In 2006 the government of Turkey launched an ambitious effort to rewrite the basic foundation of Islam in order to produce a kinder and gentler result. To appreciate why this ongoing program—known as the “hadith project”—is doomed to fail, it is necessary to understand how it originally came about.
The basis of Muslim belief is, of course, the Koran, the original version of which is said to exist physically in heaven. The official story is that over a period of years God held private meetings with Muhammad and recited to him the contents of the book—the word “Koran” itself means “recitation.” Muhammad instantly memorized every word as it was uttered to him. He then would repeat what he was told to his followers, who themselves memorized every word they heard. None of the Koran is supposed to be the work of Muhammad, who, according to many Muslim theologians, could neither read nor write.
The Koran, though, never provides a detailed code of conduct. One scholar suggests that only eighty verses of it actually state laws, compared to 613 commandments in Judaism’s Torah. What little guidance the Koran does contain is often contradictory, with one verse “abrogating” another. To fill in the gaps, traditions (“hadiths”) about things Muhammad said or did began to accumulate—literally hundreds of thousands of them. Although Muhammad isn’t considered to be divine in the way that Christians think Jesus is divine, the fact that God singled him out to hear and transmit the Koran is thought to signify God’s approval for the way Muhammad thought and acted.
Nothing in the Koran itself remotely suggests that God intended there to be any earthly manifestation of his will other than the Koran, the Torah, and the Gospels, or that the way Muhammad lived his life should be an example for the rest of humanity. It wouldn’t have been difficult for God to have said so at least once in a very lengthy book, if that’s what he meant; a sentence would have sufficed. But it isn’t there. Instead, the Koran repeatedly calls Muhammad “a plain warner,” not an eternal role model.
Nevertheless, collections of hadiths were assembled to show the “way” of Muhammad (the “Sunna”)—everything from his rulings on complex legal issues to his personal appearance. Devout Muslim men wear beards today because, according to a hadith, Muhammad wore a beard. Some Muslim theologians as late as the 1890s were not entirely reconciled to the use of the knife and fork, because there is no record that Muhammad used them. Al-Nasai, an irreverent early Arab commentator, snickered: “Your comrade Muhammad teaches you how to relieve yourselves.”
The most important thing to know about the hadiths is that none of what we have today was written down by anyone until over 200 years after the death of Muhammad. Even the most devout Muslim scholars uniformly agree that most of the hadiths circulating today were simply fabricated from whole cloth, centuries after the facts they purport to describe. As early as the ninth century, Muslim scholar Ibn Qutayba warned: “The hadith is subject to many vicissitudes, due to the negligence of those handing it down, confused explanations, the abrogations which may have occurred, the unreliability of informants, and the existence of two contradictory hadiths.” Even for a fact as simple as when Muhammad was born, the hadiths vary over a period of eighty-five years.
The biggest reason for the hadith explosion was that those who disseminated them discovered that crowds would pay hard cash to hear their stories, so they invented even more. A thousand years later Parson Weems made a lot of money in the same way by selling “biographies” of George Washington including charming inventions like the chopping down of the cherry tree. Some hadiths in fact have Muhammad himself warning against future fakery: “In the later days of my community, there will be those who will hand you communications which neither you nor your forefathers have ever heard. Beware of them.”
Sahih al-Bukhari, who traveled the Muslim world in the ninth century to gather all the available traditions of Muhammad, expressed the opinion that out of 600,000 traditions then being bandied about, only 4,000 were authentic. He describes the evolution of one tradition, which in original form read: “The Prophet gave the order to kill all dogs except hunting and sheep dogs.” Later it was changed by one Abu Hurayra, who added the words: “but with the exception of farm dogs as well.” Al-Bukhari wryly commented, “Abu Hurayra owns cornfields,” that is he had a vested interest in amending the order so that his farm dogs would be spared.
Caliph al-Mahdi loved to race pigeons, a sport strictly condemned by orthodox theological opinion, both Muslim and Jewish. Fortunately, a cleric was found named Ghayath, who “discovered” a saying of Muhammad, which was: “Racing is allowed only with animals who have claws, hoofs, or wings.” This diligent research earned Ghayath a handsome reward.
Hadiths were unearthed to support local boosterism. Muhammad is supposed to have said: “There will one day be a city in the Maghrib [North Africa beyond Egypt] which will be called Fez…and the inhabitants of this city will be the most diligent of all the people of the Maghrib as regards prayer, they will be followers of the Sunna and the orthodox church, and they will walk in the path of righteousness without fail.” Similar claims were made about Muhammad’s predictions for numerous other cities, including Basra, Ceuta, and Qamuniyya, that (unlike Fez) at least had the advantage of having existed during Muhammad’s lifetime.
Leaving aside the easily discovered falsifications, the principal clue that anyone has to a particular hadith’s validity is a “chain” of oral transmission contained in the hadith itself, along the lines of “Muhammad told Fred, who told George, who told Joe, who told Paul, who told me, that ….” Aside from the fact that there is nothing to support the validity of this chain other than its own self-assertion, we have almost no biographical information about most of the people identified in most of the chains. The little information we do have isn’t reassuring; in many chains, for example, Abd al-Rahman is cited as a hearer of Mu’adh ibn Jabal. But we know that Mu’adh died during Umar’s reign (639-640 ce), and that Abd al-Rahman was only born in the year 639. He must have been a precocious infant.
Where Muslim theologians disagree, and will forever disagree, is which hadiths constitute the wheat buried among the chaff. With so much raw material to choose from, and no historically defensible basis for making a choice, theologians have always gravitated towards picking the hadiths they agree with as God’s revealed truth, and rejecting the ones they don’t like as the fakes. Ibn Abbas, a “Companion of the Prophet” through whom many chains flow, is made to say: “If you hear from me a communication in the name of the Prophet and you find that it does not agree with the book of God or is not liked by people, know that I have reported a lie about the Prophet.” The process of theologians picking the hadiths they like and rejecting the ones they don’t has been going on for over a thousand years.
So now we have a group of eighty God experts at Ankara University’s School of Theology, handsomely remunerated by the Turkish taxpayers, sorting through some 170,000 hadiths (this time with the aid of a computer) and reporting which are the real ones and which are the fakes according to their political predilections, to produce—presto!—moderate Islam. News reports tell us that, in addition to picking winners and losers, the experts are deliberately altering some hadiths to fit their biases. The process has already been going on for four years; we are also told that it should be repeated every decade. Nice work, if you can get it.
Ismail Hakki Unal, the divinity professor leading the project, says the final product will not, for example, include hadiths suggesting that women are stupid, or that their word is worth half that of a man. “Those definitely cannot be the words of the Prophet,” Unal assures us. Really? One would think that a divinity professor would know that it is God himself speaking in the Koran at verse 4:34 who informs us that “men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other,” and who at verse 2:282 equates the testimony of two women to one man.
Western pundits love it. Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at a British think tank, says: “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.” In searching for “the original Islam,” though, the best evidence anyone has is the Koran. Even though many scholars believe that the Koran was not assembled in anything like its current form until decades after the death of Muhammad, it is clearly much closer in time to “the original Islam” than any hadith we have today. And it is the Koran, not just the hadiths, that calls for wife-beating, slavery, war to conquer unbelievers, extortion of unbelievers in Muslim-conquered lands, amputating the hands of thieves, a total ban on alcohol, a total ban on payment of interest, and lots of other practices that are tough to characterize as anything other than “excessive conservatism.” It is a fairy tale, and nothing more, that the “original Islam” was sweetness and light.
Hakura gushes that the project is akin to the Christian Reformation, echoing a common theme among wishful thinkers: if Islam could just have a reformation like Christianity had, then it would be easier to live with. Leaving aside the religious wars, Puritanism, and apartheid wrought by the Christian Reformation, it is important to note that the methodology of the Ankara scholars is rather the opposite of what Luther and Calvin had in mind. Mehmet Gormez, vice president of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (“the Diyanet,” as it is called in Turkish), compares the hadith to a pharmacy. “One may get poisoned if he goes to the pharmacy without the recommendation of a good doctor,” Gormez says, so the “good doctors” of the Diyanet are telling Muslims what to believe and what not to believe. The most positive feature of the Reformation, though, is that it urged individuals to read scripture for themselves and draw their own conclusions rather than blindly accept the interpretation of a central hierarchy.
Hakura is assured that Islam will be a changed from a religion whose rules must be obeyed to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy. Other enthusiasts boast that “the spirit of logic and reason inherent in Islam at its foundation 1,400 years ago” is being rediscovered. A quick search of three online English translations of the Koran, though, reveals that the word “logic” never appears, nor does the word “reason” as used to describe a system of deduction from observed facts. The whole mindset behind the story of the “recitation” of God’s words in the Koran, behind every hadith, and behind virtually every learned commentary since day one has been that God’s will has been revealed and people better damn well follow it. The word “Islam” itself means “submission”—not exactly consistent with a “spirit of logic and reason.” Unless they plan to change the name of the religion at the same time they are changing its traditions, it is difficult to see how the concept of “rules to be obeyed” can readily be eliminated.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in favor of anything designed to dissuade people (in this case the followers of Islam) from antisocial behavior. It is always important, though, to follow the money trail. In this case it leads to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, a huge bureaucracy employing some 70,000 clerics with an annual budget of over $700 million. What else is this group up to? Last year it published a helpful guide telling Turkish women how to behave:
Women have to be more careful, since they have stimulants. The women communicating with strange men should speak in a manner that will not arouse suspicion in one’s heart and in such seriousness and dignity that they will not let the opposite party misunderstand them, that they should not show their ornaments and figure and that they should cover in a fine manner. …His highness the prophet Muhammad did not think kindly of women who put on perfumes outside their homes and go strolling and saw this as immoral behavior.
Turkey is not yet Iran, but under its current “moderate Islamist” government the noose is definitely tightening. Local authorities are clamping down on alcohol sales; firms are pressured to supply only proper Muslim “halal” foodstuffs; women doctors are declining to examine male patients, and husbands are refusing to allow their wives to visit male doctors. A study released in December 2008 shows a widespread perception that Turks had better wear headscarves, attend Friday prayers, and fast during Ramadan if they want government jobs or promotions. It also gives several examples of women being pressured, reprimanded, or even beaten for making un-Islamic decisions about their dress and habits. And earlier this year, a portrait of Charles Darwin was yanked just before press time from the cover of a government-funded science magazine, and the editor who tried to run it was fired for her impudence.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is kept busy rewriting the propaganda teaching that Oceania is allied with Eastasia in its war against Eurasia, to instead read that Oceania is actually at war with Eastasia, with Eurasia as its ally—and always had been. That is exactly what the hired guns at Ankara are doing today, though without the muscle of a Big Brother standing behind them—insisting that certain dogmas are true, and always have been, when everyone knows they are not. And when they have finished their work, what will prevent other scholars, now or tomorrow, from saying, “oh no—Muhammad really said we should enslave the infidels and treat women like chattel—it says so right here”? Nothing at all.
Islam doesn’t need a Reformation; it needs an Enlightenment. Ironically, the Islamic Enlightenment began in Turkey itself, eighty years ago, when Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate, replaced Islamic law with a secular civil code, emancipated women, introduced democracy, and brought modern science into the school curriculum.
“Surviving in the world of modern civilization depends upon changing ourselves,” Atatürk said. “Changing the rules of life in accordance with the times is an absolute necessity. In an age when inventions and the wonders of science are bringing change after change in the conditions of life, nations cannot maintain their existence by age-old rotten mentalities and by tradition-worshipping…Superstitions and nonsense have to be thrown out of our heads.” Atatürk had not the slightest interest in reinventing the “authentic” Islam as today’s government-paid scholars are trying to do, aptly describing such an exercise as being “as useless as a graft on dead wood.” The current Turkish government is simply pandering for rural votes by taking a giant step back from Atatürk’s vision, mimicking the success of America’s Christian right.
Here’s a thought: the Turkish scholars should neither counterfeit Muslim tradition nor apologize for it, or swallow their pride in any way. What they should do instead would be to announce that:
1. The Koran is not really the word of God. The hadiths, even the unknowable few that may truly reflect Muhammad’s words and actions, do not represent the will of God. If there is a God with a will, we don’t know what it is.
2. Nevertheless, there is much of value in the Islamic traditions and rituals of our ancestors, such as the emphases on charity, family, duty, mercy, temperance, and self-discipline. Reflection on these values several times a day is beneficial as well. These aspects of the religion are virtuous in themselves, whether or not there is anything in the Koran or the sayings of Muhammad to support them. They are in many ways superior to a great deal of the rubbish churned out by the West. How do we know this, if not through divine revelation? We know this because if there is a God, it gave us brains, and we figured it out.
3. Despite the overwhelming preponderance of good in the traditions of our ancestors, there are flaws that must be corrected—the mistreatment of women, the intolerance of apostasy, the acceptance of slavery, the calls for violence against nonbelievers, and so forth. These aspects are wrong in themselves, whether or not there is anything in the Koran or the hadiths to support them. Our ancestors were right most of the time, but not all of the time; we expect our descendants to believe the same about us. The Koran and the hadiths—whether or not they describe events that actually happened—are valuable and beautiful as literature and as stimulus to reflection. They do not justify the oppression of a single being.
Assessing the intrinsic merits of each of the 170,000 hadiths without the overlay of divine inspiration could keep these bureaucrats employed for a long time, especially if they repeat the process from scratch every ten years. The product might even be worth reading.