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


In the mixed society we live today, we went looking for the ideal platform for Muslims. And of course, we didn’t find it. So we made one ourselves.

  • MahmudH

    A literal reading of the Koran goes against the text of the Koran. 3:7 explicitly states that the Quran includes analogies. You can’t take an analogy literally. Even the verses which seem to be specific are subject to interpretation. How do you define theft? How do you define zina? Who is the judge meant to be when punishments must be met out? The Quran was never meant to be a rule book, God gave it to the prophet to inspire humanity, not as a substitute for rational thinking.

    • Critical Thinker

      “You can’t take an analogy literally”

      I’m glad to hear you say that on one hand, but on the other hand using the examples you’ve cited, it doesn’t sound intellectually honest – at all. I don’t think actions such theft or adultery are up for debate or personal interpretation. You don’t kinda, sorta steal something, nor do you kinda, sorta cheat on your spouse. There are no gray areas here. However, if you want to leave the rules for punishment up for interpretation, be my guest… as long as they aren’t draconian, inhumane, or violent.

      “The Koran was never meant to be a rule book, God gave it to the prophet to inspire humanity, not as a substitute for rational thinking.”

      I am certainly glad to hear you say that.

      • MahmudH

        I think there is a lot of grey area in both cases. Adultery is defined differently in the west compared with traditional sharia law. The west defines it as a married person having sex with anyone they are not married to. Traditional Muslims define it only as a married woman having sex with someone who isn’t her husband. In addition, the law in Britain is that only intercourse is adultery. The Bill Clinton saga suggested that activities short of that still count. But what about “emotional adultery”? Likewise with theft. What counts as stealing property? How do you define property? Is intellectual property real property? Is possession 9/10th of the law? What about leases, taxation, joint stock companies, restrictive agreements – the answers are not in the text.

        • Critical Thinker

          The mere fact that “traditional Muslims define it [adultery] only as a married woman having sex with someone who isn’t her husband,” where the same does not apply to men speaks volumes to the disparity of individual liberty from person to person in the Islamic world. This is unquestionably incompatible with the Western values that are based on 19th Century Classical Liberalism. Sorry dude, there are no gray areas there. This is just one example of why you find many people in the West who are reluctant to embrace Islam (and in specific, Islamism) as they have embraced all other religions and cultures over the years. I say this despite any discrepancies in adultery laws from country to country on what constitutes grounds for marital litigation.

          As far as theft of personal (physical) property, the vast majority of what constitutes theft could be sorted out by a 6 year old. Intellectual property is entirely different and open for debate. The same goes for taxation, etc.

          All that aside, doesn’t the Quran talk about taxes under the Sharia? I thought it laid out an entire political structure for it’s followers, no?

          • MahmudH

            No, it doesn’t set out any political structure. It doesn’t mention any leader for Muslims other than the prophet himself. The religious authority claimed by theocratic leaders is based upon hadiths and other traditions not the Quran. Shia and Sunni Muslims have different collections of hadiths, and within those traditions some hadiths are given greater weight than others.

            Going back to adultery, I would emphasise that it is tradition – primarily wahabi tradition (I don’t know about the rest) – that defines it that way, not the Quran. We don’t know how the prophet himself defined it. And the enlightenment didn’t get everything right. Married women couldn’t own property separately from their husband till 1882 in Britain. Muslim societies have given married women that right since the beginning.

          • Critical Thinker

            But, what about Islamic Law/Sharia? Doesn’t Sharia come from the Qur’an? And, isn’t that a political structure, albeit one that is interpreted differently among sects? Couldn’t it be said that that has influenced so much of what we call tradition?

            Re: adultery, that is incorrect. It says in in Surah 4:24, exactly how you defined it above. That is not tradition, but doctrine. We also know that Muslims don’t simply read the Qur’an, but also include the Hadith and Sunnah. From these other two books, we do know how Muhammad defined treatment of women… not so well. He may have made life for women better than pre-Islamic Arabic (pagan) life, but was certainly no liberator women rights. These are facts.

          • MahmudH

            Surah 4:24 is generally understood as referring to whom a man can marry, not whom he can fornicate with.

            Surah 24:30 commands men to guard their chastity, implying unmarried sex is not allowed.

            But it is all quite unspecific – because it was never intended as a rule book, but as a prayer book.

          • Critical Thinker

            Hmm… Are you a practicing Muslim? And, if so, how do you answer to those who would call you a heretic or say you’re not a Muslim?

          • MahmudH

            Kind of, I practise what makes sense to me, I don’t drink or eat pork, I fast, I pray sometimes. If they accuse me of not being a Muslim I tell them what they think is their problem.

          • Critical Thinker

            Well, I mean this with all due respect, but you sound more like a cultural Muslim, rather than a practicing Muslim. Or to put it more bluntly… Not a Muslim, lol.

            You know, I think many people out there are conflating misgivings with Islam as being anti-Arabic, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic, but I maintain that it is more to do with the teachings of Islam.

            I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Are you in the US or UK?

          • MahmudH

            I’m in the UK. I don’t consider myself a ‘cultural muslim’ because I believe in God. I think that’s the core of the difference between religion and culture. It was faith in God that motivated the prophet to risk his life struggling for what he believed in. I don’t think being unreasonable, stubborn and dogmatic makes a person a real believer, it just shows that they are insecure.

          • MahmudH

            Bits of sharia come from the Quran. But there isn’t much in the Quran for them to go on, so most comes from hadiths. Sunni theology allows for “abrogation” whereby sometimes hadith can even overrule the Quran. But hadiths vary between traditions, and even within the same traction, opinions vary as to which hadiths are reliable and which are not. Shia and Sunni Muslims have different hadith collections. Twelver Shia Muslims believe that the true meaning of the Quran has been hidden, and will only be reveled with the return of the twelfth imam, who is also concealed from time. The theology of islamists is not Quranic, nor is it from the time of the prophet. It is from the subsequent rulers of the Muslim world who wanted a rationalisation for their own power and authority.

          • Critical Thinker

            Well, this is all fascinating, not to mention quite confusing. How is it that a religion so widespread could be so vastly disparate across sects? Sure, Christianity has doctrinal differences, but the disparity is incomparable w/Islam. Pardon the repeat question, but how would you answer to other Muslims would say you aren’t a real muslim. For example, I have seen several people (on social media mind you) claim that Ahmadi Muslims aren’t real Muslims.

          • MahmudH

            In terms of taxes, the Quran uses the term “zakat” to refer to an obligatory financial payment Muslims must make, but that is interpreted as being for looking after the poor. Thus Islam is the only faith where charity is complusory. But it doesn’t talk about tax more generally, and certainly not government bureaucracy. Most of the Quran is about how God will destroy and punish the evil doers at the end of time, and reward the righteous.

          • Critical Thinker

            I’m aware of zakat, as well as jizya. But, I haven’t heard that the zakat was interpreted as a charity. I would think that would be open for debate among Muslims, no? Not to get too far off track, but that is the basic tenet of socialism, which I disagree with. Charity should never be compulsory, but voluntary. That’s not to say that people like me are uncharitable, but this view is often conflated as selfish/greedy by proponents of socialism.

            I am also aware of the governance of conquered non-Muslims (dhimmis).

          • MahmudH

            The principle of complusory charity is basically universally accepted by Muslims, whether liberal, conservative, fundamentalist or secular. Is it socialist? Maybe. Before Karl Marx, communism was something practised by religious puritans, not athiests. Jesus threw the money lenders out of the Temple. Muhammad commanded those with money to give to those without. Religion doesn’t come cheap.

          • Critical Thinker

            I’m not suggesting that religious puritans or atheists have/had it right on anything. But, I do think people like John Locke did, and my personal faith is separate from my views on government/policy.

            Religion is just that… it’s just religion. A personal relationship with Christ is entirely different, and again is entirely separated from government.

          • MahmudH

            I do admire Locke’s writings, he had a very clear style of thinking about the world. Irshad Manji puts the point well – ‘faith is above politics, religion is not’. I’m against religious clerics running society, but religion will never be able to separate itself from politics, because it concerns how people interact with one another, and as feminists like to say, the personal is the political.

          • Critical Thinker

            Religion might have influence, but should not make policy. There is a huge distinction there.

          • MahmudH

            I think the hardline feminists have a real point. Not that they’re right about everything, but they see the real manipulation of media, culture and social norms to suit the interests of the establishment.

          • GR

            I think Westerrn Europe has done a fairly good job of separating instituional religion from the State. Certainly the sectarian conflicts that bedelived it for three centuries have largely vanished. One hopes for the same for Islam.

          • Joseph

            Zakat (Muslim tax) is compulsory to those who have savings or assets but Saadiqa (Charity) is optional and encouraged and doesn’t refer to just money only, there are many ways of giving Saadiqa as Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) described

            “The doors of goodness are many…enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms -all of these are charity prescribed for you.”

            He even mentioned a simple smile is a form of Saadiqa in Islam

            “Your smile for your brother is charity.” (At-Tirmidhi, 1879)

            so in reality it’s pretty hard not to give Charity in some shape or form unless you are a real Grinch

    • Steel Harris

      It is He who has sent down to you, the Book; in it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation. [suitable to them] And no one knows its interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding<<<. Seriously what did you see when you read this or the rest of the Quran? The book speaks of attaining knowledge and understanding and It gives commands which are rules. Ways of ppl are orders of ppl; orders ares are rules.

  • Of course, we *should* know that some at least of the Qur’an must be read as parable or metaphor. The stars and trees, for instance, do not *literally* prostrate; they “prostrate” only in the sense that they perform without demur the functions for which they were created.

    I think this was meant as a strong hint from Allah that we need to *think* as we read, and apply all of our knowledge and faculties (also given us by Allah) to find the best and most complete interpretation of the text.

  • Joseph

    In my humble opinion to all who might read this, you should forget about pointing in the direction of people like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King when you can study the life and characteristics of the best of mankind, Muhammed ibn Abdullah peace and blessings be upon him. He was complete in every aspect of Life and can serve as a beacon of guidance to all people from every walk of life.

    “But no, by your Lord, they can have no Faith, until they make you (O Muhammad (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him)) judge in all disputes between them, and find in themselves no resistance against your decisions, and accept (them) with full submission” [Quran – an-Nisa’ 4:65]