What Would A Muslim Say:

Conversations, Questions, and Answers About Islam

Literal Interpretations of the Qur’an?

I do understand that, as in all religions, there are a variety of opinions as to how literal their Holy Book(s) ought to be interpreted. I could well imagine that you would be of the more liberal persuasion. My problem is therefore not with you but with those who would favour a more fundamental expression of Koranic teaching. My further problem is that that second faction, the one which causes all the problems for Islam’s reputation, is the one which gains, and appears to rejoice in, most of the publicity. More importantly, it perhaps could be argued, as they themselves do, that theirs’ is the truer, ie more accurate and faithful, interpretation of what the Koran says and that those of your persuasion are, through your liberalism, not really the true Muslims. Because you don’t take the Koran seriously enough. I would not claim to be a Koranic scholar (whereas I am more than ready to assume that you may well be!) but I am aware of a whole series of hateful anti non-Muslim verses which, if they are to be taken seriously at all, have to be looked at with alarm and not argued away by one sectional grouping within Islam as meaning something other than what they say.

former What Would a Muslim Say visitor

In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

I would like to start with a review of my “conservative credentials.” This is just to convey to you that I am not what most of my Muslim and non-Muslim friends and colleagues consider a liberal Muslim. My family and I do not listen to music unless it is an Islamic nasheed and there is some occasion that was permitted by the Prophet (pbuh). We pray the five daily prayers each day. We do not gamble, smoke, drink alcohol, or watch movies above PG-13 ratings. My wife and daughter wear the headscarf and loose clothing, and while we do not require the face-veil, we have absolutely no problem with the few friends we have that choose to wear it. We do not shake hands with the opposite sex, nor do have any friends of the opposite sex. We sought out a sharia-compliant bank to finance our home purchase.

I mention these things because many of these lifestyle choices come from a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sayings of the Prophet (pbuh). I do not believe that literal interpretations are necessarily the cause of extremist ideology. Rather, I argue that it is literal interpretations coupled with IGNORANCE OF THE CONTEXT that causes most if not all of the problems. See, Geoff, even back in the time of the Prophet’s companions, there was a concept called asbaab al-nuzuul which means “reason of revelation.” This refers to the fact that the Qur’an did not come down all at once (like the Torah of Moses on the mountain). Instead, passages of various lengths were revealed gradually over a 23-year period. Each passage occurred in response to the Prophet’s situation or to teach the Muslim community some important lesson that was relevant to their circumstances. The companions of the Prophet, having lived this revelatory experience, were very acquainted with these contexts and they taught the next generation the subtle nuances of what was going on in the life of the Prophet and the early community when this passage or that passage was revealed. This was a part of Muslim understanding from the very beginning, so it is very disingenuous for ISIS or those who think like ISIS to say that we are trying to bend the teachings of Islam to fit modern tastes. Modern scholars and I say no, the companions themselves limited their interpretations to the contexts of revelation. They themselves — who were the disciples of the Prophet(pbuh), who lived and struggled with him — did not take these verses as universal or general commandments, so how can anyone after their time do that with justification? If the companions themselves taught that these verses were limited to their time and place, how can anyone else come along after that and claim otherwise?

In light of this introduction, let me share with you a brilliant piece that Manal Omar wrote: “The most prominent Muslim academics agree extremist groups believe in a fringe version of Islam well outside the scholarly consensus. In 2014, more than 120 of the world’s top Muslim leaders and scholars wrote an open letter to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his followers, using the same religious texts the militants cite and arguing the group’s practices are not legitimate in Islam. Signatories include the former and current Grand Muftis of Egypt and top Muslim clerics from Nigeria, the U.S., Canada, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

“Muslims have taken grave risks to condemn violence, and some are on the front lines militarily too. Youth activists across the world regularly receive death threats as they offer alternative narratives to resolve conflict through nonviolence. Others have picked up arms to combat these extremist groups when condemnation is not enough. It is Muslims on the ground throughout Iraq and Syria who are leading the fight against the Islamic State. If the tenets of Islam could truly cause violence, all these Muslims would be joining the Islamic State instead of risking their lives to stop it.”

“Ironically, those who insist the Islamic State is a natural outgrowth of Islam share a similarly narrow conception of the religion as its followers. Despite the wealth of diversity and growth within Islam, they insist on defining it as monolithic.”

Intisar Rabb, a professor of law and the director of the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, argued in an email exchange, “Sunni Islam’s most curious blessing and its curse is perhaps its radical legal pluralism: the ability to contemplate that any interpretation of the law, so long as it relates to and engages a sophisticated process of interpretation, is a good-faith effort to arrive at the ‘right answer,’ which may change over time.” Historically, this has allowed for change and reformulation of the law to fit times and places as disparate as 7th century China to 10th century Baghdad to 20th century America, Rabb said. This characteristic, however, can become a curse, because it speaks of no final authority and often leaves a vacuum that permits crude or hostile interpretations that hold sway with the unsuspecting.”

May peace be with you,

Literal Interpretations of the Qur’an?
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