Scholars around the Muslim world were alarmed five years ago by news reports that Turkey planned a new, possibly heretical, compilation of the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings that might scrap those it thought were no longer applicable.
Turkish religious leaders and theologians received anxious calls asking about Western media reports they would edit a “radical” new set of hadiths, scriptures that are second only to the Koran in Islam.
"Will you write a new Koran next?" one irate Arab scholar asked a baffled Turkish academic.
Its 100 authors have selected a few hundred of the about 17,000 reported quotes from Mohammad to examine Islamic views on God, faith and life in terms that the average modern Turk can understand.
“We don’t live in the 20th century anymore,” said Mehmet Ozafsar, director of the project and vice-president of Ankara’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, a state agency.
“We needed a new work with Islamic beliefs in the perspective of today’s culture.”
The hadiths record the Prophet Mohammad’s words and acts during his life. Preachers and jurists use them to understand the Koran and support Muslim teachings and fatwas (religious edicts) on all aspects of life, from prayer to education for women.
Digests of selected hadiths are nothing new in Islam. Scholars have produced them for centuries to help Muslims learn about the Prophet’s sayings without having to navigate through the long and sometimes confusing classical compilations.
What makes this one different is that it selects and explains the hadiths from the perspective of today’s Turkey, whose mix of a secular state, dynamic economy and Muslim society has aroused considerable interest in the Middle East since the Arab Spring revolts two years ago.
A senior religious official in Egypt, where traditional Islamic scholars, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafis differ over key issues in the faith, said the hadith collection could bring a new perspective to the debate.
“Among intellectuals in Egypt, there is a welcome for this new interpretation which they think is very important for the Arab world to be exposed to,” said Ibrahim Negm, advisor to Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest Islamic legal authority there.
The hadith project first attracted attention in 2008 when the BBC called it “a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam and a controversial and radical modernization of the religion.”
Diyanet, Turkey’s top Islamic authority, called this and other reports “entirely wrong”and based on Christian misreading of Islamic practice. Media interest dropped off and the project went ahead, leaving scholars abroad wondering what to expect.
What has emerged is a seven-volume encyclopedia of what its authors considered the most important hadiths. Grouped according to subjects, they are followed by short essays that explain the sayings in their historical context and what they mean today.
The collection is the first by Turkey’s “Ankara School” of theologians who in recent decades have reread Islamic scriptures to extract their timeless religious message from the context of 7th-century Arab culture in which they arose.
These theologians work in modern university faculties and many have studied abroad to learn how Christians analyze the Bible critically.
They subscribe to what they call “conservative modernity,” a Sunni Islam true to the faith’s core doctrines but without the strictly literal views that ultra-orthodox Muslims have been promoting in other parts of the Islamic world.
“There are different perspectives in the Islamic world and some are closed-minded. Turks have a different idea of Islamic culture,” project director Ozafsar said.
That includes a strong secular tradition allowing alcohol consumption and Western dress for women, although Turkish society has turned more conservative and religious in the past decade under the conservative AKP government. Turkey also has women preachers in mosques and female deputy muftis in several large cities.
Mehmet Pacaci, Diyanet's general director for foreign affairs, said Muslims shouldn’t simply “open the Koran or a hadith compilation, find a verse or saying of the Prophet and say, 'Aha! This is the judgment of this action.’
“If we do that, it’s literalism and ignorance,” he told Reuters. “Unfortunately, we have such ignorance in the Muslim world.”
Although neither this collection nor much other recent Turkish theology has been translated into Arabic, these views have stirred interest among Arab thinkers struggling to reconcile their more traditional Islam with modern democracy.
Negm said Turkish religious delegations now regularly visit al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading seat of Sunni learning, and Arabic translations of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi have begun appearing in bookshops in the Egyptian capital.
“Egyptian intellectuals are very impressed with the Turkish model, not only in the economic and political realm but also in its moderate religious orientation,” he said, adding Turkey was seen as “the antithesis of the Wahhabi-Salafi model.”
Wahhabism is the stern official school of Islam in Saudi Arabia and one of the inspirations for militant Salafis, the literalist Sunnis who have been attacking Shi'ites and Sufis and trying to impose sharia law in several Muslim countries.
Not a rule book
The first edition of “Islam with the Hadiths of the Prophet,” as the collection is called, has started rolling off the printing presses in Turkish. It will be officially released during Ramadan, which is due to start in early July.
Displaying the first green-bound volumes, the officials said the essays dealt with modern issues such as women’s rights, but were not presented as a compendium of official positions that imams must preach or Islamic judges must implement.
“The aim was not to produce an answer to today’s agenda topics like gender issues, punishment and jihad,” Pacaci said.
For example, the question of schooling for girls comes up in the section about education, which starts with the hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim” in Arabic and a few supporting hadiths and Turkish translations underneath.
Several pages of commentary in Turkish follow and explain that since the hadiths say education is obligatory for all Muslims, it is a right for girls and women as well.
Another essay on women stresses that they attended mosques and ran businesses when Mohammad governed the city of Medina. “They were active in every part of social life,” Pacaci said.
Hadiths calling for harsh punishments such as severing thieves’ hands were put into historical perspective so they are not taken as models for modern times, Ozafsar said.
“You can find these punishments in the Prophet’s time because society needed these rules for social peace,” he said."Today, we have different social systems. We can say these rules and punishments are historical.”
Saban Ali Duzgun, a professor in Ankara University’s theology faculty, said imams liked to pepper their preaching with hadiths because they dealt with so many aspects of everyday life. But if they consult the original source books, they might pick hadiths that don’t suit life in modern Turkey, he said.
“We object to preachers using so many hadiths,” said Duzgun. With this new reference work from Diyanet, which employs the imams, most Turkish preachers would only use hadiths and interpretations they find in it, he said.
While the collection is mainly for domestic use, Diyanet has begun preparing a translation into Bosnian, the language of Muslims in former Yugoslavia who were once under Ottoman rule.
It is also considering bilingual Turkish-German edition for the large Turkish minority in Germany, Diyanet officials said.
Editions in languages such as Arabic or English were not planned right away, they added, but publishers in Egypt and Britain have recently expressed interest in translating the collection to make it widely available soon.