Accounts from Turkey suggest that the government is attempting a bold re-interpretation of Islam.
Its unusually named ministry of religion, the "Presidency of Religious Affairs and the Religious Charitable Foundation," has undertaken a three-year "Hadith Project" systematically to review 162,000 hadith
reports and winnow them down to some 10,000, with the goal of
separating original Islam from the accretions of fourteen centuries.
reports contain information about the sayings and actions of Muhammad,
the prophet of Islam. They augment the Koran and have had a major role
in shaping the Shari‘a (Islamic law), thereby deeply influencing Muslim
life. Despite their importance, Muslim reformers have devoted little
scrutiny to them, due to their vast size, unwieldy nature, and the
challenge of discerning "sound" from "weak" hadiths.
One of the project's 85 theology professors, Ismail Hakki Unal
of Ankara University, explains its goal: "The Koran is our basic guide.
Anything that conflicts with that, we are trying to eliminate." The
project website explained that its work is "an important step for
carrying the universal message of the Prophet of Islam to the
Its director, Mehmet Görmez, adds that the purpose is a scholarly one, to understand the hadith better: "We will make a new compilation of the hadith
and re-interpret them if necessary." More broadly, Görmez explains,
"The project takes its inspiration from the interpretations of the
modernist vein of Islam. … We want to bring out the positive side of
Islam that promotes personal honor, human rights, justice, morality,
women's rights, respect for the other."
Görmez, a senior lecturer in hadith at Ankara University and the
vice-president of religious affairs, heads the "Hadith Project."
This means, for example, reinterpreting hadiths
that "present women as inferior beings," such as those that encourage
female genital mutilation, honor killings, and the prohibition of women
traveling without their husbands. One participant, Hidayet Sevkatli Tuksal, goes so far as to declare some hadiths
as bogus because they intend "to ensure male domination over women."
However, despite the intense current debate in Turkey over the
headscarf, the project avoids that particular issue. Another sensitive
topic concerns the right of Muslims to convert out of their faith; the
project permits such conversions.
Some Turks have great
hopes for the Hadith Project, which aims to produce a multi-volume book
in Turkish, Arabic, and Russian by year's end. Taha Akyol,
a political commentator, sees a revolution taking place. "In other
countries you have reform of Islam pushed through by despotic or
modernist regimes but in Turkey you are seeing the reform taking place
in the middle classes. And that is real reform." Another commentator, Mustafa Akyol, believes that the revised hadiths "will be a step to change mindsets."
of Chatham House goes further, calling the project "somewhat akin to
the Christian Reformation." He applauds the project being sponsored by
the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan. AKP involvement means that "this reform movement is not being
implemented by a secular group, but by the ruling [party, which] is
very religious and conservative. So this is an authentic internal
process of change."
Other observers are
more skeptical. Hashim Hashimi, a former MP, for example, states that
"There are established views on Islam and how it should be practiced
that have been in place for 1400 years. And they aren't going to change
any time soon." Even the head of the ministry, Ali Bardakoglu, acknowledges that "we are not reforming Islam; we are reforming ourselves."
What to make of this
initiative? Serious efforts to modernize Islam, which this appears to
be, are most welcome. At the same time, one has to wonder about agendas
when government intercedes in the subtle and even subversive domain of
religious reform. Specifically, the AKP's Islamist nature arouses
mistrust that the Hadith Project will limit itself to the relatively
easy social issues and avoid the tougher political ones in order to
fashion an ideologically more defensible Islam even while maintaining
some of its more problematic aspects. Does the project's avoidance of
the headscarf topic also imply its not taking up female legal rights,
women marrying non-Muslim men, ribba (interest on money), jihad, the rights of non-Muslims, and the creation of an Islamic order?
By limiting its subject
matter, the project might forward Islamism more than modernize Islam.
True reform awaits true reformers – not Islamist functionaries but
independent, modern individuals intent on aligning Islam with the best
of modern mores.