Turkey’s “Islamic reform”: roots and reality

Mustafa Akyol
4 March 2008

Turkey made international headlines in the past weekover its military's land operation in northern Iraq and its never-ending tug-of-war over the headscarf. But a less familiar issue provoked more surprised comment outside the country: the scholarly and low-key work carried out by a group of theologians in Ankara, supported by the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (the Turkish republic's official religious body, the presidency of religious affairs), to revise the "hadith" - the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed.

Mustafa Akyol is a writer and a columnist with the Turkish Daily News. His website is here

This article was published in slightlydifferent form in the Turkish Daily News on1 March 2008The headlines were dramatic enough. "Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts", announced the BBC. "Turkey strives for 21st century form of Islam", observed the Guardian. This was "Turkey's fresh look at Prophet", declared the Financial Times.

Are these comments far-fetched, the standard hyberbole of attention-seeking if also serious media outlets; or does the revision of hadith by Turkey's officially sanctioned Islamic experts suggest that something truly important is happening? The answer can only be found by defining what the hadith really are -and this in turn requires a return to the roots of Islam.

Qur'an, reason, and more

In the beginning, there was the Qur'an.

Most westerners who haven't read this book tend to 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. That is not the case at all. The Qur'an hardly speaks about the Prophet Mohammed. It rather speaks to him. The Muslim scripture includes passages that issue orders to Mohammed, warn him or encourage him in the face of difficult circumstances. But it does not tell anything about who he was. A close reading of the Qur'an gives the reader much more knowledge about the life of Moses, Jesus or Abraham than that of Mohammed.

Also in openDemocracy on Islamic ideas in transition:

Navid Kermani, "Roots of terror: suicide, martyrdom, self-redemption and Islam" (21 February 2002)

Werner Schiffauer, "Democratic culture and extremist Islam"(15 October 2002)

Tariq Ramadan, "A bridge across fear: an interview" (13 July 2004)

Gilles Kepel, "The war for Muslim minds: an interview"(11 November 2004)

Fareena Alam, "A humane Muslim future" (8 March 2005)

PatriciaCrone, "What do we actually know about Mohammed?"(30 August 2006)

Mai Yamani, "Mecca: Islam's cosmopolitan heart" (5 September 2006)

Faisal Devji, "Between Popeand Prophet" (25 September 2006)

Olivier Roy, "Islamism's failure, Islamists' future"(30 October 2006)

Patricia Crone, "'Jihad': ideaand history" (30 April 2007)

Olivier Roy, "Secularism confronts Islam" (25 October 2007)

Sami Zubaida, "Sharia: practice of faith, politics of modernity" (22 February 2008)

True, the prophet of Islam must have said so many things during his twenty-three-year-long mission; but he insisted, "nothing from me should be written besides the Qur'an". Muslim tradition holds that he said so because he feared that his mortal words could mistakenly have been added to the divine book. And it is true that, immediately after Mohammed's death, the Qur'an was canonised and copied by his closest believers; tradition again holds that the holy book has lasted until today "without even a single letter of it being changed."

Thus, in the first century of Islam, the Qur'an was the only authoritative book Muslims had at hand. When they disputed its meaning, or debated what to do in a specific situation, there were enough people who remembered what the prophet had 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. These thinkers, known as "Mutazilites" - inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Greeks - said that the Qur'an 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. (Pope Benedict XVI might find this tradition worthy of considering; in his controversial Regensburg address in September 2006 he referred only to the"voluntarist" line of thinking in Islam, which says that God does whatever He wills and there is no point in questioning it - i.e., the exact opposite of the Mutazilite tradition.)

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 CE) 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 Qur'an would of course remain the true guide, but to understand the Qur'an interpretation was needed,and Hanbal was willing to limit the role of reason in that interpretation process. As an alternative, he emphasised the "sunna", or tradition, of the prophet. In place of the Mutazilites' free thinking on the Qur'an, 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. And the source of the "tradition" they decided to follow was nothing but the hadith. But more then a century had passed from the Prophet Mohammed's time and the oral tradition had produced so many hadith that the prophet would have had to be centuries-old 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 9 century after Christ, the "hadith chaos" had become a true problem.

That's why scholars such as Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (202-61) and Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-70) decided to evaluate and catalogue this oral tradition. After focusing on the reliability of the chain of transmitters these scholars created collections of sahih, or trustworthy, hadith. To date, Sunni Muslims regard the works of six of these scholars as trustworthy. These "six books", which themselves each compose many volumes, constitute the "second source" of classical Islam after the Qur'an. The other two sources, i.e, "ijma" (consensus) and "qiya" (analogical reasoning) are just tools of the jurists used for evaluating the first two.

The kernel of sharia

The role of hadith in Islam is crucial, because they make up the source of much of the sharia, i.e., Islamic law. The Qur'an is a relatively short book, and much of its focus is on theological issues such as God, creation or the afterlife. There are some Qur'anic rules and regulations about social life, but they are quite limited. (Moreover, there are different views on how literally they should be understood; but that would lead into specualtion about the next "Islamic reformation"...)

In comparison with the Qur'an, the hadith are collectivey of huge length, and full of minute details about how a Muslim should live. For example the Qur'an says only "be clean" but the hadith contain long chapters explaining how the Prophet Mohammed used to wash himself. Then there are commentaries based on these hadith giving unbelievably detailed instructions on how a Muslim should be clean by "imitating" the prophet. The content of these commentaries is very similar to the Halakha of Orthodox Jews.

Moreover, the hadith contain some of the harsh measures of sharia. The stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, the banning of fine arts, the seclusion and suppression of women, punishments for drinking alcohol or other sins - all of these are based on the hadith, not the Qur'an. Khaleel Mohammed, scholar at the department of religious studies at San Diego State University, has argued that the hadith also made Islam less ecumenical. "[While] the Qur'an viewed Judaism as the chief monotheistic religion", he noted, "it was the hadith that demonised the Jews and Judaism."

What went wrong

After the Islamic sharia had been settled in the middle ages, the Muslim world took it for granted until modern times. "Islamdom", after all, was a glorious civilisation 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 change. Soon, two different trends emerged: secularistsa nd modernists (a third force, fundamentalists, would catch up later.)

To the question later formulated by Bernard Lewis - "what went wrong?" - the secularists had a simple answer. The problem was religion, which was a chain on Muslim societies, whose role had to be minimised in order to achieve "progress". The secularist and anti-clerical line of thinking that was prevalent in Europe at the time - and is still quite powerful today, especially in France - convinced the secularists of the Muslim world that religion was already a myth whose time would soon expire.

The modernists' answer was different. The problem was not religion, but the traditionalism and obscurantism that it was trapped in. Thus, they argued for the reinterpretation of religion rather than its abandonment. This led them - not too surprisingly - to a discovery of the lost tradition of the Mutazilites and a questioning of the authority of the hadith. The first major challenge to thesunna came from the Indian modernist Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98). He eventually came to reject all hadith as unreliable. Others, such as Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abduh tried with varying degrees to diminish the role of the hadith and emphasise the Qur'an. The great Turkish poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-1936), who wrote the lyrics of what became the Turkish national anthem in 1922, was also a modernist who criticised fellow Muslims for venerating the Qur'an, but failing to apply their reason to it.

The Turkish way

Since the 19th century, the demand for a re-evaluation of the hadith has become 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?

Also in openDemocracy's "The futureof Turkey" debate:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey:sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch,"Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and anew vision for Europe" (12 December 2007)

Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)

The answer is to be found in the social reality of Turkey, which has created a demand for a new, updated Islamic understanding - of which the current team of Islamic scholars at Ankara University is but the clearest expression.

The majority of people are not interested in religious reform unless their way of life makes such reform necessary. In this regard, Turkey is an important case-study, because its believers live in arguably the most modernised of all Muslim nations and thus face questions that their co-religionists in (say) Afghanistan don't. An urban Turkish Muslim lives today in an environment where equality between the sexes is taken for granted and people openly question (or even defy) the religious teaching that suggests otherwise. The same urban Turkish Muslim probably supports the country's bid to join the European Union, because that is much better for business and the future of his or her kids.

In others words, Turkey has a growing Muslim middle class - also described as "the Islamic bourgeoisie" - which is becoming modern in many ways, but which also wants to beloyal to its faith. Hence comes the demand for "modern Islam". In the past two decades, Turkeyhas seen the rise of popular modernist theologians who argue that "the Islam in the Qur'an" 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-Qur'anic tradition.

The heart of a movement

The secularist guardians of Turkey are wary of this entire approach. They would prefer to see religion become a non-issue. For a Turkish secularist, to speak so much about religion is by definition to be backward, even medieval. Since Atatürk said that the true guide in life is science, not religion, secularists would ask: why do these people still care about what the Qur'an "really" meant fourteen centuries ago? However, some people do care about religion, and modernisation doesn't necessarily make them more secular - as is evidenced in the United States.

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

Actually most Muslims don't like the term "reformation". Ali Bardakoğlu, the president of the Diyanet, has emphasised that "this is not a reform". The term sounds to Muslims as if it implies that Islam's divine sources are or have a problem, and that they need to be fixed by people. No Muslim worth his or her salt would say that. But a believer can well accept that there are problems in the "cultural baggage" of Islam - and that the time has come to deal with them. This is what the "Turkish Islamic reform" is all about. By revising some of the hadith 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.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData