Turkey says journalists just don’t understand hadith project

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?

Turkey explains revision of hadith project

Following up our blogs on the Turkish project to revise the hadith, we have interviewed Professor Mehmet Gormez, vice-president of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet. We also have the transcript of the interview as follows, translated from Turkish:

Q. What is the aim of the project?

A. The religion of Islam is based on two main sources (the Koran and the hadith). As time passes people have difficulty understanding (their religion). This is true of all religions. As the Koran is a major source of knowledge, many commentaries have been written through history. The hadith are very dispersed but also a major source. Each hadith has a reason, each hadith has a relation with culture and geography. When this is lost, it becomes hard to understand what the Prophet meant by the words used. Therefore, many efforts have been made (to explain the meaning). But in the modern world, people misinterpret this knowledge. I liken this source of knowledge (the hadith) to a pharmacy. When a person gets sick, he goes to the pharmacy and thinks that every medicine can be used in the same way. But some pills can end up making you feel worse, not better … A person may not know what kind of chemicals a medicine contains but
happily takes it. At present, we have been using the hadith lacking methodology. And this brings many problems with it… By taking advantage of methods used in the modern world to understand religious texts, we aim to make (them) better understood, better practised and to purify them of mistakes.


Turkey: You can hear a lot by just listening

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 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.

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.

Listening to Turks explain Turkey’s Islamic reform plan

Internet logo of Diyanet, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Department

Still confused about Turkey’s plan to review the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and reclassify the sexist and superstitious ones as unauthentic? Unsure whether this is a revolution, a reform or a revision of Islam? I gave my take on it here yesterday, but I’ve since found two explanations that shed a lot more light on what’s going on. The better of the two is a column in today’s Turkish Daily News by Mustafa Akyol, a young Istanbul journalist with a knack for explaining Turkish Islam clearly. I won’t summarise it — just go read it, it’s not long.

IslamOnline did a good job on this, too, in an interview that gave Mehmet Görmez, deputy head of Diyanet (the government’s religious affairs department shown in the logo above) more space than he got in other reports to explain what’s being done.

MinaretMinaretAkyol and Görmez both make an important point. Many Western journalists approach Islam from a starting point vaguely based on Christianity (hence the misguided quest for an “Islamic Reformation”). They don’t have to be Christians or believers or even know much about Christianity to do this; it’s as much a part of our cultural baggage as our native languages. Conversely, Muslims approach Christianity from a square one closely linked to Islam, their primary religious reference. Nobody starts out tabula rasa in this exercise. The gap can be bridged, but to do this we have to report what is actually happening, rather than just what we think is going on. Listening to these two Turks is a good place to start.

Turkey “not reforming Islam, but itself” with hadith review

Ali Bardakoglu, 23 Nov. 2006/Umit BektasAli 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.”