STEREOTYPING the world of Islam is a fruitless task; such is its internal diversity.
Sectarian conflict is tearing Muslim populations apart in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. While some Muslims pursue a vision of a forward-thinking, rationalist faith, others look backwards to what they see as a pristine age when Muhammad established the first Islamic community in Medina.
For the latter group, the Hadith, or prophetic traditions, are crucial in realizing their vision, enabling Muslims who want to model their lives on that of their prophet to do so. These traditions record tens of thousands of short reports about Muhammad’s actions, attitudes, concerns, preferences and prejudices.
Read literally, the Hadith reports can take Muslims in many directions: to compassion for widows and orphans, to patriarchal attitudes towards women, to disdain for religious minorities, and to military jihad for the cause of Islam.
Some Muslim groups are re-engaging with the Hadith collections, recognizing that much Hadith content points more towards social circumstances from past centuries than present and future requirements of diverse societies. They are seeking to select from these prophetic traditions in ways which complement rather than contradict twenty-first-century values.
Turkish Hadith project
In mid-2013, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, or the Diyanet, published a new selection of Hadith accounts. Entitled Islam with the Hadiths of the Prophet, their appearance represented the culmination of a controversial gestation period lasting almost a decade.
Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs, Mehmet Aydin, put forward the proposal in 2004 to produce this new Hadith collection. The project received the direct support and sponsorship of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was investing significant resources in reviving the Islamic identity of the secular Turkish Republic.
The terms of reference of this project were stated clearly by the project leader of the time, Mehmet Gormez, himself a scholar of Hadith studies, who explained: ‘The project takes its inspiration from the interpretations of the modernist vein of Islam … We want to bring out the positive side of Islam that promotes personal honour, human rights, justice, morality, women's rights, respect for the other.’
A team of over eighty scholars was assembled for the task, and responsibility was given to the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Ankara. Work started in earnest in 2006, but within 18 months news of this project had spread beyond Turkey, triggering considerable controversy.
In 2008 BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Robert Pigott wrote: ‘Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam - and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion.’ Other Western news agencies followed suit, presenting the project in ways that reflected an underlying yearning in the West to witness an Islamic reformation.
Gormez, who was himself involved in doing some of the writing for the first volume, sought to insert a measure of reality into the discussion by commenting in one interview: ‘[The Western media] made too much fuss and took the project out of its real context. We are neither fashioning a new Islam nor dare to alter the fixed maxims of Islam. The Western media have read what [we] are doing from a Christian perspective and understood it in line with their Christian and Western cultures . . . No Muslim in their right mind would dare delete any Hadith or tamper with the Prophet's heritage.’
After the dust settled from this media flurry, the project team at the University of Ankara proceeded with their tasks. There were multiple challenges. First, some conservative Muslim voices had been alerted to this project by the media discussion and were closely watching developments. One Arab scholar was quoted as confronting a Turkish academic and saying in anger: ‘Will you write a new Qur’an next?’
Furthermore, the task of selecting a few hundred Hadith accounts from the tens of thousands available represented a significant challenge. The problem was not simply a matter of wading through detail. Quite simply, many Hadith reports do quote Muhammad as expressing views which are antithetical to twenty-first-century pluralistic attitudes:
The late Muslim modernist scholar from India, Professor Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013), identified one dimension of the challenge in writing: ‘We find even more shocking Hadiths ascribed to the Prophet regarding women’, and citing from the famous collection by Al-Bukhari: ‘Evil omen is in three things: the horse, the woman and the house’. (Hadith 4:52:110).
Another example of similarly problematic Hadith reports is found in the authoritative collection by Muslim ibn Hajjaj, which records Muhammad saying to his followers: ‘Do not greet the Jews and the Christians before they greet you and when you meet any one of them on the roads force him to go to the narrowest part of it’ (Book 26, Hadith 5389).
The project is realized
When the collection Islam with the Hadiths of the Prophet was released by the Diyanet in Ramadan 2013, it aroused considerable interest. It appeared as a seven-volume encyclopaedia, drawing from almost twenty authoritative Hadith collections and presenting its several hundred Hadith reports grouped according to wide-ranging themes. Unlike the standard collections by Al-Bukhari and other great traditionalists which simply list the Hadith reports without commentary, this new Turkish collection presents the Hadith themes within the context of short accompanying essays, providing historical context and placing particular emphasis on their relevance for the twenty-first century.
Particular attention is placed within this collection in shaping reader attitudes on issues of great currency today, such as women’s rights, the environment and other contemporary topics. A number of Hadith reports are assembled around the theme of education, with the first report being that which states: ‘Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim’. After presenting several other related Hadith reports, commentary is presented which emphasises that ‘every Muslim’ includes women as well. In this way, the collection subtly undermines Hadith-minded literalist groups such as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban that destroy women’s schools and restrict women to the home, citing support for their narrow views from certain Hadith reports.
The Diyanet is determined to maximize the influence of the new collection. It has been circulated throughout Turkey to government-appointed imams. Moreover, the collection has been translated into various languages, including Albanian, Azerbaijani and Bosnian, with other translations underway into Chinese and various European languages.However, its influence at the level of the Turkish masses is uncertain. In the words of one Turkish academic: ‘It is really difficult to say. Turkish people do not read a lot, especially voluminous books. I have also not come across serious reviews or critical evaluations of it in academic circles’. Likewise, time will be needed to enable a serious assessment of the impact of its other language versions.
Other Muslims question the Hadith
Scepticism about the standard Hadith collections and their relevance for the twenty-first- century can be seen elsewhere in the Islamic world:
The late Pakistani Professor Fazlur Rahman (1911-88), arguably the greatest Muslim modernist intellectual of the twentieth century, adopted a somewhat Hadith-sceptical approach, considering that the tradition collections embodied basic truths but needed reformulation to meet new circumstances.
A more vehement Hadith critic was Professor Engineer, who famously declared in one article: ‘Women lost in the Hadith what they had gained through the Qur’an. Today if the world thinks Islam treats women in a very unfair way it is because we follow Hadiths rather than the Qur’an as far as women are concerned.’
Some Islamic groups go further and declare themselves to be ‘Qur’an-only’ Muslims, arguing that the Hadith should not be considered as Islamic sacred literature at all. Such anti-Hadith groups can be found in Malaysia and Pakistan – keeping a very low profile in sensitive times – as well as in the West. Such groups maintain a visible online presence but their writings attract very prompt rebuttals from more orthodox Muslim groups which affirm the central role of the Hadith collections as part of the Islamic sacred literary corpus.
This Turkish project is part of the ongoing struggle for identity within the world of Islam, a struggle fought between those who would wish to impose a scripturally literalist brand of their faith on the masses and their opponents who wish to redefine Islam as a modern, rationalist, non-extremist faith. The latter group wishes clearly to maintain the essential elements of Islam, but to express them within a twenty-first-century framework.
Furthermore, this project speaks directly into the view expressed by many commentators that today’s multiple manifestations of Islamic radicalism are deeply rooted in the texts of Islam, rather than being mere reactions to modern-day grievances. This Turkish initiative should be seen as one manifestation of something that many have long called for: an examination by Muslims of their sacred texts to eliminate elements ill-suited to the modern world -- violence, social discrimination, hostility towards non-Muslims and so forth.
This Turkish Hadith Project is not going to turn the world of Islam upside down overnight. However, it may well prove to be a small but valuable step on a long journey towards a genuinely critical examination of taboo subjects that cry out for detailed scrutiny: the historicity of the sacred texts and the life of Muhammad.
This is an updated version of an article first published at Lausanne Global Analysis and is used with kind permission.