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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.

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The six Sunni and four Shia canonical Hadith collections date to this time period, in which the Muslim community developed a need for the legal, social, and political wisdom to conduct their daily lives. The body of Hadith texts has served, therefore, as the quintessential source of Islamic law. Like the Catholic Church’s Canon law and the Halacha of Rabbinic Judaism, the Hadith teaches the faithful multitudes how to behave correctly.

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Later generations of Muslim scholars continued “revising” the canonical texts and producing compendia, commentaries, and newer Hadith distillations. The Turkish Hadith project should be considered another step in the continuous process of re-contextualizing the Hadith for new times and places. Like its predecessors, whatever controversy arises out of the Turkish Hadith is likely to fade and might, furthermore, give way to broad acceptance by the Muslim public.

The precise impact the project will have on Turkish Muslims, and those around the world, is difficult to predict. Other re-evaluations or abridgments of the Hadith, like those by more liberal minded scholars in Egypt for example, faced too much resistance by the religious establishment to have any lasting effect on the public.

Works like “Muhammad the Messenger of Freedom” by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi, which was published in 1962, and “Stripping Bukhari and Muslim of Unneeded Hadiths” by Gamal al-Banna, which came out in 2008, sought to reform the beliefs of an increasingly conservative public too abruptly. This is because the greater Muslim community, or Jamaah, is an enormous vehicle, which can only slowly change direction.

However, the Turkish Hadith is already coming at a time of revolutionary change. In many countries today, the Muslim public is weary and cautious of literal and close-minded interpretations of Shariah by extremist minorities. In the wake of the unrest that has embroiled much of the Muslim world since 9/11 and later, the Arab Spring of 2011, combating Islamic extremism has become part and parcel of people’s struggle for a better life. There is already ample interest in the project’s publication, and word has spread of possible translations into German, Bosnian, Arabic, and English.

My hope is that the Turkish Hadith is more than just tradition repackaged for the 21st century. I hope it encourages each reader to engage with the text more directly – without recourse to clerics – and that it opens the door to more nuanced and critical appreciation of Islamic texts.

I hope it tones down the culture of Hadith memorization in some parts of the world, and demonstrates to readers that when it comes to the verbosity of quoting the Hadith – less is more. After all, the prophet is reported to have said, “give word of me, if even a single verse.”

Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the date of Mehmet Gormez's interview with Reuters and his title.

Emran El-Badawi is director and assistant professor of Arab studies at the University of Houston. He is co-director of the newly formed International Qur'anic Studies Association.


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