ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s Muslims are to receive guidance on how to understand and practice their religious faith in the modern world, a leading Islamic theologian overseeing the state-backed project said on Thursday.
The revision of the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, will help believers to distinguish better between genuine religion and local superstitions and customs sometimes mistakenly believed to be Islamic, said Mehmet Gormez, deputy head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet.
He dismissed as incorrect reports in some British media that the project, run by Muslim theologians at Ankara university, could create an upheaval in Islam similar to the Protestant Reformation that split western Christianity.
“This is a scientific and academic study. It is not about radical reform,” Gormez told Reuters in an interview.
“Our aims are, firstly, to isolate misunderstandings that stem from history, secondly to make clear how much (in the hadith) is cultural and how much is religious, and thirdly to help people today to understand their religion correctly.”
To illustrate the difference between core religious belief and cultural influences that vary in time and place, Gormez recounted a meeting he once had with Yusuf Islam, the well-known Muslim convert and singer formerly known as Cat Stevens.
The bearded singer, dressed in a turban and white robe, asked Gormez why he, a hadith scholar, wore a Western suit.
“Imagine a battle between the Prophet and his followers and the infidels of his time, I told him... they were all wearing robes and turbans... Or imagine our Prophet had gone to Siberia. Would his dress be appropriate in such cold climes?”
The hadith, which are not part of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, began as oral traditions that were only written down long after the Prophet’s death. Much of Islamic, or sharia, law derives from the hadith.
The meaning of many hadiths has been lost and the cultural or geographical context of a text is forgotten, said Gormez. A similar project to order and clarify classic Islamic texts had occurred in Turkey in the 1920s.
Asked whether his project could lead to changes in the way women are perceived in the Islamic world, Gormez said nothing in Muslim texts could be used to justify such practices as ‘honor killings’ of women or the stoning of adulterers.
“Islam is misunderstood. For example, you cannot show me from the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire a case of a person being stoned for adultery or a thief whose hand was amputated,” he said.
“Such things are not in the Koran or the hadith... so they are not on our agenda.”
The Ottoman Empire was Islam-based and its sultans were also named Caliphs or successors of the Prophet. Modern Turkey, set up in 1923 on the ashes of the empire, is a secular republic. The Diyanet oversees Turkey’s 8,000 mosques and trains imams.
‘Honor killings’, not uncommon in Turkey and some other Muslim countries, involve the killing of women by male relatives for allegedly insulting the family ‘honor’, sometimes after being raped or even for just going outside unaccompanied.
Gormez linked ‘honor killings’ to the pre-Islamic age of ignorance in Arabia and said they had nothing to do with Islam, even though some ignorant Muslims might think otherwise. The Diyanet has spoken out strongly against the custom in Turkey.
“We cannot say how much our project will be effective (in improving the lot of women) but it should help prevent misunderstandings,” he said.
The hadith project, launched two years ago and employing about 100 scholars, is due to be completed in late 2008. The six volumes will be placed in Turkish mosques to help believers. They will also be translated into English, Arabic and Russian.
Gormez denied suggestions of any political influence on the project. Turkey’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party is trying to ease some curbs on religious expression and it recently lifted a ban on female college students wearing the headscarf.
“This is an academic exercise, it has no relation with politics,” he said. “Our aim is to better understand our Prophet’s message to this age.”
Additional reporting by Inci Ozturk; Editing by Robert Woodward