Is Turkey Changing Islam?

I have not written on Islam for some time. There seemed to be little change happening.

Suddenly, today, a news item on the BBC Online News changes everything.

Turkey has been in the news for moving back towards allowing women to wear head scarves in educational institutions and I admit I have been taking a “Oh Dear, the Imams are taking back their authority!” That seems to be the case, but in an unexpected manner.

I have rearranged some of the points in the published article but this is essentially what was contained within that report.

From the BBC;

Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam – and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion. 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 Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad. As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.

But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam. It says that a significant number of the sayings were never uttered by Muhammad, and even some that were need now to be reinterpreted.


Commentators say the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion. Its supporters say the spirit of logic and reason inherent in Islam at its foundation 1,400 years ago are being rediscovered. Some believe it could represent the beginning of a reformation in the religion.

Prof Mehmet Gormez an Hadith expert with the Department of Religious Affairs said that, “Some messages ban women from travelling without their husband’s permission… But this isn’t a religious ban. It came about because it simply wasn’t safe for a woman to travel alone

Turkish officials have been reticent about the revision of the Hadith until now, aware of the controversy it is likely to cause among traditionalist Muslims, but they have spoken to the BBC about the project, and their ambitious aims for it. 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 – also known individually as “hadiths” – can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society. “Unfortunately you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim – or pseudo-Muslim – practice of female genital mutilation,” he says. “You can find messages which say ‘that is what the Prophet ordered us to do’. But you can show historically how they came into being, as influences from other cultures, that were then projected onto Islamic tradition.”

The argument is that Islamic tradition has been gradually hijacked by various – often conservative – cultures, seeking to use the religion for various forms of social control. Leaders of the Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad himself.


Turkey is intent on sweeping away that “cultural baggage” and returning to a form of Islam it claims accords with its original values and those of the Prophet.

But this is where the revolutionary nature of the work becomes apparent. Even some sayings accepted as being genuinely spoken by Muhammad have been altered and reinterpreted. Prof Mehmet Gormez, a senior official in the Department of Religious Affairs and an expert on the Hadith, gives a telling example. “There are some messages that ban women from travelling for three days or more without their husband’s permission and they are genuine. “But this isn’t a religious ban. It came about because in the Prophet’s time it simply wasn’t safe for a woman to travel alone like that. But as time has passed, people have made permanent what was only supposed to be a temporary ban for safety reasons.” Prof Gormez points out that in another speech, the Prophet said “he longed for the day when a woman might travel long distances alone”. So, he argues, it is clear what the Prophet’s goal was. Yet, until now, the ban has remained in the text, and helps to restrict the free movement of some Muslim women to this day.

The project justifies such bold interference in the 1,400-year-old content of the Hadith by rigorous academic research.

Original spirit

As part of its aggressive programme of renewal, Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, and appointed them as senior imams called “vaizes”. They have been given the task of explaining the original spirit of Islam to remote communities in Turkey’s vast interior.

One of the vaises, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of headscarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Koran – one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith. “There’s also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment… This does not exist in Islam… we have to explain that to them.” she said.

She says that, at the moment, Islam is being widely used to justify the violent suppression of women. “There are honour killings,” she explains. “We hear that some women are being killed when they marry the wrong person or run away with someone they love. “There’s also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment by uncles and others. This does not exist in Islam… we have to explain that to them.”

‘New Islam’

According to Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, 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 working on the new Hadith have been using Western critical techniques and philosophy.

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.”

I keep thinking of the effects of the Reformation on Christian populations in past centuries!

As an addendum, there was an article in the Washington Post in July 2006 about the beginnings of this matter.

4 responses to “Is Turkey Changing Islam?

  1. The Spanish Inquisition? The insane fundamentalism of the Southern Baptists in the US? The Protestant/Catholic fight in the time of Henry VIII? And in the time of Mary, Elizabeth, James, Charles, etc.? The Crusades? Which one are we speaking about?

    I know that without change something is dead … frankly, I’d prefer both fundamental Christianity and Islam to just disappear forever and a day! Fundamental anything! Become dead, stay dead.

    What is most discouraging is that “Fundamental” in whatever religion seems to mean “Totally male!”

    “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God and King of the Universe, that thou didst not create me a woman.”
    ~ Daily prayer, still in use, of the orthodox Jewish male


  2. From the Washington Post:

    “Similarly, in proposing to create its new standard collection, the Turkish Diyanet intends to look beyond the chain of transmitters to logic, consistency and common sense. In many ways, this is a revival of an early debate in Islamic jurisprudence between rival camps known as the adherents of the hadiths and the adherents of reason — a debate that ended with the triumph of the former.”

    But since the Turkish government has been actively trying to secularize a portion of the Muslim population .. I’m wondering if this methodology is going to work on that particular crowd. Adherents of reason have always been able to differentiate between the hadiths .. pick and choose what rulings make sense to them and what don’t. It’s the adherents of hadiths who are being targeted .. so is this really going to work? It definitely is something though.

    I am cynical enough to think that this is receiving publicity at the moment because of the Turkish intrusions into Iraq. Having said that, perhaps in a different age, different results may come from old debates. It seems to me that many of the modern Islams (Yes, plural, for each region and culture has its own form of Islam over and above the classic divisions) have been transmitted though the differing veils of local customs. In an increasingly global community, this seems a strange way to display the “One Faith” in the “One God”. But that is all a different argument – 🙂

    The apparent empowering of women is encouraging.


  3. “Having said that, perhaps in a different age, different results may come from old debates.”

    ahhhh, but here’s the trick – one group insists that their way is the only way – so to bring it full on back in this manner (instead of a gradual way of bringing the populace to it’s senses through a less shocking manner) may backfire.

    As for the empowerment of women I’ll elaborate on that more at my blog but it won’t be today – that’s more to type than I have time for now and I really wish I had more time for it right now 🙂

    I shall wait with interest to see your elaboration 🙂


  4. You wrote:
    What is most discouraging is that “Fundamental” in whatever religion seems to mean “Totally male!”
    to which I reply:
    What is /really/ discouraging is that there are females who willingly agree and go along with fundamentalist males.

    Yes, although there is a large amount of institutionalised bullying involved – hard to overcome when the bullies are physically stronger. And when they have abrogated the Power of God unto themselves!


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