Fragano Ledgister sent me this link, saying “I’ve a feeling that the US media won’t pay much attention to this.” I don’t know whether they will or not, but the news certainly made my jaw drop.
Turkey in radical revision of Islamic textsThe Koran has immense authority, but it doesn’t cover every possible subject, and not everything it says is explained in detail. To fill the gap, early Muslims collected the Hadith: in theory, either statements made by the Prophet, or actions taken by him, or the Prophet’s commendations of actions taken by others. Between the action and the collection falls the oral tradition.
Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam—and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion.
The country’s powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.
The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad. As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.
But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam. It says that a significant number of the sayings were never uttered by Muhammad, and even some that were need now to be reinterpreted.That is in the running for the top ten understatements I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Commentators say the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion. Its supporters say the spirit of logic and reason inherent in Islam at its foundation 1,400 years ago are being rediscovered. Some believe it could represent the beginning of a reformation in the religion.
Turkish officials have been reticent about the revision of the Hadith until now, aware of the controversy it is likely to cause among traditionalist Muslims, but they have spoken to the BBC about the project, and their ambitious aims for it.
The forensic examination of the Hadiths has taken place in Ankara University’s School of Theology. An adviser to the project, Felix Koerner, says some of the sayings—also known individually as “hadiths”—can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society.Call me a text-interrogating child of the Western critical tradition, but I’d have thought it was astonishing if successive generations hadn’t tried to push forward their various agendas by attributing them to the Prophet.
“Unfortunately you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim—or pseudo-Muslim—practice of female genital mutilation,” he says. “You can find messages which say ‘that is what the Prophet ordered us to do’. But you can show historically how they came into being, as influences from other cultures, that were then projected onto Islamic tradition.”
The argument is that Islamic tradition has been gradually hijacked by various—often conservative—cultures, seeking to use the religion for various forms of social control. Leaders of the Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad himself.
RevolutionaryAh, the traditional claim of religious reformers: “We’re just returning to the original form and faith of our religion.” Whatever would we do without it?
Turkey is intent on sweeping away that “cultural baggage” and returning to a form of Islam it claims accords with its original values and those of the Prophet.
But this is where the revolutionary nature of the work becomes apparent. Even some sayings accepted as being genuinely spoken by Muhammad have been altered and reinterpreted. …Is it hypocrisy to claim that doesn’t exist in Islam? Not as long as you’re working to make it true. Asserting that the thing you love most is too good to have n bad thing in it is part of the normal processes of spiritual renewal. It beats the heck out of saying n bad thing must be okay because it’s part of the thing you love most.
As part of its aggressive programme of renewal, Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, and appointed them as senior imams called “vaizes”. They have been given the task of explaining the original spirit of Islam to remote communities in Turkey’s vast interior.
One of the women, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of headscarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Koran—one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith.
She says that, at the moment, Islam is being widely used to justify the violent suppression of women. “There are honour killings,” she explains. “We hear that some women are being killed when they marry the wrong person or run away with someone they love. There’s also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment by uncles and others. This does not exist in Islam… we have to explain that to them.”
‘New Islam’I can’t express how fundamental a change this is either. If you can look at the Hadith as a whole, and subject it to the full battery of textual criticism, historical and linguistic analysis, document verification techniques, and other disciplines that have grown up around Bible scholarship and the study of other early religious texts, you’re in a different world.
According to Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, Turkey is doing nothing less than recreating Islam—changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy. He says that to achieve it, the state is fashioning a new Islam.
“This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation,” he says. “Not exactly the same, but if you think, it’s changing the theological foundations of [the] religion. ” Fadi Hakura believes that until now secularist Turkey has been intent on creating a new politics for Islam. Now, he says, “they are trying to fashion a new Islam.”
Significantly, the “Ankara School” of theologians working on the new Hadith have been using Western critical techniques and philosophy. They have also taken an even bolder step—rejecting a long-established rule of Muslim scholars that later (and often more conservative) texts override earlier ones.
“You have to see them as a whole,” says Fadi Hakura. “You can’t say, for example, that the verses of violence override the verses of peace. This is used a lot in the Middle East, this kind of ideology. I cannot impress enough how fundamental [this change] is.”