Reform-minded Turkish scholars prepare to reinterpret Islam

This boxy stone building in the shadow of Anakara's central mosque is the nerve center for Turkey's government-backed Islamic reform project
This boxy stone building in the shadow of Anakara's central mosque is the nerve center for Turkey's government-backed Islamic reform project Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

ANKARA, Turkey — In a sterile, boxy stone building in the shadow of Ankara's central mosque, a group of Turkish scholars is spearheading a reinterpretation of the literary foundations of Islam that some have compared to Christianity's Protestant Reformation.

With the backing of Turkey's reform-minded government, the team of 80 Islamic academicians from around the world is preparing to release a revised collection of the Prophet Muhammad's words and deeds, which guide Muslims on everything from brushing their teeth to reaching heaven.

As with most religions, the accuracy of the words that have been handed down through centuries has long been in dispute.

Did Muhammad really say that women are bad luck? Did the prophet tell his followers that the word of a woman is worth half that of a man? Did he call for adulterers to be stoned to death?

By year's end, the academics hope to answer those questions by preparing a new intellectual road map for Islam.

"It's a state-sponsored project that is bringing together a large number of scholars to undertake quite an extensive reinterpretation of the sources in a systematic way that has not been achieved before in modern times," said Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow in the European Program at Chatham House, an independent London-based policy institute. He calls the project "somewhat akin to the Christian Reformation."

The revised collection of Muhammad's guidance will be the latest initiative in a contentious debate about the role of Islam in an era when the most prominent Muslim figures, at least in the West, are extremists such as Osama bin Laden.

The rise of al Qaida and prominence of hard-line Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, some Islamic reformers argue, has created a warped view of Islam in the West.

"This may help to take the words of the prophet from the hands of people who are using them to legitimize their bad deeds," said Mehmet Gormez, the vice president of Turkey's Religious Affairs Ministry, which is overseeing the project.

In the past, maverick Muslim scholars in the Middle East who've tried to propose modern reinterpretations of Islam have been ostracized and, in some cases, forced to seek sanctuary in Western countries.

Turkey is charting a new course by supporting the project, which is focused on the Hadith — a massive collection of Muhammad's words and deeds that's the foundation of Islamic law.

The lessons were transmitted orally for hundreds of years, throwing their veracity into question, and when Muslim scholars first began to write them down, they sought to bolster their authenticity by explaining the words' lineage.

The Turkish researchers have meticulously collected more than 160,000 sayings from the Hadith and entered them in a specially designed computer program for analysis. They've grouped the sayings by subject and passed them out to scholars for reinterpretation.

Gormez compared the Hadith to a pharmacy and said that people need the advice of a skilled doctor before going in to get their medicine. "One may get poisoned if he goes to the pharmacy without the recommendation of a good doctor," he said.

In essence, the scholars are sorting out which prescriptions to keep on the pharmacy shelves and which ones to remove.

The new analysis of these Islamic pillars is something akin to the debate in Christian circles between those who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and those who see it as a holy moral guide.

Though Biblical commandments allow fathers to sell their daughters into slavery and state that those who work on the Sabbath should be killed, those dictates have few adherents in the modern world, while others, such as the Ten Commandments and Jesus' injunction to love your neighbor, endure.

The Turkish scholars could have a similar impact on conservative Islamic views of women, adultery, honor killings and more.

Some of the revisions will focus on simple issues such as hygiene.

Just because Muhammad urged his followers to brush their teeth with a certain kind of twig, for example, doesn't mean that a modern Muslim must use a twig instead of a toothbrush; it simply means that the prophet wanted his followers to take care of their teeth.

One of the places the project is expected to have the biggest impact is on the Islamic view of women.

Ismail Hakki Unal, a professor at Ankara University's Divinity School who's leading the project, said the final product is unlikely to include sayings attributed to Muhammad that suggest that women are bad luck, that they're stupid or that their word is worth half that of a man.

"Those definitely cannot be the words of the prophet," Unal said.

The project, which has been unfolding slowly for two years, is beginning to create a backlash across the Muslim world.

Gormez pored over a thick blue binder filled with stories from the Arabic press that criticized Turkey for its initiative, especially because of the politically charged comparisons to the Protestant Reformation that outsiders have made.

"If they continue assessing things like this without being serious, then I don't think any academic study will affect the Muslim world," Gormez said. "But there is a good tradition in Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, and I think this will be a good connection to the scholars there."

The goal is to produce a five-volume set that will be used in mosques across Turkey and sold in religious bookstores around the nation. The work will first be released in Turkish, Arabic and Russian.

Turkey's evaluation of the prophet's word could have an impact beyond the Muslim world, as well.

"The Turkish experiment may inspire future debate and that, in itself would be a significant achievement for the West to dramatically show clearly that religion and modernity are not contradictory, but compatible," Hakura said.