40 theses

Half a millennium on, it is Islam in crisis

Worshipers and Mr. Ourghi, seated at the front in a pink shirt, in his liberal Berlin mosque. Source: Picture Alliance

Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, an Algerian Muslim who has long lived in Germany, has nailed 40 theses to the door of his mosque in Berlin, demanding reforms to Islam. Considered an act of bravery by some and a “PR stunt” by others, this gesture deliberately echoes Martin Luther’s 95 theses, which the monk is said to have nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg exactly half a millennium ago today. Luther’s rebellion eventually caused a revolution in faith and schism in the church. Mr. Ourghi, for his part, wants to bring Islam into modernity, by confronting what he sees as its dark side: violence and the suppression of women.

Most controversially, Mr. Ourghi takes issue with the notion that the Koran is the word of God. He calls on the faithful to distinguish between two Korans: the humane one, which is timeless and calls for peace among Muslims; and the political and legal Koran, which is based on violence, suppression and rule by the sword. “That was for the seventh century,” he said of the latter Koran.

“I’m asking: what Islam do we need in Germany? And my answer is: one that is humanist and moderate, one that can be reformed,” he said in an interview. Mr. Ourghi is critical of Islamists who see themselves as the better Muslims. “It is the task of liberal Muslims, particularly those in the West, to reform our religion,” he said.

Mr. Ourghi pinning his theses to the door of a Berlin mosque. Source: Youtube

Born in Algeria, Mr. Ourghi studied philosophy, then came to Germany at the age of 23, where he continued his studies of philosophy and Islam. He is now a professor at the University of Freiburg and one of the founders of a liberal mosque in Berlin. He is interested in what Muslims can learn from the way other theologians through the centuries have interpreted the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. He also argues that his theses would bring Islam into line with Germany’s constitution, known here as the Basic Law.

Above all he wants Muslims to see the Koran as the voice of human beings, rather than of a deity. “The Koran is lifeless, only its interpretation makes it come alive,” he said. Over the centuries, it has become the word of people, rather than of God. He also asserts that Mohammad is a person and thus, like other people, capable of mistakes. “Muhammad rules Muslims from his grave,” Mr. Ourghi said. “We need a second, symbolic death of Muhammad so we can be free of his tradition.”

Among the most important of his 40 theses, he said, are the ones calling for the freedom of women. “Islam has not made women free people but the slaves of men. Women have to rise up,” Mr. Ourghi said. “They will not be freed by their oppressors.” The headscarf is not a religious command but a historic product of male dominance, he added. “I try to reach women so they can finally speak.”

phil.COLOGNE – Abdel-Hakim Ourghi
Starting a new dialogue. Source: Picture Alliance

He would like to see women leading prayers and taking an active role in mosques, rather than confined to closed rooms and sidelined. “In Berlin they do that,” he said. Mr. Ourghi was referring to the liberal Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, where women participate in religious services. He is among the founding members. “Our group is small, but encompasses Shia and Sunni Muslims,” he said. He criticized the way funding tends to go to larger, less liberal groups simply because they have greater numbers. “It’s not about the numbers of Muslims in a group but their values,” he said. “Our values are in line with Germany’s Basic Law.”

Not surprisingly, his work has triggered controversy. Some Muslims say he doesn’t know what he is talking about; others argue that Islam cannot be reformed. Mr. Ourghi faces a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, in Ankara, and receives threats and hate mail. “Sure, I am afraid,” he told Handelsblatt Global. But he is determined to start a debate, calling his arguments a love letter to his religion. “I wish we Muslims could discuss these issues and didn’t commit violence against each other,” he said. “I am not a prophet,” he added, but “this is just the beginning.”

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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