Turkey: You can hear a lot by just listening

March 2, 2008

The call to prayer in Sarajevo, Bosnia, 7 Feb. 1997/Danilo KrstanovicForgive me for returning to the listening theme about the Turkish hadith reform story, but there are now two audio clips out there that help in understanding it. This also gives me the opportunity for a headline that plays on that crucial reporting rule of thumb from one of my favourite aphorists, Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just looking.”*

In its Reporting Religion programme this weekend, the BBC takes another crack at its hadith story — the plan to review the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and reclassify the sexist and superstitious ones as unauthentic. This time it gives Mehmet G├Ârmez more time to explain what’s up at Diyanet, the government’s religious affairs department where he is deputy head. The interview is the second of three on the audio clip. Among other things, he says that all these buzzwords — revolution, reformation and reform — are too linked to Christian history to apply. I think only “reformation” should be avoided in a religious context, because of its Christian overtones, but we have to be clear about what a revolution or a reform would be if we use them. The clip also has comments from Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. “The West would love to see happen to Islam what happened to Christianity,” he says, adding why he thinks this could never occur.

Taner EdisA secularist physicist in Missouri might seem like the last person qualified to discuss Islam in Turkey, but Taner Edis talks a lot of sense. He has a natural advantage; he was born and brought up in Istanbul, with a Turkish father and American mother. Possibly thanks to his physics background, he sees Islam as a complex phenomenon that has to be understood on its own terms. On The Secular Outpost blog, he has a comment on the hadith story and an interview (about one-third into this podcast) that is not linked to the hadith story but quite relevant to this discussion. “Don’t look into the Christian experience and try to fit Muslims into that box,” he says. Islam fits neither “the Protestant version of secularisation” nor “medieval Catholicism.” It has no formal separation of church and state, but the Ottoman Empire had much more of a de facto separation between them than is assumed today, he says.

To better explain this for western readers, I’ve been trying to ignore the above advice and find parallels in Christianity to the reforms being discussed in Islam, both on the hadith in Turkey and on sharia in modern Islamic theology (which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has read but didn’t explain). But the more I try, the more I see that the cookie cutters usually don’t work. The Bible and the Koran are the main holy books of Christianity and Islam, but they are different types of books. The hadith came after the Koran, but they are not like the epistles or the patristic writings. Classifying the hadith for authenticity is not exactly like drawing up the biblical canon or declaring some writings heretical.

There are similarities and differences between the world’s two largest religions but understanding them takes some effort. Maybe a rough rule of thumb for readers to take away from this hadith story is to mistrust articles that make it seem too easy.

Just out of curiosity, I scoured a list of Yogiisms to see what he might say in such a situation. The one that comes closest was actually a comment from his son Dale: “The similarities between me and my father are completely different.


*Attn Yogi fans: Yes, I know there are several versions of this one, but the idea is always the same. Anyway, he also famously declared: “I didn’t really say everything I said.”


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Thanks for another set of good links to this story Tom.

And a thought (now don’t bristle…I know you are a professional journalist…so don’t take this personally).

It seems to me much of the brouhaha has been caused by the irresponsible BBC which, for some of us regular readers (and also by its own admission) is rather biased and irresponsible when it comes to reporting on Islam or matters relating to Muslims (especially in Britain, and in the Middle East, but then some of us have issues about some …ahem…Reuters reporting about the ME.)

Our national broadsheet for example, picked up the Times piece instead which was far more balanced and quoted members of the project team.

This was seen once again by the way the BBC used an egregious translation for Vilnai’s comments on Gaza just the other day.

Having said that, one Aussie Muslim who occasionally writes for the Aussie press will also argue that “reformation” is impossible because one has to challenge the fundamentals of Islam itself. Example: here and here. He’s also noted a certain convergence which many of us have also noted and which can easily explain the BBC :-)

In any case, it’s good to read how journos also have to grapple with how to understand/explain/report a religion story.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

My comments about one BBC story were not a blanket criticism of its reporting on Islam. They concerned this story alone because it illustrated the problem of reporting across a religious/cultural gulf. When I first started reporting on Islam, I came across analyses that tagged different Muslim groups as being “like the Catholics” or “like the Protestants” and tried to compare various eras in Islamic history with eras of Western history. “I think of the Tablighi Jamaat as the Franciscans of Islam” or “Islam needs its own Protestant Reformation” are two such comments. The less I knew about Islam, the more they seemed to make sense. They seemed to help to understand Islam. Now I think they create more misunderstanding than understanding and are best used sparingly.

Tanveer Ahmed’s article is good (tks for the link) and he’s right that there is some overlap between some Islamist groups and some western leftists. But the operative word here is “some.” I don’t think we’re talking about “the wider Left,” as he puts it. As he points out further down in the article, lots of leftists oppose Islamist groups on grounds of secularism, civil liberties and other differences with Islamist groups. The key to the overlap is the ideology of anti-imperialism. That’s what linked some westerners with the PLO. That’s also the link that allowed former Egyptian communists to become Islamists, as in Mary Ann Weaver’s comment. Radical Islam is a mix of two ideologies, Islamism and anti-imperialism.

I’m not sure what you mean with that smiley. Are you saying the BBC is in this leftist-Islamist overlap? In there with Richard Reid and Lionel Dumont? Hmmm…

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Another excellent, albeit quasi related listen is Tariq Ramadan’s “Is Islam in Need of a Reformation.” It’s a year old, but in it, he talks about how muslims should approach reform within the context of our own history, as opposed to using the christian reformation paradigm.

http://www.podnova.com/channel/6422/epis ode/14/

It’s a bit long, and he does use a lot of jargon that non muslims may not be familiar with, but I do think he does a good job of laying things out in a way that is easier to understand without trying to fit it into something it’s not.

In terms of trying to see islamic reform in terms of the christian reformation, I would agree that this episode doesn’t fit. If there is anything that comes close, it would be the salafi movement from Shah Wali Allah and Abdul Wahab up through Jamal al-Din al Afghani and Mohamad Abduh.

The salafi movement, be it the modernist or the wahabi strand, calls for a rejection or at least re-examination of the tradition of madhab (school of thought) based islam, and uses a sola scripture approach to the texts, aka the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Posted by rahma | Report as abusive

“My comments about one BBC story were not a blanket criticism of its reporting on Islam. They concerned this story alone because it illustrated the problem of reporting across a religious/cultural gulf.”

Of course not. But do you serious think this was simply a case of gulf fever? No BBC editors familiar with Islam/Turkey/etc after all these years to correct such sensationalist claims?

Seriously, would the Diyanet be running to clarify things if they read the Times article? (probably not since they were actually quoted!)

(BTW I posted a second comment to correct my first link to the Times article published in our national broadsheet but it seems to have gone missing. FWIW that’s here.

The smiley implies what it implies. Here’s another :-) (I know some people hate them, so take at as a bit of Aussie stirring).

I tend to agree with the problems of making comparisons. Even the theology does not allow such comparisons – particularly with Christianity – much as many try (for example, is Islam law or evangel? Indeed it is neither, rather, it is, in a nutshell, submission to the inevitable. From there one can understand the inshallah fatalism of many devout Muslims etc etc)

Notwithstanding that the comparisons you cited are inappropriate, and perhaps misleading, I suspect many people are too ignorant of Christian teaching/history these days to have even understood such comparisons anyway. Good grief I read articles the other day reporting that Dutch Christians were explaining Lent as Christian Ramadan. Not that that’s a valid comparison either, but that also says a lot about the Dutch.

Tanveer is always a good read.

In Oz, many punters either question or have simply discarded the traditional left/right nomenclature (including our Prime Minister who recently gave a nice bitch slap to members of our elitist left – or what’s left of it).

The left label tends to apply to the ideologues (Marxists aging in disgrace) and those who still think ‘left’ is a label worth using for themselves – mostly as a ‘badge of honour\': the perpetual protesters, cause junkies, reactionaries, from the and the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist loony left to those bleeding heart mum and dads who think left means compassionate rather than collectivist etc.) In which case the use of ‘wider left’ is appropriate – it refers to the breadth of the spectrum rather than to numbers.

(Islamists certainly exploit this with the constant America is evil/ the West is the great Satan etc refrain presented under various different guises. We just listened to a defence counsel singing that same song in his opening remarks in our first terror cell trial down here.)

It’s probably different in Europe, but I am suspecting there’s a broader and deeper overlap over there.

Thanks too for the links in your posts.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Do we not too often consider the expounder of any doctrine/dogma/message/idea – whatever it is that he/she may be saying, or trying to say – and simply forget the listener who, ultimately, has to place what he/she hears in some sort of context? And when two of three of the audience agree on an interpretation, shall they not endeavour to persuade the one that he/she is at fault? Differences would appear to originate not so much with the sage – who apparently understands his/her own utterances; but rather with the audiences, in which each individual believes that he/she, too, has perfectly grasped the sages personal interpretation. The perfect setting for conflict of interests. By the way, no woman should ever be denied exactly the same rights as those of a man.It is a poor specimen(how does one begin to access the intellect of such an individual?) of a man who would ever consider a woman inferior.

Posted by skizziks | Report as abusive