Is the problem a literal reading of the Qur’an?

It’s a much heard proposition that fundamentalist Islamic groups take their Qur’an literally. This would be the theological and scriptural backbone of their violent acts. Such an idea is voiced by critics of Islam and Muslims alike.

There are, however, quite some good reasons to doubt this seemingly self-evident idea.

It is most certainly the case that extremists show a total lack of more symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical readings of their holy texts. Yet this doesn’t necessarily imply that they adhere to a ‘literal’ reading of their texts.

Those who read the passages on struggle in the Qur’an, will quickly notice that they almost invariably talk about defensive violence. Violence is only legitimised as form of resistance against injustice and is bound by many restrictions such as the correct treatment captives.

Even the famous ‘swordverse’ – which in a non-historic and non-contextual reading might, according to some, call for an all-round attack on non-believers – is immediately followed by the following verses: “But if they repent and fulfil their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind. If an idolater seeks protection, then give him asylum that he may hear the word of God. Then escort him to a place of safety, for they are people who do not know.” (9: 5-6)

In other places the Qur’an makes it clear that the justice of certain prevalent laws might make it appropriate to punish injustice – and sometimes even with violence – but adds that forgiveness and compassion are to be preferred.

Just one small example of such verses is: “The retribution of evil is the equal of evil (done); yet those who forgive and rehabilitate will be rewarded by God. Verily He does not like those who do wrong. If one avenges himself after he has been wronged, there is no way of blaming him. Blame lies on those who oppress, and terrorise the land unjustly. For them there is painful punishment. But he who bears with patience and forgives, surely complies with divine resolve.” (42: 40-43)

Iqraa | Quran

Those who’d like to take the Qur’an as literally as possible and who’d wish to conform as much as possible to ‘the Will of God’ should therefore show restraint, non-violence and compassion. The Qur’an is quite ‘literal’ in that respect. (All surah’s, except one, by the way, start with a supplication to God as the infinitely compassionate and forgiving.)

Those who, in contrast, seek verses that justify aggressive militant deeds, have to apply much interpretation. They have to make a choice of very specific passages and leave behind a (literal) reading of limiting verses that follow immediately afterwards. The problem, therefore, isn’t a ‘literalistic reading’ but a ‘militaristic reading’ of the Qur’an.

Where do such readings come from? In any case not from the traditional forms of religious interpretation. In line with both the symbolic and the literal meaning of the verses in the Qur’an, the majority of the classical jurists and exegetes advanced a more contained form of violence and showed a focus on peace.

Yet when we know that the American-British invasion of Iraq made more than 1 million victims and dispersed more than 5 million refugees, long before the arrival of Daesh (ISIS), when we know that the top of Daesh consists of people that used to hold high military command functions under Saddam, when we know that the orange clothing of Daesh’s prisoners is a reference to Guantanamo, when we know that Daesh does not simply survive on ideology but that their livelihood is largely sustained by international trade in oil, then the militarist scriptural reading of a phenomenon like Daesh seems to stem from a very different context.

A militarist reading of any Holy Scripture, does not by itself flow from the texts. It is a reading that originates in a jumble of violent factors and that arise when (consciously or not) people blind themselves for the countering nonviolent dimensions of the texts.

All of this isn’t simply a nice little ‘good to know’ about the theology of Daesh or other extremists. It’s value lies much deeper. For just like we can read the holy texts militaristically, we can also read reality militaristically.

When we read both history and today’s events merely in militaristic terms, then we will only advance militaristic solutions. Yet when we place history as well as today’s events in a more holistic perspective, we can see other possibilities and become more peace oriented. Because then, we can also point in the direction of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Abdal Ghaffar Khan. And then we can, just like them, find our inspiration in… yes indeed… Holy Scriptures.


Jonas Yunus Atlas is a theologian, active in local and international peace work. He’s the author of ‘Halal Monk: A Christian on a Journey Through Islam’.

Written by Mvslim

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