Muslims should welcome a new, modern perspective on prophet's sayings
The end of Ramadan this week marks a good time for Muslims to consider Turkey's new, modern version of the Hadith – which records the sayings and customs of the prophet Muhammad. The multi-volume set moves away from literal interpretation and embraces the inspired meaning.
As the Islamic fasting period of Ramadan ends this week, Muslims might be curious about a modern interpretation of the Hadith – the sayings and customs of the prophet Muhammad – which is now being published in Turkey. Certainly scholars will be.Skip to next paragraph
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Change is certain to come to the Islamic world, not just to the streets of Cairo or Istanbul but deep within Islam’s religious tradition as well. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, called the Diyanet, recognizes this with its seven-volume revision of the Hadith – which is the source of Sharia law and second only to the Quran.
Thousands of the prophet’s sayings and traditions were circulated and eventually collected in the centuries after his death in 632. The sheer size of Hadith collections and their archaic 7th century Arabian context have made the texts too intractable for many Muslims today. This is the challenge which the six-year Turkish Hadith project, with its selections and interpretive essays, seeks to overcome.
The central issue surrounding the Hadith, as with other foundational religious works such as the Bible, is whether it should be read literally or in a historical context and for its inspired message. A literal reading, for instance, may seek to justify medieval practices like severing the hands of thieves or allowing underage marriage. An inspired interpretation would see them as historical practices absent the kind of rule of law that democracies like Turkey have today.
The question for Turkey’s new multi-volume set is whether its contemporary interpretations can be widely appreciated by the Islamic community, or whether they will be considered too avant-garde – the fate of previous modern interpretations.
In a March 7, 2008 interview with Reuters, Prof. Mehmet Gormez – now president of Diyanet – explained that the project is about facilitating the “understanding” of the Hadith. “It is not,” he added, “a radical reform or revision.”
Professor Gormez adds that the Hadith revision should not be considered a rule book, but rather a source of guidance on matters of belief, worship, and morality – also addressing issues of interpersonal relations and women’s rights. These goals are consistent with Turkey’s “conservative modernism” that adheres to Sunni Islam’s core doctrines within a modern day context, and without the literal interpretation of Salafism or Wahhabism.
Muslim intellectuals around the world have long been enamored by Turkey’s separation of mosque and state, its economic prosperity, and the simultaneous preservation of its Islamic past, which has borne fruit in the ruling Justice and Development Party. In recent decades, large numbers of Turkish students and scholars have studied at Islamic universities like Al-Azhar in Cairo, as well as universities in western countries like Germany and the Unites States. Their expertise in Islamic texts, combined with newly acquired critical methods, has surely benefitted the scope and rigor of the Turkish Hadith project.
It must be remembered, however, that “revising” the Hadith is not new to Islamic tradition. In fact the very “science of Hadith,” which flourished in the 9th-10th century, is predicated upon the desire of scholars to distinguish authentic reports going back to the prophet, from forgeries.