Sunday, March 2, 2008

Turkey and Islamic Modernism

Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, the government department in which Turkey has regulated religious affairs since the formative years of the Kemalist Republic, have gathered a group of theologians at Ankara University to undertake a comprehensive revision of the Hadith. Since before the days of the Young Ottomans, Turkey has been at the forefront of what some scholars have referred to as 'Islamic modernism.'

Mustafa Akyol examines the project in his column that appeared in yesterday's Turkish Daily News.


This week Turkey made international headlines not only with its military's land operation in northern Iraq or its never-ending tug of war over the headscarf. There was also the scholarly and tedious work carried out by a group of theologians in Ankara, supported by the Diyanet (Turkey's official religious body), to revise the “hadiths” – the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed. “Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts,” read the BBC's headline. “Turkey strives,” the Guardian observed, “for 21st century form of Islam.” According to the Financial Times, this was “Turkey's fresh look at Prophet.”

Are these far-fetched comments, or does the revision of hadiths by Turkey's officially sanctioned Islamic experts really point to something fundamentally important? To find an answer, one first needs to probe what the hadiths really are. And to do that, one needs to go back to the roots of Islam.

Koran, reason, and more

In the beginning, there was the Koran.

Westerners who haven't read this book generally assume that it must be something like the New Testament – i.e., a book which reports the life and works of the religion's founder. Yet that is not the case at all. The Koran actually hardly speaks about Prophet Mohammed. It rather speaks to him. The Muslim Scripture include passages that give orders to Mohammed, warn him or encourage him in the face of the odds he faced. But it does not tell anything about who he was. If you read the Koran, you actually become much more knowledgeable about the life of Moses, Jesus or Abraham than that of Mohammed.

Of course the prophet of Islam must have said so many things during his 23-year-long mission, but he insisted, “nothing from me should be written besides the Koran.” Muslim tradition holds that he said so because he feared that his mortal words could have mistakenly been added to the divine book. Right after his death, the Koran was canonized and copied by his closest believers, and tradition again holds that the holy book came until today “without even a single letter of it being changed.”

Thus, in the first century of Islam, the Koran was the only authoritative book Muslims had at hand. When they disputed about its meaning, or about what to do in a specific situation, there were enough people who remembered what the prophet said or did on such matters. But as time passed, the oral tradition became increasingly vague and doubtful.

Meanwhile, a group of Islamic thinkers emerged who placed emphasis on human reason as a source of knowledge. Having been inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, these thinkers, known as “Mutazilites,” said that the Koran and human reason would be enough to find the truth. “God gave us both textual revelation and personal intelligence,” the Mutazilites argued, “so we should use both.” They also believed that God was just and merciful by nature, and that He could not have forsaken these principles. (His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI might find this tradition worthy of considering, because in his famous, and controversial, Regensburg speech, he only referred to the “voluntarist” line of thinking in Islam, which is the exact opposite of the Mutazilite tradition, and which says that God does whatever He wills and there is no point in questioning it.)

The rise of the Sunna

In those formative decades of Islam, not everybody was as trustful of reason as the Mutazilites. Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855) arose as their main intellectual rival. According to Hanbal, reason could lead man astray, so a true believer had to refrain from being too much of a rationalist. The true guide would be the Koran, of course, but to understand the Koran one needed interpretation, and Hanbal was willing to limit the role of reason in that interpretation process. As an alternative, he emphasized the “sunna,” or tradition, of the prophet. Instead of free thinking on the Koran as the Mutazilites did, a good believer had to look at what the prophet said or did on any specific issue.

The followers of Imam Hanbal soon became known as the “people of the tradition,” or “ahl-al-sunna,” or, simply, the “Sunni”s. And the source of the “tradition” they decided to follow was nothing but the hadiths. But more then a century had passed from Prophet Mohammed's time and the oral tradition had produced so many hadiths that the prophet had to have lived for centuries to produce them. Moreover everybody knew that some people had been making up these narratives just to support their ideas or even to bolster their business. (A famous story is that a honey merchant made up the hadith that “believers should start the day by eating honey.”) People were also unconsciously projecting their ideas or practices on the prophet. Toward the end of the second century of Islam, i.e., in the early ninth after Christ, the “hadith chaos” had become a true problem.

That's why scholars such as Muhammad al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj decided to evaluate and catalogue this oral tradition. Focusing on the reliability of the chain of transmitters, these scholars created collections of “sahih,” or trustworthy, hadiths. To date, Sunni Muslims regard the works of six of these scholars as trustworthy. These “six books,” which are all made up of many volumes, constitute the “second source” of classical Islam after the Koran. The other two sources, i.e, “ijma” (consensus) and “qiyas” (analogical reasoning) are just tools of the jurists used for evaluating the first two.

The kernel of shariah

The role of hadiths in Islam is crucial, because they make up the source of much of the shariah, i.e., Islamic law. The Koran is relatively a small book, and much of its focus is on theological issues such as God, creation or the afterlife. There are some Koranic rules and regulations about social life, but they are quite limited. (Moreover, there are different views on how literal they should be understood; but that would take us to “Islamic Reformation 201.”)
Compared to the Koran, the hadiths are huge and they are full of minute details about how a Muslim should live. For example the Koran just says “be clean,” but the hadiths contain long chapters explaining how Prophet Mohammed used to wash himself. Then there are commentaries based on these hadiths giving unbelievably detailed instructions on how a Muslim should be clean by “imitating” the prophet. The content of these commentaries are very similar to the Halakha of Orthodox Jews.

Moreover, the hadiths constitute some of the harsh measures of shariah. The stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, the banning of fine arts, the seclusion and suppression of women, or the punishments for drinking alcohol or other sins – all of these are based on the hadiths, not the Koran. Professor Khaleel Mohammed, scholar at the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, argued that hadiths also made Islam less ecumenical. "[While] the Koran viewed Judaism as the chief monotheistic religion,” he noted, “it was the Hadith that demonized the Jews and Judaism."

What went wrong

Once the Islamic shariah was settled in the Middle Ages, the Muslim world took it for granted until modern times. Islamdom, after all, was a glorious civilization that did not need to question itself. But with the advent of modernity, and the obvious ascendance of the West, Muslim thinkers started to have self-doubts. In the 19th century, the misfortunes of the Islamic world gave rise to the search for a change. Soon two different trends emerged: Secularists and modernists. (Fundamentalists, as a third force, would catch up later.)

To the Bernard Lewisian question of what went wrong, the secularists had a simple answer: For them, the problem was religion. It was a chain on Muslim societies, and its role had to be minimized in order to achieve “progress.” The secularist and anti-clerical line of thinking that was prevalent in Europe at the time – and, is quite powerful still today, especially in France – convinced the secularists of the Muslim world that religion was already a myth whose time would soon expire.

Modernists, on the other hand, thought that the problem was not religion, but the traditionalism and obscurantism that it was trapped in. Thus instead of abandoning Islam, they argued for its reinterpretation. Not too surprisingly, they discovered the lost tradition of the Mutazilites and started to question the authority of the hadiths. The first major challenge to the sunna came from the Indian modernist Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898). He eventually came to reject all hadiths as unreliable. Others such as Jamaluddin Afghani or Muhammad Abduh, with varying degrees, tried to diminish the role of hadiths and emphasize the Koran. The great Turkish poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy, who authored the Turkish National Anthem in 1922, was also a modernist who criticized fellow Muslims for venerating the Koran, but failing to use their reason on it.

The Turkish way

Since the 19th century the demand for a re-evaluation of the hadiths is common among Muslim intellectuals. But it is Turkey's official religious authority, the Diyanet, which took the first authoritative step toward a hadith revision. Why is that?
The answer is to be found not only among the team of Islamic scholars at Ankara University, but also in the social reality of Turkey, which has created a demand for a new, updated Islamic understanding.

Societies are less principled than intellectuals, and the majority of people are not interested in religious reform unless their way of life makes it necessary. In that regard, Turkey is an important case study, because as arguably the most modernized of all Muslim nations, its believers face questions that their co-religionists in, say, Afghanistan, don't. Today an urban Turkish Muslim lives in an environment in which equality between sexes is taken for granted and people openly question, or even defy, the religious teaching that suggest otherwise. The same urban Turkish Muslim probably supports the country's EU bid, because that is much better for his business and the future of his kids.

In others words, Turkey has a growing Muslim middle class – also dubbed as “the Islamic bourgeoisie” – which is becoming modern in many ways, but which also wants to be loyal to its faith. Hence comes demand for “modern Islam.” In the past two decades, Turkey has seen the rise of popular modernist theologians who argue that “the Islam in the Koran” is much more rational and liberal than “the Islam in the tradition.” Some of these popular reformists are “Muslim feminists,” who argue that the “male domination ideology” has corrupted the post-Koranic tradition.

Not the secular way

This is not necessarily what the secularist guardians of Turkey have dreamt of – they would prefer to see religion become a non-issue. For a Turkish secularist, to speak so much about religion is, by definition, backward and medievalish. Since Atatürk told us that the true guide in life is science, not religion, they would ask, why these people still care about what the Koran really meant 14 centuries ago? However, some people do care about religion, and modernization doesn't necessarily make them more secular – as evidenced in the United States.

Behind the hadith revision that is still underway in Ankara there lies all of these complex historical and social phenomena. When the new hadith collection comes out, it won't probably be an earth-shattering act of “reform.” But it will be a valuable step to reinterpret Islam by making the distinction between what is “historical” and what is “religious.”

Actually most Muslims don't like the term “reformation.” The president of Diyanet, Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu emphasized just yesterday that “this is not a reform.” The term sounds to Muslims as if it implies that Islam's divine sources have a problem, and they need to be fixed by people. No Muslim worth their salt would say that. But a believer can well accept that there are problems in the “cultural baggage” of Islam – and time has come to deal with them. This is what the “Turkish Islamic reform” is all about. By revising some of the hadiths that have been used to suppress women, and putting some of the others in their historical context, the theologians in Ankara are really taking a big step.

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