Some time this year 35 Turkish scholars will release the results of a three-year project to reinterpret the hadith, comments on the words and deeds of the prophet Mohammed. It is likely to have the effect of dropping a bomb in the Muslim world.
While the Koran is considered to be the word of God as revealed to Mohammed, the hadith, which were compiled two centuries after his death in 632, have long been subject to interpretation. The team of theological scholars at Ankara University, working under the aegis of the Diyanet, Turkey’s state authority for religious affairs, have been closely examining the hadith Much of Sharia law is based on the hadith. The scholars have been doing their work with an eye toward reinterpreting or eliminating those that are apocrypha or culturally inspired for purposes of social control. Hadith have been used, for example to justify the oppression of women and the stoning of adulterers. Some scholars believe that the requirement that women wear veils was inspired not by Islam, but by Byzantine aristocrats.
Turkey, whose secular nature is written into its constitution, has a religiously conservative government. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a solid majority in last summer’s election, but is now locked in a legal battle with the secular establishment over its easing of a ban on veils on university campuses. The AKP sees the easing of the veil restriction as a case of the camel’s nose under the tent. Defenders of the measure counter that the AKP wants to gradually impose religious rules on the country. If the secular establishment — made up of military, judicial and republican elements — wins the case, the AKP itself may be ruled illegal.
Against this backdrop, the reinterpretation of the hadith is seen as a way for the government to show that it is modern and reform-minded. In a recent interview, Mehmet Gormez, deputy director of the Diyanet, said that the reinterpretation was intended to make the proverbs, sayings and commentary that make up the hadith “more suitable to 21st Turkish people and more scientifically and historically accurate.”
While the project’s immediate audience is the Turkish people, one of the underlying reasons for undertaking it was to assist Turkey in its bid to join the European Union. Putting a reformist stamp on Turkey’s governing party seems to be a latter-day objective.
Once it is made public, the scholars’ report will have an impact well beyond Turkey’s borders. The reaction of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative Wahabbist clerics is likely to be fiercely disapproving, not to mention the reaction of various Egyptian clerics and scholars, let alone the Osama bin Ladens and Ayman al-Zawahiris of this world. These radical Islamists and their allies are dedicated to imposing the strictest Sharia law by establishing a Seventh Century theocracy — a caliphate — based in Baghdad. As we have seen, their strategy for achieving this is to use murder and terror to gain land. They will not take lightly the “reinterpretation” by some Turkish scholars of their favored means of social control.