I want to put to rest an annoying canard. Let me quote an exemplary phrasing of it, from Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook:
‘Unlike Christian and Jewish doctrines, Islam demands unambiguously that Muslims accept the Qur’an as the word of God….The belief that the Qur’an is an eternal, immutable text endows it with a unique level of authority when compared to any other work of literature – if I can even be allowed to call it that. There has been no reformation in Islam, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be one any time soon…because Islam is inflexible in its claim that the Qur’an is of divine origin. And in this sense, Islamic fundamentalism seems almost understandable, for how can you not be a fundamentalist if you have the word of God at your disposal?
In other words, Muslims are particularly likely to be ‘fundamentalists’ because it is embedded as an essential component of Islamic dogma that the Qur’an is the precise word of God, rendered in Arabic, and as such it can only be read literally.
This is a very wrongheaded argument. I’m surprised to see someone from a Muslim community making it. I mean, I can see how it seems reasonable at first, but it doesn’t take much to debunk it.
Let me explain why I think it’s a bad argument.
Well first of all, it’s not a valid inference. Let’s say that I am a Muslim and I believe that the Qur’an was dictated by God via the angel Gabriel, as is orthodox. Alright, well, I guess I’d better take the Qur’an seriously. But what is God saying? Should his words be taken literally? Maybe he’s actually speaking in allegory, or using metaphors in an attempt to convey his omniscient wisdom more fully and richly? Maybe he is deliberately speaking to a given historical context, and fully intends for future readers to try to understand how his words are meant to deliver abstract principles to that context, and to understand that we need to recontextualise those principles for our different social environment?
Basically, even if Muslims firmly believe that the Qur’an is the word of god, it doesn’t follow that the only way for Muslims to read the text is by its most literal, ‘shallow’ interpretation. All it means is that Muslims will pay very close attention to the wording, and treat it with reverence.
Second, it’s empirically false. As I’ve written in a few places on my blog (here and here and here) – and published, in a modest forum– there are many Muslims who are very pious and very committed to their identity as Muslims but who interpret their religion in quite liberal ways. They espouse acceptance of sexual or gender minorities, they call for a brand of democratic government very much like what we enjoy here, and they believe that the true message of the Qur’an is one of love, compassion, and peace.
You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to read the Qur’an as such a gentle text, but of course, you don’t matter unless you happen to be a Muslim theologian who is trying to convince an audience. What matters is how actual Muslims read the Qur’an, and what they think it says.
Demonstrably, the suggestion that Muslims must be fundamentalists is neither good piece of reasoning nor a politically and historically informed claim.
As for the suggestion that the reason why there has been no ‘reformation’ in Islam is due to some tenet of dogma regarding the Qur’an? What rubbish! At what point in the ‘Muslim world’ has there ever been an analog to the Catholic Church? Hint: at no point. What would be reformed? Well, there has been reformation. The current brand of Islamist fundamentalism, traceable to the Wahhabi puritanism that took over what is now Saudi Arabia and has since spread all over the place was a reformation. What came before that? In a great many cases,* what preceded these fundamentalisms was a religion far more tolerant of community diversity than any Catholicism of pre-Protestant history, not to mention many Protestantisms since Martin Luther’s theological insurgency.
So yes, once again: there is nothing essentially more fundamentalist, or illiberal, or some other kind of monstrous, about Islam. If you’re curious about why it seems to be that Islamism is such a powerful force today, I suggest you look to fairly recent history, paying particular attention to the experience of autocracy and socio-economic upheaval experienced by many communities in the ‘Muslim world’ – annoying term – in the past few decades.
*Though certainly not all cases; it must be noted that Islamic history has its fair share of bigotry and massacre, even if a survey of it paints a far rosier picture than a similar survey of Christianity ever would