05/30/2013, 00.00
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Turkey's best religious scholars reinterpret Islam for our century

Under the country's Religious Affairs Directorate, 100 scholars worked together, inspired by Christian Biblical exegeses, to re-interpret some of Muhammad's sayings in light of today's society.

Ankara (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Scholars from a Turkish state agency, the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı or Religious Affairs Directorate, have edited a set of sayings attributed to Muhammad in order to interpret the tradition in a contemporary way. "We don't live in the 20th century anymore," said Mehmet Ozafsar, director of the project and Diyanet vice-president.

In Islam, some 600,000 sayings or ḥadīth have been attributed to the Prophet, part and parcel of the Islamic tradition along with the Qur'an. They are often used by imams to explain the Scriptures to the faithful or to regulate some aspects of their daily lives.

Non-Arabic translations of the ḥadīth, or any attempt to interpret their meaning, are a sin, and exegetic issues have often split communities between progressive and conservative camps. However, digests of the Prophet's ḥadīth are nothing new even though reinterpreting them in light of present day society remains a delicate issue.

Religious scholars and theologians at the Diyanet, Turkey's most authoritative Islamic institution, have selected a few hundred of the about 17,000 reported quotes from Muhammad, with comments and explanations.

About a hundred authors worked on the project. Unlike many traditional Muslim scholars, these theologians work in modern university faculties and many have studied abroad to learn how Christians analyse the Bible critically. They are particularly critical of atavistic views of Islam that reject renewal.

For Mehmet Pacaci, Diyanet's general director for foreign affairs, there is too much "literalism and ignorance [. . .] in the Muslim world."

"Among intellectuals in Egypt, there is a welcome for this new interpretation which they think is very important for the Arab world to be exposed to," said Ibrahim Negm, advisor to Egypt's grand mufti.

In Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt, some publishers have expressed interest in the publication of the encyclopaedic work. Editions in Bosniak, German and English are expected in the coming months.

Turkey, a secular republic since 1923, has seen a gradual and quiet rise of political Islam in recent years. Many opposition leaders fear that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), wants religion to play a central role in the country's politics.

Plenty of examples point in that direction. For example, Turkish Airlines recently overturned a controversial ban on female flight attendants wearing brightly-coloured lipstick. Last Friday, the Turkish parliament banned the sale of alcohol in shops between 10 pm and 6 am.

Still, "There are different perspectives in the Islamic world and some are closed-minded. Turks have a different idea of Islamic culture," project director Ozafsar said.

That includes a strong secular tradition allowing alcohol consumption and Western dress for women.

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