Interview of Professor Mehmet Gormez, vice-president of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet. Transcript of the interview, translated from Turkish:
Q. What is the aim of the project?
A. The religion of Islam is based on two main sources (the Koran and the hadith). As time passes people have difficulty understanding (their religion). This is true of all religions. As the Koran is a major source of knowledge, many commentaries have been written through history. The hadith are very dispersed but also a major source. Each hadith has a reason, each hadith has a relation with culture and geography. When this is lost, it becomes hard to understand what the Prophet meant by the words used. Therefore, many efforts have been made (to explain the meaning). But in the modern world, people misinterpret this knowledge. I liken this source of knowledge (the hadith) to a pharmacy. When a person gets sick, he goes to the pharmacy and thinks that every medicine can be used in the same way. But some pills can end up making you feel worse, not better … A person may not know what kind of chemicals a medicine contains but
happily takes it. At present, we have been using the hadith lacking methodology. And this brings many problems with it… By taking advantage of methods used in the modern world to understand religious texts, we aim to make (them) better understood, better practised and to purify them of mistakes.
Q. Will you be removing any hadith from the existing corpus?
A. In our study, each hadith is a picture made up of different pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle. Our aim is to show all pieces of the picture. Each word of our Prophet is like a
picture made up of different pieces.. One piece tells of Arab geography, one piece is related to the desert. Without each piece, we cannot understand or see the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, we need each piece. This is a scientific and academic study. It’s not a radical reform or revision. We have a methodological approach.
Q. How many hadith are in existence? And of those can we say how many are to be revised under this project?
A. We now have the advantage of technology. As I discovered yesterday, there are 159,000 hadith or narrations. But our Western friends are surprised when they hear this figure. They say ‘did the Prophet really say so much?’ The reason for this is that there is much repetition. For example, in the Buhari text there are 7,000 hadith but 4,000 of these are repetitions. When you exclude the repetitions in the total 159,000, you are left with about 20,000 hadith. But in order to see the connections of geography, for example, we take all the hadith. And we can scan all these 159,000 hadiths with computers in just two minutes. Each hadith comes with a ‘health report’ about whether it is authentic or not. But some of these reports are right, some are wrong. Each hadith is made up of two pieces. One is the text, the other is the narrative link. We evaluate the issue from both perspectives. There’s textual criticism and narrative criticism. But it’s not right to give a definite number (of inauthentic texts) as that differs through history and is now being studied by scholars. In some hadith there were three to four people involved in the chain of transmission from the Prophet before they were written down in books…
Q. What is the ultimate aim of your work?
A. There are three aims: firstly, to isolate misunderstandings that stem from history, secondly to make clear how much is cultural, how much is traditional and how much is religious, thirdly to help people today to understand them right. Let me tell you of a discussion I had with Yusuf Islam (the former singer Cat Stevens) whom I met in 1996. He was wearing a thin white cloak. He had a black turban on his head. He had a long beard. And I was wearing a suit. I was introduced as a hadith scholar… “Are my clothes in conformity with Sunni Muslim teaching?” he asked me. I said: “Imagine a battle between the Prophet and his followers and infidels. What was the difference in their clothes? They were all wearing cloaks and turbans…” Then I asked him “What if our Prophet had gone to Siberia and did not live in a climate of 50 degrees Celsius? Would wearing fur be considered irreligious? It was Ramadan and we were about to end our fast. He ended his with dates (according to the Arab tradition) and I ate olives. I told him there are no dates in my country. On clothing, I said we should dress in a way that does not make sexuality obvious.
Q. What about punishments laid out in the hadith?
A. Islam is misunderstood here. For example, you cannot show me from the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire a case of a person being stoned for adultery or a thief whose hand was amputated… You don’t see such things in the hadith or the Koran. Punishment is not on our agenda. We are putting the emphasis on belief, on worship, morality, individual and social life, women’s rights, relations between the individual and God, between individuals, between people and nature. We have no aim to put issues from history (such as punishments) to the agenda.
Q. Will your work lead to changes in the way women are treated or perceived?
A. The issue of women’s rights will not be emphasised but it will be one of some 600 issues. We cannot say how much the project will be effective (in improving the lot of women) but it should help prevent misunderstandings.
Q. What about so-called ‘honour killings’?
A. There’s no hadith on this issue. This is a tradition dating back to the period of pre-Islamic ignorance. This has no relation to religion. Honour killings, the burying of female children — we can identify these as (pre-Islamic) Arab ignorance that have no relation with Islam. In fact, the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible are much more problematic than the Koran (for women’s rights). We have to understand the texts very well, and also we have to determine those that are shaped by culture. If a religious man from the
Western world sees bad behaviour here as a result of the Koran, he makes a mistake because the text in his hands (the Bible) is even more problematic.
Q. How long have you been working on this project?
A. We started work on this project two years ago. It will end by the end of this year and result in six volumes, which we hope to translate into English, Arabic and Russian too.
Q. Why did you decide to embark on this project? Is the AK Party government involved in this decision?
A. Our project has no relation with politics. It’s an academic team … There was a similar study in the first years of the Republic (in 1924).
Q. Has there been any reaction so far from other parts of the Muslim world and if so what was the reaction? Have foreign Islamic scholars been involved at all?
A. There have been no similar studies of the hadith in the Arab world. Turkey comes from a different tradition. We cannot discard the Ottoman tradition. It was open-minded. We can discuss anything here and there is a good level of scientific knowledge in Turkey. For these reasons, it’s important to do this work here in Turkey… The Diyanet wants to share these books with people at mosques. We do not plan to sell the books.
Q. So to sum up is it fair to say this project is an attempt to modernise people’s understanding of their religion?
A. Muhammad Iqbal said ‘Our Prophet stands on the threshold between the old and the new, old in terms of knowledge but new in terms of the message. Our aim is to understand our Prophet’s message to this age in a better way.
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