Turkey: You can hear a lot by just listening
Forgive 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 Görmez 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.
A 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.”