Thoughts on the notion that “A Literal reading of the Qur’an allows for terrorism”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. “A literal reading of the Qur’an allows for violence” — that groups like ISIS can justify themselves from the life of the Prophet, that just like how Levitical Law or  the Old Testament have violent passages the Qur’an does too, but “moderate Muslims” simply do not follow them anymore. When I hear this, I hear “I can prove creationism through scientific journals”. Only those who are deeply ignorant of Islamic scholarship or perhaps those whose lens has been colored from analysis of other religions could reason this.

I need to start with an absolutely critical premise. Islam has a “True Scottsman”. That is to say, Islam has a normative scholastic tradition that is widely shared, even without mass awareness and even given regional variations of Islam. Specifically, Sunni Islam has four legal schools, known as madhhabs, which are closely related yet distinct sets of principles and conclusions that are used as frameworks to interpret the Qur’an and prophetic tradition to derive Islamic law. Shia Islam has significantly broader variations, but with the exception of the Aga Khanis or ‘Alawis, they tend to only be around disputes of leadership and cultural and political identity, not practical law. That aside, Shias tend to coalesce around a single legal framework. These 4+1 schools are effectively absolute in their penetration of the Muslim world and provide a concise framework for what normative, orthodox, mainstream, approach to Islamic law. Granted, there is debate even within these schools, but even then there is a consensus or normative opinion and other minor opinions are taken as a rukhsa (acceptable opinion in the event of a dire circumstance or to free someone from blame).

For centuries, the general populace read the Qur’an and pondered its meanings. But specific formulations of Islamic law, practice, applications and rulings derived thereof were delivered to the masses through the scholars. Typically Muslims did not simply read the Qur’an and hadith texts to reach to their own personal conclusions on law. Instead, they relied on the established scholastic tradition through one of the four schools. This provided a dispassionate, sound legal framework not affected by personal desire. Additionally, it was rare that the average Muslim directly delved into the books of hadith without guidance. This was not withholding knowledge from the masses, as anyone could become a scholar by attaching himself to the coterie of a scholar. Instead, it is this was recognizing that hadith are inherently highly contextual reports. Some hadith are considered formally abrogated, some are still applicable, some are general, some are specific, etc.

Now to ISIS and related groups: Groups like ISIS started as a theological schism from classical Islam. From their perspective, they were returning to classical Islam that was free from scholastic interpretation and unnecessary clutter. But in reality, they were jettisoning centuries of scholarship, even if it dated back to the first three generations (Salaf al-Salih), both theologically and legally, that they reportedly claim to adhere to. They eliminated all schools of Islamic thought as “following the madhhab” or “following your shaykhs” instead of following the prophetic tradition. With this in mind, they reinterpreted the Qur’an and Hadith without even the requisite basic knowledge. They pick up the hadith texts, find what they think justified their position, and cite it as Islamic justification.

Outwardly, they appear scholarly, authoritative and maybe even convincing. But their ignorance is acutely palpable to anyone with basic knowledge of the Shari’ah, but seems convincing to the ill-informed. This is perhaps most analogous to creationists who have little-to-no scientific knowledge, but will cite research papers they do not understand to disprove established scientific conclusions.

Ironically, the so-called “Moderate Muslims” are responding not with liberal or progressive interpretations of Islam, but with classical interpretations that date back since day one, whereas the terrorists are the ones who espouse modernistic, “reformed Islam”. There is a shift to “reform Islam”, which typically means move it away from traditional Islam and let the masses interpret it as they choose. As Dalia Mogahed pointed out in her discourse with Irshad Manji, the idea that a free-for-all to interpret Islam is any less valid than centuries of scholastic interpretation is exactly the kind of thinking that gave Osama bin Laden legitimacy.

(I’ve listened to the entire talk, but can’t seem to find it online!!)

I’ll close with a statement from Ibn Taymiyya. He said that every deviant group in Islam’s history has always justified themselves with the Qur’an and Sunnah. But they always have done so by accepting parts and rejecting other parts. Groups like ISIS and their ilk are deviant innovators and should be challenged both militarily and theologically.


About Nahraf
Providing interesting insight into the world of Economics, Theology, Computer Science and Social phenomena.

One Response to Thoughts on the notion that “A Literal reading of the Qur’an allows for terrorism”

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the notion that “A Literal reading of the Qur’an allows for terrorism” | Unchain the tree

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