The Working Group Modernity and Islam

From 1996 to 2006 the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin has hosted the Working Group Modernity and Islam, a Berlin-based interdisciplinary research network of scholars working at various universities and extra-university institutions on the questions of Modernity and Islam. The Working Group has been committed to fostering a deeper understanding of Muslim cultures, their histories, and their social structures with the two-fold aim of revealing their complexities and of offering deeper insights into the phenomena of 'modernity' and 'modernization', which should be of interest to scholars well beyond the fields of Islamic studies.

The project Modernity and Islam was launched in 1995 with the support of the Körber-Foundation in Hamburg. From 1996 on, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Land Berlin have financed the scholarly program.

The Working Group was initiated under the impression that in Germany, indeed in Europe as a whole, the level of scientific and intellectual interest in Islam neither reflects its growing political importance nor its role as a reference for modern and post-modern criticism. Whereas traditional Islamic studies methodically started to embrace the social sciences, history, and economics, representatives of the latter were seen to persist in delegating the study of Islam to regional experts. A 'survey of the social and cultural studies on the Muslim world in the Federal Republic of Germany', funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education, gave empirical evidence of the need for additional effort to overcome the 'dual marginalisation' of Islamic studies.

The Working Group Modernity and Islam did not wish to suggest a fundamental polarity between Muslim societies on the one hand and the modern world on the other. Modernity here also referred to an inherent crisis and thus reflects a genuine European preoccupation as well. The group therefore tried to examine the assimilation of modernity within Islam in conjunction with a range of varying experiences in other parts of the world. The proposal has been to articulate common problems facing modern societies, conduct relevant fieldwork in Islamic regions and refer the findings to the analysis of, for instance, European societies. Considerable stress has been laid on the principle of "research with" as opposed to "research on"; the traditional asymmetrical European relationship to Islam ("Orientalism") being replaced by one of genuinely mutual collaboration with researchers from the Islamic world.

In a second phase, from 2001 to 2006 the Working Group Modernity and Islam put a new emphasis in trying to tie area studies more closely to other disciplines. In several independent projects, the attempt has been made to expand the horizon of Europe's history, its present, and its culture, which still bear the shape of the national borders of the 19th century.

The activities of the Working Group Modernity and Islam merged into the five-year multi-disciplinary research program "Europe in the Middle East; the Middle East in Europe" (2006-2011), of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. It builds upon the previous work of the Working Group Modernity and Islam and seeks to rethink key concepts and premises that divide Europe from the Middle East.


The following projects have been set up by or were connected to the working group:

Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures

This project was directed by Dr. Friederike Pannewick (Oslo University) and explored the diverse relationships and processes of reception and exchange between the literatures of the Near East and other world literatures. It is continued within the research Program Europe in the Middle East - The Middle East in Europe under the title 'Travelling Traditions. Comparative Perspectives on Near Eastern Literatures'.

Islamic und Jewish Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique

This project has been initiated by Dr. Almut Sh. Bruckstein (Frankfrurt, Jerusalem, Berlin) and Dr. Navid Kermani (Cologne) and has been co-directed by Prof. Angelika Neuwirth (Institute of Arabic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin). It tried to lay the groundwork for a comparative hermeneutics of Muslim and Jewish traditions. Two research fields within Europe in the Middle East - The Middle East in Europe, 'Perspectives on the Qur'an: Negotiating Different Views of a Shared History' and 'Tradition and the Critique of Modernity: Secularism, Fundamentalism and Religion from Middle Eastern Perspectives' build on this project.

Merchant Cities in the Ottoman Empire

In conjunction with the Orient-Institut of the German Oriental Society in Istanbul and directed by  Professor Dr. Ulrike Freitag (Zentrum Moderner Orient) and Professor Dr. Gudrun Krämer (Institute for Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin) this project studied the social History of merchant and port cities in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states. This project is continued within Europe in the Middle East - The Middle East in Europe under the title 'Cities Compared: Cosmopolitanism in the Mediterranean and Adjacent Regions'.

Non-European Art and Culture in European Cities: Forum Museum

Jointly organized by the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Deutsche Museumsbund, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, this project took the form of a forum, in which scholars of cultural studies and representatives of Berlin museums informally discuss the appropriate representation of non-European cultures in museums. The Forum was directed by Professor Dr. Horst Bredekamp (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Professor Dr. Viola König (Ethnological Museum Berlin).

West-Eastern Divan: Writers write about Writers

This program has been experimenting with new, closer forms of cooperation between writers from Germany and Arab Countries, Iran and Turkey in an effort to improve mutual awareness of contemporary literature in Germany and the Middle  East. It has been undertaken in co-operation with the Berliner Festspiele, the Goethe Institut and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. This project has been continued by the Berliner Festspiele. For more information please visit: