Ankara School pioneer and reformist Islamic theologian

The resignation of Turkish Koran exegete Mustafa Ozturk

Professor of theology and Qantara interview partner Mustafa Ozturk has resigned from an Istanbul university after immense pressure from certain segments of the Islamic community, having advocated a version of Islam they deemed "blasphemous". Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

Turkey's Muslim theology community has been split down the middle following controversial statements made by Mustafa Ozturk, a professor specialising in Koranic exegesis (tafsir), and his subsequent resignation from an Istanbul university.

While some argue that his words should be considered within the boundaries of academic freedom, some have accused him of apostasy, even going so far as to question his capacity as a theological expert. The former accuse the latter of establishing a sort of an Islamic inquisition on social media and the latter accuse the former of supporting and encouraging apostasy.

With his unorthodox ideas, Ozturk has been a controversial figure within the community and scholarship for a very long time. He has also been subjected to verbal abuse and even death threats in the past. Following, however, a recent and massive campaign against him, Ozturk submitted his resignation to Marmara University’s Theology Faculty on 2 December. Acceptance by the university was immediate; it then set about removing anything and everything that might have pointed to his agency.

Ozturk's ideas about how the Koran was revealed to Muhammad is not a new discussion among Islamic scholars. Polymath and philosopher Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina, was the first to establish the line of thinking still pursued and argued by Ozturk and many other scholars today.

Flipped miniature of Avicenna / Ibn Sina (source: wikimedia.org; Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
Avicenna's "blasphemous" approach to Koranic exegesis: "There is a concept of love. It is God that bestows love upon people. But sometimes, people’s love is expressed like mottos and sometimes like poems. They form sentences that show love on the outside. The source of love is God himself, but the way one reflects this depends on one's emotional state at that moment, one's life experience and motivations. Just as the source of love is God, the Prophet Muhammad also undoubtedly received inspiration or 'wahy' from God," explains Ozturk

In contrast to the traditional approach, they suggest that the essence of the Koran is divine and from God, but its discourse is from the Prophet Muhammad. The discussion is highly philosophical and practically impenetrable for non-theologians.

Asked by Qantara.de to explain this in the simplest way, Ozturk said: "There is a concept of love. It is God that bestows love upon people. But sometimes, people’s love is expressed like mottos and sometimes like poems. They form sentences that show love on the outside. The source of love is God himself, but the way one reflects this depends on one's emotional state at that moment, one's life experience and motivations. Just as the source of love is God, the Prophet Muhammad also undoubtedly received inspiration or wahy from God."

He argued that thinking this way brings solutions to some historic problems such as the concept of slavery in the Koran.

"Take slavery, for instance. It is mentioned in the Koran. If we think like the traditionalists, we can assert that because God mentions it, slavery cannot be abolished. Yet slavery is not a universal norm. Back then, it was not possible to abolish it, [but] religion merely proposed the regulation and humanisation of the system," commented Ozturk in a previous interview with Qantara. 

Ozturk was already under attack in 2019. He even considered going into self-imposed exile, but he never did.

"This time, I am too tired to fight against them"

The latest campaign against him began when a video of him from a couple of years ago made the rounds on social media early in December. The video shows him speaking to his friends and trying to explain his ideas. Some critics, however, have said it was done in an outlandish way.

The hashtag #MustafaOzturkİhraçEdilsin (Mustafa Ozturk must be expelled) instantly became a trending topic on Twitter, remaining there for a considerable amount of time. Most of the tweets bearing the hashtag, which garnered more than 44,000 tweets, claimed his ideas were blasphemous and that he should not be on the state’s payroll as an academic at a public university.

The hashtag was in reference to the expulsion of more than 125,000 civil servants, mostly from the army and the police forces, as well as from academia, from their posts in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Apostasy or free speech in academia?

One such tweet came from Ahmet Mahmut Unlu, more commonly known as Cubbeli Ahmet Hoca. A household name, Unlu is a prominent leader of an Islamic community in Turkey despite having only completed middle school education.

He is even famous for having once advised his followers to buy a certain burial shroud, which he said would protect the deceased buried beneath earth from hellfire. His more than 306,000 followers on Twitter participated in the social media campaign against Ozturk. In his Twitter post, Cubbeli claimed the demand for his removal is the "demand of the millions". But all Cubbeli’s followers did was to just re-tweet his posts or post similar messages. The issue quickly moved from Twitter to conventional media, and pro-government media outlets did not hesitate to ramp up the hostility against Ozturk.

 

"It was not the first time I had been attacked. But it stayed on social media for a couple of hours. This time mainstream media also got involved. And the headline 'whose professor is this?' led [in mainstream media]. It felt different to the previous attacks and it made me think that there might be a political will behind this one," Ozturk said.

Some of those who lashed out at him were referring to a column he wrote for Karar newspaper, which is believed to be affiliated to the political movement and party of Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former prime minister who spilt from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to later create his own. 

Most of the tweets launched against Ozturk, including Cubbeli’s, claimed that Ozturk was poisoning theology students.

"You are teaching something about the basis of belief. This means there are dogmas there, but there are different interpretations, too.  At university, you are obliged to teach these interpretations. But who decides what is poison? Obviously, the ones who are the holding power. This power leads to inquisition," Ozturk said.

Some scholars defined the attacks against him as inquisition, like Hitit University Theology Faculty’s Professor Mehmet Azimli.

"Scientists speak. You listen to them, if you do not agree with them, you simply refute their argument. They [criticisers] neither listened to what he said at the beginning or the end. The things he [Ozturk] said are not even his own ideas, they are things that have been said in Islam. In Islam, there is the tradition of refutation. You listen to what is being said, if you don’t like it, you simply write it down as a refutation," Azimli told The Independent’s Turkish service.

 

Another prominent Islamic intellectual, Mustafa Islamoglu joined the discussion on Twitter saying that he did not agree with Ozturk on many issues, but that he defended his right to freedom of speech.

But this avalanche of support did not stop Ozturk from leaving academia. He said those who defended him and his right to freedom of speech actually outnumbered those who launched the smear campaign against him. But goodness, he said, is sometimes unable to stop "organised evil".

When Ozturk was asked about the possible impact of his de facto forced retirement from university on his students, he said it might be a source of demotivation.

But then he added he was fed up. "It is enough. I am flesh and blood. I might take up fishing."

Ayse Karabat

© Qantara.de 2020

 

 

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