ANKARA May 22 Scholars around the Muslim world
were alarmed five years ago by news reports that Turkey planned
a new, possibly heretical compilation of the Prophet Mohammad's
sayings that might scrap those it thought were out of date.
Turkish religious leaders and theologians received anxious
calls asking about Western media reports they would edit a
"radical" new set of hadiths, scriptures that are second only to
the Koran in Islam.
"Will you write a new Koran next?" one irate Arab scholar
asked a baffled Turkish academic.
The new work, finally ready after six years in the making,
is nothing like the 95 Theses in which Martin Luther condemned
practices in the Roman Catholic Church and launched the
Instead, its 100 authors have selected a few hundred of the
about 17,000 reported quotes from Mohammad to examine Islamic
views on God, faith and life in terms that the average modern
Turk can understand.
"We don't live in the 20th century anymore," said Mehmet
Ozafsar, director of the project and vice-president of Ankara's
Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, a state agency.
"We needed a new work with Islamic beliefs in the
perspective of today's culture."
The hadiths record Mohammad's words and acts during his
life. Preachers and jurists use them to understand the Koran and
support Muslim teachings and fatwas (religious edicts) on all
aspects of life, from prayer to education for women.
Digests of selected hadiths are nothing new in Islam.
Scholars have produced them for centuries to help Muslims learn
about the Prophet's sayings without having to navigate through
the long and sometimes confusing classical compilations.
What makes this one different is that it selects and
explains the hadiths from the perspective of today's Turkey,
whose mix of a secular state, dynamic economy and Muslim society
has aroused considerable interest in the Middle East since the
Arab Spring revolts two years ago.
A senior religious official in Egypt, where traditional
Islamic scholars, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and radical
Salafis differ over key issues in the faith, said the hadith
collection could bring a new perspective to the debate.
"Among intellectuals in Egypt, there is a welcome for this
new interpretation which they think is very important for the
Arab world to be exposed to," said Ibrahim Negm, advisor to
Egypt's grand mufti, the highest Islamic legal authority
The hadith project first attracted attention in 2008 when
the BBC called it "a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam and
a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion."
Diyanet, Turkey's top Islamic authority, called this and
other reports "entirely wrong" and based on Christian misreading
of Islamic practice. Media interest dropped off and the project
went ahead, leaving scholars abroad wondering what to expect.
What has emerged is a seven-volume encyclopaedia of what its
authors considered the most important hadiths. Grouped according
to subjects, they are followed by short essays that explain the
sayings in their historical context and what they mean today.
The collection is the first by Turkey's "Ankara School" of
theologians who in recent decades have reread Islamic scriptures
to extract their timeless religious message from the context of
7th-century Arab culture in which they arose.
Unlike many traditional Muslim scholars, these theologians
work in modern university faculties and many have studied abroad
to learn how Christians analyse the Bible critically.
They subscribe to what they call "conservative modernity," a
Sunni Islam true to the faith's core doctrines but without the
strictly literal views that ultra-orthodox Muslims have been
promoting in other parts of the Islamic world.
"There are different perspectives in the Islamic world and
some are closed-minded. Turks have a different idea of Islamic
culture," project director Ozafsar said.
That includes a strong secular tradition allowing alcohol
consumption and Western dress for women, although Turkish
society has turned more conservative and religious in the past
decade under the conservative AKP government. Turkey also has
women preachers in mosques and female deputy muftis in several
Mehmet Pacaci, Diyanet's general director for foreign
affairs, said Muslims shouldn't simply "open the Koran or a
hadith compilation, find a verse or saying of the Prophet and
say, 'Aha! This is the judgment of this action'.
"If we do that, it's literalism and ignorance," he told
Reuters. "Unfortunately, we have such ignorance in the Muslim
Although neither this collection nor much other
recent Turkish theology has been translated into Arabic, these
views have stirred interest among Arab thinkers struggling to
reconcile their more traditional Islam with modern democracy.
Negm said Turkish religious delegations now regularly visit
Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading seat of Sunni learning, and
Arabic translations of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi
have begun appearing in bookshops in the Egyptian capital.
"Egyptian intellectuals are very impressed with the Turkish
model, not only in the economic and political realm but also in
its moderate religious orientation," he said, adding Turkey was
seen as "the antithesis of the Wahhabi-Salafi model."
Wahhabism is the stern official school of Islam in Saudi
Arabia and one of the inspirations for militant Salafis, the
literalist Sunnis who have been attacking Shi'ites and Sufis and
trying to impose sharia law in several Muslim countries.
NOT A RULE BOOK
The first edition of "Islam with the Hadiths of the
Prophet," as the collection is called, has started rolling off
the printing presses in Turkish. It will be officially released
during Ramadan, which is due to start in early July.
Displaying the first green-bound volumes, the officials said
the essays dealt with modern issues such as women's rights, but
were not presented as a compendium of official positions that
imams must preach or Islamic judges must implement.
"The aim was not to produce an answer to today's agenda
topics like gender issues, punishment and jihad," Pacaci said.
For example, the question of schooling for girls comes up in
the section about education, which starts with the hadith
"Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim" in Arabic and
a few supporting hadiths and Turkish translations underneath.
Several pages of commentary in Turkish follow and explain
that since the hadiths say education is obligatory for all
Muslims, it is a right for girls and women as well.
Another essay on women stresses that they attended mosques
and ran businesses when Mohammad governed the city of Medina.
"They were active in every part of social life," Pacaci said.
Hadiths calling for harsh punishments such as severing
thieves' hands were put into historical perspective so they are
not taken as models for modern times, Ozafsar said.
"You can find these punishments in the Prophet's time
because society needed these rules for social peace," he said.
"Today, we have different social systems. We can say these rules
and punishments are historical."
Saban Ali Duzgun, a professor in Ankara University's
theology faculty, said imams liked to pepper their preaching
with hadiths because they dealt with so many aspects of everyday
life. But if they consult the original source books, they might
pick hadiths that don't suit life in modern Turkey, he said.
"We object to preachers using so many hadiths," said Duzgun.
With this new reference work from Diyanet, which employs the
imams, most Turkish preachers would only use hadiths and
interpretations they find in it, he said.
While the collection is mainly for domestic use, Diyanet has
begun preparing a translation into Bosnian, the language of
Muslims in former Yugoslavia who were once under Ottoman rule.
It is also considering bilingual Turkish-German edition for
the large Turkish minority in Germany, Diyanet officials said.
Editions in languages such as Arabic or English were not
planned right away, they added, but publishers in Egypt and
Britain have recently expressed interest in translating the
collection to make it widely available soon.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)