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Where do we draw the line between metaphors and literalism?

Where do we draw the line between metaphors and literalism?


I realize my question is not a comfortable one but I simply still would like to know. Where do we draw the line between ‘Metaphore’ and ‘Literalism’? You believe Adam & Hawa (alayhisalatu wa salaam) to be metaphorical, and that’s totally fine (though I am a creationist. Hope that doesn’t make you think less of me)… But where do we draw the line? Was Nuh AS not really 950 years old? Was the Moon not really split? Was Mary not really a virgin? I find it so confusing.

Salaam alykum,

This is a very interesting question, and I think it depends upon where we are in our knowledge of this world, as our limitations of perception dictate what is possible within our mind.

Human knowledge changes, Knowledge of The Divine never does, and so, science, like all other forms of human knowledge, is based on our ability to perceive, and so if we cannot perceive, we cannot know, and thus, there will always be a limit on what we can know, because there are always going to be limits in our ability to perceive.

Therefore, the way we perceive of our world will influence the limits of how we may understand and apply The Qur’an.

For example, to societies before ours, slavery was a given, and so the mention of slavery in The Qur’an was not odd. Today, slavery is beyond our perception, and so we look at The Qur’an’s mention of slavery in a very different light. [To read about Slavery and Islam, click here]

The Qur’an is eternal, our understandings of It are not. 

This is a very important concept, we must realize that we will understand things very differently relative to different times, but that does not mean that The Qur’an, because of changes to our human condition, ceases to be relevant.

I would like to be abundantly clear, just because we understand The Qur’an differently relative to our environment (political, historical, social, etc) does not mean that the morality and responsibilities contained therein change or cease to be relevant.

So, from this vantage point I’d like to say that my view on Adam and Hawa (Eve) is not completely metaphorical, but that, since metaphor is used explicitly in The Qur’an [3:7, 24:35], and to deny the possibility of either my perception or yours is the height of arrogance, as you may be correct, or I may be, or we may both be incorrect, only God knows.

As to where we “draw the line” I think that line changes, it changes from time period to time period, between the different schools of speculative theology [Ashari, Maturidi, etc], and from individual to individual. The key is whether we are striving towards being within conformity to God’s ordained laws (as set out within The Qur’an and explicated through The Prophet’s Sunnah) or are we functioning outside of that.

I think having a pure intent (niyah) is of central importance, to genuinely strive to make sense of The Qur’an relative to what you know, what you can understand, because we, the individual Muslims, are responsible for our deeds, no one else.

In The Qur’an, God speaks about this responsibility, mentioning what those who fail to recognize their personal responsibility will say:

“And they will say: ‘O our Sustainer! Behold, we paid heed unto our leaders and our great men, and it is they who have led us astray from the right path!” [33:67] Muhammad Asad

We must take accountability for this, and we must strive towards reaching a conclusion that makes sense to us, that benefits us, because that is a (if not the) point of Islam: to benefit ourselves, so that we may treat others properly.

To be quite frank, I think if someone is genuinely attempting to make sense of these issues, then God will excuse their misunderstandings, because we must make a sharp delineation between what are considered interpretations of scholars from Schools of Aqidah and what are perceptions ordained explicitly in The Qur’an and by The Prophet.

While people are keenly aware of the judicial differences between Maliki and Hanafi (for example) they are far less aware of the disparity between Athari and Maturidi, what a Mutazila is, and what importance the Zahiriyyah had on early Islamic scholarship.

That is why I will continue to harp on the fact that a “Madhab” is not a “school of thought” but a “school of law.” This distinction is important because people ask theological questions, expecting jurisprudential answers, and while people identify themselves as “Hanafi” or “Jaafari” or whatever, they seldom recognize what tradition of speculative theological thought they espousing.

This issue is something we must explore, and I say that, not only because I do not wish to share my theological perceptions, but because the answer to your question is not found in what I study: Shariah. This is a question for those who study Aqidah, and thus, rather than going to Ibn Taymiyyah or Ibn Jurayj (for example), we should be looking at, for instance, Al-Ghazali or al-Tahawiyya’s work.

With this in mind, I will say this: academics who study The Qur’an will underline that The Qur’an is quite specific when needed, and when vague, The Qur’an is quite clear on this, the issue is whether we can grasp the language of The Qur’an, for it is the linguistics that is at the heart of Its Perfection. When attempting to square away declarations or concepts in The Qur’an, to look at the literal text alone–even in Arabic, although most Muslims do not do this–will not yield the answer to your questions.

In sum, where that line is drawn, it really matters who you ask. Every school will declare what they believe is the undoubted truth, but, again, The Qur’an is quite clear that “but none save God knows its final meaning.” [3:7]

Therefore, we must have the humility to know what are the limits of our knowledge, to acknowledge that even with God’s actual words in our hands, we cannot know everything, which should incline us towards treating others’ ideas with respect, yet also, know when it is appropriate to disagree, not out of passion or zeal, but out of a desire to correct, and most importantly, to do so with evidence.

So, where we draw the line changes from society to society, from school to school, and from person to person, the issue is not our perceptions, but whether we arrive at those perceptions from a place of sincerity, but also, that the moment our perceptions affect another person, that is when those perceptions matter the most. If we allow our perceptions to harm others, to excuse our duty–as Muslims–to deal with them with justice, then regardless of what we believe, we have compartmentalized our religion, which is something we are not permitted to do.

I realize that this entire response gave more questions than answers, but that’s the point. I want you to explore Islamic thinkers who are not Fuquha (Legal Scholars), because there is this ocean of Islamic thinkers who we seldom discuss, which narrows our understanding of Islam and prevents us from having the tools to approach and apply The Qur’an for ourselves.

My greatest hope is not for people who read my insignificant writings to agree with me, rather, I simply want them to have access to as much information as possible so that they may think for themselves, to challenge my thinking, and to correct me where I am wrong.

If you, or anyone else, has a question on this, please do not hesitate to ask me, insha Allah.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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