Rediscovering or revising Islam?

HadithThe BBC published a story last week that should have gotten a great deal more coverage than it has. According to the report, the Turkish government has commissioned a team of scholars to revise the Hadith — the collection of thousands of sayings reputed to have come from the Prophet Muhammad.

Religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott has the story:

[The Hadith] 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.

The article compares the action to the Reformation, a comparison I find inapt, with supporters saying the revision will help rediscover the “spirit of logic and reason” inherent in Islam at its founding. The article nicely looks at the story from a number of different angles:

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.

“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.

The headline for the BBC article is “Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts.” As I was reading it, I thought a better headline might have been “Turkey in revision of radical Islamic texts.”

Another issue the reporter wrote about was how some of the actual sayings of Muhammad might be reinterpreted. So, for instance, if Muhammad said that women should not travel for three days or more without their husband’s permission, that might be reinterpreted in light of the fact it is now safer for women to travel alone and Muhammad’s later saying that he longed for the day when women could travel long distances alone.

It was great that the story included specific examples to help the reader understand what type of changes are being dealt with.

One of the more significant changes in the BBC story is noted at the end:

[The "Ankara School" of theologians] 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 [an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London].

“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.”

The story seems so significant that I’m puzzled why it hasn’t received more coverage by mainstream media on this side of the Atlantic. One criticism of British media coverage comes from IslamToday.com and argues that the reports overstate the revolutionary nature of the revision:

The international media is describing the project as one whose “aim is to edit out those hadiths that are used as justification, among other things, for the oppression of women in Sharia law.”

Professor Gormez says the exercise is “purely academic”, and he refutes the idea that the project has such a narrow or revisionist focus, saying: “Violence and women’s rights, the two themes that excite western public opinion the most, are not what’s driving this process.”

Yet he acknowledged that showing the falsehood of some of the texts that “present women as inferior beings,” is part of the work that is being carried out by 80 Islamic scholars, all of them Turks.

Some of the false statements being identified by the study are as follows:

“If a woman doesn’t satisfy her husband’s desires, she should choose herself a place in hell.”

“If a husband’s body is covered with pus and his wife licks it clean, she still wouldn’t have paid her dues.”

Though hadith scholars agree that these statements are falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the international news media is representing the Turkish project as being “revolutionary” – and in doing so, the media gives the non-Muslim public the impression that Muslims around the world believe in and endorse those false teachings.

Clearly this is an important story and one that needs more coverage.

UPDATE: Right after I posted this, I noticed some absolutely excellent analysis and links to better coverage over at FaithWorld, Reuters’ religion blog.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for highlighting this story. From my study of Islam, I think many Christians don’t have a cultural context for understanding the difference between the schools of Islam and the relative meaning given to the Quran and the Hadith. Perhaps what comes closest is having a few major traditions of scholars who compared Biblical accounts from the New Testament and the Gnostic Gospels in a way that assigned potential validity to each account of Jesus’ life and sayings.

    Some of the differences are minor but some are not. I once asked a Muslim if he believed that the Hadith of the Mahdi was strong or weak? The closest equivalent to Christianity is the “second coming” of Christ but, of course, there are various differences as well. I found and cited web pages that perported to show that strong Sunni Hadith did demonstrate that the Mahdi was a part of Sunni Islam as well as Shi’a and he countered by saying that he considered those Hadith as weak and therefore not convincing.

    I think there is one more point worth considering – how much of what the Turkish group doing is exegesis versus hermeneutics. In other words, how much is looking at the validity of the text versus how one interprets the text in the realities of 2008?

  • http://davidkearns.com/ Kearns

    Actually, I don’t think that the Mahdi is equivalent to the second coming of Christ in that all Muslims believe in the second coming of Christ, thus that would be our second coming of Christ…

    There is nothing radical or revolutionary about this. Collections of Hadith have been compiled and scrutinized since the first one was put together over 1000 years ago. If the goal is to truly shine light on the weaker hadith and fabricated hadith from a source that Turks will rely on, it will simply just bring them in line with other countries like Indonesia where they have adamantly rejected these bogus traditions that support backward, women hating attitudes that actually go against valid and true hadith. If however this is an attempt to find a 1/2 way between Islam and Atatürk’s secular Turkey, no doubt they will find their work rejected by the majority of Muslims everywhere.

  • Discernment

    Thanks for highlighting this.

    [The “Ankara School” of theologians] 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 [an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London].

    “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.”

    It’s amazing how little attention this “long-established rule” receives when the Western media talks about Islam. It reminds me of this article that I ran across last year when trying to find out more about the role of the doctrine of abrogation in Islam.


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