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Turkish scholars aim to modernize Islam's Hadith

Theologians are revisiting the collections of the prophet Muhammad's sayings that Muslims use as a guideline for daily life.

Updating Islam: Turkey is backing a project to update the Hadith, or Muhammad's sayings, that it believes will help Muslims better apply Islam to daily life. Shown are copies of the Koran in Ankara.

Yigal Schleifer

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For centuries, the Hadith – a collection of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad – has guided Muslims in their daily lives and served as a basis for Islamic jurisprudence, offering direction on everything from hygiene to war.

The Hadith deals with events that took place some 1,400 years ago, but an ambitious Turkish project is aiming to reinterpret them to create a collection addressing modern-day concerns and stripping out elements that many theologians say contradict the Koran and Muhammad's teachings.

Observers here say the project is part of a continuing effort by a growing segment of Turkish society to reconcile faith and modernity – a struggle being played out among Muslims worldwide, from African immigrants in Paris to young Arabs in Saudi Arabia.

Many Islamic scholars even say that parts of the Hadith have been falsely attributed to Muhammad and that while many Hadith interpretations may have applied in the early Islamic period, particularly regarding women and Islam's relation to other religions, they deserve a new look.

"There have been things that people say the prophet did or said which conflict with the Koran," says Ismail Hakki Unal, head of the Hadith department at Ankara University's divinity school, where the Hadith project is centered and is increasingly known as a hotbed of liberal Islamic thinking. "The Koran is our basic guide. Anything that conflicts with that, we are trying to eliminate."

As an example, Mr. Unal mentions Hadith-based interpretations that say it is forbidden to teach women to read or write, or that they are of "lesser mind and faith."

"The issue of women being of lesser mind and faith was something that was accepted in those days without any argument, but it is not today, which is one of the reasons that we are trying to eliminate it," he says. "We are saying that this is not in line with how the prophet lived and the Koran itself, so it cannot be accepted."

As the project's authors envision it, the new collection will draw on the ancient Hadith to answer decidedly up-to-date questions, such as how to behave behind the wheel (Turkey has one of the world's highest accident rates) and what is the Islamic response to climate change.

The Hadith, which are not part of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, began as oral traditions that were only written down long after the prophet's death. Much of Islamic, or sharia, law is derived from the Hadith.

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The meaning of many Hadiths has been lost and the cultural or geographical context of a text is forgotten, said Mehmet Gormez, deputy head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet.

Asked whether his project could lead to changes in the way women are perceived in the Islamic world, Mr. Gormez said nothing in Muslim texts could be used to justify such practices as "honor killings" of women or the stoning of adulterers. "Islam is misunderstood. For example, you cannot show me from the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire a case of a person being stoned for adultery or a thief whose hand was amputated."

Launched two years ago by the Diyanet, the Hadith project is scheduled to be completed by December and translated into Arabic, English, and Russian. Some 80 theologians from across Turkey are involved.

"Today, Islamic knowledge, both in the East and the West, seems to be very confusing, especially concerning the prophet and his teachings.... We wanted to contribute towards clarifying this confusion," says Gormez. "During the last century, there hasn't been such a deep, wide-ranging study of the Hadith."

Turkey's place in the Islamic world

Although Turkey is often described as secular, the state is actually deeply involved in religious life. Second only to the military and education system in size and budget, the Diyanet is responsible for managing some 78,000 mosques – including which imams are allowed to preach and what they're allowed to say. Now, it's trying to create a more "healthy" understanding of Islam and the prophet Muhammad through the Hadith project.

But Ankara University theologians involved stress that it's not an attempt to change Islam. Rather, it's an attempt to identify and strip away cultural beliefs or practices of Muhammad's era that were grafted onto Islam but have no root in it.

In the context of Turkey, however, the Hadith project is more than a reexamination of religion: it's also seen as part of an ongoing attempt by the current Turkish government, led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), to reassert itself as a force in the Islamic world.

"Turkey is hoping to be a kind of example Muslim nation, with its politics and its theology," says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer who covers Islamic affairs. "Turkey has a growing Muslim middle class that is becoming modern in many ways, but which also wants to be loyal to its faith. From this comes the demand for 'modern Islam,' for a new interpretation of Islamic sources."

The Hadith's long tradition

The Hadith started being collected after the death of Muhammad, when Islamic scholars realized the need to write down sayings and actions attributed to the prophet that had previously been passed down orally. In the first few centuries after Muhammad's death, the number of Hadith grew to such an extent that Islamic scholars decided to separate them into those deemed sahih, or trustworthy, and those that were not.

While Muslim scholars have been producing Hadith collections for over a thousand years, Turkey's tackling of some of these more "problematic" Hadith "would be an incredibly bold and dramatic move," says Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A recent BBC report about the Diyanet's project likened it to the Protestant Reformation in Christianity – a comparison the project's supporters eschew for its connotations of controversy and schism. Indeed, the BBC article led to a storm of criticism in the Muslim world, with the Turkish effort being called by some a project dictated by the Western demands for some kind of new Islam.

Wary of the criticism, those involved in the Hadith reinterpretation are careful to describe it as cleaving very closely to the religion's roots. "It does not aim to change the theological fundamentals of the religion. It is a study aimed at interpreting and understanding these theological fundamentals," says Diyanet's Gormez.

Adds Unal, the Ankara University theologian: "We don't see this as a reform, but as trying to go back to the basics and origins of Islam."

• Material from Reuters was used in this article.


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