06/16/2008 03:07 PM

By Ursula Spuler-Stegemann


The history of Islam in Germany goes back as far as the 8th century. From
the reign of Charlemagne, to Goethe’s literature, to the Turkish guest
workers who arrived in the 1950s and 60s and made a home here, the Muslim
religion has been a part of German culture for hundreds of years.

The history of Islam in Germany is believed to date back to the Caliph Harun
al-Rashid. In the fabled tales of “1001 Nights,” al-Rashid is said to have
wandered the streets of Baghdad at night dressed as a merchant in order to
learn about the needs of his subjects. Various sources relate that
Charlemagne established diplomatic relations with this Abbasid ruler in the
year 797 or 801. Both sides reportedly guaranteed freedom of belief for
members of the other religion in their respective empires. It is in any case
an established historic fact that the elephant Abul Abbas died in 810. This
magnificent animal had been sent by the caliph to Charlemagne in Aachen as a
token of his friendship.

The Spread of Islam in Europe

At the time of Charlemagne, most of the Iberian Peninsula was already under
the control
<http://www.spiegel. de/international /europe/0, 1518,554746, 00.html> of the
Moors, who ruled over this part of Europe for nearly 800 years until the
final stage of the reconquista — the Christian reconquest of Spain and
Portugal — in the year 1492. Additional military advances by the Muslims in
Europe were stopped — exactly one century after the death of the Prophet
Muhammad — in 732 at Tours and Poitiers and in 759 in Narbonne and Nimes in

Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Arab Muslims carried out raids on
Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and even Rome. Islamic forces advanced from the
south and the west via Piemont and Burgundy into the Rhone Valley. They
occupied alpine passes and parts of Switzerland, where they remained from
952 to 960.

The last great onslaught came from the east. When the Ottoman Turks captured
the Byzantine capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1453, it spelled
the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and this final bastion of Christianity
in Asia Minor. Afterwards, the Ottomans expanded their realm of influence
and made incursions in 1529 and 1683 throughout the Balkans and as far as
the gates of Vienna, and Islamized Bosnia and Albania.

Cultural Influences

While successive Islamic military campaigns rolled over large parts of
Europe for over a millennium, the areas that make up modern Germany remained
largely unaffected. There were, however, cultural influences from occupied
Spain. The synergy of Islamic, Jewish and Christian learning spread the
seeds of knowledge and shaped Western civilization. Treasures of antiquity,
such as the works of Galen, Euclid and Plato would have been lost forever
were it not for Arab translations, most of which were rendered into Latin
under the orders of Archbishop Raimundo in the 12th century. Above all the
commented translation of the writings of Aristotle by Ibn Rushd — better
known in the Latin West as Averroes — enjoyed considerable influence on
medieval scholasticism.

In order to better understand the “Koran of the Turks,” church reformer
Martin Luther called for the printing of a complete Latin translation of the
Islamic holy book in the Swiss city of Basel. In his treatise, “On the War
Against the Turk,” he didn’t mince his words when summarizing his opinion
that “the Muslim is possessed by the lying spirit” and “where the lying
spirit holds sway, the murdering spirit is present as well.” Although he
granted that the Turk had a number of admirable characteristics, he opined
that — just like the Pope — he was a “servant of the devil.” For many
years, Europeans widely believed that Islam was a Christian sect, the Koran
was a Turkish bible and Muhammad was an epileptic, a swindler and a

Acceptance of Islam

Up until the 17th century, the “Turkish threat” and fear of the Turkish wars
overshadowed interactions with Muslims. It was not until 1701 that the
situation began to change. That was the year when Sultan Mustafa II conveyed
his congratulations to King Frederick I of Prussia on his coronation. This
led to more or less open diplomatic relations between the two powers. When
the Duke of Kurland presented King Frederick William I with 20 Muslim Tatars
as prisoners of war, the German monarch saw to it that they received a
prayer room, but ordered by decree that they hold their day of rest not on
Friday, as dictated by Islam, but on Sunday.

During his rule between 1712 and 1786, Frederick II (“The Great”) also
showed tolerance towards other religions. In reference to the state and the
civil rights of Catholics, he said: “All religions must be tolerated and the
crown must ensure that none is detrimental to the other, for each must be
allowed to worship in their own way.” Furthermore, he said: “All religions
are equal and good when the people who profess them are honest people; and
should Turks and heathens come to populate the land, then we shall endeavor
to build mosques and churches for them.”

In order to create a counterweight to the Habsburg crown, Frederick II
sought and found a loyal ally in the Ottoman Empire. Official diplomatic
relations to the Sublime Porte — the court of the sultan — were
established, and on Nov. 9, 1763 the first Turkish envoy, Ahmed Resmi
Efendi, arrived in Berlin with an exotically dressed entourage of 73 aides
who were greeted by the cheering inhabitants of the city. Deeply impressed
and evidently slightly confused by this emphatic reception, the diplomat
wrote to Sultan Mustafa III that “the people of Berlin recognize the Prophet
Muhammad and are not afraid to admit that they are prepared to embrace

When a successor to the envoy died in 1798, Frederick William III, who ruled
from 1770 to 1840, ordered that he should be buried in accordance with
Islamic rites. This required a royal bequest, and thus the first
Turkish-owned property on German soil was the Islamic cemetery in Berlin.

The Exotic Orient Comes to Germany

The history of Islam in Germany and German views of the religion were
strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. One of the key figures of the day
was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who lived from 1729 to 1781 and was the most
important German poet of the period. He argued for the right to freedom of
thought, even in matters of religion, and for tolerance of other religions.
His famous “ring parable” leaves open the question of whether Christianity,
Judaism or Islam possesses the sole truth.

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the leading advocate of
German Idealism, was also fascinated by Islam and characterized it as the
“religion of grandeur.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had outstanding knowledge of Islam, which he
brought into play in his “East-West Divan,” a collection of works published
in 1819 that emulate Sufi and other Muslim poetry. Thanks to his high regard
for their religion, many Muslims would just as soon adopt the great German
poet as one of their own.

Muslim life was often viewed with the tunnel vision of prisoners of war and
travelers. Tales of splendid royal palaces, extravagant harems and Turkish
baths ignited male fantasies, including those of French painters Eugene
Delacroix and Jean Auguste Ingres and their German colleague, the much
acclaimed Adolf Seel. The rhythms and instruments of the military musicians
of the Janissary corps, which always rode ahead of the Ottoman army and
“made the earth tremble,” had a profound influence on European music, and
inspired Christoph Willibald Gluck to compose his Turkish operas — “The
Pilgrims to Mecca” in 1764 and “Iphigenia in Tauris” in 1779. Viennese
classical composers were also fond of music “alla turca:” Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart included these exotic sounds in the overture to his comic opera “The
Abduction from the Seraglio” — about the escape from a Turkish harem — and
the “Turkish March” in Piano Sonata No. 11. Joseph Haydn and later Ludwig
van Beethoven also succumbed to the irresistible charm of oriental music.

Even the armchair travel accounts of famed German author Karl May (who lived
from 1842 to 1912) — with his tales of the Ottoman Empire starring the
protagonist Kara Ben Nemsi (i.e., Karl, son of Germany) — have lost none of
their appeal over the years, and probably prompted many a young German to
pursue Oriental studies. Secular buildings constructed in a mosque style,
like the “Red Mosque,” which was built between 1780 and 1785 and set in the
midst of the “Turkish Garden” at Schwetzingen Palace near Heidelberg in
southern Germany, and the Yenidze tobacco factory, which was built in the
early 20th century in Dresden and now serves as the venue for the “1001
Nights Festival,” must seem like mockery to devout Muslims. The builders
certainly never intended to offend anyone; they were merely fascinated by
the foreign and exotic elements and the architectural beauty.

In 1889, just one year after his ascendance to the throne, Kaiser William II
traveled to Istanbul and nine years later journeyed to Jerusalem and
Damascus, both of which belonged to the Ottoman Empire. In Damascus, the
Kaiser visited the grave of Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the
Crusaders in 1187. In his speech delivered on Nov. 6, 1898, the German
monarch declared: “May his majesty the Sultan and the 300 million Muslims
who live scattered across the globe (…) rest assured that the German Kaiser
will be their friend at all times.” Thereafter, the local religious leader
intoned “in the name of the world of Islam, may Allah’s blessing be on the
Kaiser, the German Empire, and all Germans.” Relations could not have been

During World War I the Germans and the Turks were allies. The multinational
Muslim prisoners of war of the Entente were held in two camps in Zossen and
in Wünsdorf near Berlin, where they were provided with a beautiful mosque in
1915, which was demolished, however, after the camp was closed.

The Founding of Germany’s First Islamic Religious Communities

The Berlin Islamic Community was founded in Berlin in 1922 for purposes that
were essentially the same as today’s Islamic organizations. The idea was to
promote Islam, carry out religious instruction and build a mosque. In
addition, the community oversaw the establishment of a student organization.
At the same time, the Ahmadi Muslims — who are members of a special Islamic
movement — formed their own organization in Germany. From 1923 to 1925,
they established a mission and built a large mosque in the Berlin district
of Wilmersdorf, which have since served as the center of a stable, permanent
religious community. Their magazine, Moslemische Revue, or Muslim review,
can be downloaded from the <http://berlin. ahmadiyya. org/index. htm>

When Hitler seized power in 1933, the number of Muslims in the country had
risen to over 1,000, consisting primarily of students, individuals living in
exile and former prisoners of war. Those who came from French and English
colonies saw the Nazis as allies in the struggle against the colonial
rulers. Prisoners of war and deserters from the Soviet Red Army — including
many Muslims of various nationalities — signed up to fight as members of
the Eastern Legions of the Third Reich in the hope that their home countries
could break away from Moscow. As a result, the “Germanic” Waffen-SS evolved
into a multinational force that even included Bosnians.

Post-War Germany and the Nazi Roots of Political Islam

Anyone closely examining the emergence of political Islamic movements in
post-war Germany will inevitably come across the name of Stefan Meining. The
historian and TV journalist working for southern Germany’s regional
Bayerischer Rundfunk network researched in archives, spoke with the last
remaining witnesses and shed light on a virtually unknown chapter of
contemporary German and international history. In July 2006, German public
TV network ARD broadcast his documentary film, “Between the Crescent and the
Swastika,” which describes an unholy alliance between Islamists, Cold War
hawks and former Nazis.

After the war, thousands of the Third Reich’s former Muslim fighters sought
refuge in the West, with many ending up in Munich, in the American zone of
occupation. Thanks to their language skills and contacts back in the Soviet
Union, these Muslims were recognized as a valuable prize by US, West German,
Soviet and British intelligence agencies as the world geared up for the Cold

Meining carefully traced how this community of ex-Nazis built a mosque in
Munich after founding the Mosque Construction Commission in 1960. Today, the
Mosque Construction Commission goes by the name of the Islamic Society of
Germany (IGD) and has become Germany’s most important Muslim organization,
with longstanding close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical
fundamentalist group based in Egypt. Meining’s research has revealed that
two former prominent members of the IGD are also associated with al-Qaida.
“If you want to understand the structure of political Islam, you have to
look at what happened in Munich,” Meining told the Wall Street Journal.
“Munich is the origin of a network that now reaches around the world.”

Guest Workers: The New Face of Islam

The guest workers who flocked to West Germany to help rebuild the country
and fuel the economic miracle made Islam a permanent part of the country’s
cultural landscape. Turks (from 1961), Moroccans (from 1963) and Tunisians
(from 1965) were brought in as workers. Neither a stop on recruitment nor
limitations on reunifying families have stemmed the influx of Muslim
arrivals. More recently, these immigrants have been joined by refugees from
war-torn regions like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Bosnia. According to the
German government, more than 3 million Muslims live in Germany today, and
roughly 1 million of them are German citizens.

Islamic and Islamistic organizations have been established as interest
groups and developed concepts for how devout Muslims can live in a
non-Islamic country without neglecting, or even worse, betraying their
beliefs. At first, they lobbied for prayer rooms, which were furnished as
suitably as possible. Over the past few years, mosques and minarets have
appeared in most large cities and in many small towns, clearly underscoring
the Islamic presence in Germany. Religious communities have confidently
selected names for their houses of worship like Fatih Mosque and Ayasofya
Mosque, both of which are designations that recall the fall of
Constantinople in 1453.

Muslims have achieved a great deal and changed
<http://www.spiegel. de/international /germany/ 0,1518,474629, 00.html> a number
of things that many Germans once took for granted. Nowadays, there are
women-only swimming days for Muslims with female supervisors, where the pool
windows are draped with heavy curtains to prevent outsiders from peering
inside. Crosses have been removed from many hospitals and schools, and
special Islamic prayer rooms have been introduced to factories and public
buildings. And there have been many other changes. Muslim parents now seek
to exempt their daughters from overnight school field trips and co-ed sports
classes. The question of whether public employees should be allowed to wear
Islamic headscarves has been referred to the courts, along with the issue of
religious studies in schools. Germany has already begun providing university
education for its Muslim religious
<http://www.spiegel. de/international /germany/ 0,1518,541440, 00.html>
instruction teachers and imams.

It appears the quiet settling-in period has been replaced by a loud and
demanding phase. This raises concerns among many Germans that the minority
society may come to dominate the majority society.

After nearly 50 years, Germany’s institutions still react rather helplessly
to the permanent changes that have taken place in society. Self-proclaimed
representatives of Islam — many of which have been included by the German
government in the German Conference on Islam to promote intercultural
dialogue, despite their openly Islamistic tendencies — have accomplished a
great deal and are demanding much more. This is a distressing development
for a large number of integrated Muslims, many of whom emigrated to Germany
to flee precisely this type of fundamentalism. Critics of the government’s
approach say that it would be better to gauge concessions toward Islam to
the needs and interests of these Muslims. They suggest that by bolstering
the more moderate elements of Islam, it will be possible to shape a common
future with their help.

Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, 68, is a professor for Islamic studies at the
University of Marburg in Germany. She has written a number of books that
have become standard texts about the Muslim religion in Germany.


* http://www.spiegel. de/international /germany/ 0,1518,559927, 00.html


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