Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mustafa Akyol: 'Deleting' Sexism in Turkey

Founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey
(As Depicted at Wikipedia)

If only deleting sexism were as easy as deleting hate email. Nevertheless, this is a good development for Islam in Turkey.

The Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol, in his article "[Sexism Deleted] in Turkey," written for the Washington Post (registration required), reports on a recent "step toward reforming Islamic tradition ... [by] Turkey's religious authorities."

Reform in Islam? Isn't that considered innovation (bid'ah) and therefore a form of heresy? There is, after all, a report of Muhammad's words in Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 49, Number 861:

Narrated Aisha: Allah's Apostle said, "If somebody innovates something which is not in harmony with the principles of our religion, that thing is rejected."

For Salafist Muslims, who interpret this passage narrowly, the clause beginning with "which" would probably be set off with commas in the English translation:
"If somebody innovates something, which is not in harmony with the principles of our religion, that thing is rejected."

The comma before the word "which" would make the clause a nonrestrictive relative clause and thereby imply that every innovation is to be rejected. Not knowing Arabic, I'll have to leave this translation issue to the experts.

At any rate Turkish Islam is not Salafist Islam and might well be termed "Kemalist Islam" after the gentleman whose photograph you see above, Kemal Atatürk.

Atatürk was a Turkish nationalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who emphasized Turkish tradition over Islam and who came to political power after Turkey's defeat in WWI and set up a secular state that tightly controls Islam ... although these controls have loosened considerably in recent years.

Despite the loosening, the Turkish state still controls Islam and official religious scholars have recently declared hadith such as the following to be inauthentic:

"Women are imperfect in intellect and religion."

"The best of women are those who are like sheep."

"If a woman doesn't satisfy her husband's desires, she should choose herself a place in hell."

"If a husband's body is covered with pus and his wife licks it clean, she still wouldn't have paid her dues."

"Your prayer will be invalid if a donkey, black dog or a woman passes in front of you.

One sees what is at stake here, namely, the denigration and control of women, and one must applaud the efforts of Ali Bardakoglu, the liberal Muslim theologian who has for three years served as president of the Diyanet Isleri, Turkey's highest Islamic authority, and who has led it to declare that a new collection of hadiths free of misogyny will be ready by 2008.

Concerning this reform, Akyol makes an interesting point:

These reform-minded Muslims [such as Bardakoglu] are not [extreme] secularists who want to do away with religion. On the contrary, they want to reinterpret Islam because they believe that its divinely ordained, humane and generous essence has been eclipsed by mortal man's erroneous traditions and ideologies.

This is crucial because only such godly reformists have a chance to appeal to more traditional members of their faith. Since the 19th century, traditional Muslims have felt forced to choose between their faith and modernity -- a dilemma that has been fueling a reactionary strain of radical Islam. The Islamic world needs an alternative -- a path between godless modernity and anti-modern bigotry. With its revision of the traditional Islamic sources and with its rising Muslimhood that embraces democracy and open society, Turkey may just be opening the way. The West should be taking notice -- and encouraging other Muslim countries to take inspiration from Turkey's moderate course.

In effect, Aykol is arguing that Islamic reform will only work if pious Muslims reform it through arguing that the innovators are precisely those who have accepted as authentic the manifestly inauthentic hadith such as the misogynistic ones quoted above. The burden of proof is shifted from the reformers to the traditionalists. In effect, the reformers as challenging the traditionalists by asking them how they can consider hatred of women to be something that Muhammad authentically taught.

The traditionalists reaction to this challenge should prove interesting to observe, and I hope that Aykol will keep us posted, for if this reform takes hold in Islam, so can other reforms.

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At 11:32 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Not being William F. Buckley, I have always had trouble deciding whether to use "which" versus "that". My instinct is challenged often by MS Word. I wonder if Mohammed, who, it is averred by many, was a mortal man, was conceivably capable of making such mistakes. Or perhaps his words have been misunderstood, or miscopied over time.

It would certainly make life a lot simpler if each hadith could be challenged on that basis. Does this verse or that pass the smell test. Does it reflect the spirit of Islam. Does it reflect the will of God, or has it been altered by confused humans to reflect tribal tradition and/or momentary passions.

Can Muslims ask themselves whether the Enlightenment was only for Christians? Will they teeter on the edge or commit themselves to the dangerous depths of such analysis? A lot depends on their choice.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good questions. I've been asking myself similar questions for several years now (even prior to 9/11).

I doubt that the entire Muslim Ummah will make a decision through consensus (lacking mechanisms for doing such), so the process will be an untidy and likely bloody one, pitting Muslim agains Muslim as this dialectic works itself out.

Jeffery Hodges

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