After 900 years of cultural stagnation Islam may yet see its Age of Enlightenment.
Feb. 27, 2008.
is engaged in a bold and profound attempt to rewrite the basis for Islamic sharia law while also officially reinterpreting the Qur'an for the modern age. Turkey
The exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is being seen as an iconoclastic campaign to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.
The result, say experts following the ambitious experiment, could be to diminish Muslim discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with Islamic law, such as stoning and amputation, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in the large country that pivots between east and west, leaning into the Middle East while aspiring to join the European Union.
A team of reformist Islamic scholars at Ankara University, acting under the auspices of the Diyanet or Directorate of Religious Affairs, the government body which oversees the country's 8,000 mosques and appoints imams, is said to be close to concluding a "reinterpretation" of parts of the Hadith, the collection of thousands of aphorisms and comments said to derive from the prophet Muhammad and which form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence or sharia law. "One of the team doing the revision said they are nearly finished," said Mustafa Akyol, an
commentator who reflects the thinking of the liberal camp in Erdogan's governing AK party. "They have problems with the misogynistic hadith, the ones against women. They may delete some from the collection, declaring them not authentic. That would be a very bold step. Or they may just add footnotes, saying they should be understood from a different historical context." Istanbul
Fadi Hakura, a
expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, described the project as an attempt to make Turkish Sunni Islam "fully compatible with contemporary social and moral values. Turkey
"They see this not as a revolution, but as a return to the original Islam, away from the excessive conservatism that has stymied all reforms for the last few centuries. It's somewhat akin to the Christian reformation, although not the same."
Under the guidance of Ali Bardokoglu, the liberal Islamic scholar who heads the religious directorate and was appointed by Erdogan, the
theologians are writing a new five-volume "exegesis" of the Qur'an, taking the sacred text apart forensically, rooting it in its time and place, and redefining its message to and relevance for Muslims today. They are also ditching some of the Hadith, sayings ascribed to and comments on the prophet collected a couple of hundred years after his death. Ankara
A Roman Catholic Jesuit expert on
Turkeyand Islam, Felix Koerner, is working with the professors, reportedly schooling them in the history of western religious and philosophical change and how to apply the lessons of historical Christian reform movements to modern Islam. "This is really a synthesis of modern European critical thought and Muslim Ottoman Qur’anic tradition," said Koerner. "There is also a political agenda. With this government there is more confidence in these modern theologians." Ankara
Erdogan insists his AK party, in a country that is constitutionally secularist, is a Turkish Muslim equivalent of a European Christian democratic party - traditionalist, conservative, based on religious values, but democratic, tolerant, and liberal. With
and the Zapatero government, he is pushing an "Alliance of Civilisations" aimed at a rapprochement between the Muslim and western worlds. After years of fighting the militantly secularist Turkish establishment, he has just succeeded in lifting the ban on Islamic headscarves for girls in higher education. His many opponents decry it as part of Spain 's slide away from secularism down the slippery slope of Islamism. Turkey
Sources say the Islamic reform project is so ambitious and so fundamental it will take years to complete, but that it is already paying dividends - abolition of the death penalty, a campaign against honour killings, and the training and appointment of several hundred women as imams.