Thursday, February 28, 2008

Let's not get our hopes up

(updated 1o March 2008)

Would the Bab al-Ijtihad really be opened? That would indeed mean a revolution in Islam! A recent BBC Report from Turkey says that the country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Qur’an.

For a thousand years, Muslims were not at liberty to interpret their Qur’an except through the medium of the Hadiths. If this is no longer the precept of Orthodox Islam, the traditional scholars will be able to look afresh at the Qur’an.

The Turkish scholars are in the process of proving that many Hadiths that have thus far been considered ‘sahih’, healthy, were actually late fabrications. The forensic examination of the Hadiths has taken place in Ankara University's School of Theology. An adviser to the project, Felix Koerner, says some of the sayings can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society.

Turkey now wants to sweep away the "cultural baggage" and return to a form of Islam it claims accords with its original values and those of the Prophet.

"There have been things that people say the prophet did or said which conflict with the Koran," says Ismail Hakki Unal, head of the Hadith department at Ankara University's divinity school, where the Hadith project is centered and is increasingly known as a hotbed of liberal Islamic thinking. "The Koran is our basic guide. Anything that conflicts with that, we are trying to eliminate." Unal spoke with Yigal Schleider of the Christian Science Monitor.

As an example, Unal mentioned Hadith-based interpretations that say it is forbidden to teach women to read or write, or that they are of "lesser mind and faith."

"The issue of women being of lesser mind and faith was something that was accepted in those days without any argument, but it is not today, which is one of the reasons that we are trying to eliminate it," he says. "We are saying that this is not in line with how the prophet lived and the Koran itself, so it cannot be accepted."

This is what Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, says about the issue, in a report from the BBC:

Turkey is doing nothing less than recreating Islam - changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy.

He says that to achieve it, the state is fashioning a new Islam.
"This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation," he says.
"Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's changing the theological foundations of [the] religion. "
Fadi Hakura believes that until now secularist Turkey has been intent on creating a new politics for Islam.
Now, he says, "they are trying to fashion a new Islam."
Significantly, the "Ankara School" of theologians has been using Western critical techniques and philosophy. But may I temper our hopes. Radical Islam has in the past 50 years also gone straight to the Qur’an, bypassing centuries of accumulated interpretations. Do away with the Hadiths, and you give freedom to Muslims to develop a more liberal Islam. The reality, however, is that those who took the liberty to interpret the Qur’an afresh, the modernizers in the Arab World, have almost always become more radical, more bigoted, less open to people of other persuasions.

But the modernizers in Turkey seem to be going one step further than discrediting the Hadiths, and this is where it become truly interesting. According to Hakura for the BBC:
They have also taken an even bolder step - rejecting a long-established rule of Muslim scholars that later (and often more conservative) texts override earlier ones.
"You have to see them as a whole," says Fadi Hakura.
"You can't say, for example, that the verses of violence override the verses of peace. This is used a lot in the Middle East, this kind of ideology. "I cannot impress enough how fundamental [this change] is."

Just imagine…. The whole interpretative system for the Qur’an is being challenged. Now how many theologians in the Muslim World would be willing to accept that new paradigm from the theologians in secularist Turkey? A comment in the Financial Times said:

Turkey alone cannot overcome this [opposition]. Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and Muslim conservatives in Egypt will, furthermore, paint post-Ottoman Turkey as warped by secularism and confined to the periphery of Islam. But Islam too is undergoing a form of globalisation – and Turkey’s success in coming up with a modern but identifiably Muslim politics should give its religious modernism an edge.

Let us not get our hopes up. This will not happen overnight.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jordanian campaign against evangelism

On 21 February, Jordanian parliament slammed media reports that the country has increased pressure on expatriate Christians. ‘We categorically condemn and reject the false report which is aimed at damaging Muslim-Christian relations in Jordan’, the 110-member lower house of parliament said.

This statement of parliament came a day after Jordan’s foreign minister explained that he had eight expatriate Christians expelled for proselytizing activities under the cover of humanitarian aid operations. He explained that 'some foreigners arrive in the kingdom under the pretext of charitable activities, but break the law and carry out missionary activities'.

In the previous week, the Council of Churches in Jordan, which represents most Churches in the country, warned of the presence of about '40 sects'. It is likely that the Council of Churches distanced itself publicly from these groups fearing that the present government campaign against Christians may also hurt them. They condemned the actions of these movements, saying that they 'create discord within Christianity itself and with the Muslims'.

For the Council of Churches to distance itself from the actions of other Christians is divisive and unwise; it strengthens the government's campaign against churches and missionaries in Jordan. For independent mission agencies to ignore the views of the major local churches is also divisive and unwise. It obviously puts the local churches in a difficult position in relationship to the authorities.

On 6 February, the Free Evangelical Church in Aqaba was closed by the Jordanian authorities. The same church had had a series of problems at the hands of the authorities during the past year. On 29 April 2007, its Pastor Mazhar Izzat Bishay, an Egyptian national and long-time resident of Aqaba, was deported to Egypt after being questioned. No reason for his deportation was given. A few months earlier, Wajeeh Besharah, Ibrahim Atta, Raja Welson, and Imad Waheeb, four Egyptians living in Aqaba, were also deported, after being questioned about their affiliation with the church.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Normal Missionary: Vivienne Stacey

At the moment, five or six people are helping to put all of Vivienne Stacey's writings together, for publication on Vivienne has lived a very long and fruitful life as a 'stateswoman' for mission in the Muslim World, and she has allowed us to make all of her writings available on the internet. She went to Pakistan in 1954 and retired (well, officially) in the 1990s. This is normal in mission: it consumes a lifetime.

During her life as a missionary with Interserve, Vivienne was also connected with IFES (the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) and often spoke in meetings of that organization. No wonder she has friends all over the world.

May we see more missionaries like Vivienne. Presently, we see so many short-term people come (and especially: go) and I wonder what we are doing... Is this the mission God has called us to, or are we just helping people with getting a good experience or in their career-planning?

Just imagine Paul, or John, or Peter... after 3 or 6 years they returned home. 'We have served God as missionaries, but now we will work for assuring that we will not miss out on a pension arrangement. And our kids need to go to school. Of course this means we return to Galilee. And mind you, we need to take care of our aging parents.'

Give us more long-term people like Vivienne. These are the people impacting the Muslim world. They know the language, they become deeply embedded in the local church, they slowly begin to understand the culture in which they live. They become effective in speaking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are in the process of uploading as many articles and books by Vivienne Stacey as we can lay our hands on, have a look here at

Friday, February 1, 2008

Doctoral thesis: Arabic Christian radio and contextualization

I just received a copy of a very interesting doctoral thesis on Arabic Christian Radio in the past 50 years. The book, goodness, 996 pages, is like an encyclopedia of organizations and people who worked in Arabic Christian radio since the 1950s. It contains chapters on alle the major Arabic Christian radio broadcasters. For the savants among you: AWR, ELWA, TWR, FEBA, FR, IBRA, HCJB, BVB. It also treats the major program producers: AWM, GMU, NECC, BTGH, GRO. This book is of great importance for anyone interested in mission, Church, contextualization and Christian radio in the context of the Arab World. I have never come across any serious writings on Arabic Christian radio before!

Gospel in the Air: 50 Years of Christian Witness through Radio in the Arab World, by Jos M. Strengholt, can be purchased from us with a discount. This doctoral thesis was written for Utrecht University (Netherlands). The English book of 996 pages will be mailed worldwide for 50 Euros (80 US$). Order directly from me,