80 Turkish theologians reconsider the Hadith

The Hadith is a non-Koranic commentary on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, considered the second most sacred text in Islam, and key to understanding the Koran. The problem with the Hadith is that there is forensic evidence from the University of Ankara that some of the reported sayings have been fabricated, even hundreds of years after Mohammed’s death. Amberin Azman writes gives some background The Telegraph:

Felix Koerner, a Jesuit cleric and an expert on Islam, who is advising the project, said that some of Mohammed’s reputed sayings, can be shown to have been fabricated centuries after the prophet’s death.

“Unfortunately, you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim – or pseudo-Muslim – practice of female genital mutilation,” he said.

Other sayings, such as those which forbid women from travelling for lengthy periods without their husbands were only set by the prophet because of security problems in his time which no longer exist.

Hidayet Sevkatli Tuksal, an Islamic theologian who wrote a book examining male chauvinist interpretations of Islam, agrees that some of the hadiths were bogus and deliberately crafted “to ensure male domination over women.”

Many scholars and clerics accept that the Hadith has been augmented by successive policy makers, passing off their political aims as those of Mohammed. One of the upshots is that although thousands of Turkish imams are preaching against honour killings there hasn’t been a significant drop in honour killings in Turkey, which amount to dozens each year – so far the justification has remained enshrined in the sacred Hadith.

In a significant, even pivotal, development which some are comparing to the Christian Reformation, 80 scholars and theologians from the ‘Ankara School’ are embarking on a project, coordinated in Turkey, to re-read and revise the Hadith. The methodology isn’t clear from the coverage – I’d imagine it will draw on historical records, cross referencing with other sayings of Muhammed and refer to arbitration by senior clerics for areas where there is no consensus. Or something.

But besides a short story on The Today Programme I’ve not heard much talk about this profoundly important development. Silence from the critics of Islamism I’m used to reading – particularly the ones who say that Islam is by definition a monolithic, timeless and non-negotiable code. As Martin Kettle notes, “this story is the one that got away”.

As an atheist, I object to the fact that it is acceptable to interpret this religious text so literally that, in order to eject outrageous misogynist directives from its preaching, its adherents are obliged to fall back on the authority of 80 theologians to be able to say that this or that saying is obsolete, or inappropriate for them. As such, this project is a politically-motivated piece of research – and it has been criticised accordingly as part of the US-led aim to combat militant, fundamentalist strains of Islam. But I like the politics. The determination to retrieve women from socio-political shackles is the driving force, and that is an unambiguously welcome thing – that can’t be said strongly enough. My objection is that the enterprise locates the moral assessment of how should or should not live their lives firmly as the preserve of the authorities rather than a matter of personal conscience and active interpretation it actually is. Here, the theological elites expect, or are expected to, mediate between God and the people.

But I admire the intellectual and, probably, personal courage of the people involved in this controversial project – although there is little coverage now, there is likely to be lots once the revised edition – edition! – of the Hadith is published.

Update: commenters on David T’s piece on Harry’s Place have found some more on this, including Synthesis of Islamic Thought, Modernity and Secularism the German site Dialogue With Islam and Islamic Reformers Look Back to the Future on Radio Free Europe, which considers the impact of the ‘Ankara School’:

To Mehmet Pacaci, however, “rethinking” is clearly more traditional than literalism. Pacaci is among the leading theologians of the Ankara School. He also has studied in Germany and read the classics of Christianity and Judaism. He calls Koerner a friend and, together with others, they often meet over tea and debate the meaning of their faiths and ways of interpreting them.

To Pacaci, literalism is a modern movement that began in Egypt in the 19th century. He calls it a superficial way of understanding Islam, one that rejects the centuries-old tradition of understanding not only from the Koran but also from the literature that followed Muhammad, as well as the consensus of the Islamic community.


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