Morality, justice and women's rights

Times Online
Turkey's highest religious authority is preparing to publish a groundbreaking guide to Islam for the modern world, putting the words of the Prophet Muhammad into context for a sweeping reinterpretation of the religion.

The Presidency of Religious Affairs in this Muslim, but strongly secular, country has commissioned a thorough review of the sayings of the Prophet, or the Hadith, which constitute the second most sacred text in the religion after the Koran.

“The project takes its inspiration from the interpretations of the modernist vein of Islam,” Professor Mehmet Gormez, vice-president of religious affairs and senior Hadith lecturer at Ankara University, told The Times. “This gets obscured by modern clichés but reinterpretation is actually part of the basic fabric of Islam.”

He said that one of the aims was to separate the religion from the traditionalist cultural elements that have long hampered a true vision of Islam. The Hadith guide, to be published as a book this year, would make it much more difficult to justify extreme, misogynistic and violent interpretations of Islam, Professor Gormez said.

“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,” he said. He added that nobody should expect revolutionary new thinking on the issue of women covering their hair in the Muslim manner, for instance. “This is an academic study — one thing you will not see is an attempt to make Islam look cute for the Western world.”

The project is a fitting example of how Turkey — a Nato member and European Union candidate run by a pragmatic, free-market-loving government of former political Islamists — has quietly become a laboratory for reinterpreting Islam over the years.

Touching on subjects such as women, morals, prayer and Man's relationship to nature, the thousands of Hadith are provided with a context to demonstrate whether they have relevance for today's Muslims, a move unlikely to find favour with hardline “literalists” who believe that the Prophet's 7th-century sayings are a cast-iron guide to life.

“Our aim is to present the intentions of the Prophet Muhammad to the people of today in a language they can understand,” Yavuz Unal, who leads the Ankara-based Hadith Project, said. “All the theology professors in Turkey have been invited to contribute and we are talking about 162,000 hadith in existence.”

While many sections — including some on women — have yet to be finalised, the more than 10,000 Hadith selected are expected to include sayings showing that religious conversion was tolerated and that its punishment was an irrelevant political sanction. Another Hadith prohibiting women from travelling for more than three days without their husbands, for instance, would be included but with the context that this referred to travelling in caravans of camels or donkeys and was more of a security issue for the time. “Clearly that would not apply to modern travel,” Dr Unal said.

While the Justice and Development Party of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — which was created as a conservative group by moderate Islamists, social liberals and economists — concentrates on issues such as the economy and joining the EU, other institutions and Turkish society are changing the way Islam is lived.

Having long ago separated its dislike of usury from the pursuit of business profit, a large group of devout businessmen have made themselves an important force in the growth of Turkey as an emerging markets financial powerhouse. In tandem an Islamic bourgeoisie has been created in recent years, leading to a fundamental shift in a secular society where previously a Western-looking, strongly secularist elite, backed by the military, was the only dominant force.

A feminisation of the male-dominated world of Islamic preachers is also taking place with the appointment of women vaize, or senior imams, who appeal directly to women and condemn tradition-based practices such as the “honour killing” of women.

“There is a big misunderstanding in the West of Islam as simply an Arab religion, and Turkish scholarship can become overlooked. Yet for the understanding of Islam, Turkey is an incredible laboratory,” Taha Akyol, a political commentator, said. “A revolution is taking place here. In other countries you have reform of Islam pushed through by despotic or modernist regimes but in Turkey you are seeing the reform taking place in the middle classes. And that is real reform.”

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