Should We Literally Interpret Islam?

Question and answer details
As-salamu `alaykum. My question is regarding ‘literalist’ interpretations of Islam and the implications this has on our daily actions. To what extent are we supposed to follow the Sunnah and hadiths in our daily lives? Should we aim for total complete imitation, without any consideration over the context? Should we all just unquestionably follow popular ‘literal’ interpretations as a matter of blind faith, even if doing so conflicts with our reason? Please shed some light on where the balance, if any, should lie and why this is so. Jazakum Allah Khayran
Wael Shihab
Wa `alaykum as-salamu wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.

Brother, thank you for your important question, which shows how far you are concerned about correct adherence to Islam and dictates of Shari`ah.

Regarding your question, it should be clear that confinement to literal connotations alone of the Shari`ah texts—from the Qur’an or the Sunnah—without paying attention to the context, occasions of revelation of the Qur’anic verses, abrogation, scholars’ different interpretations, etc., may not be the right course and may lead to serious errors.

Responding to your question, Dr. Wael Shihab, PhD in Islamic Studies, Al-Azhar University, Ex-Head of the Fatwa Unit of IslamOnline.net (English website), and the Shari`ah Consultant of the (English) Shari`ah Dept. of Onislam.net website, stated,

Thank you, brother, for your scholarly and serious question.

In fact, a single fatwa is not sufficient to thoroughly discuss and critically study the points you raised in your question. However, I will state below some general principles that could briefly shed light on the significant points you raised:

First, it is not acceptable for laymen or learned persons who are not scholars of Shari`ah to interpret Islam in their own without referring to well-qualified scholars who possess the qualifications to offer ijtihad and interpret texts of Shari`ah. A Shari`ah scholar should be well-versed in the Shari`ah sciences such as Qur’an, Hadith, Tafsir, Usl Al-Fiqh, Arabic language, maqasid (objectives) of the Shari`ah, etc.

Second, a good Muslim should refer only to trustworthy accredited Muslim scholars, who are known for their profound knowledge of Shari`ah and its sciences, for interpretation of Islam and its values. This way, he or she will learn the true teachings of Islam and avoid disturbance and confusion over Islam and its teachings.

Third, adopting the literalist approach alone in understanding Islam and its teachings may lead to grave errors and serious mistakes. Texts of Shari`ah should be understood and interpreted while considering other essential factors such as the context, occasions of revelations of Qur’anic verses, objectives of shari`ah, scholars’ various interpretations, etc.

Fourth, it is also not acceptable to disregard the apparent meanings of the Shari`ah texts or violate them under the pretext of paying more attention to their deeper meanings. The most appropriate approach is, according to the majority of Shari`ah scholars, to reconcile these two approaches in a manner that neither the deeper meaning of the texts is excluded nor is the opposite [that is, the literal and apparent meaning] violated. In this way the Shari`ah runs according to one single coherent pattern free from any discrepancy or contradiction. (See Ash-Shatibi, Al-Muwafaqat, 2: pp. 332-338)

Fifth, not all actions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) are meant for legislation (tashri`). Though the mainstream of the Prophet’s actions and sayings are meant for legislation, some of his practices or sayings are not so. For example, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) took some measures as a political leader to secure the benefits of the Muslim community at his time. So, it is the role of the scholars who have profound knowledge of Shari`ah to make a clear distinction between the Prophet’s actions and sayings which are meant for legislation and those that did not. Prophet’s actions and sayings may include “legislation (tashri`), issuing edicts (fatwas), adjudication (qada’), political leadership of the state (imarah), guidance (hadi), conciliation (sulh), advice to those seeking his opinion (isharah), counseling (nasihah), spiritual uplifting of people (takmil an-nufus), teaching high and lofty truths (ta`lim al-haqa’iq al-`aliyah), disciplining (ta’dib) and non-instructive ordinary statements (tajarrud `an al-irshad). (See Ibn `Ashur, Treatise on Maqasid Al-Shari`ah, p. 32)

Sixth, the Prophet’s Companions, scholars from among the tabi`un (successors), the leading imams of the schools of fiqh—with the exception of ibn Hazm Az-Zahiri, and most of the reliable Shari`ah scholars thorough centuries have not confined themselves to literal meanings of the texts of shari`ah. Imâm ash-Shâfi`î says, “Whoever observes the affairs of the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them), who are the model examples in ijtihad, will find that they did not confine themselves to texts and their specific indications to reach rulings, but they used to consider the general meanings [of texts] without restricting themselves to textual proofs.” (Al-Juwaynî, al-Burhan: p. 1117)

Under the title “Insufficiency of the Literal Methodology without Knowledge of Higher Objectives”, Ibn `Ashur affirms, “Some scholars fall into unending errors when they focus all their attention on words and confine the process of deriving the rules (ahkam) of the Shari`ah to squeezing the words so as to extract their meaning, believing this to be the proper and only course. They continue to examine words and analyze them, hoping to extract their core and essence. Thus, they neglect and fail to take stock of the context of the speech act, which consists of contextual evidences (qara’in), speech conventions (istilahat), and general context. It is obvious that the context of legislation (maqam at-tashri`) is so sensitive that taking these elements into consideration to comprehend the legislative purport of speech cannot be overemphasized.” (Ibn `Ashur, Maqasid Al-Shari`ah, p. 25)

Given the above, I stress that laymen should always refer to scholars who are known for their deep insight of Shari`ah and its objectives to understand and thereby apply the correct values of Islam. Scholars, moreover, should pay due attention to texts of Shari`ah as well as other necessary factors of understanding Islam such as the contextual proofs, deeper meanings of texts, objectives of the Shari`ah, etc.

May Allah Almighty protect and secure our young Muslims and guide them and us all to what is good in this world and in the Hereafter, amen!

Allah Almighty knows best.