(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.