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. This reform project hit the headlines this week when the BBC ran a story on what it called “a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam – and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion“. It said the revision of the hadith, the collection of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad that are second only to the Koran as an authority for Muslims, was something akin to a Protestant Reformation in Islam.
Reacting to those reports, 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.
This is an updating of some aspects of Islam, though, and Bardakoglu and Görmez probably played that down so they don’t ruffle too many conservative feathers. The project is weeding out some hadith that Turkish Islam scholars say were written down long after the Prophet’s death and are little more than handed-down hearsay. These doubtful passages often contradict other sayings of Mohammad or express views that don’t jibe with his. The goal is “to convey the universal message of the Prophet Mohammed to the 21st century“, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) said in a statement on Thursday.
- “Women are imperfect in intellect and religion.”
- “The best of women are those who are like sheep.”
- “If a woman doesn’t satisfy her husband’s desires, she should choose herself a place in hell.”
- “If a husband’s body is covered with pus and his wife licks it clean, she still wouldn’t have paid her dues.”
- “Your prayer will be invalid if a donkey, black dog or a woman passes in front of you.”
Felix Körner, a German Jesuit priest at Ankara University, is quoted in many of the reports. He has been studying the “Ankara School” of modern Islamic theology for several years and published a book about it in 2005 called Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics in Contemporary Turkish University Theology. Note the adjective “revisionist” — not revolutionary or radical.
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.”
Politics plays a part (Diyanet is a government body, after all) but this is not primarily a ploy to fool Brussels. Ali’s right that the Turkish state is meddling in Islam and that the idea of invalidating some hadith is nothing new. His opposition to having a state lead the reform effort is understandable. And yes, some coverage of the reform got pretty excited. Still, this reform reflects a broader trend of reinterpreting texts in Islam and the wider effect of it being endorsed by the religious authorities shouldn’t be underestimated. Many Muslim thinkers want a more modern interpretation of Islam — a lot of them are here in France — but this is regularly blocked by conservative religious establishments. Change on this front will only come step by step, and even a state authority like Diyanet can make some of it happen.