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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.

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"Today, Islamic knowledge, both in the East and the West, seems to be very confusing, especially concerning the prophet and his teachings.... We wanted to contribute towards clarifying this confusion," says Gormez. "During the last century, there hasn't been such a deep, wide-ranging study of the Hadith."

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Turkey's place in the Islamic world

Although Turkey is often described as secular, the state is actually deeply involved in religious life. Second only to the military and education system in size and budget, the Diyanet is responsible for managing some 78,000 mosques – including which imams are allowed to preach and what they're allowed to say. Now, it's trying to create a more "healthy" understanding of Islam and the prophet Muhammad through the Hadith project.

But Ankara University theologians involved stress that it's not an attempt to change Islam. Rather, it's an attempt to identify and strip away cultural beliefs or practices of Muhammad's era that were grafted onto Islam but have no root in it.

In the context of Turkey, however, the Hadith project is more than a reexamination of religion: it's also seen as part of an ongoing attempt by the current Turkish government, led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), to reassert itself as a force in the Islamic world.

"Turkey is hoping to be a kind of example Muslim nation, with its politics and its theology," says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer who covers Islamic affairs. "Turkey has a growing Muslim middle class that is becoming modern in many ways, but which also wants to be loyal to its faith. From this comes the demand for 'modern Islam,' for a new interpretation of Islamic sources."

The Hadith's long tradition

The Hadith started being collected after the death of Muhammad, when Islamic scholars realized the need to write down sayings and actions attributed to the prophet that had previously been passed down orally. In the first few centuries after Muhammad's death, the number of Hadith grew to such an extent that Islamic scholars decided to separate them into those deemed sahih, or trustworthy, and those that were not.

While Muslim scholars have been producing Hadith collections for over a thousand years, Turkey's tackling of some of these more "problematic" Hadith "would be an incredibly bold and dramatic move," says Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A recent BBC report about the Diyanet's project likened it to the Protestant Reformation in Christianity – a comparison the project's supporters eschew for its connotations of controversy and schism. Indeed, the BBC article led to a storm of criticism in the Muslim world, with the Turkish effort being called by some a project dictated by the Western demands for some kind of new Islam.

Wary of the criticism, those involved in the Hadith reinterpretation are careful to describe it as cleaving very closely to the religion's roots. "It does not aim to change the theological fundamentals of the religion. It is a study aimed at interpreting and understanding these theological fundamentals," says Diyanet's Gormez.

Adds Unal, the Ankara University theologian: "We don't see this as a reform, but as trying to go back to the basics and origins of Islam."

• Material from Reuters was used in this article.

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.