[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Turkey’s official religious institution, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, took a bold step two years ago by launching a project cleansing the Islamic tradition from misogyny. What the institution did was to employ a team of religious scholars to prepare a new collection of hadiths (the deeds and sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad), and remove the degrading remarks against women, which represent not the original message of Islam but the male-dominated culture of the past. With that project, the Directorate, which is called Diyanet İşleri Başkanlğı” or simply Diyanet in Turkish, had shown that it was not just open-minded but also brave.
Libraries, Cafes, and Worship
That meticulous revision and recollection of the hadiths is still ongoing in Ankara and it might take several more months to complete. Meanwhile, another bold project by the Diyanet is on the way. The institution now plans to bring a set of regulations and reforms that will modernize Turkey’s 80-thousand-or-so mosques. According to a news story that daily Hürriyet ran Sept. 19 with the headline, Revolutionary Step from Diyanet, some nice novelties are on the road:
- Mosques will be turned into places used for not only worship but also social activity. In the year 2010, libraries, cafeterias, public halls and classrooms will be added to some 200 mosques throughout Turkey. Some will have computer rooms. The long-term goal will be to have at least five such multi-purpose mosques in every town whose population is bigger than 20 thousand people.
- To decide on the structure of these new mosques, a competition for projects will be held. All new ideas will be considered.
- Personnel of the mosques, the imams and the muezzins, will be educated to handle such tasks. Foreign language courses will be arranged for them. Moreover the institution will try to employ its new personnel mostly from among graduates of theology faculties, and especially those with PhD’s.
- Imams will get feedback from the local community by distributing questionnaires that will ask, How can we serve you better?
The Diyanet will also conduct research on puzzling questions such as euthanasia for hopeless patients and abortion for disabled embryos. (One should add that the Diyanet has already found that stem cell research is deemed OK from an Islamic perspective. When compared to those of Christianity, Islamic views on such biological matters are generally less rigid.)
Another reform that the Diyanet will introduce, according to Hürriyet’s story, is to arrange the time of Friday prayers according to work hours. Currently the time of this prayer, to which all devout Muslim men are expected to join, rotates the whole year around noon hours depending on the Sun’s position. If this rescheduling takes place, then it will mean that not just the traditional timer, the sun, but also the modern one, office hours, will be taken into consideration. They can’t start the prayer before Sun reaches its climax, but they can postpone it a bit.
Maybe these reforms are not revolutionary, as Hürriyet called, but they are definitely meaningful. (By the way, let me note that Diyanet officials don’t like the term reform, which, in Turkish language, implies a more fundamental change than those they are introducing.) The Diyanet is actually daring to modify the structure of a well-established Islamic institution according to the needs of modern society. The underlying logic here is absolutely imperative.
By moving on from that logic, much bigger steps can be taken in the future, too. The current mosque culture we Muslims have — in which men and women are segregated; one can sit only on the floor; no sound except the human voice is heard — is built on tradition, not revelation.
Tradition has its merits, to be sure, but it was formed in an age that was very different from ours. At that time, the society’s common lifestyle was not too different from the one we find today in mosques. But now, while we still keep the mosque in the same old way, society has changed enormously. In this age, members of a modern family would prefer to go to a place of worship in which they can sit together as family. Yet since there are no such mosques around, such families often avoid it all together. One reason for the excessive secularization of Westernized Turks is this.
So, perhaps Islam needs a totally new form of mosque, along with the classic ones, in order to appeal to modern people. Perhaps a place which has post-modern architecture, a smiling receptionist, and a conference hall… Conservative Muslims often abhor such ideas, because they see them as a plot to dilute religion. The real plot might be though to keep Islam forcibly in a medieval form that will make it less and less relevant to our contemporaries.
The fine line, as usual, is in a third way that is different from both the secularist and the ultra-conservative positions. For the secularist, the mosque should be an irrelevant relic for 21st century society. For the ultra-conservative, it should be a place which should keep people in the 7th century. But what we really need is a lively mosque which will speak to the minds of the 21st century.
I am glad to see that the Diyanet officials — and especially the institution’s wise president, Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu — get that. They should be welcomed and encouraged.