The Thematic Hadith Project is a semi-official effort by a group of Turkish academics - more than 80 in all - to produce a modern edition of the sayings of Mohammed. The hundreds of individual "hadiths" derive from the years after the prophet's death and constitute the second most significant source for Islam after the Koran itself. But unlike the Koran, the Hadith is not held to have been dictated by Allah, and exists in no one definitive form. Some, indeed, are of doubtful authenticity, some contradict others, and some (not always the doubtful ones) are, to modern sensibilities, troubling. It is in a Hadith we learn that Mohammed consummated his marriage to the nine-year-old Aisha, while another describes an incident in which an adulterous woman begged the prophet for forgiveness, and he ordered her to be stoned to death.
Overseeing the Turkish project, which has been running since 2006 and aims to present its new edition later this year, is Professor Mehmet Gormez of Ankara University. He has stressed the conventional nature of his enterprise. "The project takes its inspiration from the interpretations of the modernist vein of Islam," he told the Times last week. But, he added, "it gets obscured by modern clichés, but reinterpretation is actually part of the basic fabric of Islam." And, indeed, there have been many redactions over the centuries.
The Hadith Project is certainly ambitious - it aims not merely to establish the authenticity of disputed texts, but to reinterpret the certain sayings to make them more relevant in the modern world. As such, it's bound to be of interest to Turkish Muslims, and perhaps to believers in other countries. But it's hardly earth-shaking. And for nearly two years the commission has quietly got on with its work.
Until last week, that is. In an excited report for Radio 4's Today programme last Tuesday, the BBC's religion correspondent Robert Pigott claimed that the Hadith Project represented the long hoped-for (in western liberal circles at least) "Islamic Reformation".
"An extraordinary, fundamental revision of the hadith is taking place," he announced.
Researchers have subjected the text to forensic examination. ...The Turkish state, intent on removing cultural baggage from islam, is making more dramatic changes to the hadith... even sayings accepted as being genuinely spoken by the Prophet Mohammed will be altered and reinterpreted.
According to Pigott, the Turkish government believes that the reactionary nature of many Hadith - misogynisitic, militaristic, pro-stoning and amputation - has a "negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and [is] responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam."
So these awkward Hadiths will have to go. They, and the attitudes they underpin and inspire, are to be re-defined as "un-Islamic".
...the result represents a change to the very theology of Islam. Some even see the development as start of a possible reformation in the religion.
A new, modernised, pro-women, pro-democracy, anti-jihadist Islam is, perhaps, the Holy Grail of the westen liberal conscience. It squares a particularly awkward circle: how to enunciate distaste for antiquated, misogynistic, homophobic and sometimes violently intolerant attitudes without being "Islamophobic". How to cope with the fact that "internationally respected Islamic scholars" so often turn out to be people like Yusuf al Qaradawi.
Because, stripped of "cultural baggage", restored to the pristine purity of the original revelation, Islam turns out to be - how could it not? - almost indistinguishable from the contents of the last New Labour manifesto. No more burqas. No more floggings. No more honour killings, mutilated female genitals or fatwas against novelists. No scope, either, for the likes of maverick Dutch politician Geert Wilders to make mischief by threatening the world with rumours of a hard-hitting and soon-to-be-released (but not quite yet) anti-Koran film.
Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali might approve.
Pigott's delight is, however, something of a nightmare for the Turkish academics working on the Hadith. There are acute sensitivites, political as well as religious, diplomatic as well as scholarly. The affair touches on such issues as the place of Turkey and its subtly Islamist government, its EU ambitions, and the recent lifting of the hijab ban in universities. The Turks would seem to be particularly concerned at the notion that the Hadith Project represents an attempt by the seat of the old Ottoman Empire to reassert the headship of Islam that it lost with the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. A radically different collection of Hadith, especially one that appeared to have been compiled with one eye on the approval of western liberals, is unlikely to meet with much approval in, say, Saudi Arabia.
In an attempt at damage limitation, Professor Gormez has turned his fire on the BBC:
I had an interview with BBC reporter Robert Pigott around two months ago about the project. I underscored during our interview that it cannot be termed a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam. But, his article read 'the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion.' This does not reflect the truth. We are going to take the appropriate legal measures for redress.
We are neither fashioning a new Islam nor dare to alter the fixtures maxims of Islam. The Western media have read what are doing from a Christian perspective and understood it in line with their Christian and Western cultures."
Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs was particularly upset at the suggestion that it was trying to invent "a new form of Islam for secular Turkey or for political motives". It was merely "a long-overdue look at the classical sources of Islam, contextually re-evaluating them for the 21st century to ensure that the texts can continue to be a guiding, relevant spiritual source for Turkey's millions of Muslims."
Worse, some hardliners and textual literalists have seized on the involvement, as an advisor to the Ankara team, of Jesuit priest Fr Felix Koerner, and denounced the whole project as a Vatican plot to subvert Islam. According to Muhammad Tahir,
It appears that Koerner has spent the last few years befriending and "advising" the Ankara school of would-be revisionists whilst at the same time ministering in a state-sanctioned church of Turkey (no high-up government connections there then...). In fact, Koerner's recently published book, "Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics in Contemporary Turkish University Theology: Rethinking Islam", focuses on the current status of post-modernist methods in Turkish intellectual discourse about Islam. Specifically, Koerner concerns himself with how to infect his Turkish "disciples" with the types of discourse which have led to the current and ongoing disintegration of the Christian Church.
The "real story" in this week's media extravaganza has in fact not been the plan itself, but Koerner's prominent role in the whole charade. It has been surprising to witness the sheer arrogance which has been shown by his sponsors, who have openly advertised the fact that the Church's "special forces" are actively at work in Turkey to drive forward a centuries-old dream of both major churches: deconstruct Islam from within by its own hands so that it disintegrates into millions of "individualised" versions irreconcilable with one another.
The ravings of a crazed conspiracy theorist? Perhaps. But such people rarely fail to attract an audience in the Muslim world. And he has a point. Once textual scholars, beginning in the 19th century, began to take a close look at the history and composition of the Bible, many of the certainties on which Christianity rested collapsed. No longer the inerrant "Word of God", the Bible was reduced to little more than a book of suggestions and a hollowed-out Church saw its congregations shrink. Now bishops look at Islam with a mixture of fear and envy.
But if Islam is to make its peace with modernity, then it will have to pass through the same fire. It will have to become as bland and inoffensive as the Church of England. And if it does, many millions of Muslims, like millions of Christians before them, will surely look at the new, de-fanged, politically-correct Hadith and think, "What's the point?"