Islam and the Burden of Literalism
At present, much of the so-called Islamic world is engaged in an urgent struggle to define itself. While the Western media is replete with images which link Islam with terrorism and violence, and while Islamic thought and practice in some countries has been dominated by various groups claiming to be “fundamentalist,” there are serious scholars and theologians – in both Eastern and Western countries – who are attempting to combat the clouded portrayals of Islam issuing from both ignorance and blind obedience to fanatical leaders. One of the central concerns of the scholars is the need to engage in a re-reading of the various “texts” that form the core of Islamic doctrine and practice: the Qur’an, the sunnah or example of the prophet Muhammad, the Hadith or sayings of the prophet, the tradition of Shari’ah or Islamic law, and other crucial concepts such as ijtihad or independent reasoning and ijma’ or consensus.
This paper will argue that the so-called fundamentalist versions of Islam are burdened by a literalism which has no grounding and no sanction in the sacred texts of Islam. The myth of literalism has long been exploded by various branches of philosophy and literary-cultural theory. The fundamentalists posit a primordial – and mythical – “literal” meaning of the Qur’an which has never in fact been articulated. The so-called fundamentalists wish to ignore both history and the necessity of interpretation. In contrast, the Qur’an itself, as well as the various apparatuses of Islamic interpretation (hadith etc.) explicitly acknowledge their own use of metaphor and figurative speech. This paper will analyse a few passages from the Qur’an, attempting to show that the meanings attributable to these are a product of interpretation and historically accumulated exegesis. The re-reading of the sacred texts of Islam, from perspectives enrichened by both the history of Islamic thought and more recent modes of literary-cultural theory, is one of the most urgent tasks facing the twenty-first century, and the current paper intends to make a small contribution to this large undertaking.
Keywords: Language, Islam
Dr. Rafey Habib
Associate Professor of English, Department of English, Rutgers University