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Friday, February 29, 2008

This bears watching.

Turkey is revising the ahadith, or the sayings/deeds of Muhammad. The ahadith are, roughly speaking, the "Tradition" of Islam to the Koran's "Scripture." They clarify matters left unaddressed in Islam's holy book. For example, the Koran does not say how many times a day a Muslim should pray, nor precisely how it should be done. The ahadith fill the gap.

This is very significant for two reasons. First, as problematic as passages in the Quran are, the ahadith are worse. In the sayings of Muhammad, jihad (and not the inner kind) is elevated to a virtual sixth pillar of Islam, the second class status of women is enshrined and the execution of apostates is explicitly ordered. Yes, right jolly stuff. I have a collection of what are considered the most reliable of the sayings, by Sahih al-Bukhari. It is often grim going.

The good news is that something along the lines of what Turkey is doing is possible in Islam. The reason being that disputes about hadith have been a staple of Islam since the late 800s. The ahadith were only collected around this time, and by then it was clear even by orthodox Muslim standards that a lot of spurious stuff had worked its way in. Of course, from a more critical non-Islamic perspective, the authenticity of the overwhelming majority of the ahadith are open to question, given that they weren't compiled until 250 years after Muhammad died. Authenticity problems abound on that basis alone.

All told, this looks like a serious, critical revision and reinterpretation of the hadith tradition. Another positive factor is that the oft-Janus-faced AKP government has let this project continue without interference or complaint. In fact, there has been little criticism from even Islamist Turks. The remaining question is whether, and if so, to what extent, it will influence the greater Islamic world. If nothing else, an authoritative example may embolden other reformers.

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