive reflex on the one side with the adaptation pressure on the other side results in a widespread eclecticism. The traditionalist is also eclectic in his hasty defensive effort to make eagerly borrowings from reform-oriented approaches - albeit with pangs of conscience.

The greatest difficulty that Koranic hermeneutics has to overcome in a value-pluralistic society is in my opinion the risk of presenting premature arguments aiming at reforms, arguments the deduction of which from the original meaning of the Koran cannot be comprehended, or of insisting on a literal interpretation of the Koran, which justifies ideas or practices that are incompatible with Koranic intentions. After all, historic Koranic hermeneutics has the task to make sure that neither the present is reduced to the past, by getting caught in history, nor to identify Islam with the given situation, by subjecting the Koran without criticism to the requirements of the modern age.

To ensure that this wish will come true, a critical attendance of the Koranic hermeneutics by an authentic theology is necessary, which does not yet exist in Germany. However, on the basis of a tradition that is aware of its history, in the Islamic world one opposes over-interpretations of metaphysical, suprahistorical approaches and the cognitive atheism or the radical relativism. Historical awareness, as Islamic Koranic hermeneutics understands it, assumes that the Koran is primarily related to its own historical period, and has to be understood just as the first addressees have understood it. In the background is the ideal to understand the authentic meaning of the Koran in its own historical cosmos of meanings, in order to be able to revive the Koranic intentions resulting from there in new situations.


    {*} Ömer Özsoy (born in 1963) is since 2006 Foundation Professor of Islamic religion at first at the Faculty of Protestant Theology and now at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Religion of Islam at the University of Frankfurt. After studying in Ankara, Heidelberg and Göttingen, he has taught Koranic exegesis in Ankara has been a visiting professor at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Salzburg.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'