Literalism: it’s literally not the only problem

This is a cross post by Zorro of The Spittoon

Much has been said of religious interpretations and essentialist readings of scripture. Whether it is reading texts demanding the burning of books, killing of infidels, or being a ‘Jewish Muslim’ or ‘Muslim Jew’. Some will argue that as scripture is human in origin it is not surprising that humans interpret it according to their influences, environment, culture, time and place. Religious people themselves will often see religious interpretations as being precisely that – a human effort to understanding the scripture, the ‘mind’ of God, or the intent of the text. The teacher of Imam al-Ghazali described the intent and effort as being significant in striving to find God’s injunctions, not the end product or rule.

In Islamic terms this has never been denied. There are, however, various attempts at trying to place certain limitations of what can and can’t be subject to interpretation. Different considerations such as the authenticity of the text; the level of clarity in the specific text; its context; any apparent conflict with other pieces of scripture; its harmony with ration (yes ration) or logic; and the consistency of the text’s outcome with the higher aims of the scripture – are all considered to be intrinsic elements within the text that require consideration in analysis.

So if literalism is not the only factor in textual interpretation then what are the issues? Are there other complexities to consider in Islam’s legal tradition and methodologies? And if so, then how can these be made clear and help us to apply Islamic texts to our situations today?

There are, in this regard, many works that are starting to appearing in the English language that discuss these issues. Dr Sherman Jackson’s translation of Ghazali’s ‘Faysal al-Tafriqa’ titled ‘On the Boundaries of theological tolerance’, explains that aside from the basic tenets of belief in God, the Prophethood of Muhammad, and the belief in an afterlife, everything else should be considered as secondary branch discussions and subject to legitimate interpretive differences.

Sukrija Ramic’s ‘Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law’ is another book which discusses more substantively the manner of interpreting texts that has existed in Islamic hermeneutic discourse, the wide variety of traditional methodologies, and their differences and diversity.

These are by no means ground breaking texts but they do demonstrate well the complexities that exist on a linguistic and an interpretive level. This ranges from how to understand the import and purport of a statement, the denotation and connotation of statements, the rationale or intent of statements, how inductive principles are derived, which meanings should take precedence over others and how to generate a hierarchy of meanings. Not to mention the massive differences that exist on almost every single question of methodology of interpreting text and the huge resultant differences in the understanding of scripture related to religious rules, which are known as ‘Fiqh’ (though they are commonly and erroneously referred to as Sharia.)

In fact it is for this reason that medieval scholars forbade people claiming that their religious interpretations and edicts should be considered as God’s judgments based upon Prophetic sayings. Rather they should be considered their own. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf cites Ibn Qayyim – the medieval theologian and famous student of Ibn Taymiyya – as stating this in his text, I’lam al-Muaqi’een.

Often, however, people say – whether literally or figuratively – that certain problematic scriptures should be removed from the texts, or should not be read literally. These are often well motivated and genuine attempts at addressing many of the problematic and highly dangerous interpretations of text – ranging from terrorism and suicide bombings; beating women; not associating with non-Muslims; and adopting an a hostile ‘state of war’ attitude.

While it is beyond a blog to explain any of these issues in detail, or how they are or should be approached, some examples are nonetheless necessary to help illustrate that the discussion is not simply about objective readings of text, literalism, or authenticity. What this blog does attempt to show, however, are the complexities and diverse views that already exist within extant tradition, and that there are principles that are involved in understanding, contextualising, and applying texts to our specific situation or environment.

In fact I would say that literal reading has never been the sole modus operandi of reading scripture in Islamic tradition, so there is no issue with believing these are the words of God whist acknowledging that there are various rationales, principles, or conditions to interpreting what is written.

The following are examples (certainly not exhaustive) of some of the issues that Asma’s blog post on this site raises about the application of some of the traditionally accepted paradigms of interpretation. There has been recognition of:

Ilal – rationale behind the verses. For example, Jihad texts have a rationale, and the rule revolves around the rationale which was always repelling hostility (hiraba) as Imam Qurtubi states: ’because you are fought collectively you must fight collectively’. Others have interpreted Jihad texts as only obliging warfare when attacked. Imam al-Jassas, one of thefirst to write on the legal dimension of texts in the Qur’an, mentions the above two positions, and the latter as being views of the Prophet’s Companions, successors and jurists. Wahba Zuhayli, the contemporary conservative and traditional jurist, also states explicitly that warfare can only be engaged when being attacked. Zuhayli explains that in today’s world, where we have institutions like UN and international law, means that Muslims are treaty bound to adhere to these principles, rules and agreements. Not only is this consistent with Islamic teachings but also obligatory to follow.

Mu’ridaat – conflicting passages which require some re-interpretation of the verses, e.g. verses which conflict with other verses, rules and principles, or Hadith texts. An example is the apparent prohibition of taking Christians and Jews as awliya (friends and/or protectors). Commentators have stated that this is in direct conflict with verses which come asinformative statements declaring rules (as opposed to commands in the texts which can be abrogated, informative statements cannot). One example of an informative statement is: ’you are not forbidden from (loving) those who do not fight you, nor expel you from your homes, from being benevolent and exceeding justice towards them’. This is considered a general verse that applies to all people according to Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, the first to document an exegesis of the Qur’an. Ibn Ashur also contextualizes the others as speaking of times when people were persecuted because of their religion. In fact in such times preferring the persecutors over believers is forbidden except in the instance that Muslims can achieve a good situation and protect their interests, not through deception, but sincere friendship (sidq) as the specific meaning of wala in this verse. Many traditional commentators, including al-Tabari, stated this. Ironically, this is also cited by al-Nabhani – founder of the modern revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Another example of rules and principles would be the verse regarding ‘striking’ women. Fadriboohunna – a word within the verse – is usually rendered as, to ’lightly strike’ them, and this is one tafsir (commentary of the verse). Traditionally, this verse has been taken to mean various things, ranging from ’preventing them’ to ’make love to them’ (according to Zamakshari). Some have stated that this verse was not advocating but discouraging the practice of ‘striking’ by restricting it, so that it is makruh (discouraged) and thus unethical. Therefore it is quite reasonable for it to be forbidden and for people to be punished by state sanction. That it is makruh is the view of Imam Shafi’I (the founder of the third school of Islamic religious law) and this has been collected by Imam Bayhaqi. Another illustration of the same maxim related to the example of striking women and children, is given by Imam al-Izz bin Abdul-Salam, when he states that it is forbidden to strike women or children because generally this lies outside the aim (maqsad) sought by the verse which is reform. Since this could be done through other means (wasa’il) he advocates the prohibition of beating as a fatwa (religious ruling).  This is also in accordance with the tradition cited by Imam Shafi’I and Imam Bayhaqi, ‘laa tadriboo im’a Allah’ – ‘Strike not the female servants of God’. This is an authentic tradition and fits with the above views ofprohibiting either absolutely, or discouraging striking women at all.

In fact there is a recognition, within pre-modern text analysis, that certain passages in the Qur’an would be considered ‘mushkil’ (problematic), ‘ijmal’ (ambivalent), ‘khafiy’ (obscure), ‘ma’lul’ or ‘maqul’ (containing some kind of rationale which must be followed or cause the text to be dropped in the absence of that rationale being achieved).

Dawr ul-hukm ma’a ilaluha (the rule revolves around its aim) is a well-known maxim in the Principles of religious law (Usul al-Fiqh). It was based upon this principle that the Companions of the prophet and their successors changed whom they paid alms to and removed certain categories mentioned in the Qur’an. They never invaded Abyssinnia, for example, as that was the country which provided refuge to persecuted Muslims and where they could freely practice their faith (unheard of in pre-modern empires), and it was for this reason that it was forbidden. Imam Malik actually states that this was something that there was absolute consensus among the first three generation of Muslims (‘salaf’) as related by Ibn Rushd in the early period.

Another example is the widely misunderstood phenomena of Jizya, a tax for not serving in the military imposed upon non-Muslims in Muslim empires. The rationale was that they were a protected community, but not obliged to defend the empire. If however they weren’t protected or they did fight to defend the empire then such an imposition wasforbidden. This is explained in medieval juristic writings, such as Abu Ubida’s ‘Kitab ul-Amwal’ (Book of Revenue – a well-known work discussing such issues). This is also mentioned by conservative traditionalists today, such as Saeed Ramadhan al-Buti and Zuhayli in his workAthar al-Harb fi’Fiqh al-Islami.

As shown in the above examples, literalism is not necessarily the core of the problem as discussed by Asma. By citing many of these examples, do we mean to say that everything is contained in classical exegesis? No. There is need for new ijtihad and interpretation and in fact much of this has been done. For example, Shaykh Mahmood Shaltut (an ex professor and head of al-Azhar) wrote about freedom of thought and belief in modern secular society and the removal of rules, like the killing of apostates, which many schools traditionally did advocate. Some ulema like Buti and Bin Bayyah do not even see these bits of Fiqh as religious rules but injunctions for political circumstances that are not religiously necessary. Therefore there is no applicability for texts or verses which are not relevant to current circumstances since the political context for their application is completely absent.

Literal readings of scripture has never been a problem. The problems, and challenges,  lie in de-contextualized readings of scripture; misreadings of the literal; and ideologically driven readings done within a specific political narrative and outside of understanding the political context.

It is absolutely necessary and vital to get debates like this started and challenge extremist religious/political narratives. Of course, challenging extremists must be based upon a common set of ethics, but also their so-called ‘religious authenticity’.