Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs launched the "Thematic Hadith Project" in 2006 to re-evaluate the hadith, the second most important source of jurisprudence in Islam after the Quran, with the objective of determining incorrect hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, correctly interpreting misinterpreted ones and re-explaining certain hadith so that they may be better understood by Muslims.
A recent BBC report, titled "Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts," asserts that the Turkish directorate's project is of a "revolutionary nature" and has "altered and reinterpreted" prophetic statements heretofore agreed upon as authentic. Speaking with Today's Zaman on Wednesday, Dr. Mehmet Görmez, the directorate's deputy director, said: "Our project is not aimed at effecting a radical renewal of the religion, as is claimed by the BBC. Our objective is to help our citizens attain a better understanding of the hadith. Though I underlined several times during our interview with a BBC reporter that our project cannot be considered a reformation of Islam, he distorted the facts, saying Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam -- and a controversial and radical modernization of the religion."
The hadith comprise the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed. Six canonical hadith collections possess a semi-sacred place in Sunni Islam and are the most important source of Islamic law (Shariah) after the Quran, serving to clarify and illustrate the text. Though made up of collections gathered at different times by different scholars, they are often collectively referred to as the hadith. The two largest of these six collections are Sahih Bukhari (collected by Muhammad al-Bukhari, d. 870) and Sahih Muslim (collected by Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj, d. 875).
An attempt to alter these texts as part of a "radical modernization of the religion," as the BBC put it, would certainly be a highly controversial move. The online BBC article alone had generated over 1,500 reader comments as of Thursday evening. For many Muslims, though, there is a crucial difference between altering hadith texts and reinterpreting them.
The hadith texts are not considered by Muslims to be God's word, as the Quran is. Regardless, they are seen as qualified attempts to collect a body of reliable texts for Muslim scholars to use in adjudication. Scholars such as Bukhari and Muslim traveled throughout the Muslim world gathering and evaluating oral reports that had been passed down through generations from the Prophet Mohammed and his contemporaries. Each of these scholars then evaluated the chain of transmission of each saying, taking into account each individual reporter's reputation, memory, etc. Hadith that conflicted with the Quran were discarded, as were those related by personalities deemed to be untrustworthy. Since that time, Muslim scholars have agreed and disagreed about the relevance and importance of certain hadith to certain rulings and situations.
A fresh look at the hadith collections -- the gathering of which began some 200 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed -- and how they are utilized and interpreted within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence, while sure to generate a degree of criticism and controversy, is a far cry from attempting to change, in effect, some of Islam's most important historical records.
On Thursday the Directorate of Religious Affairs issued a press release that expressed frustration with the coverage of the project by the BBC and other Western and domestic media outlets, rejecting the descriptions of "reform," "revision" and "revolution." "We believe that this academic and scientific hadith project, being conducted independent of domestic and foreign politics, will be an important step taken to convey the universal message of the Prophet Mohammed to the 21st century," the statement read. Also on Thursday directorate head Ali Bardakoğlu spoke to the press at İstanbul Atatürk Airport while on his way to Saudi Arabia and commented that some foreign press organs had covered the project without doing sufficient research to back their claims.
The directorate's Görmez said the project is a scientific one aimed at better understanding the content of the hadith. "It would neither be scientific nor correct to expurgate certain hadith. Sometimes insufficient information could be used to reach to precise information. Thus, we will not expunge certain hadith; we will make a new compilation of the hadith and re-interpret them if necessary," he noted.
The directorate vehemently denies that it is attempting to create a new form of Islam for secular Turkey or for political motives, as the BBC report suggests. Instead, it contends that it is taking a long-overdue look at the classical sources of Islam, contextually re-evaluating them for the 21st century to ensure that the texts can continue to be a guiding, relevant spiritual source for Turkey's millions of Muslims. In essence, a return to an original form of Islam that has been diluted over the centuries by various developments.
Görmez underlined that the project is being conducted by the directorate with the assistance of 35 hadith scholars from several Turkish universities and expressed disappointment over seeing distorted news articles in Western media related to their project.
"I had an interview with BBC reporter Robert Pigott around two months ago about the project. I underscored during our interview that it cannot be termed a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam. But, his article read 'the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion.' This does not reflect the truth. We are going to take the appropriate legal measures for redress," he added.
The directorate's project will produce a six-volume text that includes Quran exegesis (tafsir) and hadith evaluation. Some 400 topics will be interpreted in the light of the Quran and the hadith. The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs was established in 1924, replacing the Şeyhülislam (also Shaykh al-Islam) post in the Ottoman state, which was succeeded by the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Among the directorate's objectives is to "provide religious services ... illuminated by knowledge and good conduct, benefiting from today's technological developments and communications facilities and our historical experiences."