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Turkish scholars to revisit Islam

Sun., April 27, 2008

ANKARA, Turkey – In a sterile, boxy stone building in the shadow of Ankara’s central mosque, a group of Turkish scholars is spearheading a reinterpretation of the literary foundations of Islam that some have compared to Christianity’s Protestant Reformation.

With the backing of Turkey’s reform-minded government, the team of 80 Islamic academicians from around the world is preparing to release a revised collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds, which guide Muslims on everything from brushing their teeth to reaching heaven.

As with most religions, the accuracy of the words that have been handed down through centuries has long been in dispute.

Did Muhammad really say that women are bad luck? Did the prophet tell his followers that the word of a woman is worth half that of a man? Did he call for adulterers to be stoned to death?

By year’s end, the academics hope to answer those questions by preparing a new intellectual road map for Islam.

“It’s a state-sponsored project that is bringing together a large number of scholars to undertake quite an extensive reinterpretation of the sources in a systematic way that has not been achieved before in modern times,” said Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow in the European Program at Chatham House, an independent London-based policy institute. He calls the project “somewhat akin to the Christian Reformation.”

The revised collection of Muhammad’s guidance will be the latest initiative in a contentious debate about the role of Islam in an era when the most prominent Muslim figures, at least in the West, are extremists such as Osama bin Laden.

The rise of al-Qaida and prominence of hard-line Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, some Islamic reformers argue, has created a warped view of Islam in the West.

“This may help to take the words of the prophet from the hands of people who are using them to legitimize their bad deeds,” said Mehmet Gormez, the vice president of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Ministry, which is overseeing the project.

In the past, maverick Muslim scholars in the Middle East who’ve tried to propose modern reinterpretations of Islam have been ostracized and, in some cases, forced to seek sanctuary in Western countries.

Turkey is charting a new course by supporting the project, which is focused on the Hadith – a massive collection of Muhammad’s words and deeds that’s the foundation of Islamic law.

The lessons were transmitted orally for hundreds of years, throwing their veracity into question, and when Muslim scholars first began to write them down, they sought to bolster their authenticity by explaining the words’ lineage.

The Turkish researchers have meticulously collected more than 160,000 sayings from the Hadith and entered them in a specially designed computer program for analysis. They’ve grouped the sayings by subject and passed them out to scholars for reinterpretation.

Gormez compared the Hadith to a pharmacy and said that people need the advice of a skilled doctor before going in to get their medicine. “One may get poisoned if he goes to the pharmacy without the recommendation of a good doctor,” he said.


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