Quranic literalism

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Skeptics Annotated Quran.jpg
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Quran article:
The Qur'an

Quranic literalism is a method of interpreting the Qur'an, the main sacred text of Islam, which focuses on the apparent meaning of words while avoiding figurative interpretations. It is also known as the "clear", zahir, apparent or exoteric interpretation. Teachings are generally interpreted to be universal laws rather than as specific teachings for the circumstances at the time of Muhammad. Literal interpretations are favoured by some fundamentalists, Salafi/Wahhabist Muslims and most Islamist terrorists.

"It is far easier to obey without thinking [1]"

The problem with literal interpretation is that it often teaches violence, intolerance and extremism.

"The problem with Islam today, in a word, is literalism. Literalism is a commitment to strict exactness of words or meanings in reading or interpretation. Every religion has its share of literalists. But the difference is that only in Islam today literalism is mainstream. [2]"

A literal interpretation is distinct from scholarly interpretation, which is based on complex rules of interpretation, such as abrogation as well as historical context. Most mainstream Muslim leaders and teachers follow a one of the traditional schools of scholarly interpretation. Since scholarly interpretations take years of study, most ordinary Muslims have a choice of taking Islamic teachings on the say-so of scholars or resorting to much more immediate literal interpretations.


Popular support for literalism

In a 2012 poll of sub-Saharan Africa, belief in a literal interpretation of the Qur'an ranged from high in Cameroon (93%) and Nigeria (90%) to moderate in DR Congo (54%). [3] Belief among US Muslims for literalism is 50%. [4] This is in contrast to US Christians, where only 22% to 28% support a literal interpretation of the Bible. [5]

"unlike Christians with the Bible, the vast majority of Muslims believe the Quran to be of divine origin and believe in its literal interpretation. To a Muslim, the Quran is God's literal words to mankind, passed on through the angel Gabriel to prophet Muhammed. [6]"

Arguments for a literal interpretation

Literally the word of God

Muslims widely believe that the Qur'an was directly written by Allah. Of course, it is much more likely it was orally dictated by Muhammad, partially based on pre-existing scriptures and practices. Even if the Qur'an is literally the word of Allah, it does not automatically follow that they should be interpreted literally. He may have intended we use a different interpretation or many different interpretations.

Apologists also interpret the Qur'an as if it had no contradictions. However, this cannot be known a priori or without first interpreting the Qur'an. It is conceivable, if we start from only the abstract concept of theism, that God deliberately (or accidentally) added contradictions.

Even if a book is literally the word of God, it does not automatically follow we should read it or obey what it says. This is the is-ought argument against divine obedience.

Scriptural argument

Apologists argue that the Qur'an should not be selectively used, based on the content of the Qur'an itself. [7]

"So do you believe in part of the Scripture and disbelieve in part? Then what is the recompense for those who do that among you except disgrace in worldly life; and on the Day of Resurrection they will be sent back to the severest of punishment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do."

Surah 2:85 Bible-icon.png

This is a circular argument: only once we have established literalism as a valid methodology can scriptural arguments be used to justify it.

Religious teachings should not be selected on their content

Apologists argue against picking and choosing individual teachings based on their content because this would be cherry picking.

"Rejection here returns to the hadith contents [and] is the method of those who use prejudices to arrive at evidence - a notion totally at odds with all forms of scholarship. [8]"

This really does not the problem of how one should interpret the Qur'an in the first place.

Puts interpretation back in the hands of believers

A literal interpretation is far more accessible to most Muslims because it does not require years of study. Extremist groups claim to put religion directly in the hands of believers rather than rely on elitist and remote power structures. While this is not a formal argument, it does have psychological appeal. However, without religious freedom, people are forced to practice religion in a fundamentalist and monolithic fashion.

Arguments against a literal interpretation

A literal interpretation can lead to extremism

A literal interpretation of scriptures can lead to extremism and fundamentalism. When taken at face value and ignoring historical context, the Qur'an can be interpreted to mean violence against non-Muslims is justified. However, this is an appeal to consequences.

"The horror of our circumstance is that it is very difficult to say how ISIS is distorting the central teachings of Islam. If you read the Qur'an, if you read the Hadith, if you read the biography of Muhammad and you ask yourself what is ISIS doing that Muhammad wouldn't do or would have clearly objected to. That is not an easy question to answer. [...] If he lead by example, if Muhammad was the best person who ever lived well then it gets you something very close to ISIS. And then we are having to read the fine print to find how it doesn't apply in our time."

Sam Harris[9]


Skeptics Annotated Quran.jpg
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Quran article:

A literal interpretation of the Qur'an suffers from numerous contraditions. These contradictions are usually resolved by ad hoc cherry picking.

Not just one literal interpretation

The literal interpretation focuses on the apparent meaning of works from the point of view of the reader. This means the reader has some influence in the final interpretation that results from a literal reading of a text. Differences in literal interpretations have lead rival groups to attack each other, each think they had the "true" literal interpretation. Interpretation, even a literal one, is inherently subjective and a broken compass argument.

Tacit rejection of literalism

"there's a silver lining to this unmitigated disaster [of Islamic State]: Quranic literalism has been tacitly rejected (at least, implicitly) by Muslims everywhere. [10]"

Scriptural argument

The Qur'an itself says that some teachings are not to be taken literally:

"In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah."

Surah 3:7 Bible-icon.png, tr. Yusuf Ali

Other interpretations have merits

Other approaches to interpretation have merits, such as a scholarly interpretation.

"In the Islam of a millennium ago, ijtihad flourished. It was no coincidence that Islamic civilisation led the world in curiosity, creativity and ingenuity. But then the sun set on Islam’s golden age. Invaders from North Africa pillaged the pluralism of Muslim Spain. From Cordoba to Baghdad, much of the Islamic empire lapsed into defensiveness. Out of 135 schools of Sunni thought, just four survived. The gates of ijtihad narrowed and in some places closed, legitimising rigid readings of the Qur’an. To this day, Muslims still struggle with the idea of independent thought.[11]"

False assumption that the Qur'an is infallible

Literal interpretations still make the assumption that the Qur'an is infallible. This limits the degree to which Islam can reform. Some Muslims are questioning the widely held assumption of infallibility.

"In my opinion we Muslims need to take the bold step of challenging the very idea that the Qur’an and Sunna are infallible. This will come as a shock to those of us brought up on the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God, but some Muslims are already doing this. Thinkers such as Abdul Karim Soroush from Iran, Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji from Iraq and Saeed Nasheed from Morocco are questioning traditional views about the Qur’an.[12]"

Why a literal interpretation?

Some extremists claim, with various degrees of accuracy, that they use a literal interpretation of the Qur'an. However, there is no particular justification for this approach to interpretation of the text. Perhaps Allah intended a different approach for interpretation?

Assuming literalism is the best approach inadvertently validates the view of groups like ISIS.[13]

Other arguments

Extremists are not literalists

While many sources state that ISIS uses a literal interpretation, [14] some consider that extremists are not literalists but simply follow one fundamentalist interpretation.

"What distinguishes the interpretive approach of groups like ISIS from others is not its literalism (Sufis are indeed the most “literal” of all such interpreters of the Quran) but its narrowness and rigidity; for the adherents of ISIS, the Quran means exactly one thing, and other levels of meaning or alternate interpretations are ruled out a priori. This is not literalism. It is exclusivism. [15]"

See also


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]
  7. [7]
  8. [8]
  9. [9]
  10. [10]
  11. [11]
  12. [12]
  13. [13]
  14. [14]
  15. [15]
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