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The Turkish Understanding of

Religion: Rethinking Tradition


and Modernity in Contemporary
Turkish Islamic Thought
Philip Dorroll*
Approaches to the study of Islam in modern Turkey often discuss reli-
gious movements in Turkey with reference to a dichotomy between the
secular and the religious and consequently focus on conservative
Islamic streams of thought that view these two concepts as inherently in
conflict. This means that modernist and reformist strains of Islamic
thought in Turkey have been neglected in the scholarly literature, despite
their immense importance to the history of Islam in the Turkish Republic.
This article discusses the history and context of one important contempo-
rary strain of Islamic modernism in Turkey, what is here termed the
Ankara Paradigm. Using the theoretical insights of Talal Asad and
Saba Mahmood, I argue that Islamic modernism in Turkey is best under-
stood as a theological complex that utilizes traditional texts to authorize
certain configurations of the boundaries between the religious and the
secular that enable modern religious reform.
IN THE MODERN DISCUSSION of religion, an analytic that holds
in tension two supposedly dichotomous notions, the religious and the
secular, has been all-pervasive. As is well known, this dichotomy has
*Philip Dorroll, Wofford College, 429 N. Church Street, Spartanburg, SC 29303, USA. E-mail:
pdorroll@gmail.com. I would like to thank Vincent Cornell for his guidance and comments on
earlier drafts of this article.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, pp. 137
doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfu061
The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of
Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

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been called into question by scholars who point to the mutual interde-
pendence of these notions and their necessary intertwining, especially in
the practice of what is conventionally deemed the secular or the religious
(Asad 2003; Mahmood 2009). As Saba Mahmood points out, the reli-
gious and the secular are not so much immutable essences or opposed
ideologies as they are concepts that gain a particular salience with the
emergence of the modern state and attendant politicsconcepts that are,
furthermore, interdependent and necessarily linked in their mutual trans-
formation and historical emergence (2009: 836). Asad and Mahmoods
work implies that the secular and the religious are not mutually imperme-
able domains that continually vie for dominance in the public sphere;
instead, they give meaning to each other. Negotiating their boundaries,
and thus their mutual definition, is a major task of religious thought in
the contemporary world.
There is a temporal component to this ideological or political dichot-
omy between the religious and the secular: the traditional and the
modern. As with the secular and the religious, these notions are often
assumed to be immutably opposed, but I would suggest that they in fact
depend on each other, both historically and discursively. As Mahmood
explains,
Tradition . . . is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present prac-
tices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand
in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a
historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground
through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a traditions ad-
herents are constituted. (2005: 115; emphasis mine)
In other words, as a continuous hermeneutic engagement with previ-
ous discourses, religious tradition is the necessary ground of the reli-
gious believers construction of her own sense of agency or participation
in a particular religious community. Tradition is not simply the static
other of modernity. Nor does it have to be identified with conservatism:
if tradition is the medium through which a participant interacts with her
faith tradition, as Mahmood suggests, it may be interpreted in any num-
ber of different ways and utilized for any number of different projects.
For instance, certain uses of tradition may authorize socially conservative
patriarchal gender roles, while others may undermine these.
The study of Islamic thought in Turkey has focused intensely on ques-
tions of secularity and religiosity, but it has largely done so by examining
reactionary religious thinkers who argue that the religious and the secular
are entirely incompatible (Meeker 1994; Karasipahi 2009). Other scholars
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 2 of 37

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have focused on conservative Islamic social movements such as the
Fethullah Glen movement or the ideological bases of the current ruling
right-wing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalknma Partisi)
(Yavuz 2003, 2009; Turner and Horkuc 2009; Ebaugh 2010). Additionally,
a number of important anthropological and ethnographic studies have ana-
lyzed conservative Sufi circles that see themselves as opposed in some way
to the prevailing secular order in Turkey (White 2002; Raudvere 2003;
Silverstein 2010). In other words, in the study of Islamic thought in the
Turkish Republic, there has been a prevailing focus on conservative groups
or thinkers who see tradition as a means to negotiate the boundaries
between the secular and the religious in the public sphere in favor of the
latter. These conservative religious groups utilize Islamic discursive tradi-
tions to undermine the authority of secular social institutions in Turkey
and bolster the authority of the patriarchal family.
However, the complex relationship between the secular and the reli-
gious suggests that there are other possible configurations of the boundaries
between the secular and the religious and other possible uses of tradition in
negotiating these boundaries. This article focuses on the roots and the con-
temporary elaboration of liberal, or, as it is more frequently termed, mod-
ernist and reformist (yeniliki)
1
Islamic thought in the Republic of Turkey.
I first discuss the development of what is here termed the Ankara
Paradigm, a constellation of ideas that links Islamic modernism and re-
formism with a notion of Turkish Islam. This intellectual paradigm has
been a key element in Islamic thought in Turkey since the founding of the
Turkish Republic in 1923. This stream of thought, which was elaborated
first in the 1940s and 1950s and grew out of the early years of the Ankara
University Faculty of Divinity, builds on sociological understandings of
religion and a generalized humanist approach to the concept of religion
(din) in order to outline a vision of Islamic reformism uniquely suited
to the social context of the Turkish Republic. In doing so, the thinkers
who helped create and maintain this paradigm located its bases in a rein-
terpretation of medieval Sunn Islamic religious texts, particularly those
1
It must be noted that the term used here, yeniliki, has the sense of the English terms reformist
or modernist, i.e., someone who supports progressive or what might be called liberal changes in
religious practice that are in harmony with modern social structures and ideologies. The term
reform actually exists as a cognate in Turkish, but is not as commonly used by Turkish Muslim
modernists. Thus, throughout this article, the terms modernist and reformist will be used as
English translations of Turkish terms such as yeniliki or similar terms that express a modernist
religious ideology without the use of the cognate term reform in Turkish. For the suggestion to use
the term yeniliki, I am indebted to a very productive and enlightening conversation with Prof. Dr.
Snmez Kutlu of the Ankara University Faculty of Divinity, whose works are also discussed later in
this article.
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 3 of 37

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of the H anaf school of law and dogmatics, thought to be located in a spe-
cifically Turkish tradition of religious thought.
This article then provides a detailed analysis of some contemporary ex-
amples of this paradigm, focusing in greatest detail on the systematic Islamic
modernist thought of Hanifi zcan, currently a professor at the Dokuz Eyll
University Faculty of Divinity in Izmir. Though the Ankara Paradigm has
deeply influenced the mainstream of academic Turkish Islamic thought, it
has also in recent years received pointed challenges from scholars from
other universities who argue against its alleged lack of historicity. These chal-
lenges will be discussed as well in order to explore the theoretical tensions
inherent in contemporary Turkish Islamic modernism.
Through an analysis of Islamic modernism in contemporary Turkey,
this article argues that reformist or modernist Islamic thought does not
create something arbitrary with respect to traditional discursive frame-
works, opposed to the authenticity of (conservative) tradition. Rather, it
redraws the boundaries between certain key concepts in pre-existing dis-
cursive frameworks, in this case between the religious and the secular.
Modernist Islamic thought does this by utilizing traditional texts (texts
in the medieval Sunn canon that have been invested with particular au-
thority) in specific ways that open up interpretive possibilities within
these texts in order to authorize certain configurations of the boundaries
between the religious and the secular. Furthermore, in the Turkish case,
this is actually enabled by a concept of Turkish nationalism which autho-
rized new readings and revealed new possibilities in these traditional
texts. As Talal Asad writes, The nation-state requires clearly demarcated
spaces that it can classify and regulate; these include the secular and the
religious (2003: 201). I suggest that the history of reformist and modernist
Islamic thought in Turkey is the history of how the boundaries between
these two concepts can be drawn such that this practice overturns socially
conservative readings of Islam in favor of a notion of Islamic thought that
authorizes continual critique and reform. The analysis of reformist
Islamic thought in Turkey shows that the bases of modernist Islam are
not dissimilar from its conservative counterpart, and that it involves a
similar process of negotiation between the secular and the religious medi-
ated through understandings of tradition. The analysis of the history of
modernist Islam in Turkey thus demonstrates that the debate between
modernist and conservative Islamic thinkers in the modern era is not a
question of whether or not to follow authentic Islamic tradition. It is
instead a debate over what actually constitutes Islamic tradition, with
each ideological side defining tradition through specific configurations
of the boundary between the religious and the secular.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 4 of 37

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ROOTS OF MODERNIST ISLAMIC THEOLOGY IN THE
TURKISH REPUBLIC: THE RISE OF THE ANKARA
PARADIGM
Modernist Islamic theology
2
in Republican Turkey has its roots in the
writings of pious reformist Muslim intellectuals associated with the
Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet leri Bakanl, commonly re-
ferred to as simply the Diyanet) and the establishment of the first Turkish
divinity faculty (ilahiyat fakltelesi) at Ankara University (194050s).
star B. Gzaydn perceptively summarizes the role of the Diyanet in
Turkish society in this way: The PRA is a laic administrative unit in the
Republic of Turkey established in 1924 to execute services regarding
Islamic faith and practices, to enlighten society about religion, and to
carry out the management of places of worship (2008: 216). Both the
Diyanet and the Ankara faculty were founded with the intent of promot-
ing a reformist vision of Islam and promoting the scholarly study of
Islamic disciplines along West European academic lines. The intellectuals
associated with these institutions were controversial for their alleged col-
lusion with the Kemalist regime, but their modernist religious philoso-
phies became part of the academic mainstream due to their involvement
with the most socially influential state-sanctioned Islamic religious insti-
tutions in Republican Turkey, the Diyanet and the divinity faculties. Amit
Bein, for instance, has discussed in detail the role these reformists played
in the justification of Kemalist policies (2011: 109111). While the associ-
ations of these figures with Kemalism have been discussed by Bein and
others,
3
the present analysis focuses on how these thinkers constructed a
model of modernist Islamic thought that outlasted the early Kemalist
2
The term theology is used here to denote systematic speculation about the nature of religion,
God, and the relationship these have with human life. Though the term is often controversial when
applied to non-Christian sources, it is used here because it is very often used by Turkish scholars to
translate the term ilahiyatliterally, divinity, the term used in Turkish academia to denote the
study of Islamic religious disciplines and the prescriptive, constructive projects within these discipline
that seek to outline a systematic Islamic system of thought on a given religious issue. This term in
Turkish is also very often used with a suffix to denote one who practices or studies ilahiyat,
ilahiyat, i.e., a religious intellectual who constructs or studies systems of Islamic thought. While
keeping in mind the very legitimate concerns with using the term theology outside of a Christian
context, the term theologian seems to be the best single English term to translate ilahiyat. In
addition, theology seems to be the best single English term to denote systematic intellectual projects
that reflect on the relationship between human beings and a monotheistic God. It is in this sense that
the term theology is occasionally used in this article, i.e., when referring to systematic intelletual
projects to talk about God and human beings in an Islamic context.
3
See especially the works of smail Kara, in which he critiques extensively the utilization of
religious motifs by Kemalist nationalists to implement aggressively secularist policies (Kara 2003,
2008).
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 5 of 37

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period in Turkey and remained extremely influential in mainstream
Turkish Islamic thought until the present day. The association of Islamic
modernism in the Turkish Republic with Kemalism remains an impor-
tant issue, however. For this reason, the present analysis will conclude with
a consideration of the criticisms leveled against this modernist stream of
thought by contemporary Turkish Muslim academics who attempt to dis-
credit these modernist intellectuals by pointing to the association of their
thought with the political agenda of Kemalism and West European ideolo-
gies of modernization. These dissenting voices will provide a way to reflect
on the politicization of these modernist theological currents through their
historical association with Kemalism.
In particular, the leadership of the Ankara Faculty of Divinity in the
institutionalization and perpetuation of this modernist Islamic paradigm
in Turkey has been decisive. From the early 1950s on, building on the leg-
acies of these modernist thinkers, this faculty established what I call the
Ankara Paradigm. This constellation of reformist and sometimes na-
tionalist ideologies developed into a formidable intellectual paradigm that
exercised wide influence in Turkish society due to its acceptance by the
Diyanet and other divinity faculties throughout Turkey.
The first divinity faculty in Turkey was founded in 1924 at the
Darlfnun (a late Ottoman institution of higher education founded in
imitation of the West European university) in Istanbul after the secular
republic abolished the medrese system entirely and consolidated all edu-
cational institutions under the control of the national Ministry of
Education (Kota 1990: 6; Pacaci and Aktay 2006: 124). This faculty was
intended to foster the study of Islamic disciplines within the framework
of the social sciences, but was closed in 1933 due to lack of students. In
1949, however, the longest continually operating institution of Islamic
higher education in Republican Turkey was founded: the Ankara
University Faculty of Divinity. The university ordered that the faculty be
opened to foster the scientific study of religion, and also to provide the
required conditions for raising men of religion effective in their profes-
sion and comprehensive in their thinking; furthermore, the faculty was
to be opened in accordance with its Western counterpart (Pacaci and
Aktay 2006: 130). Annemarie Schimmel, the great German scholar of
Islam and Sufism who taught at the faculty from 1954 to 1959, described
the goal of the faculty as a combination of Western scientific methods
and [Muslim] personal piety (1969: 80). It was to serve as the flagship in-
stitution for an enlightened and reformist understanding of Islam in the
Republic of Turkey (Kota 1990: 8).
Since the 1980s, divinity faculties in Turkey in general have seen a me-
teoric rise in influence and numbers (despite periods of political turmoil,
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 6 of 37

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especially the military ultimatum of 1997). At the end of the 1980s, only
nine faculties existed; by 2011, there were a total of thirty-six, thirteen of
which had been opened during the previous two years (Pacaci and Aktay
2006: 134; Suluolu 2011: 1). In May 2013, a spokesman from the
Diyanet declared that there are eighty-six divinity faculties which have
been officially opened in Turkey; of these, forty-six are currently receiving
students, while the remainder are being prepared to receive students for
enrollment (ilahiyat fakltesi 2013). Divinity faculties in Turkey in
2011 had approximately six thousand five hundred students, a veritable
explosion of numbers considering that the number of total enrollment in
the 20067 academic year was only approximately five hundred students
(Suluolu 2011: 1). Particularly due to their close connection with the na-
tional Presidency of Religious Affairs, these faculties are poised to have a
significant influence over the practice and understanding of Islam in
Turkey. The Ministry of Education and the Presidency of Religious
Affairs are in fact the two major sources of employment for graduates of
these faculties, which means that the intellectual program of these facul-
ties directly influences Turkish religious and educational institutions at
nearly all levels (Pacaci and Aktay 2006: 136). While a comprehensive
study of this system is needed, one goal of this article is to provide a start
by examining one strain of thought that has been particularly influential
among these faculties since the first was founded in Ankara in 1949.
The divinity faculty at Ankara University has maintained a major po-
sition of influence in the Turkish Islamic academic and religious estab-
lishment. Graduates of the Ankara faculty accounted for six of the nine
deans of all of the existing divinity faculties in Turkey in 1993 (Pacaci and
Aktay 2006: 134). The Ankara faculty has also had significant influence
in Turkish society through its connections with the Presidency of
Religious Affairs, the government ministry that oversees the practice and
teaching of Sunn Islam in Turkey. This ministry is headed by a single
president of religious affairs. Of the fourteen presidents that have served
in this capacity since the Ankara faculty was founded, eight (including
the last four consecutive presidents since 1987) have a significant aca-
demic connection to the faculty. Four have taught there, five either
studied or received a degree there, one received his doctorate under an
advisor who graduated from the faculty, and one even served as dean of
the faculty from 1994 to 2002. The extent of the influence of the Ankara
faculty on the presidents of the Diyanet throughout its history is un-
matched by any other single institution of higher education in Turkey; no
other institution can boast of having played so formative a role in the aca-
demic credentials of the presidents of the Diyanet. This is not surprising:
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 7 of 37

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the two institutions share a very similar goal, to spread a modernized and
academic form of Islam among the Turkish populace.
The Ankara University Faculty of Divinity became the institutional
home for a cohesive Islamic theological vision in Turkey that I have
termed the Ankara Paradigm. This paradigm took as its starting point
certain key features of reformist Islamic thought in the late Ottoman
Empire and the early Turkish Republic that then became mainstream
throughout Turkish Islamic academia through the dominance of the
Ankara University Faculty of Divinity. These three key features, discussed
here in turn, are: a broad notion of religious humanism, a commitment
to religious reform, and the elaboration of a specifically Turkish Islamic
heritage. According to the logic of this paradigm, the acceptance of a
religious humanism that focuses on the humanly constructed and situat-
ed components of religion necessitates openness to continual religious
reform. Furthermore, these thinkers argue, this approach to religion is at
the core of the history of the Turkish understanding of Islam. Yusuf Ziya
Yrkan (18871954), a key founding member of the Ankara faculty,
4
was
particularly important in elaborating this paradigm.
The basis of this paradigm is a willingness to consider religions im-
pact on individual lives and its situatedness in a social context. A deep
interest in sociological approaches to religion inspired by readings of
mile Durkheim, i.e., approaches to the study of Islamic history that ana-
lyzed Islamic thought and practices as products of specific times and
places, formed the methodological bedrock of the Ankara University
Divinity Faculty program. This remains a key component of divinity
faculty approaches to the study of Islam. In his 1952 article on Abu
H anfas dogmatics, Yrkan argues that each school of Islamic thought
has roots in different societies and cultures: they are all rooted in specific
psychological conditions and a specific socio-cultural context (1952b:
3). These conditions and contexts are products of society as a whole, as
each society possesses unique characteristics that it imprints on its
members: Every society and every milieu carries a separate spirit. Every
milieu has a disposition specific to itself (Yrkan 1952b: 13). Specific
4
On Yrkans life and works, see Arkan (2011) and lken (1954). Yrkan was a professor at the
Darlfnun and the Ankara faculties of divinity. Througout his academic career, he focused on
Islamic intellectual history and the history of Islamic sects and doctrines. He also authored the first
article of the first issue of the Ankara facultys academic journal, in which he wrote some of the most
influential works in modern Turkish on the history of Islamic doctrines. His work, more than any
others, helped produce the synthesis between conceptions of Turkish national culture and Islamic
reformism that laid the groundwork for the Ankara Paradigm and the academic study of Islamic
intellectual history in the Turkish Republic.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 8 of 37

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societies, then, produce differing understanding of religious based on
the shared experiences of their members.
Yrkan argued that an understanding of sociological principles is
therefore necessary to an understanding of any religious group (Arkan
2011: 94). This approach is derived from Durkheims understanding
of the social as a totality that forms the matrix for the formation of the
individuals characteristics and life experiences (Durkheim 2008 [1912]:
11, 17). Yrkan himself attributed his methodology to Durkheim:
Particularly when analyzing religious sects, we will take up and follow
as a rule the methodology of Durkheim, which has provided a new devel-
opment for knowledge through the principles that he followed in the
study of social events (Arkan 2011: 94). Yrkans understanding of
Durkheims sociology comes mediated through the highly influential
works of Ziya Gkalp, whose understanding of the totality of Turkish na-
tional culture was based on the totalizing notion of society found in
Durkheim (Gkalp 1968 [1923]: 15).
This conception of society also included a focus on the inviolability of
the human individual. Though religion is a divine institution, one of its
principal aims is to bind people together into a functioning social unit
that promotes individual welfare (Akseki 1948: 6; Yrkan 1993 [1957]:
19). At the same time, the rights of the individual must remain para-
mount, and these are rightly protected by religion (Yrkan 1993 [1957]:
19). Ahmet Hamdi Akseki
5
(18871951), president of the Diyanet from
1947 to 1951, emphasized that human beings possess natural rights
that are the basis of human equality. He wrote in 1948 that the Qurn
viewed the human being as a human being, and it declared that everyone
possesses the same natural rights on the basis of their being human
(Akseki 1948: 7). Mehmet erafettin Yaltkaya
6
(18791947), president
of the Diyanet from 1942 to 1947, also focused on the capacity of the
Quranic revelation to foster respect for human beings as such. He noted
that the revelation to the ancient Arabs transformed their previously ig-
norant, brutal, and elementary society into a model of humanity by
convincing them to abandon inhumane practices such as female infanti-
cide (Yaltkaya 1944: 64). Yaltkaya also argued that the Qurn played a
key role in human progress throughout history: [the Qurn] brought
5
Akseki was especially notable for his moderate reformism and his sometimes tense relationship
with Kemalist directives (Bein 2011: 114116). The most extensive treatment of his thought in the
secondary literature is found in Turkish in Arslan and Erdoan (2005).
6
On Yaltkayas work in general, see Bein (2011: 110111). His work was particularly important for
its elaboration of a reformed Islamic theological system based on the sociological principles outlined
by Ziya Gkalp (zervarl 2007b).
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 9 of 37

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into being civilizations across the world and elevated humanity both ma-
terially and spiritually (1944: 64).
In the Ankara Paradigm, the establishment of a concept of natural
human rights, combined with the recognition of the need to adjust reli-
gious structures in order to accommodate those rights when surrounding
social structures change, is the basis for the argument for religious re-
formism. Rather than being seen as an impediment to social changes that
expand the scope of a secular notion of human rights, religion here
becomes the legitimizing force for this expansion. In the Ankara
Paradigm, the delineation of a concept of natural human rights involves a
redrawing of the boundaries between the religious and the secular by de-
lineating a justification for the ways in which religion might accommo-
date itself to social progress in the secular world. Just as the world that
God has created is continually subject to progress (terakki) and evolution
(tekaml), so the religion of Islam does not content itself with stagnation
or stasis, but continually fosters human progress and innovation (Akseki
1948: 6). This can also mean continuous reform within Islam itself, par-
ticularly within the Shara (eriat). Continuous social changes require
continuous reform and renewal in religious laws: [Islam], so long as its
fundamental principles remain, calls us to reform (teceddd) even in reli-
gious laws (eri hkmler), and encourages the acceptance of such
reform (Akseki 1948: 7). Before becoming the president of religious
affairs, Akseki also made the same argument, that religious rulings could
be changed in accordance with changing social needs, in religious lectures
delivered in the early 1920s (Karaman 2005: 40).
Yrkan in particular supported continual reform in the Shara,
arguing that the principle of ijtihd (individual religious reasoning result-
ing in a change in practice) in Islamic jurisprudence allowed for new reli-
gious rulings that accorded with the spirit of Islam, the exigencies of
the age, and the needs of the people (Yrkan 1993 [1957]: 59). He
termed the aspect of religion that is subject to continual reformation
diyanet, or religious piety and practice, the expression of ones personal
relationship with God (Yrkan 1945: 194196). Yrkan reasoned that
when the original reason for a religious law is no longer valid, the reli-
gious law is itself nullified. For instance, gender segregation used to be
stipulated in Islamic societies because of a fear of impropriety, but if
modern society and rules of behavior have removed the likelihood of im-
propriety, then gender segregation is no longer applicable (Yrkan 1993
[1957]: 59). For Yrkan, continual renewal and reform in religious prac-
tice is in fact the necessary condition for the survival of religion in
history, for if religion is to be able to fulfill its stated goal of fostering
human advancement and happiness in this life and the next, then it must
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 10 of 37

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be allowed to continually reform its dictates to enable this goal to be real-
ized in changing social circumstances. As he put it, in order for religion
to continue to exist indefinitely, it must not be forgotten that such ijtihd
is an absolute religious duty ( farz) (Yrkan 1993 [1957]: 59).
The process of religious reform is seen in this line of thought as
informed by, and analogous to, the progress of human knowledge.
According to Yrkan, both the acquisition of knowledge through
science (ilim) and the practice of religion have the same goal: the preser-
vation of human life and happiness (saadet); they are like the body and
soul of the human being (Yrkan 1944: 129). Their shared advancement
is the condition of the continual advancement of humanity. Similarly,
Yrkan and other modernist Turkish Muslim theologians of this period
never tired of emphasizing the harmony between reason and religion, as
they did not view Islam in any way hostile to the free use of reason in the
pursuit of a better life for human beings and the refinement of their
knowledge of the one God (Yrkan 1993 [1957]: 3638). Yaltkaya wrote
that though the ultimate source of religion was divine revelation, not a
single rule (hkm) of Islam contradicts reason (1944: 56). He empha-
sized that the Qurn itself encourages the progress of science and human
knowledge: This book, which attached great importance to science and
contemplation, was a torch spreading light to all of humanity (Yaltkaya
1944: 64). Yrkan also saw the Qurns insistence on individual reflec-
tion as an endorsement of continual progress in science and the accumu-
lation of human knowledge (1993 [1957]: 36).
The third major component of the Ankara Paradigm is a notion of
Turkish national culture. This argument draws on Ziya Gkalps discus-
sion of culture as the basis of national unity. Gkalp made this argument
against claims that ethnicity or race was the key element in Turkish na-
tional identity (1968 [1923]: 13). National culture was for Gkalp the
total social context in which the individual is nurtured and shaped.
Building on Gkalp and other late Ottoman theories of Turkish cultural
particularity, the exponents of the Ankara Paradigm developed a notion
of a specifically Turkish Islamic heritage, a heritage that was in important
ways unique from other nations interpretation of Islam.
7
Yrkan in
7
It is important to note here that this Turkish modernist delineation of a specifically Turkish
Islamic heritage is to be distinguished from the politically conservative ideology of Turkish Islamic
Synthesis (Trk-slam Sentezi) that was promoted after the 1980 military coup. Though both share
the notion of a Turkish Islamic heritage, the latter conservative version of this theory eschewed
religious reform and has been strongly associated with strains of right-wing, socially conservative
Turkish nationalism since the 1980s (Gven et al. 1991: 47). On the conservative ideology of
Turkish Islamic synthesis and its relationship with broader arguments within Turkish nationalism for
a notion of Turkish Islam, see Gven et al. (1991) and Cetinsaya (1999).
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 11 of 37

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particular took initial steps in the direction of elaborating the notion of a
uniquely Turkish tradition of Islamic thought based on the H anaf legal
and theological tradition (Arkan 2011: 96). According to Yrkan, the
Central Asian Mturd school of H anaf dogmatics represented the
official school of Islamic belief for the Turks throughout their history
(2006 [1932]: 109). Yrkans understanding of H anafisms eponymous
founder, Ab H anfa, was also important in that it depicted him primari-
ly as theological thinker whose most important contribution to Islamic
history was his dogmatic and philosophical reflections, not his legacy in
Islamic law (1952b: 78).
Yrkans understanding of Ab H anfa in particular would play a
key role in later Turkish intellectuals understanding of this extremely im-
portant figure in Islamic history. Yrkan emphasized that Ab H anfa
was in fact the father of all Sunn dogmatics, and that he was the first
thinker in Islamic history who based his ideas on the assumption of
harmony between reason and revelation (Yrkan 1952c: 79). In addi-
tion, Yrkan saw Ab H anfa as notable for his sensitivity to cultural
diversity and the needs of the people in the socio-cultural situation in
which he found himself:
Because he understood the reality of the historical epoch [of Islamic
history in which he lived] which saw the fusion of nations (milletler) and
the beginning of Turkish and Persian influence greater than that of the
Arab population and culture, he understood the spirit of [various]
peoples and their lifestyles; and whether in religious law or religious
thought he thoroughly investigated the rulings of sacred texts and recon-
ciled the needs of the community with this spirit. (Yrkan 1952c: 79)
Yrkans emphasis on Ab H anfas ability to understand the specific
relevance of Islamic tradition for the needs of specific cultural situations
would be an important element in the elaboration of the notion of a
Turkish Islam that is both tolerant of diversity and able to adapt itself
to different social situations. Yrkan, it should be noted however, also
saw himself as elaborating a pan-Sunn vision of Islam that was not re-
stricted to simply the Turkish context. He emphasized that in the final
analysis, the basis of the unity and universality of the Islamic religion is
the Qurn (Yrkan 1952a, 1993 [1957]: 42; Arkan 2011: 98). While he
did take important steps toward defining the content of a specifically
Turkish tradition of Islam, he did not base his vision of reform on
Turkish nationalism alone.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 12 of 37

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Yrkan was not the first, however, to argue for Ab H anfas unique
relevance to the Turkish situation. In an extremely striking presentation
made to the Second Turkish History Congress in 1937, the reformist
thinker smail Hakk zmirli
8
(18691946) put forth arguments intended
to show that Ab H anfa was himself Turkish (in the same presentation,
zmirli even suggested that this may have been true of the Prophet
Muh ammad) (zmirli 1943: 1021). zmirli also contributed important
characterizations to the picture of Ab H anfa that would emerge as nor-
mative in the Ankara Paradigm. According to zmirli, Ab H anfas legal
methodology, which was highly rational and based on individual experi-
ence, is uniquely suited to the Turkish way of thinking and was notable
for the ways in which it took into account the needs of the people who
lived in his society (zmirli 1943: 10211022). In zmirlis estimation,
Ab H anfas intellectual flexibility demonstrated that he valued
freedom, reason, and the needs of the age, all values that zmirli
claimed were embodied in the reform programs of the Turkish Republic
(zmirli 1943: 10251026).
The Ankara Paradigm may be understood as a sacralization of one par-
ticular mode of the shifting of boundaries between the worldly and religious,
i.e., the mode of secularizing reform undertaken during the first few decades
of the Turkish Republic. The Ankara Paradigm should not be understood as
simply a religious justification for Kemalist secularism, however. Instead, it
does not see the religious and the secular as antagonistic, but mutually in-
formative. It makes reconsideration of their relationship a religious duty. In
this paradigm, religion actually demands the renegotiation of its own power
by acknowledging that certain realms of human interaction at times must be
removed from the domain of religious law and released into the changing
space of the secular, making them therefore liable to reform such that they
conform to the need to protect individual human rights.
This is the meaning of modernist religious reform: that certain areas
of human life that were once considered to be properly controlled by the
authority of the religious (such as certain forms of penal law, family orga-
nization, and the concept of state sovereignty and legitimation) be trans-
ferred to the space of the secular, i.e., the space of human life subject to
change and modification. As Asad and Mahmood point out, in the
modern world, the religious and the secular as concepts can only be
8
For English treatments of zmirlis life and works, see zervarl (1999, 2007a). For a thorough
discussion of his thought in Turkish, see Balolu and eker (1996). zmirli is best known for his
attempt to reconstruct Islamic dogmatics by an engagement with West European philosophy, in an
effort to refound Islamic theology on bases that could best defend against the threat of philosophical
materialism and incorporate the advances of modern knowledge into Islamic thought.
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 13 of 37

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clearly defined in relation to each other. In this sense, then, it may be said
that secular reform actually takes its meaning by standing opposite a
notion of absolute religious truth in which it does not interfere. At the
same time, secular reform becomes the process through which religion
expresses its continual quest for human equality and justice. In the
Ankara Paradigm, religious modernism and reformism are not seen as
inauthentic from a religious point of view, but instead represent one
type of negotiation of the boundary between the religious and the secular.
CONTEMPORARY ITERATIONS OF THE ANKARA
PARADIGM I: RELIGIOUS HUMANISM
The work of Hanifi zcan, who received his PhD from the Ankara
University Faculty of Divinity and is currently a professor at the Dokuz
Eyll University Faculty of Divinity in zmir, is an excellent example of
contemporary systematic theological projects based on the Ankara
Paradigm. A close consideration of his work, while also mentioning other
like-minded Turkish Muslim thinkers throughout this analysis, provides
a clearer picture of the systematic theology of the Ankara Paradigm as it
is being developed today, and thus of the contemporary forms of mod-
ernist Islamic thought in Turkey in general.
Contemporary modernist Turkish Muslim thinkers such as zcan
have provided considerable theological depth to the general theoretical
framework of the Ankara Paradigm (first elaborated in the 1940s and
1950s) by elaborating a systematic Islamic modernist theology of reform
based on some of the most authoritative works of medieval Sunn reli-
gious thought. Like their predecessors within the Ankara Paradigm, they
argue a theory of religious modernism based on the canonical texts of
Sunn Islam. As mentioned above, Turkish Muslim intellectuals active in
the early Turkish Republic suggested a link between a national Turkish
tradition of religious thought and the H anaf school of Sunn Islamic law
and dogmatics. zcan and others have developed this into a kind of
neo-H anaf theological schema that makes the case for religious reform
based on a careful reading of the theological legacy of the H anaf school.
zcans theory of religion begins with humanist dimensions similar
to those outlined by earlier generations of modernist Muslim thinkers in
Turkey. zcan argues that due to the individual-centered conditions of
modernity, the principle that religion exists for the person, not the
person for the religion (din insan iin vardr; insan din iin deil) must
be adopted (2007: 134). He therefore begins his theological project from a
fundamentally humanist orientation, an orientation that starts with the
effect of religion on the needs and situation of humans as individuals. As
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 14 of 37

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zcan points out, individual human beings (and this seems particularly
true in modernity) confront religion as an institution, a pre-existent
reality that they must interact with. It is therefore necessary to allow for a
rational and realistic sense of flexibility in religious interpretation in
order to allow religion to transmit its lessons of eternal truth to individual
human beings and their highly particularized circumstances. After all,
while religions essence is not humanly, its structure in the world is
(zcan 2007: 136).
zcan argues that it is therefore necessary to recognize the function-
al element of religion, the human component of its structure, in order to
properly understand how to communicate its divine and eternal elements
to people living in diverse times and places, because this structure is liable
to change throughout history (2007: 137). In other words, zcan asserts
that the historically contingent elements of religion that are products of
human activity must always be distinguished from the elements of reli-
gion that are eternal and non-negotiable, or religion will not be able to ac-
tually communicate these eternal truths to real people living in the real
world. This eternal content is the reality of the Oneness of God, the ulti-
mate principle of monotheism (tawh d in Arabic, tevhid in Turkish)
(zcan 1999: 33, 77).
zcan emphasizes that religion is a blessing for individual human
beings and a required component of a stable society. Religion is a blend
of the human and the divine, the social and the individual (zcan 2007:
136). It must be interpreted in a way that respects the needs of both the
individual and the larger community in which she lives (zcan 2007:
138). Philosophically, then, zcan makes a strong case for the need for
continual reform and change in religion: Todays true will be tomorrows
false. Every generation is held accountable for the period during which it
lives (2007: 139). Again, this is based on the recognition of the rights
and needs of the individual human being: The constant changing of a
persons stance vis--vis religion is one of religions unchanging charac-
teristics, and this is an historical fact (zcan 2007: 139).
The humanistic religious philosophy described above as one of the
three bases of the Ankara Paradigm clearly plays a role in zcans own
system. True to this theological method, zcan combines a consideration
of the variations in social context and the definition of religion from the
perspective of its impact on individual human beings in order to produce
a modernist religious philosophy that argues for the need for continual
religious reformation and flexibility. zzet Sargn, another follower of this
paradigm and current professor in the divinity faculty of Kahramanmara
St mam University in Kahramanmara, sums up this aspect of the
contemporary formulation of the Ankara Paradigm thus:
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 15 of 37

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Whatever its source or nature, all religions are oriented toward the
human being, connected to and dependent on the human being, and
exist for the human being. Every religion achieves value, meaning,
and existence in the human world. For this reason, religion is both a
sociological and historical phenomenon. This implies perception and
change. . . . Every religion in every time period and in every society is
continually recreated. (2005: 421)
zcans broadly humanist conception of religion is correlated with his ar-
gument for the importance of human knowledge. Following the research
of Franz Rosenthal, zcan argues that Islamic civilization has been
defined by its focus on this concept (1993: 23). The term ilm (know-
ledge) was the ordering principle in medieval Arabic-Islamic intellectual
discourse for diverse systems of thought, and could be used by Sufis
to refer to mystical insight, by theologians and philosophers to refer to
varying notions of philosophical epistemology, or by textual scholars
to refer to hermeneutics and Islamic legal practices (Rosenthal 2007).
Following Rosenthal, zcan points out that for medieval Muslim schol-
ars, defining knowledge meant defining Islam itself (1993: 23).
zcan argues then that a consideration of Islamic epistemology trans-
lates into an exploration of the nature of Islamic itself. zcan points out
that Islamic religious thought in general (which he here denotes by the
medieval Arabic term for the intellectual roots of Islamic belief and prac-
tice, usl) is fundamentally a rational intellectual exercise, and is properly
the subject of the disciplines of theology and religious philosophy (1993:
23). This move establishes that the basis of Islam is theological and philo-
sophical, and that religious practices derive from these fundamental intel-
lectual roots. zcan further argues that Islam is fundamentally a rational
religion, despite the natural limits to the use of human reason (1993: 65).
The epistemology outlined by the medieval H anaf systematic theolo-
gian Mturd (d. 944)
9
exemplifies for zcan the emphasis placed on
reason and knowledge in Islam. zcan places Mturds epistemology
somewhere between rationalism and empiricism (1993: 138). zcan
comes to this conclusion based on the fact that Mturd identifies
three different sources of human knowledge, which suggests a hybrid
epistemology: direct sensual perception (al-iyn), reported information
(al-akhbr), and reasoned reflection (al-naz ar) (Mturd 2007: 69).
9
For an excellent summary and analysis of Mturd doctrine and theological method, and how
these relate to other Sunn schools of dogmatic theology, see Yaman (2010). Mturd doctrine is
generally distinguished by its systematization of certain theological principles suggested by Ab
H anfa, such as the interiority of religious belief and the defense of human reason and free will.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 16 of 37

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Mturd therefore accepts both empirical and rational sources of knowl-
edge, and also acknowledges the necessity of reliable reported information
(such as historical information) that supplements areas of knowledge nec-
essarily sealed off to human reason and physical senses. zcan calls this
type of epistemology a form of realism, and identifies it as characteristic of
Turkish religious thought in general (2003: 289).
zcan also highlights Mturds opposition to the theory that knowl-
edge can be received merely by reception from an authoritative source,
which in Islamic discourse is termed imitation (taqld in Arabic, taklit
in Turkish). Mturd opposes the notion that any argument from author-
ity alone can constitute real knowledge because it has no basis in experi-
enced or rational evidence (dall) and is therefore ultimately unverifiable
(1993: 167). And for Mturd, religious knowledge must be based on ra-
tional proof and demonstration (burhn), or it would be impossible to
distinguish truth from falsehood (2007: 66). zcan here offers what he
views as an interesting contrast between Christian notions of faith and
Islamic notions of faith. zcan quotes Tertullians famous declaration of
belief in that which is logically incomprehensible (the Resurrection of
Christ) and Martin Bubers statement in Eclipse of God that belief in God
does not require knowledge of God, as contrasted with Islamic notions of
belief (mn), which in medieval Arabic-Islamic discourse must be based
on rational proofs (1993: 181). Whether zcan fairly characterizes
Bubers or Tertullians position may be another point to consider.
However, what is crucial for this analysis is the contrast he draws between
the notion that faith indicates assent to something irrational precisely
because it is so, and therefore must be simply believed; and the notion
that belief in anything in the first place must be based on rational evi-
dence. zcan (and much of the medieval Islamic theological tradition)
sees the latter position as quintessentially Islamic. zcan makes the inter-
esting assertion that Islamic belief is actually best characterized by the
statement of W. K. Clifford that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for
anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence (1993: 181).
zcan goes on to assert that knowledge (bilgi) is a principal basis of
Islamic ethics: In fact, knowledges priority over action, and the human
beings need to act according to knowledge, can generally be seen as an
important principle of Islamic ethics (1993: 207). zcan does not,
however, see reason as the isolated source of the religion of Islam.
Instead, it has an intimate and important relationship with divine revela-
tion. zcan does argue that a persons moral sense and the ability to ra-
tionally distinguish good from evil precedes revelation. According to the
Qurn, God created human beings with a discerning reason that is able
to discern the truth in things on its own, to a certain extent: In this sense
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 17 of 37

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it can be said that a human beings moral sense does not begin with reve-
lation; however, revelation intensifies this sense that is actually found
from the beginning in the human being (1993: 211). zcan closes his
analysis of Mturds epistemology by stating that its primary goal is to
establish a religious and moral system that is based on knowledge. This is
because, according to [Mturd], sound religion is religion that is based
on knowledge and evidence (1993: 213). zcans broader point (and
one that is outlined in more detail in his later works, as we shall see) is
that the H anaf tradition of Islamic religious thought is most notable for
its respect for individual human reason and the human search for knowl-
edge, and that this orientation characterizes Islam in general. This point
is shared by a number of contemporary representatives of the Ankara
Paradigm, who see in H anafism both the humanist core of Islamic teach-
ing and a spirit of religious interpretation found deep within Turkish
culture itself (can 2004: 59; Sargn 2005: 423; Kutlu 2011: 9597).
CONTEMPORARY ITERATIONS OF THE ANKARA
PARADIGM II: AB H ANFA AND RELIGIOUS REFORMISM
The historical relationship between Turkic-language-speaking peoples
and the H anaf theological tradition is the basis for zcans and others
claim that modern Turkish Islamic thought must root itself in this much
more ancient tradition and is worth examining in some here. The relation-
ship between Turkish intellectual history and H anafism is a complex issue.
Institutionally, the H anaf school of Sunn religious law and the Mturd
line of H anaf dogmatics has long been connected with the particular
Islamic intellectual schools and circles patronized by Turkic rulers who
were loyal to the Central Asian-Samarqand tradition of H anafism.
H anafism became the Sunn norm for Central Asia early in its history, and
its unquestioned dominance in that area since at least the tenth century
must have had the effect of strengthening at least some Turkish Muslims
allegiance to H anaf/Mturd thought there. This was due largely to the
fact that Ab H anfa, the eponym of the Hanifi school, was involved in
eighth-century movements that advocated for the equal status of non-Arab
convents to Islam in the Arab empire; this group included many Turkic
peoples, especially in Central Asia, which then became the heartland of
H anaf Islamic orthodoxy (Madelung 1982: 36). Even though the Mturd
line of H anaf thought was almost entirely unknown to the Islamic west in
areas such as Baghdad and Iraq,
10
it was by the middle of the eleventh
century widespread in H anaf communities in the far Islamic east. The
eleventh-century Mturd theologian Ab Shukr al-Slim, for instance,
mentions that the true doctrine of Sunnism (i.e., Mturdism) was held by
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 18 of 37

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the jurists of Khurasan, Central Asia, Ghazna, and the regions of the
Turks (diyr al-Turk) (Madelung 1971: 117). The spread of the Seljuq
Turks westward brought knowledge of the Mturd school to the central
lands of the Islamic world (Madelung 1971: 124). Despite the inter-Sunni
rivalries of the period, Central Asian H anafism was often favored by Turkic
states,
11
which were therefore sympathetic to the Mturd theological
tradition which grew up in Samarqand. Many Turkish rulers continued
to prefer Central Asian scholarly lineages, and maintained this preference
as they spread their version of Central Asian H anafism into Anatolia in
the last few centuries before the rise of the Ottoman Empire (Madelung
1971: 167).
As is well known, the H anaf legal school became the official school
of Shara law in the Ottoman Empire. On the issue of Sunn dogmatics,
the Ottomans adopted a policy of reconciliation between the two major
Sunn schools of dogmatic theology, Asharism (favored by the Mlik,
Shfi, and H anbal legal schools) and Mturdism (favored by the
Central Asian H anaf legal tradition) (Madelung 1971: 109). As Philipp
Bruckmayr points out, the two schools both had representatives in
Ottoman intellectual circles; Ottoman scholars varied widely on their
degree of allegiance to one school or another (Bruckmayr 2009: 6970). It
was the theoretical framework of Turkish nationalism that suggested that
the Turkish nation naturally possessed its own lineage of religious
thought, and that this lineage would therefore be present in the historical
homelands of Turkic peoples, i.e., Central Asia. Ziya Gkalp, perhaps the
most influential theorist of Turkish nationalism and discussed above with
respect to his interest in Durkheim, declared that our [i.e., the Turks] re-
ligious catechism teaches us that our school of theology is that of al-
Mturd and our school of jurisprudence that of Ab H anfa (1968
[1923]: 126). Thus, H anafism became the symbol of Turkish Islamic
thought after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
The Ankara Paradigm and its contemporary adherents emphasize
Ab H anfas reputation for intellectual creativity, broad-mindedness,
and respect for individual reasoning in interpreting Islamic law and
sacred texts. Ab H anfa was most famous in his day for giving leeway to
individual reasoning (ray) in making judgments for Islamic religious
10
The important fourteenth-century H anaf scholar Ibn Ab al-Waf al-Qurash famously
lamented this fact in his oft-cited biographical history of the H anaf school (198082: 1:6).
11
There were of course exceptions to this association between Turkic peoples and the H anaf
school. Baki Tezcan, for instance, questions the natural historical relationship between H anafism
and Turkic states by discussing the case of the Mamluk Empire, which he argues favored the Shfi
school over other Sunn legal schools (2011).
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 19 of 37

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practice. Ab H anfa was a member of a group of legal thinkers who pro-
moted this method, known as the partisans of individual reasoning
(ash b al-ray). As Wael Hallaq succinctly explains, this term meant
during the time of Ab H anfa either free human reasoning based on
practical considerations and bound by no authoritative text or free rea-
soning based on such a text and motivated by practical consideration
(1997: 19). This principle was codified in legal devices such as istih sn, or
juristic preference, when a jurist chooses among different possible legal
rulings for a single case. In the H anaf interpretation of istih sn, this
choice is made in order to adopt a ruling that ensures equality and indi-
vidual justice when adopting a strict interpretation of the law might
instead violate these broader principles (Kamali 2004: 562563).
According to al-Sarakhs, an eleventh-century H anaf juridical authority
responsible for transmitting much of the surviving textual evidence for
Ab H anfa and his disciples legal opinions, istih sn is based on that
which is most suitable for people by abandoning hardship for ease,
which is the basic principle of religion (1989: 10:145).
While Ab H anfas actual views on these legal devices are difficult to
discern on their own since most of his views have been transmitted to us
by his disciples and commentators, certain legal judgments he made have
been widely preserved as a testament to his general sense of flexibility and
tendency to privilege the spirit of the law at the expense of the letter if sit-
uations so demanded. Turkish modernist theologians expand on the the-
oretical implications of these legal decisions to make a broader case for
Islamic reform. They point out that a number of Ab H anfas legal pre-
cepts and decisions imply a distinction between the spirit and the applica-
tion of religious law, meaning that the practical application of the law can
be adjusted to better reflect its spirit.
Some of the most famous examples that reflect this principle are Ab
H anfas legal opinions on the permissibility of the use of non-Arabic lan-
guages in a ritual setting. While, again, the exact nature of his rulings
have been subject to controversy, early collections of his legal opinions do
indicate his openness to using non-Arabic languages in prayer, Qurn
recitation, and the adhn (call to prayer). Ab H anfa is famous for de-
claring that believers may recite the Qurn in Persian, whether or not
they are able to do so in Arabic (Sarakhs 1989: 1: 37, 234; Tibawi 1962: 7;
Wilson 2009: 420421). This view was eventually abandoned by his disci-
ples, however. Ab H anfa also declared that it was permissible to say
Allahu Akbar (takbr) in Persian, and that it was permissible to pro-
nounce the call to prayer in Persian. He explained that both of these deci-
sions are based on the fact that the meaning of these words is what is
most important; if one understands the meaning of the takbr or the call
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 20 of 37

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to prayer in Persian, then their purpose has been fulfilled (Sarakhs 1989:
1: 3637). As A. L. Tibawi points out, these rulings imply that Ab
H anfa drew a distinction between the meaning of the text of the Qurn
(and other sacred textual formulations) and their outward expression
(1962: 8). This ruling seems very much in harmony with the general
picture of Ab H anfa as an Islamic thinker who took seriously the
demands of local context when deciding how best to make manifest the
abiding truths of Islam in shifting social circumstances.
This particular ruling by Ab H anfa is important because it illus-
trates the intellectual method for which he is famous and therefore has
been used by a number of exponents of the Ankara Paradigm as an
example of Shara flexibility, and ultimately, reform. zcan points to
Ab H anfas famous declarations on the permissibility of prayer in a
non-Arabic language as evidence for the H anaf traditions ability to
adapt the interpretation of Islam to local needs and thereby help preserve
Turkic cultural distinctiveness in the face of Arab cultural hegemony
(2003: 287). According to zcan, Ab H anfas religious thought in
general was born of a culturally pluralistic environment, and in light of
these conditions, Ab H anfa worked to outline an understanding of
Islam that recognized the dignity and particularity of non-Arab cultures
in the Islamic world:
Because nations who were new Muslims were also of different cultures,
their needs also differed, and the application of revelation could not
always resolve these needs. In addition, Iraq, which was Ab H anfas
cultural environment, since time immemorial had seen the development
of knowledge and philosophy; it existed as a cultural center for various
religious affiliations. He applied analogy (kiyas) and independent rea-
soning (ictihad) as the sole method in reconciling ancient cultures with a
new religion. (2003: 286)
According to zcan, the H anaf tradition of thought, which is based on
Ab H anfas insights, argues that religion does not possess an unchang-
ing structure with respect to its functional dimension. This means that
the reinterpretations of religions social dimension, and the development
of a new understanding of religion according to the social and individual
needs of the age, are always possible (2007: 138). The recognition of a
functional (ilevsel) element in religion is a crucial aspect of zcans
theory of religion, as it denotes the dimension of religion that is subject to
continual reformation. This is, according to zcan, the implication of
Ab H anfas distinction between meaning and its expression, between
the spirit and the letter of the law. In addition, it is the function of human
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 21 of 37

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reason (akl) to determine the boundary between the essence of religious
truth and the container which carries it, which is thus liable to reform in
order to better express its contents (zcan 2003: 286). This distinction
between the essence of religious truth and the changeable elements that
encase it is analogous to a distinction between the religious and the
secular, i.e., a distinction between that which refers to the divine and
eternal and that which refers to the social and contingent (and is thus
liable to continuous change). zcan and the Ankara Paradigm more
broadly are doing the kinds of processes of negotiation of the boundaries
between the religious and the secular that Asad and Mahmood suggest
are central to the definition of either.
A number of other Turkish modernist theologians that follow the
Ankara Paradigm make a similar argument about Ab H anfa and his in-
terpretation of Islam. Much earlier, zmirli cited Ab H anfas rulings on
prayer in a foreign language as proof of his respect for local conditions
and individual needs (1943: 1025). As discussed above, Yrkan also de-
scribed Ab H anfa in similar terms. zmirli also argued that Ab
H anfas allowing the translation of the Qurn indicated that he was the
first Muslim thinker to identify the Qurn with its meaning, not with the
language in which it is expressed (1943: 1024). Snmez Kutlu, currently a
professor at the Ankara University Faculty of Divinity where he also re-
ceived his doctorate, has recently argued that, when compared with other
Islamic traditions of thought, H anafism possesses a particularly strong
humanist component in that it ascribes greater importance to the
human being and human values (Kutlu 2011: 91). According to Kutlu,
Ab H anfas respect for the use of individual reason played a major role
in the schools assistance in the spread of Islam among various non-Arab
peoples (2011: 9697). Ali Bardakolu, a former president of religious
affairs whose doctoral advisor was a doctoral graduate of the Ankara
faculty, describes Ab H anfa in very similar terms. He feels that Ab
H anfas approach to Islam (which is notable for its respect for local
custom, its orientation toward the public and individual good, its respect
for freedom and humanity, and its general sense of rationalism) is very
well suited to helping modern Muslim thinkers find answers to pressing
contemporary problems (Bardakolu 2010: 100). Sargn argues that the
H anaf tradition, as exemplified in its use of istih sn, views religious
issues pragmatically and humanely (Sargn 2005: 427). Like many others
quoted above, he also emphasizes that the H anaf school, more than
other Islamic schools of thought, takes into account cultural specificity
and the needs of local peoples, and in doing so takes a more pragmatic
( pragmatik) and practical ( pratik) approach to its interpretation of
Islam (Sargn 2005: 425).
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 22 of 37

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Having identified a distinction in Ab H anfas thought between the
spirit of the law and its application, zcan finds further theoretical elabo-
ration of this principle in certain theological treatises attributed to Ab
H anfa.
12
Ab H anfa is reputed to have argued in the text Kitb al-lim
wa al-Mutaallim that while the religion that the Prophets brought was all
one, the religious laws that they brought were many [and] varied (Ab
H anfa 2001: 14). To support this view, Ab H anfa reportedly cites selec-
tions from the Qurn such as, To each among you have we prescribed a
law [shira, having the same root as the term Shara] and an open way. If
Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people (from
Srat al-Mida, 48) and no change (let there be) in the work (wrought)
by Allah: that is the standard Religion [dn]: but most among mankind
understand not (from Srat al-Rm, 30).
13
zcan analyzes the notion of
eriat (Shara) and Din (religion), concluding that the latter term signi-
fies what is eternally true in Islam (the notion of tawh d) and that the
former is the complex of Islamic belief and practice, the totality of the
way of Islam that is designed to lead the human being in apprehending
and following the implications of the truth of din. True and abiding reli-
gion (din) is composed of truths that are universally accessible to reason,
namely the doctrine of the existence of the One True God; this truth
cannot be subject to historical change or abrogation due to social circum-
stances, which it completely transcends (zcan 1999: 47). This is the
eternal essence of Islam.
zcan goes on to argue that Islam does, however, possess within itself
a theoretical framework to distinguish between the elements that refer to
the eternal truth of tawh d and those that refer to social conditions that
no longer hold. This theoretical framework is provided by the H anaf
Dn-Shara distinction discussed above. Incorporating the Ankara
Paradigms sociological and humanistic elements into an interpretation
of this ancient H anaf terminological distinction, zcan argues that the
reason that Sharas are different across time is that they change according
to social and cultural conditions (zcan 1999: 24; see also Kutlu 2003: 21,
2009, 2011: 93; Sargn 2005: 427). Therefore, according to this argument,
the Shara actually possesses both eternal and contingent components;
the latter are precisely the dimension of religion mentioned above that are
necessarily subject to reinterpretation. Thus, though the Shara brought
12
Joseph Schacht (1964) demonstrated that the Kitb al-lim wa al-Mutaallim attributed to Ab
H anfa was probably written by H anaf scholars a generation after his death. It was, however, taken as
an authentic work of Ab H anfa by later H anafs and does seem to reflect a systematized
development of Ab H anfas own doctrines.
13
All quotes from the Qurn are from Yusuf Ali (2005).
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 23 of 37

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by Muh ammad cannot be nullified or abrogated, it does possesses histori-
cal accretions that are not reflective of its divine essence (zcan 1999:
68). The humanly (beeri) level of the Shara is the product of historical
accumulative processes that may or may not have relevance to the needs
of human beings today, as these processes were originally developed to
deliver the message of tawh d to people living in times very different from
our own (zcan 1999: 33, 71). As zcan puts it, The Sharas humanly
aspect, meaning the understanding, interpretation, etc. . . . of revelation,
is suitable to be dependent on change according to the needs of every
period and every age. What is important is that Shara continually be
maintained in a state befitting its basic goal, which is to be a road that
brings one to tawhid (1999: 72; emphasis in the original). This is in fact
Sharas only goal according to zcan (1999: 72). This means that con-
crete change can and must occur within the traditional complex of
Shara (1999: 92).
Thus, the Islamic Shara has within itself a mechanism for distin-
guishing the divine and humanly elements that exist in its current form.
Once this determination has been made, humanly elements that no
longer apply in the Shara can be abolished. zcan points to instances of
a religious ruling that was produced by virtue of its connection to a par-
ticular time and particular situation; once that situation and time change,
its time has expired, and a new one is brought in its place . . . [therefore]
just as abrogation (nesh) can occur among Sharas, it can also occur
within the same Shara (1999: 66). Kutlu makes a similar argument, ex-
plaining that this is the reasoning behind the abolition of certain Shara
provisions that do not exist in modern Islamic practice, such as the medi-
eval stipulation that the hand of the thief be amputated (2009: 8).
It is important to note here that Kutlu also cites certain key passages
in Mturds Quranic hermeneutics that bolster the wider H anaf distinc-
tion between the spirit of the law and its application (and the essence of
religion and its expression) that has been at issue here. In particular,
Kutlu points to Mturds citation of a famous report where the Caliph
Umar departed from Prophetic practice and instituted a new ruling on
the grounds that the relevant social conditions had changed.
14
Mturd
explains that this precedent establishes the permissibility of abrogating
[a ruling] through independent reasoning [ijtihd] due to the disappear-
ance of the reason on the basis of which [the ruling] originally existed
14
According to the report, the Prophet used to give tribute payments to certain Arab tribes to
reconcile them to Islam, but Umar reasoned that he no longer needed to do so because Islam had
over time become strong among them and therefore the original conditions that inspired the
Prophets policy no longer existed (Shafiq 1984: 29).
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 24 of 37

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(Mturd 2006: 6: 392; Kutlu 2009: 24). Kutlus and zcans arguments
suggest that this reasoning could easily be extended to apply to a number
of other religious rulings that no longer exist in Turkish or modern
Islamic practice. Thus, the abolition of Shara criminal punishments by
Turkish nationalists in the 1920s can be seen according to the Ankara
Paradigm as not an infringement on Sunn Islam, but in fact a logical
expression of it.
zcan emphasizes that it is the task of Muslim scholars of each gener-
ation to apply their own reason and their knowledge of Islamic principles
to distinguish between the elements within Islamic practice that must be
preserved and those that must be discarded. The Shara in zcans con-
ception is thus a structure that requires constant human maintenance
and intervention in order for it to be able to actualize its intended
purpose, the manifestation of the principle of divine oneness in human
relations: It is the duty of the scholars of every historical period to
provide answers to the needs of the time and to implement this change
(zcan 1999: 32). Each generation must rely on itself for this duty, and
cannot be content with the interpretations of scholars who lived in other
times and places: Consequently, no historical period possesses the right
to establish rules that cannot be exceeded by those that come after it
(zcan 1999: 32).
THE TURKISH UNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION
(AND ITS CRITICS)
The realist and pragmatic recognition that religion is a fundamentally
human endeavor, and as such possesses elements that are liable to con-
tinuous modification, is the essence of what zcan calls The Turkish
Understanding of Religion (Trk Din Anlay). He and other contem-
porary proponents of the Ankara Paradigm develop the argument that
the Turkish nation possesses an Islamic heritage unique to itself that
is well suited to modernization. zcan and many others identify this
feature of Turkish Islam as its deep roots in H anafism, which, as we
have discussed in detail above, is identified by these theologians with a
humanist, realistic, and even reformist vision of Sunn Islam.
Based on his study of these H anaf historical influences, zcan argues
that the Turkish understanding of religion is properly characterized
as realist and individual-centered [ fert-merkezli] (2003: 289; 291).
According to zcan, With respect to religious issues, Mturd [and the
H anaf tradition which he systematized] did not behave like an ideologue
beholden to an imaginary ideal that is unrelated to reality (2003: 289).
Instead, in zcans view, the H anaf school continually looked for ways to
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 25 of 37

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best actualize the essence of Islamic principles by adapting its means of
delivery to actual social needs. This orientation, according to zcan and
others, has remained a key feature of Turkish Islamic religious thinking
ever since. Sargn, for instance, argues that among the key features of
Turkish Islam (Trk Mslmanl)
15
are the centrality of the human
being and a notion of functional reasoning that allows it to respond
with reforms when social changes demand it (Sargn 2005: 428429).
Kutlu makes a similar argument when he refers to H anafism as a legal
school as the practical dimension of Turkish religiosity and to the theo-
logical dimensions of H anafism as outlined by Mturd as the belief di-
mension of the Turkish conception of Islam (Kutlu 2011).
To sum up, the Ankara Paradigms essential argument, especially as it
has been elaborated by contemporary Turkish Islamic modernists, may
be phrased in this way: religion exists to bring fulfillment to human
beings. It therefore must be understood with respect to its impact on
human individuals and the societies in which they live. Ab H anfa and
the Islamic intellectual tradition that he founded understood this better
than any other Islamic thought tradition. The Turkish nation has histori-
cally formed its understanding of Islam based on this school. Thus, the
Turkish understanding of Islam is both the most accurate understanding
of religion in general and Islam in particular. Turkish Islamic modernism
and reformism therefore reflects the essence of true Islam.
The significance of this argument for the practice of Islam in Turkey
is summarized in zcans striking quote: Todays true will be tomor-
rows false. Every generation is held accountable for the period during
which it lives (2007: 139). As is well known, Shara law was abolished in
Turkey in the 1920s and replaced by a secular civil code. Therefore, when
zcan and other modernist intellectuals discuss Islamic reform, they
clearly do not intend the reformation of an existing system of Islamic law,
nor the reinstatement of religious law in the Turkish penal code. Their ar-
gument for reform in Shara is designed to demonstrate that Islam as a
religion is subject to continual reinterpretation, such as the reinterpreta-
tion that abolished Shara punishments in the Turkish Republic. Their
argument is meant to maintain religious interpretation as a right of the
individual believer, who in their view has the God-given duty to continu-
ally reform and rethink the practice of his or her faith based on existing
circumstances. Their argument is directed against a traditionalist ap-
proach to religion practiced by conservative Turkish Muslims (such as
15
Literally, the Turkish practice of Islam or the Turkish way of being a Muslim. Turkish
distinguishes between Islam itself (slam) and the act of practicing it or living it out in the world by
being a Muslim (Mslmanlk).
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 26 of 37

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conservative Sufi groups or political Islamists) that takes interpretive au-
thority away from the individual believer and turns it over to charismatic
or authoritarian leaders (Yrkan 1993 [1957]: 59, 216; zcan 2007: 134;
Kutlu 2009: 8).
The current iterations of the Ankara Paradigm can therefore be seen
as adopting a defensive posture against the influence of conservative
Islamic social movements in Turkey, whose influence has grown signifi-
cantly in the past two decades. Contemporary Turkish Islamic modern-
ists argue that an individualized approach to religious interpretation, one
that allows the individual believer to interpret Islam for herself based on
her own situation, is truly reflective of the Turkish Islamic heritage, and
therefore is the most authentically Turkish approach to Islam. The cor-
ollary of this argument is the contention that religious conservatism, of
the kind seen in some conservative Islamic social movements in Turkey
and in Turkish political Islamism, is actually foreign to the true spirit of
Turkish Islam and therefore has no place in Turkish society. The contem-
porary exponents of the Ankara Paradigm propose that religious conser-
vatism is not only un-Islamic, but it is also un-Turkish. In other
words, the theoretical move of defining Islamic modernism as part of
Turkish national culture constitutes an argument for the strengthening of
modernist Islam in Turkish society. It is an argument for the religious le-
gitimacy of secular law and secular reform. This is an important interven-
tion in Turkish cultural debate today, when the role of Islam in public
and private life is hotly debated in all sectors of Turkish society. What
these thinkers propose is that Muslims in Turkey must remain free to in-
terpret Islam for themselves on an individual level. In their view, the in-
terpretation of Islam must remain the right of the individual believer, not
the ideological agenda of political Islamism or conservative social politics.
The Ankara Paradigm is certainly not without its critics, however.
These critics charge that this theological paradigm suffers from a strong
nationalistic bias that impedes legitimate scholarship on the actual histor-
ical relationship between Islam and the Turkic peoples that adopted it.
Their critiques are worth mentioning here in brief because they expose
some of the interesting ideological tensions in Turkish modernist Islamic
thought in general and in the Ankara Paradigm in particular. Hayrettin
Karaman, one of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals in Turkey and
a former founding member of the Islamic law section of the Marmara
University Faculty of Divinity, is notable for his critique of certain strains
of Islamic reformism, doctrinaire secularism, and efforts to combine the
two in particular. Karaman argues, for instance, that the ideology of reli-
gious reform is tied to an Enlightenment-modernist political ideology
that seeks to remove religion from the social sphere. He sees Islamic
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modernist currents of thought as inspired by West European modes of
ideological hegemonies, particularly the aggressive form of secular
reform enacted by the early Kemalist regime. In his view, reformed or
modernized religion is simply the term used by (Kemalist) secularist
elites to refer to religious practices that have been brought to heel or sub-
sumed under the control of secularist efforts to remove religion from
social policy (Karaman 2005 [1997a]: 79).
16
Furthermore, in his view, na-
tional identity should not be subordinated to, or equated with, religious
identity. Muslims are Muslims first and citizens or ethnic groups second;
in his view, nationalism ceases to be legitimate the minute it divides the
unity of the worldwide Islamic community, the umma (Karaman 2005
[1997a]: 77). This is precisely what the ideology of Turkish Islam
amounts to, in his view (Karaman 2005 [1997b]). For Karaman, then, the
theoretical bases of the Ankara Paradigm have more to do with West
European and Kemalist hegemonic ideologies than they do with Sunn
Islam.
Another professor from (and doctoral graduate of ) the faculty of
divinity at Marmara University, Fatih M. eker, argues that the entire
notion of Turkish Islam is the product of a desire to draft Islamic
sources of legitimacy into the Kemalist modernization project (2010: 48).
In his view, this reformist ideology does not in fact have deep historical
roots as its adherents claim, but is instead essentially a product of the
Turkish Republican nationalist period of political reformism (eker 2010:
77). Like Karaman, eker sees the ideological bases of the Ankara
Paradigm as not authentically Islamic, but instead elements of a political
ideology derived from Kemalist and West European models of secularist
hegemony. Sleyman Uluda, one of the most prominent scholars of
Sufism in Turkey and currently a professor at the divinity faculty at
Uluda University in Bursa, mounted an extremely pointed critique of
zzet Sargns work in his response to the latters presentation at a schol-
arly symposium devoted to Ab H anfa in Bursa in 2005. Uluda attacks
the heavily idealized and mythologized version of Ab H anfa pre-
sented by Sargn and others (2005: 431432). Uluda points out that each
generation interprets Ab H anfa for its own purposes, and that this is
not necessarily harmful, so long as it is kept in mind that Ab H anfa
16
It should be noted, however, that Karaman has been vocally supportive of reform in Islamic law
through a new process of ijtihd; he is at the same time vocally critical of the aggressive secularization
policies of the Turkish state, and is often associated with conservative Islamic support for patriarchal
family roles. For a comprehensive characterization in English of the thought of this important
intellectual voice in twentieth-century Turkey, see entrk (2009).
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 28 of 37

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cannot be simply reduced to our ideological utilizations of him (2005:
432).
On the issue of Turkish Islam, Uluda is even more severe, pointing
out that no one who claims to know what this is ever actually defines the
word Turk. Furthermore, in his view, this ideology overlooks the fact
that there exist numerous Turkish communities in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan,
and elsewhere that are Shi (Uluda 2005: 433). He implies that the
notion of Turkish Islam overlooks the actual social complexity of the
relationship of Turkic peoples with Islam throughout history and is in
the end more ideological than academic (Uluda 2005: 433). Uluda, like
Karaman, instead emphasizes that Islam must be thought of as a single
unified tradition across time and place, whatever local color or style it
may acquire (Uluda 2005: 434). It should be pointed out, however, that
if the followers of the Ankara Paradigm utilize an essentialized concept of
Turkish national culture, the critics of this paradigm seem to respond
with an essentialized notion of unitary Islam.
As a final note to the controversy, it is worthwhile to point out that a
number of other Turkish academics have been making an attempt to
elaborate modernist Islamic intellectual projects on the basis of H anaf
thought without referencing a concept of Turkish nationhood. These pro-
jects represent another possible direction in the theological uses of Ab
H anfa in Turkey. These projects focus on the potential universalism in
Ab H anfas approach to religion (Yeilyurt 2004). Mehmet Zeki can, a
professor in the Atatrk University Faculty of Divinity in Erzurum,
argues that Ab H anfas realistic application of religious law and his will-
ingness to form individual opinions when necessary suggests a useful
framework for Sunn thought in general that could protect against sectari-
anism and narrow-mindedness (can 2004). The wide-ranging work of
Recep entrk is also important in this respect. entrk, a faculty
member and current director of the Alliance of Civilizations Institute at
Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakf University in Istanbul, has argued that a uni-
versal conception of human rights equivalent to the Western secular
notion of universal human rights can be elaborated on the bases of
H anaf legal thought (entrk 2005, 2006).
BY WAY OF CONCLUSION: ISLAMIC MODERNISM AS A
NEGOTIATION OF CONCEPTUAL BOUNDARIES
Asad and Mahmoods theoretical insights into the contested nature of
the notions of the secular and the religious are important to this analysis
of modernist Islamic thought in the Republic of Turkey because they
offer a new way of analyzing modernist Islamic thought in general. Asad
Dorroll: The Turkish Understanding of Religion Page 29 of 37

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and Mahmoods key point, that modern notions of the secular and the re-
ligious are historically produced and politically contested, suggests that
modern religious thinkers should not be classified with respect to which
side of the supposed religious/secular divide they stand on, but instead
understood with respect to how they manipulate these categories and
draw the boundary between them. If the definitions of, and the boundar-
ies between, the secular and the religious are constantly being negotiated
by individuals and institutions, then an understanding of this process
suggests a very fruitful way to approach contemporary religious thought
in the modern Muslim world. Religious conservatives are not, then, those
thinkers that remain faithful to a tradition while religious modernists
are those willing to depart from it. Instead, each engages in their own
boundary-drawing between the religious and the secular by using the dis-
courses of traditional texts to authorize the boundaries that they devise.
The use of medieval traditional texts throughout the twentieth
century by modernist Turkish Islamic thinkers demonstrates this point.
Their work is best understood from this perspective, instead of being seen
as somewhat cynical attempts to manipulate Sunn tradition to fit
Kemalist secularism. Applying the theoretical insights offered by Asad
and Mahmood reveals the linkages between the modern and the tradi-
tional in their work, as they attempt to demarcate a secular sphere that
admits of change with time and a properly religious one that does not.
The Ankara Paradigm effectively draws the boundary between the reli-
gious and the secular as the boundary between the unchangeable and the
changeable, between the eternally valid and the historically contingent.
It then argues that the latter, the changeable, can even be found within
religion itself, thus rendering some aspects of religion subject to reform,
i.e., those that relate to the secular sphere of social relationships and state
administration.
While most Turkish Islamic modernist thinkers do not elaborate an
Islamic theoretical justifications for Kemalist laicism (laiklik) specifically,
Yusuf Ziya Yrkan and others did elaborate a defense of the notion of
the secular in general, arguing that there is a natural division between the
religious (dini) and the worldly (dnyevi) and that state and public ad-
ministration should fall under the latter (1993 [1957]: 154156). This
notion of the secular is certainly a key assumption of the works of these
thinkers. What their theoretical (or even theological) move amounts to is
not a total rejection of religious authority in favor of the secular state or a
total subsuming of religious authority under the secularist project. It is
instead a redrawing of the boundaries between the changeable and the es-
sential in Islamic practice that thereby releases certain concepts and prac-
tices formerly under the jurisdiction of religion into secular space, the
Journal of the American Academy of Religion Page 30 of 37

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space of secular law. What is more, this redrawing is accomplished
through the interpretation of certain texts imbued with particular author-
ity, i.e., through a type of participation in Islamic discursive tradition.
This shifting of boundaries is done with Islamic justification because it
allows for legal reform in Muslim societies that better takes into account
the need to protect individual human rights, the stated goal and substance
of Islamic ethics in the modernist point of view. The reduction of reli-
gious legal administration in Islamic modernism actually advances of
(true) mission of Islam in this conception.
Thus, in Turkish Islamic modernism, it is Islamically justifiable that
religious law that imposes penalties for individual behavior be abolished
in favor of secular legal administration, as the Turkish Republic did at the
time of its founding. If it may be said that the Ankara Paradigm of mod-
ernist Turkish Islamic theology secularizes religion, this means that it
renders parts of it changeable and subject to social reformation, parts that
previously were not considered subject to negotiation. What an analysis
of modernist Islamic theology in Turkey demonstrates is that this theoret-
ical move, this particular drawing of the boundaries between the secular
and the religious, cannot be reduced to simply a concession to Kemalism
or imperialist modernity: it is instead one interpretive possibility found
within traditional Sunn Islamic discourses themselves.
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