Reinterpreting Islam

A Turkish project to reinterpret and reject some of the hadith (traditions handed down from the Prophet and his Companions) seems to have attracted some media attention. This BBC story, for example, talks of “radical revision” and hints at a religious reformation.

The Turkish newspapers that I follow online don’t seem to be making as much of a big deal of it. From what I can see, the radical nature of what the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is doing is a bit hyped. It is true, however, that the project will probably get a negative reaction from many Muslim conservatives and traditionalists.

There is an element of boldness in the reinterpretations in question, in that proposing to change long-settled interpretations that go back to the classical period of Islam is no small thing. It’s not over-the-top bold, because that element of flexibility has long been inherent in Islam, if not often exploited. The consensus interpretations of classical religious scholars are, after all, not what are held to be the at the core of the religion. There is a lot you can do around the margins without questioning the Quran or the traditional sacred history or even the general thrust of the traditions and Islamic Law. Moreover, some of this can go beyond tinkering at the margins. After all, the Quran is a remarkably opaque text. Much of it makes no sense whatsoever, on the face of it. Even relatively early Muslim interpreters of the classical period had no idea what much of the Quran meant; a lot of the traditions and sacred history were at least in part made up to try and provide some context for the Quran. So playing around with the less-sacred interpretations and traditions can have the effect of changing what is understood as sacred.

That, however, is also a reason not to expect too much boldness from Muslim reinterpretation. Messing with the margins too much can inadvertently highlight the obscurity and lack of sense of much of the Quran. A historian of religion can admit that we often don’t know what the *&^%$#@! the Quran says and that early Muslims did not understand it either. But that is practically impossible for a religious scholar who takes the Quran as the word of God. Indeed, modernizers and fundamentalists alike are typically united in thinking of their sacred texts as providing practical guidance for life, even down to helping us solve practical problems specific to modern life. It is important that reinterpretation should not be seen to be reinterpretation. Emphasizing reinterpretation for modern needs also risks acknowledging that religion is a human production. And that remains unacceptable for devout Muslims.

So don’t expect too much from the Turkish effort. Moreover, there are also other reasons not to hold our breaths. After all, this is a state-sponsored effort, in the long tradition of the Turkish state trying to shape religion to its own ends. This is not always successful. Today, in fact, is an especially bad time for state-determined interpretations of religion. In Turkey (and many parts of the Muslim world) Islam has become more democratized and populist in character. In an environment where there are multiple competing interpretations, and where the devout do not look to centralized religious authorities to the same degree they once did, officially endorsed interpretations do not have that great a competitive advantage. Indeed, they often come under suspicion.

Naturally, I hope that I am surprised, and that this sort of thing is a lot more successful than I expect. Liberalizing tendencies within religions are generally in the interest of secular people. But there is a good chance that the end result is a reinterpretation that is celebrated by some intellectuals and modernizers but is a dead letter as far as popular religion goes.