Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Muslim "Reformation?"

Well, this, is interesting.

The BBC reports that a team of Turkish theologians, working under the auspices of the powerful Department of Religious Affairs, is revising the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam. The Hadith is “the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.” The Turkish government, eager to modernize, sees the dated interpretations of the Hadith as “obscuring the original values of Islam…that now need to be reinterpreted,” to effect a return “to a form of Islam it claims accords with its original values and those of the Prophet.” Revolutionary and controversial, this proposed modernization is being billed as a Muslim “Reformation,” if you will.

Well, we will see.

Some scholars connected with the project note that many of the “hadiths” were invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to address contemporary concerns, and that the teachings of Islam have been “hijacked” by the conservatives, who have, at times, “embellished” the text to make the Prophet speak to their particular agenda.

You don't say.

One spokesman sought to calm the fears of traditional Muslims, maintaining that the story was much overblown. Another was quoted as saying, “I cannot impress enough how fundamental [this change] is."

I have long maintained that if there is indeed any future for "moderate Islam," it would be here. So, is a new Islam taking shape in Turkey?

There are many reasons to think not.

First, it is arguable whether this projected reform really represents authentic Islam (and as one whose roots were in the restorationist wing of Protestantism, I understand the fallacies of this approach.) One is reminded of contemporary Episcopalian efforts to redefine what the New Testament scriptures really meant. Second, traditional Islam is nothing if not resilient. The new thinking may be a hard sell, even in Turkey. Third, Turks are not Kurds. They are not Arabs. They are not Persians. These distinctions still matter greatly. The conclusions emanating from a government-sponsored Ankara think tank won’t have much traction in Riyadh, or Cairo, or Baghdad, or Tehran. Finally, when you worship, in effect, the words in a book--in this case, the supposedly inerrant spoken voice of God, in Arabic, no less--then any reinterpretation becomes dicey, leading only to schism upon schism, as the witness of sola scriptura attests.

Despite this cynicism, I view this as a good thing. As a Christian, Islam will remain, to me, a heretical false religion, whether it be moderate or otherwise. My hope is not that they become less traditional and conservative, but rather that they come to believe in Jesus Christ. In the meantime, many ancient Christian communities suffer under Muslim rule. Whether it be the Patriarchate in Constantinople, or the Kosovo disaster, or northern Cyprus, or the plight of the Egyptian Copts, or the Palestinian Christians or the Armenians, or the various Christian churches of Iraq, the story is much the same--dhimmitude and a recurring cycle of persecution.

Whether a “moderate” Islam would make any real difference here is unclear. But it could not be any worse.

(For a Turkish insight, see Mustafa Akyol, here.)


James the Thickheaded said...


My guess is you're on the mark. Never travelled to Turkey... but followed Pope Benedict's remarks at a conference to the effect that without an oral tradition to accompany the written, and with a written text revered as the literal word of god (rather than inspired) ... there simply is no theological standing on which a reform could be based. So the Papa calls it open and mostly shut. Maybe the odds improve if you enforce it out of the barrel of a gun.. which may be what's planned.. who knows? But otherwise... it's likely to be a short-timer.

JFred said...

I would love to hear a moderate Islamic leader have the courage to stand up and say that suicidal terrorists who kill innocent people will not see the 72 virgins in paradise.

Do they remain silent because Islam really does exalt violence?

John said...

James, I agree. Ataturk sought to replace Islam with Turkish nationalism, but Islam has proved surprisingly resilient, even after over 80 years. These "reformers" may be correct in what they are claiming, but,in the long haul, I am doubtful that it will obtain any traction over more traditional interpretations.

jfred, good point. The Turks have no truck with jihadists. The ones I know would laugh off the 72 virgins idea as just so much superstitious silliness. And yet, at the very same time, they would latch-onto the most outlandish conspiracy theory going about
9/11. Maddening.