Does Erdoğan intend to open the doors of ijtihad?
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments in a speech on March 8 about the need to “adapt” Islam are continuing to stir debates in conservative circles in Turkey, though they did not receive the attention deserved from more secular groups.
That religious traditions need to be adapted to changing social needs may sound obvious to many, but it is not so obvious to many in the Muslim world. In fact, Erdoğan’s call could be groundbreaking, if he maintains this position, despite criticism from more traditional perspectives.
Why were his words such a big deal?
First, mainstream Islam has for the past thousand years been largely dominated by traditionalists who mostly reject the concept of reform and suggest that Islam is universal. According to this perspective, the main difference between Islam and earlier “religions of the book” is that Islam does not need to be reformed. The original goal of Islam was to respond to “the degenerations” of previous religions, so because Islam is in a sense the “corrected” form of previous teachings it does not require correction.
While “reform” has been a taboo in traditional Sunni Islam, there used to be some room for change within the traditional school, through the concept of “ijtihad” (reasoning). This mechanism allowed the uncertainty and confusion that emerged during the adaptation of Islamic teaching to law in the four centuries after the emergence of Islam to be addressed. But around the 10th century the majority of Islamic scholars concluded that no issues were left that needed further clarification and the doors of ijtihad were essentially closed.
It is important to remember that while traditional Islam has been mainstream throughout most of Islamic history, it has not always been so. At one time unorthodox schools, such as the Mu’tazila, held a significant place in Islamic scholarship. The ideas of the Mu’tazila, which prevailed between the 8th and 10th centuries, largely deviated from those of the traditionalists. The Mu’tazila highly valued human rationality and one of its most unconventional ideas was that the Quran was a creation, rather than the unmediated voice of God, and it should be approached accordingly. While these ideas were unorthodox for the time, as they are today, it is important to note that the Mu’tazila was considered a legitimate school within Islam rather than an outcast. It was received particularly well by the Abbasid caliphates, and even became the dominant school during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid. It was only later when the traditionalists took complete control over Islam that unorthodox ideas such as those of the Mu’tazila’s had to disappear or go underground.
In sum, the period between 8th and 10th centuries allowed heterogeneity and change in Islam. But ever since then, mainstream laws and traditions have been dominant through most of the Muslim world. The only possibility for change has been through “re-reading” mainstream Islamic sources (the Quran, the hadith and the sunnah) to alter certain practices. This method has been used most progressively by Islamic women’s rights advocates in various parts of the world, who have managed to change some Sharia-based laws (such as marriage and divorce laws) only by showing that they are incompatible with the superior principles of the “true” Islam.
Thus, in the context of the post-10th century Muslim world, President Erdoğan’s recent call for “adapting” Islam is highly unconventional. As a graduate of an imam-hatip religious vocational school, he should have the theological education to know that “adapting” indicates a more direct change than “re-reading” or even “interpretation.” Therefore it was certainly a courageous move.
Will he be able to maintain this position? It depends. His words came as a shock to some of his conservative constituencies. Can he still maintain their support? Perhaps. If not, he could lose their votes in the 2019 elections, which is certainly an unwanted scenario for him. But then he may be able to add a few more secularist voters to his supporters. These tough calculations will likely be keeping his advisors busy in the coming days.