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 of the Moors (more…), 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 France.
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.
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 charlatan.
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 Islam.”
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 better.
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.
Part 2: 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 Internet.
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 War.
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 a number of things (more…) 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 instruction teachers (more…) 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.