Rewriting Islam

By Razib Khan | February 29, 2008 5:05 am

Lots of articles on the radical reinterpretation of the Hadith in Turkey. The Hadith serve as the basis for Islamic law, and orthopraxy more generally. I am on the record as saying that texts don’t in the end determine anything, so obviously I’m skeptical. But, I will simply point to a historical analogy; in the 19th century Egypt and Japan attempted to modernize and catch-up with Western nations. Egypt did not truly succeed, Japan did. Where there’s a will there always isn’t a way; Japan had the necessary preconditions in terms of human capital for the task at hand (e.g., high literacy, a preexistent samizdat of “Dutch” learning, etc.), Egypt did not. A revision of the Hadith is a positive sign, and it is a necessary precondition toward modernity in a Western manner (for example, in regards to sexual equality in family law, or a full-throated acceptance of the institutional instruments modern of capitalism1), but I doubt it is sufficient. A genuine reinterpretation of Islam will more likely happen in a place like the United States, where there are endogenous social forces at work at the grassroots. Textual reintrepretation of sacred literature or law is more often concomitant with, or the effect of, change, not the agent of it. Feminist or socialist interpretations of the Bible post-date the emergence of these movements, they did not inspire them.
1 – “Islamic banking” actually goes a long way toward this already by making up excuses and “work-arounds” which violate the spirit but follow the letter of the law. Rather, I think it is in family law where a top-down imposition might be more necessary.

  • Todd O.

    I agree with your overall point, that a reinterpretation of a sacred text (I would broaden this to other kinds of cultural aparatuses) isn’t sufficient to transform a society (in this case to modernize). In general, cultures do not change unless there’s an adaptive need, that is, the environment requires/pressures the change; cultures lean to the homeostatic side (which I realize sounds problematic since cultures are constantly changing).
    However, I think you may be wrong in the specifics in Turkey. Turkey has a 100 year history of exposure to modernity (forced or not) and pluralism; part of the national discourse is whether or not to Europeanize; and the social and economic conditions of the country as it is put it on the cusp of full blown modernization and a transformation into the kind of pluralist state that would accommodate the range of religious and secular expressions undergird with civil values of a liberal state. I actually think Pakistan falls into this category as well, although I would argue Pakistan is potentially even closer; but Pakistan seems to have skipped the revision of the Hadith and gone straight for defacto secularism (kinda inversely, where it’s outwardly still Muslim, but the values driving the larger society underneath the dictatorship seem to be firmly secular and modern).
    My point being simply not to underestimate the state of social and economic development and access to the cultural and material resources necessary for modernity in Turkey.

  • razib

    well, the specific cases are complex. remember that over the past 100 years turkey has lost its greek and armenian minorities. it has switched from an arabic to a roman script. it has attempted to pretend that kurds were actually a form of turk. so i don’t think it has been experimenting with pluralism, it has been experimenting with european nationalism, which is homogenizing, not liberalizing. additionally, the alevi minority still faces a lot of discrimination, to the point where muslims from other regions don’t know that around 1/5 of the population in turkey aren’t sunnis because of the low-profile they keep.
    i think analogy with the way turkey is now is that it is like israel. in israel, there are secular and the religious. in turkey ataturk created a secular alcohol drinking class. but they were still chauvinistic cultural muslims, as evidenced by the shit that the greek orthodox patriarch has been forced to go through. what the attempt to revise the hadiths might be attempting is to generate a space for “reform muslims.” that is, in the united states there are jews who adhere to the direct tradition of rabbinical judaism (orthodox), jews who have reinterpreted their religion to be less talmudic (reform, and lesser extent conservatives) and explicitly non-religious jews. the islamic world has no space right now for genuinely liberal religion, it has various degrees of adherence to conservative religion. if you are a “secular muslim” that means that you are a nominal believer, not that you are a religious liberal.
    a lot of the same applies to pakistan. jinnah was a scotch-drinker, his islam was nationalistic (he was from an ismaili background himself, so an outsider who “converted” to sunnism though he famously didn’t really know much about religion in the details). i would argue that over the past 50 years in both pakistan and turkey the number of conservative religionists has probably increased. unfortunately, there hasn’t really be a liberal wing to match this, so you have a polarized situation between conservatives and secularists. there are a few religious muslims who i would assert are equivalent to reform jews or mainline protestants, but quantitatively they’re trivial (in comparison, the reform are the largest group within american judaism now).

  • Danny

    To reinforce your point, in Israel, Reform & Conservative Judaism are very weak. People who in the diaspora would be Reform or Conservative would be secular or traditional in Israel. There is no need for the reformed streams in a society that is predominantly Jewish – if one doesn’t wish to follow the letter of the law, one can simply choose to be less affiliated with the religion, or pick and choose elements of the religion as one wishes, without there being a danger of losing one’s religious identity.
    So you can’t be very optimistic about the future of a reformed Islam in Muslim countries, whose societies are far more traditional than Israel’s.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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