More on Hadith in Turkey

So what’s going on with the Turkish government’s reported revision of the Hadith, as reported by the BBC on Tuesday? Over on the Guardian Unlimited (U.K.) Web site, in their “Comment Is Free” section, regular contributor Martin Kettle writes:

Ever since the BBC Today programme announced this morning that Turkey’s department of religious affairs has begun a major revision of the hadith — the non-Qur’anic commentary on the words and deeds of Muhammad — I’ve been trying to find out more. But on the basis of what I have been able to find out so far, this story is the one that got away. The BBC website has nothing further about it. The Reuters, AP and other wire services say nothing either. For the non-Turkish speaker, it’s a deeply frustrating experience.

Kettle says he is frustrated about the lack of coverage because “if true, this is surely a serious event in the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds alike”; adding that his frustration is only increased because “there is no more interesting country in Europe today than Turkey.” However, there’s more coverage than Kettle may be aware of….

An old story

This is apparently an old story. The Washington Post reported this story back on 16 July 2006, framing it as a story about women’s rights in the Middle East:

In a bold but little-noticed step toward reforming Islamic tradition, Turkey’s religious authorities recently declared that they will remove these statements [anti-woman statements], and more like them, from the hadiths — the non-Koranic commentary on the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad.

However, although this story is nearly two years old, it apparently has not intrigued the news media — or scholars. I talked to a friend of mine who is a scholar in the area of religious freedom, and he says is was unaware of what’s going on in Turkey, and a quick perusal of a database of academic papers turned up no relevant scholarly work on the topic. Are the scholars simply unaware of this revision of the Hadith, or do they consider it unimportant?

Political implications

Even if the scholars are uninterested, there are some important political implications in this story. Important enough that the Turkish government is going into spin mode. Today’s Zaman, an English-language Turkish newspaper, reports that the BBC report is in error:

A recent BBC report, titled “Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts,” asserts that the Turkish directorate’s project is of a “revolutionary nature” and has “altered and reinterpreted” prophetic statements heretofore agreed upon as authentic. Speaking with Today’s Zaman on Wednesday, Dr. Mehmet Görmez, the directorate’s deputy director, said: “Our project is not aimed at effecting a radical renewal of the religion, as is claimed by the BBC. Our objective is to help our citizens attain a better understanding of the hadith. Though I underlined several times during our interview with a BBC reporter that our project cannot be considered a reformation of Islam, he distorted the facts, saying Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam — and a controversial and radical modernization of the religion.”

…which sounds like political spin to me! And it turns out that Today’s Zaman is a Rupert Murdoch paper which according to a commenter on Martin Kettle’s blog allegedly tries to whitewash all actions of the Turkish government:

Zaman is part of a constellation of anti-secular religious conservative newspapers in Turkey. Today’s Zaman appears to be an effort, in collaboration with News Corp, to create an English language Turkish daily distributed in the U.S., Europe and online that presents Turkey to English speaking people solely through a new regressive anti-secularism filter.

A more reliable source, the Ottowa Citizen has also reported on this story. They report, among other things, on the political implications:

Turkey, NATO’s sole Muslim member state, is a crucial ally in the war against global terrorism and the project to update the Hadith is seen by some as part of a U.S.-inspired plan to combat radical strains of Islam.

Mehmet Gormez, the British- trained theologian who is supervising the work, disputes the charge. The exercise is “purely academic” he told the Daily Telegraph. He said: “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 updating and scrapping some of the texts that “present women as inferior beings,” is part of the work that is being carried out by 80 theologians, all of them Turks.

So maybe Zaman‘s alleged bias is real.

The bottom line is that there are some very interesting political implications in this story — and some very interesting foreign policy implications for the United States government, given how much our politicians seem to want to talk about Islam. One wonders if the New York (“All the News That’s Fit To Print”) Times will fit this story into their print edition.

Religious implications

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent and blogger at The Times (no, the one in London, not the U.S. upstart), offers one assessment of the importance of the Hadith revision. Gledhill quotes Times writer Michael Binyon:

…This is a wonderful way of resolving this problem about the conflict between Islam and modernity. They can simply say that religious tradition is perfectly flexible and is compatible with modern reality, because the action of various spurious hadiths has been taken to be immutable and in fact this is wrong. They do not have scholarly sanction or the sanction of the Koran….

… it may be influential in appealing to a younger generation of more secular-minded Muslims who want to remain in the framework of their religion but do not have the theological basis to do so and are troubled by hadiths that seem contradictory. If it can be shown that some of the hadiths have uncertain origins, it does make it much easier to concentrate on the original message. This could be the way to the renewal of Islam.

In short, this is a classic example of a religion accommodating to changing culture — a topic that is sure to interest those of us who are involved in liberal religion or emergent religion. So I’ll keep following this story, and if anything new or interesting turns up, I’ll post again.

2 thoughts on “More on Hadith in Turkey

  1. h sofia

    It was a real challenge for me to find anything beyond “announcement” level articles, too. I don’t know what the actual reason is for the silence, but my thought was, “well, if I were engaged in this project, I’d be mum on it, too” – in the hopes that I’d live long enough to complete it. And I don’t say that to be dramatic.

  2. Dan

    h sofia — My scholar friend says to expect scholarly articles in a year or two — it will probably take that long, or longer.

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