Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts

26 February 2008, BBC News:

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.


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.

"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.


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.

Prof Mehmet Gormez, a senior official in the Department of Religious Affairs and an expert on the Hadith, gives a telling example.

"There are some messages that ban women from travelling for three days or more without their husband's permission and they are genuine.

"But this isn't a religious ban. It came about because in the Prophet's time it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that. But as time has passed, people have made permanent what was only supposed to be a temporary ban for safety reasons."

The project justifies such bold interference in the 1,400-year-old content of the Hadith by rigorous academic research.

Prof Gormez points out that in another speech, the Prophet said "he longed for the day when a woman might travel long distances alone".

So, he argues, it is clear what the Prophet's goal was.

Original spirit

Yet, until now, the ban has remained in the text, and helps to restrict the free movement of some Muslim women to this day.

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'

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."
Robert Spencer:
Could this be what we have all been waiting for? Possibly. It will be interesting to see its content, and what reception it receives from Islamic authorities outside of Turkey. My guess would be that that reaction will be hostile, because to accept this would be to assume that Islam has gone drastically wrong almost from its inception -- militating against all the claims of Allah's careful protection of his umma. But we shall see ...

Certainly Muhammad never uttered a significant number even of the ahadith that are generally considered sahih, or reliable. Whether the Turks will be able to convince any significant number of Muslims of that is another matter ...

"Controversy" is understated ...

It is refreshing to see an Islamic authority admit and confront that. For pointing that out I have been called an "Islamophobe" and worse -- which name-calling, of course, does absolutely nothing to end the widespread Islamic approval of the practice ...

This is where it really starts to get silly. The Hadith is, for better or worse, the core of Islamic tradition. And since the ninth century, after Bukhari and Muslim and the rest made their efforts to winnow out the false from the true and published their collections, there has been a broad consensus (whether or not it was in fact correct) as to which ahadith were genuine and which weren't -- although there is serious disagreement about some. So to say that this whole process represented a "hijacking" of Islamic tradition is tantamount to saying that the whole thing was "hijacked" from the very start, before it even got off the ground.

Of course, that may be the only way of selling the idea that ahadith considered authentic should be junked ...
Hugh Fitzgerald:
Those waiting with bated breath should keep carefully in mind that a rearrangement, as to assigned rank of authenticity, of the Hadith, is the easiest of the tasks of those who would make less dangerous the texts of Islam.

But since the Hadith were spun, quite naturally, out of the Qur'an, it is the text of the Qur'an itself that will need changing. Eliminating the doctrie of "naksh" or abrogation will soften the many blows delivered, in the Qur'an, against Infidels, but the dangerous passages will remain. The task will still be that of somehow managing to interpret such passages as 9.29 -- unambiguous passages -- so that their clear meaning is made only "symbolic."

And then there is the figure of Muhammad himself, the Model of Conduct, uswa hasana, the Perfect Man, al-insan al-kamil. Just how will those scholars bent on reforming Islam by changing the texts manage to eliminate so much of what is recorded as being part of Muhammad's life. Will they declare his participation in the decapitation of the bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza to be a fiction? The attack on the inoffensive farmers of the Khaybar Oasis? The seizure of loot, and the women of those whom he and his followers killed? The murders of Asma bint Marwan and Abu Akaf? The marriage to little Aisha? Will all of this somehow disappear?

And even if these Turkish scholars manage to re-assign levels of authenticity, presumably through their own study of the isnad-chains, there is a question of authority and of acceptance. How many of the world's Muslims are likely to accept what these latter-day Bukharis and Muslims suggest, rather than to stick with what, in history-haunted fossilized Islam, was decided long ago, by the real Bukhari, and the real Muslim, and the other celebrated muhaddithin whom presumptuous twenty-first century moderns, in still-Kemalist Turkey, dare to re-arrange, dare to second-guess?

De Gaulle's laconic comment on another proposal for a similarly large undertaking:

Vaste programme, monsieur.
It all sounds so wonderful, until you realise its one small step in front of a mountain - so you have to question how serious they are.

UPDATE: for an insight into the mindset of those calling for revision of Islamic texts, see Mustafa Akyol:
- Welcome to Islamic Reformation 101
- A Feminist Islamic Reform in Turkey
- A Case For Islamic Renewal

- Turkish project aims to give Muslims guidance
- Turkey in radical revision of Islamist texts
- Turkey strives for 21st century form of Islam:
Under the guidance of Ali Bardokoglu, the liberal Islamic scholar who heads the religious directorate and was appointed by Erdogan, the Ankara theologians are writing a new five-volume "exegesis" of the Qur'an, taking the sacred text apart forensically, rooting it in its time and place, and redefining its message to and relevance for Muslims today. They are also ditching some of the Hadith, sayings ascribed to and comments on the prophet collected a couple of hundred years after his death.
- Turkey's big Islamic reform - Never mind:
Turkish Islamic authorities got some people's hopes up just a few days ago, when they announced a major reevaluation of the Hadith. But never mind: "No Muslim in the right mind would dare delete any hadith or tamper with the Prophet's heritage." Oh.
- Hugh:
... both a re-assigning of "rank of autheniticity" to the Hadith, and a challege to "abrogtatoin" would do little if the Turks involved in such reform could not convince more than a billion Believers to accept their authority, to prefer what they do to Bukhari, to Muslim, to other Islamic scholars of the hallowed past.

And how likely is that?
A more accurate report is here:
- Turkey “not reforming Islam, but itself” with hadith review:
Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey’s top religious official, says his country’s effort to purge the hadith of sexism and superstition is not an attempt to reform Islam but to change the Turkish way of practising it ...

Bardakoglu, who is chairman of the Department of Religious Affairs, told the daily Sabah: “A team of 80 are scanning all existent hadith. For example, words humiliating women are attributed to the prophets. We are combing through such interpretations. We will publish six volumes. However, what we are doing is not reform on Islam… we are not reforming Islam; we are reforming ourselves, our own way of religiosity.” ‘

His deputy Mehmet Görmez told another daily, Zaman, that the BBC’s interpretation of the reform as a “radical modernisation” was wrong, saying: “We are going to take the appropriate legal measures for redress.”

What’s up? Are we talking about a revolution in Islam here? Well, not quite. The aim is to publish a revised collection of hadith to be used in Turkey as a reference work for fatwas and other work of religious interpretation. The scholars are using modern methods of interpretation of the hadith to assess their validity, an approach that conservative scholars reject. But this is not a reinterpretation of the Koran, the absolute centre of authority. Islamic exegesis gets revolutionary when it is turned towards deconstructing the Koran, which Muslims believe is the literal word of Allah.

This project is not going there. It follows in a tradition of assessing and classifying hadith that dates back to the early days of the faith. So Bardakoglu and Görmez had no problem saying the project was not reforming Islam. The rejected hadith will not disappear; they’ll still be on the books in many other Muslim countries. But Turkey’s state-approved religious establishment won’t use them ...

Ali Eteraz, who has written a lot on reform in Islam, has trashed this effort as “fool’s gold” because he sees it mostly as the state meddling in religious affairs: “In my mind, this initiative has more to do with Turkey’s AKP party trying to get into the European Union. “Look, we threw out all the bad hadith,” it seems to be saying. “Now let us in! … Ultimately, this entire hadith affair represents an attempt on the part of Turkey to “nationalise” its Islam. Nothing more.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thursday, February 28, 2008
Turkey in ‘radical revision’ of Islamic texts
Cranmer has been asked to comment on this religio-political development in Turkey, so, ever mindful of the politico-spiritual edification of his readers and communicants, he shall do so.

It appears that Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians (who precisely?) at Ankara University to carry out a ‘fundamental revision’ of the Hadith - a collection of the sayings and doings of Mohammad which heavily influence interpretation of the Qur’an. It is the second most sacred text in Islam after the Qur’an, and the scholars (any women?) are preparing to publish a document that represents a ‘revolutionary reinterpretation’ which purports to ‘modernise’ the religio-political construct.

This is not, however, Islam’s ‘Reformation’ as some are asserting, not only because there is no Luther in Wittenberg or Cranmer at Oxford, but also because the Protestant Reformation was about a return to the Bible – the primary text of revelation - and a purging of the Church of the corrupt, man-made practices which deviated from the simplicity of the gospel. The Turkish agenda is about a redaction of an Islamic text of secondary importance to render it conformable to Western sensitivities. This will be repudiated by many Muslims as being a perverse manipulation and a bowdlerising of ‘the truth’. It will not remotely influence majority Sunni opinion, and most Muslims will simply ignore it. In fact, it will simply become another Islamic cult, rather like the Ahmadiyyans are perceived to be.

And such a re-interpretation of Islamic texts is, in any case, nothing new. One only has to study the development of the Hadith and Shari’a writings over the centuries to realise that Islam has been variously applied and diversely interpreted in many cultural contexts throughout the ages. There is no uniformity, as much as those who long for a caliphate renaissance may wish to see one.

What is welcome, however, is an application of higher critical scholarship to any Islamic texts which have been considered sacrosanct in recent decades, on pain of fatwa. Cranmer has already called for such an undertaking, not least because the insights that this discipline has given into the development and meaning of the Bible have been profound.

It can only be edifying to theological scholarship and historical truth if the hadiths can be shown to have been invented centuries after the death of Mohammed, and that they had a particular political and societal context. Discerning their Sitz im Leben will certainly help to elucidate original meaning and purpose.

The problem, of course, is that not all will agree. While some will continue to apply the letter of the law to prevent women from travelling, others will insist that such passages are redundant because 1400 years ago ‘it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that’.

But even higher criticism of the Bible has not produced unity on the issue of women speaking in church, let alone preaching and teaching, and there is not even unity on the injunction for them to cover their heads. Notwithstanding this, it is welcome news that Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, and appointed them as senior imams ‘to tell of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Qur’an - one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith’.

And why not? The men have manifestly failed.

But Cranmer thinks that this ‘New Islam’ is but a fad. It is a political manoeuvre with precisely-targeted propaganda in order to ease Turkey’s transition to EU membership (Cranmer wonders how many in Turkey will even know if this development). All aspirations to bring enlightenment and claims of ‘recreating Islam’ in order ‘to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy’ will not work because allegiance and faithfulness to sacred traditions cannot be eradicated overnight, over centuries, or even over millennia.

After all, has not His Holiness recently reintroduced indulgences and liberated the Tridentine Rite?

As Qoheleth says: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’.

But Cranmer’s final question, which these neo-enlightened Turkish theologians ought to address, is why they will not apply this revelatory higher critical method to the Qur’an itself?
posted by Cranmer at 7:26 AM 10 comments