Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Turkey: Islamic Reform Movement?

An email tipster called my attention to the following article: Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts by Robert Pigott, Tuesday, 26 February 2008.

Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam - and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion.

The country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad.

As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.

But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam.

It says that a significant number of the sayings were never uttered by Muhammad, and even some that were need now to be reinterpreted.

This is not unique, by the way. There is at least one reform movement in Islam, the aim of which is to purge the Koran (!) of passages that did not come from Allah the merciful (good news for us infidels).


Commentators say the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion.

Its supporters say the spirit of logic and reason inherent in Islam at its foundation 1,400 years ago are being rediscovered. Some believe it could represent the beginning of a reformation in the religion.

Turkish officials have been reticent about the revision of the Hadith until now, aware of the controversy it is likely to cause among traditionalist Muslims, but they have spoken to the BBC about the project, and their ambitious aims for it.

The forensic examination of the Hadiths has taken place in Ankara University's School of Theology.

An adviser to the project, Felix Koerner, says some of the sayings - also known individually as "hadiths" - can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society.

That is rather obvious. By the time these sayings were collected and documented, they were quite well-removed from Mohammed, and the Islamic world had already had encounters with dysfunctional politics.

"Unfortunately you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim - or pseudo-Muslim - practice of female genital mutilation," he says.

"You can find messages which say 'that is what the Prophet ordered us to do'. But you can show historically how they came into being, as influences from other cultures, that were then projected onto Islamic tradition."

The argument is that Islamic tradition has been gradually hijacked by various - often conservative - cultures, seeking to use the religion for various forms of social control.

Leaders of the Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

That is an interesting charge -- that means, among other things, that those who practice female genital mutilation are takfir.


Turkey is intent on sweeping away that "cultural baggage" and returning to a form of Islam it claims accords with its original values and those of the Prophet.

But this is where the revolutionary nature of the work becomes apparent. Even some sayings accepted as being genuinely spoken by Muhammad have been altered and reinterpreted.

Prof Mehmet Gormez, a senior official in the Department of Religious Affairs and an expert on the Hadith, gives a telling example.

"There are some messages that ban women from travelling for three days or more without their husband's permission and they are genuine.

"But this isn't a religious ban. It came about because in the Prophet's time it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that. But as time has passed, people have made permanent what was only supposed to be a temporary ban for safety reasons."

Getting away from the dogma....

The project justifies such bold interference in the 1,400-year-old content of the Hadith by rigorous academic research.

Prof Gormez points out that in another speech, the Prophet said "he longed for the day when a woman might travel long distances alone".

So, he argues, it is clear what the Prophet's goal was.

Common sense... this could cause real problems in places like Saudi Arabia.

Original spirit

Yet, until now, the ban has remained in the text, and helps to restrict the free movement of some Muslim women to this day.

As part of its aggressive programme of renewal, Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, and appointed them as senior imams called "vaizes".

They have been given the task of explaining the original spirit of Islam to remote communities in Turkey's vast interior.

One of the women, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of headscarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Koran - one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith.

She says that, at the moment, Islam is being widely used to justify the violent suppression of women.

"There are honour killings," she explains.

"We hear that some women are being killed when they marry the wrong person or run away with someone they love.

"There's also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment by uncles and others. This does not exist in Islam... we have to explain that to them."

I wonder how safe that job is.

'New Islam'

According to Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, Turkey is doing nothing less than recreating Islam - changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy.

He says that to achieve it, the state is fashioning a new Islam.

"This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation," he says.

"Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's changing the theological foundations of [the] religion."

Fadi Hakura believes that until now secularist Turkey has been intent on creating a new politics for Islam.

Now, he says, "they are trying to fashion a new Islam."

Significantly, the "Ankara School" of theologians working on the new Hadith have been using Western critical techniques and philosophy.

They have also taken an even bolder step - rejecting a long-established rule of Muslim scholars that later (and often more conservative) texts override earlier ones.

"You have to see them as a whole," says Fadi Hakura.

"You can't say, for example, that the verses of violence override the verses of peace. This is used a lot in the Middle East, this kind of ideology.

"I cannot impress enough how fundamental [this change] is."

This leads us back to the argument, put forth by many infidels, that Islam is the problem in the Islamic world.

I have condemned Islam myself, fairly resoundingly.

But, Islam is as Muslims do.


If a holy text says to be kind to non-believers, but this is interpreted to mean that the greatest kindness is to put them out of their misery, and this interpretation gets a great many adherents, then that is a problem, despite what we read in the text.

If a text calls for war against the non-believers, but this is interpreted to mean a war of ideas, waged through peaceful, civil debate, and this interpretation gets a great many adherents, then that is not a problem.

It all boils down to people and how they behave -- how they want to behave, and especially how they might justify evil that they wish to do.

I have legitimate concerns about what is written in Islamic texts, but I think that any infidel who condemns all Muslims is foolish -- every bit as foolish as the Islamic extremists who condemn all infidels.

While the infidel world has every right to legitimate self-defense in the face of violent and barbaric interpretations of violent passages in Islamic holy texts, we must never lose sight of the fact that a counterjihad that goes beyond legitimate self-defense could very quickly develop into a cure that is far worse than the disease.

Indeed, just as the Muslim world is consumed by extremists who make takfir out of their neighbors, and then kill them for not being "Muslim enough", so too is the sword of counterjihad double-edged, with potential to destroy infidels who are short-sighted enough to go goose-stepping blindly off behind a leader whose position is that either you are with him, or you are with the terrorists.


anticant said...

This is an interesting article, but how much influence will such an academic exercise have on the semi-literate Muslim in the mosque and on the street, whose notions of Islam are formed by Saudi-exported Wahhabist mullahs and schoolteachers?

And could this be, in part, window-dressing by Turkey to ease the path of entry into the European Union?

As you so rightly say, YD, the only sensible approach to politics is to watch what people do and pay less attention to what they say. Until Americans apply this principle, not least to their own foreign policy, you won't get the right balance in world affairs. Here is an article which reinforces the point:

Yankee Doodle said...

The Saudis don't have as much influence throughout the Muslim world as they wish they did. If they had it, we'd probably all be dead, converted, or "subdued".

The women who are being sent out explaining this interpretation are exactly countering that kind of spread of extremist philosophy that you mention.

It seems to me as well that the EU, for all its de facto collaboration on this matter, must have some reservations about Turkey being a full-fledged member. The moment that happens, travel restrictions are lifted.

And let's face it -- how secure is the border between Turkey and its neighbors? The net result is it will be easy to go from Baghdad or Syria all the way to Berlin or Paris.

Which brings us to the border issue: this elitist idea that borders are passe really only benefits the elite (cheaper labor) and organized crime & smugglers.

Opening the doors to people who will work for less money removes the need to send industry overseas; instead, you just import a compliant, docile workforce who will gladly work for far more than they could have earned in their own country, but far less than you now have to pay in your own. But, in the process, you open the doors for radicals, smugglers...

National boundaries need to be respected. And, in a "multicultural" society, what's wrong with nationalities being respected? What's wrong with being Swedish, or British, or German? Be as friendly as you want with the people in the next country, and allow them to enter your country with no need for a visa. But, check their ID's and even their belongings at the border -- it stops smugglers.

Decent countries check papers and search belongings at the international border. With the conglomerate of police states that is developing, though, the international border is the only place you will be safe from being checked and search -- it's so "progressive".

anticant said...

You raise a lot of issues. It seems to me that nothing is going to stop 'globalism' if it provides cheaper labour for the greedy multinationals.

And when UK driving licence records 'go missing' somewhere in the USA, and phone directory enquiries are outsourced to India, what price national borders?

Don't forget that the pre-modern USA is the outcome of the mass 'melting pot' immigration of the 1870s onwards.

The problem isn't movements of people so much as conflicting ideologies and cultures, and refusal of some [you know who!] to meld with their host societies as the Europeans did who emigrated to the USA.

Yankee Doodle said...

Immigration to America was, until recently, respectful of borders and lawful. Now, though, there is a growing disrespect for the law, and not just among illegal immigrants.

Let us not forget that Clinton lied under oath about his extramarital fling with Monica, but his Presidency survived the impeachment process, because too many in Washington put politics ahead of principle. And, anyone who has been reading my blog has an idea about how foreign organized crime has its tentacles into DC. No respect for US law, even among the most ranking people charged to make and enforce it at the national level.


Too many in the Islamic world now are not emigrating, but colonizing infidel lands. The Saudis are Arabizing Islam, bringing it under the influence of the Wahhabists -- who are part-and-parcel with the Royal Family -- and the Islamic world, in turn, is colonizing us.

That is certainly not to condemn all Saudis, or even all members of the Saudi Royal Family; neither is that to condemn all Muslims. There are, however, issues to be addressed.

Vajratanu said...

I am impressed with this thought, i hope this helps in bringing harmony to this world. The amount of violence that has been bred in this world in the name of Islam is phenomenal and I can see that there are verses in Koran and Hadhith which incite an individual to do that. I hope the Sufi way of life is more emphasized where the Union with the Creator is the primary focus.