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For months we have read news reports of an Islamic reform stemming from the University of Ankara’s theology department. A widely cited February 28 report by Robert Pigott, the BBC’s religion correspondent, claimed that Ankara would “fashion a new Islam” along “revolutionary” lines. In less flamboyant tone, the story resurfaced in the June 8 issue of Newsweek under the headline, “The New Face of Islam.”
This is the triumph of hope over fact-checking. “Tin-opener theology” is how the leading Western expert on the subject dismisses the efforts at Ankara University to date. Father Felix Koerner, a German Jesuit, has taught at the university and published the definitive source-book on the supposed reform. He explains that the Ankara theologians want to open up the Koran like a tin can, and take what they want out of it, without touching the real problems of Islamic theology. On this more below.
Oddly, it is not just the Western media who have gotten it wrong. A conspiracy theory is circulating among Muslim traditionalists that the Jesuits are plotting with Turkey’s secularists to undermine Islam. In February, a Muslim website in Britain, Ummahpulse.com, denounced the Society of Jesus as “the pope’s special forces attempting to infiltrate Muslim lines.” (See The Pope’s Special Forces by Muhammad Tahir, February 29, 2008.)
The notion of a “Jesuit plot” against Islam is a paranoid hallucination, for there is no consensus among the Jesuits regarding Islam, much less a plot. A handful of patient Jesuit scholars are immersed in Muslim theology, seeking a dialogue with prospective Islamic reformers. That was the subject of Benedict XVI’s meeting on Islam at Castel Gandolfo in Italy in the summer of 2005 (See When even the Pope has to whisper Asia Times Online, January 10, 2006.) Reports from the meeting quoted the pope saying that Islam was incapable of reform, to which other participants took objection.
Christian Troll, a German Jesuit, sent the following correction to the website of Daniel Pipes on January 17, 2006:
The Holy Father is well-informed enough to know that there have existed and that there exist today, probably increasingly, other interpretations of the Koranic evidence with regard to a theology of revelation. These considered Muslim views and approaches do not (yet?), it would seem, inform the thinking and approach of a sizable Islamic movement or organization – and we do not know what future problems lie ahead in this regard – but it does exist and is vividly discussed in many places, both in academia and beyond.
An open debate on these matters does not yet seem to be possible within the Arab world but Turkish and Indonesian society grant relatively more room for airing and discussing such ideas, and the so-called Western countries offer even more space.
It is true that the Jesuits have someone to talk to in Turkey, but it is not clear that they have much of substance to talk about. Muslim traditionalists warn of a plot cooked up by the Jesuits in cahoots with Turkey’s secular government.
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 …) … 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 Islamist website added:
And for those of you who might think that we here at UmmahPulse are just paranoid, please note that when the pope visited Ankara in November 2006, we were watching and listening as his colleagues declared that the “80-year-old German theologian known for his sharp intellect – has a much broader agenda than merely improving ties between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Part of that agenda is an attempt to help spark Islamic theological reform.”
It is all dead, flat wrong, a tempest in an ibrik (Turkish coffee pot). None of the reporters seems to have read the basic source documents. The Ankara professors never were going to launch an Islamic reformation; Koerner and Troll were not going to put them up to it; and the Turkish government wouldn’t let it happen, even if everyone else wanted it. Muslim traditionalists denounce the Ankara professors as instruments of the Turkish secularists, while the June 8 Newsweek report claims that they enjoy the patronage of Turkey’s Islamist government. Both claims are false, in fact; the Ankara theologians have no real political patron.
Turkey’s Islamist government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, finds itself in mortal confrontation with the country’s secularist army and civil institutions. Prosecutors have demanded that the Constitutional Court ban Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) party, an Islamist party whose support depends on the popular Muslim piety of the countryside. The Koranic hermeneutics of the Ankara theologians will be ignored in the confrontation.
“Turkey’s moves toward greater religious freedom, which some saw as the sign of an evolving moderate Muslim society, have been put on hold by a political crisis that could outlaw the post-Islamist ruling AKP,” according to Reuters’ religion editor Tom Heneghan in a May 23 dispatch. “Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose bid to lift a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities triggered the crisis, would probably not champion further religious reform even if he won the court case against his party, Turkish analysts say.”
As noted, Father Koerner shows that what the Ankara theology department has in mind is not a reformation in any sense of the word. It is not even theology in the sense most people understand the word. Following the late Pakistani theologian Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), the Ankara group argues that some of the revelation in the Koran was directed to specific people at a specific point in time, and is subject to revision. This includes such matters as polygamy, the wearing of veils, and other matters in which the Koran appears egregiously out of touch with the times.
Koerner has collected representative writings of the Ankara theologians with convenient commentary in an English-language volume.  Rahman and his Turkish followers, he observes, “subsume the whole of Koranic theology under the single intention of influencing people’s behavior. Consequently, they are what should be called ethical reductionis[ts].” 
These are existential issues, not academic ones. The great religions of the world command the loyalty of their adherents because they offer a way to encounter God. What is it about Islam that commands the passionate loyalty of over a billion people? And what is it that inspires so many people to kill themselves, not to mention others, in the name of Islam?
Sacrifice, as I argued elsewhere (Jihad, the Lord’s Supper, and eternal life, Asia Times Online, September 19, 2006) is the means by which human beings approach a God who is beyond human conception. In Judaism and Christianity, divine love displaces the sacrifice so that the worshipper may live.
To achieve life beyond this world we must die to this world, by sacrificing ourselves. That is true of every religion. The religions differ only in the nature of sacrifice. As Jon Levenson showed in his study The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, the offerings of revealed religion are sublimated human sacrifice. In Judaism and Christianity, the God spares the victim out of love, just as God provided a ram in place of the bound Isaac on Mount Moriah. Christians believe that a single human sacrifice spared the rest of humankind.
In Islam, though every man must be his own Christ. Sacrifice is not sublimated but rather demanded of each individual. That is why jihad is the central and most fundamental form of Islamic worship, the only action that ensures the believer’s acceptance in the next world. The jihadi who sacrifices himself in the violent propagation of Islam goes straight to his heavenly reward.
There is no mention of jihad by any of the Ankara “revisionists,” only the dry contention that perhaps the Koran’s endorsement of polygamy or the veil might not necessarily apply to every place and time. Nor could there be, for by repudiating jihad, a Muslim would close off his possibility of approaching God. Traditional society closes ranks against encroachment from the outside, and this fragility explains the resurgence of political Islam.
Koerner summarizes the results of his research in a way that refutes the old canard that Germans have no sense of humor:
The [Ankara University] revisionists’ vision is still restricted to one type of question: ethics. If they ask only, “How can we make the Koran ethically acceptable today?”, they are selling the Koran under price … Hermeneutics has then a merely mechanical function: we know what there is in the Koran, ethics; and we know what must come out, modern ethics. The only question left is, how do we get it out? Hermeneutics has become a tin-opener.
We had seen the rich gardens of Muslim tradition, and the locked gates before us. That was why we set out on our expedition. It was the quest for the lost key to the garden’s fresh fruits which made us go. And now we are busy with tin-openers and baked beans. The expedition can only succeed if we remind ourselves of its initial intuition. Questions such as “Does God exist?”, “Who are we, who are we to be?”, and “What does it all mean?” had made us uneasy enough to set out; questions which were promised answers from beyond the gate. In that light, “The Koranic rulings were meant to bring justice” is rather disappointing a discovery.
None of the Ankara theologians, moreover, will discuss whether the Koran was dictated word-for-word by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed, or whether it is an historical document, collected and revised over time, like the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. To argue for a human element in the Koran threatens the foundations of Islam.
Yet it is impossible to conduct serious exegesis without considering the possibility of later redaction or alteration, especially considering the frequent discrepancies, contradictions and occasional incoherence of the Koranic text. That was the reservation the pope reportedly raised at the Castel Gandolfo meeting, and the exercise in Ankara appears to validate his skepticism.
Koranic criticism remains taboo. Koerner warned at the outset of his book that the discussion will exclude consideration of the following proposition: “Muslims can apply historical criticism to the Koran without losing their faith.” Whether this is the case or not, he explains, belongs to the realm of theology, which must take religious truths as a premise, as opposed to what he calls “religious studies.”
Modernizing Koranic ethics, sadly, is a project as narrow as it is futile. The Islamist party in Turkey draws strength from the remnants of traditional society in the Anatolian countryside. Its first demand was to permit women to wear the Islamic head-scarf in public, a step backward from the emancipation of women by the secular regime. Turkey’s Islamists have no interest in tinkering with the ethics of traditional society. The secular parties have no interest in appealing to the Koran at all. The Ankara “revisionists” will be crushed between the millstones.
Koerner’s glum evaluation of the Ankara school’s work to date is balanced by his optimism that something may come out of it in the future. “The theological workshop we visited is promising more products,” concludes his account. I would not recommend holding one’s breath. Turkey’s political crisis will finish the debate long before the Ankara theologians work out what to do next.
1. Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics in Contemporary Turkish University Theology: Rethinking Islam (Ergon Verlag: Wurzburg 2005).
2. Page 84.
3. Page 204.
4. Page 16.