Turkey seeks a more modern Islam - By Fazile Zahir

Posted by ProjectC 
"We are not here as Turkish Muslims to put ourselves in the service of Islam, but to put Islam in the service of life."
- Fethullah Gulen, Turkish Islamic scholar and writer

By Fazile Zahir
Mar 27, 2008

FETHIYE, Turkey - The level of surprise with which the world's media greeted the news that Turkey's highest religious authority, the Diyanet, has instructed a commission of scholars to re-evaluate the Hadith (oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad) with respect to modern society, seems all out of proportion to the actual exercise the Ankara school is conducting.

The Western media are of course keen to promote moderate versions of Islam, but the tradition of ijtihad (legal interpretation) is nothing new to Turkish religious thinkers. In 2006, the Diyanet had already started a process to filter the Hadith to delete misogynistic statements.

This new project is an even more ambitious attempt to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith and has taken the theologically radical step of ignoring later conservative texts in favor of earlier more liberal ones and by being prepared to evaluate the sayings of the Prophet within a historical framework.

The Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having a negative influence on a society that is in a hurry to modernize and some scholars are convinced that it obscures the original values of Islam.

Turkish Islam has always had a very different face and practice to Arab or African Islam for many reasons. Ottoman expansion forced Muslims to embrace and co-exist with Christian and other groups. This tradition of diversity allowed for the inclusive societal model, the millet system, a type of religious federalism. The empire was a melting pot, incorporating various ethnic and religious groups including Kurds, Croats, Asiatic tribes, Buddhists, Christians, Bektashi/Alevi and others. Through years of interaction, relations have softened between groups and Muslim ideals continually evolved.

Turkish modernization began at least a century before Kemalism. In the 19th century, the Ottomans produced a new secular civil law, a constitution, a parliament in 1876, and Western-style schools and universities for both sexes. They also encouraged sophisticated intellectual debate. In 1895, Descartes' Discourse on Method was translated into Turkish under the auspices of the sultan.

Many other Western classics, as well as the political debates of the day in Europe, became part of Ottoman intellectual life. All this was embraced not just by the secular young Turks, but also by more open-minded Islamists. Fethullah Gulen, a modern-day key reformist and Sufi thinker extends tolerance toward secularists and non-believers in Turkey and sees this approach as a way to revive the multi-culturalism of the Ottoman Empire.

Prior to Islam, Turks were shamanistic and it was these pagan shamans who became the first proletyzing foot soldiers of Islam among the nomadic Turkish tribes, they were the Sufi order. Even at these early times, Turkish Muslims accepted and embraced the pre-Islamic traditions and combined them with their own in a form of Sufi mysticism.

Turkey's Sufism has a non-literal and inclusive reading of religion and the Turkish understanding of Islam is very much punctuated by the tolerance of mystical poet Jalaladdin Rumi, love of Sufi poet Yunus Emre and reasonability of the Ottoman "saint" Haci Bektasi Veli. The main premise of this Turkish Islam is moderation, Sufi tradition is based on the philosophy that all creatures should be loved as God's physical reflection and objects of the Creator's own love.

There is no place for enemies or "others" in this system. Gulen, Turkey's best-known and most modern Sufi philosopher, rejects the idea that a clash between the "East" and "West" is necessary, desirable or inevitable and frequently emphasizes that there should be freedom of worship and thought in Turkey.

Religious scholars in Turkey are largely a different breed to their counterparts in other Muslim countries. Rather than being ulema (priests) or practical men like engineers and medical doctors as they are in Egypt and Pakistan, they are mostly writers, poets, academics and artists who are open-minded and keen to discuss new ideas. These writers are not didactic in their writings but rather narrative in style and eclectic in terms of their sources. As early as 1951, an American scholar of religion W C Smith made the following comment: "Whereas the Arab dream is of restoration, the modern Turks consciously talk of novelty."

Others attribute Turkish moderation with the important role of the 25% of Alevi Muslims who practice a religion that is confessional and based on adoration, but which does not seek to conquer. It is a fusion form of Islam that considers a person's relationship with God to be relevant to the private sphere and which believes that women are equal to men. The tolerant approach of these people often referred to as "Islamic protestants", allows them to maintain both a Kemalist tradition and a progressive religious spirit alive within the Turkish population.

Others see the growth of prosperity encouraging a relaxation of the religious laws.

Economic stability and security give one the luxury of picking and choosing while defining a personal identity. Turkey has recently experienced previously unknown economic growth for 20 quarters consecutively. Islamic social movements represent the "coming out" of now wealthy and visible conservative business men anxious to combine their private religion with the roles they now have in the public sphere. They are keen for their values to be reflected in Turkey's new secular constitution and have been active in pushing forward human rights and freedom of expression in the headscarf debate that has gripped Turkey for the past six months.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are now confidently in control of Turkey. Until this last election their power had previously been predicated on their "giving up" or "delaying" their "Islamic" demands on society in return for being allowed to govern. Now, with the huge electoral endorsement of 2007, they are moving forward with a program to allow Turkey more freedom of religious expression.

The recent headscarf debate has been resolved in a typically Turkish way, the government changed the law so university students can attend wearing a scarf - but their teachers still can't. Even then only 30% of universities adhered to it and the rest carried on doing their own thing. Chaos did not ensue, there was some confusion and then the stoical Turkish people just get on with the new status quo, adapting as they always do to religious evolution without hardly creating a ripple in society. Turkey has the incredible capacity to do nothing less than recreate Islam, changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy.

Fazile Zahir is of Turkish descent, born and brought up in London. She moved to live in Turkey in 2005 and has been writing full time since then.

(Copyright 2008 Fazile Zahir.)