Hadith of Sahih al-BukhariThe more outside attention Turkey’s project to purge Islam’s hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammad) of sexism and superstition gets, the more the religious authorities insist it is being misunderstood. Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate, insisted this was not a reform of Islam when the project was presented as just that in western media early this year. His deputy Mehmet Görmez gave us a long interview in March to explain that Turkey was updating its way of understanding the hadith, but not the religion itself. They explain this all in detail, but the message still doesn’t seem to come out that way at the other end.

Bardakoglu felt obliged this week to explain the project once again. He didn’t mention it, but he may have been prompted by the latest write-up, this time a Newsweek article entitled “The New Face of Islam — A critique of radicalism is building within the heart of the Muslim world.”

Ali Bardakoglu, 23 Nov. 2006/Umit Bektas“Even though we have consistently emphasised that our work on hadiths is definitely not a reform of the religion, every time we speak to journalists, some people are still trying to put words in our mouths,” Bardakoglu told the Istanbul daily Zaman on Wednesday. The purpose of the project was “to form a collection of hadiths by classifying the authentic sayings of our Prophet into subjects to benefit more from them in our daily lives and to make them our guide.”

OK, journalists aren’t scriptural scholars, especially when they come from a different religious background from the one in question. But when is a reform not a reform? Why does this project seem to be so misunderstood in the western media (which seems to be the target of this criticism)? Is there something about Islam that foreign journalists don’t understand that means something like this is not considered a reform when it looks like one to them?