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Islam: Turkish Theologians Revise Hadith, To Mixed Reactions

(AFP) Turkish religious authorities have been careful in presenting the Hadith Project, launched some two years ago.

The country's state committee on religious affairs, the Diyanet, reacted to last month's coverage of the Hadith Project by the BBC, "The Guardian," and some other Western media by insisting that the project should in no way be described as "reform", "revision," or "revolution."

A press release on February 29 by the Diyanet says the project's chief aim is to "revitalize the message of the Prophet, as was performed in the past, and offer these blessed tenets to humanity in the most accurate way."

The deputy head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Gormez, told that Turkey "not revising, but classifying" the Hadith -- a view echoed by Bunyamin Erul, a professor of Ankara University's Divinity Faculty who is a project member.

Erul says that there are "some mistakes in understanding" the Hadith. "So, we try to explain these sayings [based] on the rules of knowledge of the Hadith in a new style and [with] some new methodology."

A collection of thousands of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, the Hadith is the second-most-important source in Islam after the Koran. Muslims' daily life is based on the Hadith rather than the Koran, which is believed to be God's direct message to Muhammad.

Many hadiths are believed to have been written a hundred years after Muhammad's death in 632.

Erul and 84 other scholars from Turkish universities involved in the Hadith Project reject literalist reading of the Koran and the Hadith. They believe each text should be taken within the historical context in which they were revealed.

The Diyanet says the project seeks to establish a connection between Hadith narrations and current thinking and scientific data. It adds that it has stayed away from "extreme interpretations" and avoided judging the past on the basis of today's categories.

Some Muslim clerics say the project is nothing new, and attempts to revise the Hadith have been made in the past. Exiled Uzbek imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov is one of them.

"Revising the hadiths sounds sensational," Nazarov says. "The Western media have made a big fuss about it. However, in fact, things are different, I believe. Commenting or interpreting the hadiths is a normal event that can take place anytime. The Koran and hadiths have been commented on and interpreted since they were revealed. Commenting and interpreting them in a given historical context can happen anytime and is nothing unusual."

On the other hand, Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, tells RFE/RL that the process is "quite dramatic."

"It is a revolution in the sense that it is a state-sponsored process in Turkey," Hakura says. "It is a systematic, comprehensive, and quite accelerated process of change. So, although the idea of reinterpretation and adaptation is not new in Islam, the way Turkey is carrying it out in a systematic fashion is quite revolutionary."

Revising Women's Role

The project is expected to be completed by year's end and published in languages including Arabic, English, and Russian. It includes reinterpreting some misogynist statements in the Hadith.

Erul refuses to give details of revisions of the hadiths regarding women. He says the project members -- including female theologians -- believe the subject is "very important."

Hakura cites a particular example -- women's ability to travel without male accompaniment, which demonstrates that some notions Muslims have had on women are wrong. Hakura says the ban was not a religious one originally and was issued temporarily because of security reasons that pertained to circumstances that existed more than 1,000 years ago.

The proponents of the change cite the Prophet Muhammad's saying that he "longed for the day when a woman might travel long distances alone."

Feminist groups have embraced the idea of revising the ban that still remains in the Hadith and restricts the free movement of women in some Muslim countries.

Can Turkey Reform Islam?

Hakura gives another example: the common belief that a thief must be punished with the loss of his hand. He says such a punishment was practiced briefly in history and contradicts recent or current practice in some Muslim societies. He says that in the Ottoman Empire, with institutionalized forms of punishment, thieves were treated with imprisonment and fines, not dismemberment.

It is hardly surprising that the project of revising the Hadith has been conducted in Turkey, which has sought to strike a balance between Islam and modernity ever since its founding as a secular state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

But because of Turkey's reputation as a secular state where religion is both separated from and controlled by the government, Muslims do not see Turkish religious authorities as true Muslims.

For example, the Diyanet gained a somewhat controversial reputation in southern Kyrgyzstan soon after it founded the divinity faculty at Osh State University some 15 years ago.

Hakimjon Husanov, an expert on Sufism and a former professor at Osh State University, tells RFE/RL that locals at first welcomed the new faculty's opening. But they were later "disappointed" as faculty students tried to launch a debate on the Hadith and Koran. He believes some Muslims will react negatively to any attempt to reform Islam.

"Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad had revelations of the oyat [a verse in the Koran regarded as a sign from Allah] that said, 'This day, I perfected your religion.' It meant that everything was complete and detailed," Husanov says. "As for checking the authenticity of the hadiths and their real source, that is another matter. But this has also been done for more than a thousand years. An academic science of the Hadith was already completed and formed. Many Muslims believe that there is no need to reform it."

When the project is completed, the Diyanet plans to send a new version of the Hadith, which will come in at least six volumes, and offer it at more than 76,000 mosques in Turkey and beyond.

Who Speaks For Islam?

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
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