Turkey in ‘radical revision’ of Islamic texts
It appears that Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians (who precisely?) at Ankara University to carry out a ‘fundamental revision’ of the Hadith - a collection of the sayings and doings of Mohammad which heavily influence interpretation of the Qur’an. It is the second most sacred text in Islam after the Qur’an, and the scholars (any women?) are preparing to publish a document that represents a ‘revolutionary reinterpretation’ which purports to ‘modernise’ the religio-political construct.
This is not, however, Islam’s ‘Reformation’ as some are asserting, not only because there is no Luther in Wittenberg or Cranmer at Oxford, but also because the Protestant Reformation was about a return to the Bible – the primary text of revelation - and a purging of the Church of the corrupt, man-made practices which deviated from the simplicity of the gospel. The Turkish agenda is about a redaction of an Islamic text of secondary importance to render it conformable to Western sensitivities. This will be repudiated by many Muslims as being a perverse manipulation and a bowdlerising of ‘the truth’. It will not remotely influence majority Sunni opinion, and most Muslims will simply ignore it. In fact, it will simply become another Islamic cult, rather like the Ahmadiyyans are perceived to be.
And such a re-interpretation of Islamic texts is, in any case, nothing new. One only has to study the development of the Hadith and Shari’a writings over the centuries to realise that Islam has been variously applied and diversely interpreted in many cultural contexts throughout the ages. There is no uniformity, as much as those who long for a caliphate renaissance may wish to see one.
What is welcome, however, is an application of higher critical scholarship to any Islamic texts which have been considered sacrosanct in recent decades, on pain of fatwa. Cranmer has already called for such an undertaking, not least because the insights that this discipline has given into the development and meaning of the Bible have been profound.
It can only be edifying to theological scholarship and historical truth if the hadiths can be shown to have been invented centuries after the death of Mohammed, and that they had a particular political and societal context. Discerning their Sitz im Leben will certainly help to elucidate original meaning and purpose.
The problem, of course, is that not all will agree. While some will continue to apply the letter of the law to prevent women from travelling, others will insist that such passages are redundant because 1400 years ago ‘it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that’.
But even higher criticism of the Bible has not produced unity on the issue of women speaking in church, let alone preaching and teaching, and there is not even unity on the injunction for them to cover their heads. Notwithstanding this, it is welcome news that Turkey has given theological training to 450 women, and appointed them as senior imams ‘to tell of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Qur’an - one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith’.
And why not? The men have manifestly failed.
But Cranmer thinks that this ‘New Islam’ is but a fad. It is a political manoeuvre with precisely-targeted propaganda in order to ease Turkey’s transition to EU membership (Cranmer wonders how many in Turkey will even know if this development). All aspirations to bring enlightenment and claims of ‘recreating Islam’ in order ‘to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy’ will not work because allegiance and faithfulness to sacred traditions cannot be eradicated overnight, over centuries, or even over millennia.
After all, has not His Holiness recently reintroduced indulgences and liberated the Tridentine Rite?
As Qoheleth says: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’.
But Cranmer’s final question, which these neo-enlightened Turkish theologians ought to address, is why they will not apply this revelatory higher critical method to the Qur’an itself?