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Turkish scholars aim to modernize Islam's Hadith

Theologians are revisiting the collections of the prophet Muhammad's sayings that Muslims use as a guideline for daily life.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / March 11, 2008

Updating Islam: Turkey is backing a project to update the Hadith, or Muhammad's sayings, that it believes will help Muslims better apply Islam to daily life. Shown are copies of the Koran in Ankara.

Yigal Schleifer


Ankara, Turkey

For centuries, the Hadith – a collection of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad – has guided Muslims in their daily lives and served as a basis for Islamic jurisprudence, offering direction on everything from hygiene to war.

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The Hadith deals with events that took place some 1,400 years ago, but an ambitious Turkish project is aiming to reinterpret them to create a collection addressing modern-day concerns and stripping out elements that many theologians say contradict the Koran and Muhammad's teachings.

Observers here say the project is part of a continuing effort by a growing segment of Turkish society to reconcile faith and modernity – a struggle being played out among Muslims worldwide, from African immigrants in Paris to young Arabs in Saudi Arabia.

Many Islamic scholars even say that parts of the Hadith have been falsely attributed to Muhammad and that while many Hadith interpretations may have applied in the early Islamic period, particularly regarding women and Islam's relation to other religions, they deserve a new look.

"There have been things that people say the prophet did or said which conflict with the Koran," says Ismail Hakki Unal, head of the Hadith department at Ankara University's divinity school, where the Hadith project is centered and is increasingly known as a hotbed of liberal Islamic thinking. "The Koran is our basic guide. Anything that conflicts with that, we are trying to eliminate."

As an example, Mr. Unal mentions Hadith-based interpretations that say it is forbidden to teach women to read or write, or that they are of "lesser mind and faith."

"The issue of women being of lesser mind and faith was something that was accepted in those days without any argument, but it is not today, which is one of the reasons that we are trying to eliminate it," he says. "We are saying that this is not in line with how the prophet lived and the Koran itself, so it cannot be accepted."

As the project's authors envision it, the new collection will draw on the ancient Hadith to answer decidedly up-to-date questions, such as how to behave behind the wheel (Turkey has one of the world's highest accident rates) and what is the Islamic response to climate change.

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 is derived from the Hadith.

The meaning of many Hadiths has been lost and the cultural or geographical context of a text is forgotten, said Mehmet Gormez, deputy head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet.

Asked whether his project could lead to changes in the way women are perceived in the Islamic world, Mr. 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."

Launched two years ago by the Diyanet, the Hadith project is scheduled to be completed by December and translated into Arabic, English, and Russian. Some 80 theologians from across Turkey are involved.

Hadith: Islam's record of the prophet Muhammad

The Hadith is an account of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, literally meaning "news" or "reports."

Only 80 of the 6,616 verses in Islam's holy book, the Koran, concern legal issues.

Since the prophet Muhammad had governed a realm, there was an oral record of what he had said and done as a judge and administrator.

His companions made notes about what he said for their own guidance.

These notes later paved the way for the codification of the prophet's Sunna, or practice, when Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafii (AD 767–820) ruled that all legal decisions must be based on a tradition stemming from the prophet himself.

Islamic law, or sharia, has largely, but not exclusively, been drawn from Koran and the Hadith.

The Koran recommends that believers look to the prophet as example, equates obeying God with following the prophet's commands, and stipulates punishment for disobedience.

In Sunni Muslim context, the Hadith are technical and legal reports and observations of the prophet Muhammad.

About 2,700 acts and sayings were collected and published in six canonical works, "Al Hadith," first by Muhammad Al Bukhari in AD 870.

It is a secondary source of guidance, after the Koran as the chief source for textual authority for most Muslims.

Among Shiite Muslims, the Hadith includes the words, deeds, and observations of the Imams, or prayer leaders.

Shiites accepted those traditions, traced through Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, and came up with their collections, compiled by Abu Jaafar Muhammad Al Kummi and Abu Jaafar Muhammad al-Tusi.

The process of authenticating and collecting the body of the Hadith also led to rise of Sunna, or the prophet's authoritative practices, from which normative Islamic practice came to be known.

Daily Muslim faith is inextricably linked to the Hadith, since they are critical to Islamic ritual.

It also provides a comprehensive record on how to perform the prayers, the fast, and the pilgrimage – all pillars of Islam.

A project to order and clarify classic Islamic texts occurred in Turkey in the 1920s as the meaning of many hadith has been lost and cultural and geographic context is forgotten.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States, The Essential Middle East, Reuters.