One Reason Why Islam Seems “Stuck”: Interpretation vs. Analogies

[A version of this was originally posted as a Facebook note.]

ijtihad, (Arabic: “effort”) in Islamic law, the independent or original interpretation of problems not precisely covered by the Quran, Ḥadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances), and ijma (scholarly consensus).

Sometimes, very occasionally, just asking questions is a legitimate intellectual exercise among consenting adults instead of an annoying exercise in bad faith. One of the classic food-for-thought type questions involves time-travelling to change some historical event.

One of the few things that didn’t change after my defection from Islam is my answer to that hypothetical question. Disregarding any sort of unforeseen negative circumstances that I could cause by doing so, I would stop the closing of the doors of Ijtihad in Sunni Islam.

I first learned of this choice bit of Islamic history from the Islamic conference that helped me to lose my faith. At some point, it was decided that interpretation was off the table and only qiyas (analogical reasoning) was canonically allowed.

This has proven to be a problem. Try analogizing your way, using writings and thinking from the 3rd century or earlier, to an answer on such typical modern ethical questions such as whether stem cells are okay to use for research. It’s difficult, you will rely on ambiguities, and you will come to a conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow what you’ve cited because there will be a dearth of directly-related evidence. In short, you’re rather stuck.

The difficulties and absurdities of qiyas are both well and hilariously demonstrated by the description of Facebook group by and for Muslims: Poking is Haraam (forbidden).

The longheld debate regarding the legitmacy [sic] of facebook poking has come to a head as scholars from all jurisprudential schools have clearly and unequivocally echoed their sentiments that poking is indeed haram.
Largely using “qiyas” (analogical) reasoning, while poking in the real world is clearly haram because of non-mahram contact, poking in the virtual world, scholars have concluded, carries equal if not greater violation of the law.

Because its means are far less sketchy, scholars have avoided labeling facebook messaging in the same category. However, scholars of the 7 mathahib have almost entirely placed ‘facebook messaging’ without prior in-person contact in the “makruh” (inadvisable) category.

A minority school of thought adds that, by extension, Pokemon is also haram.

Because Sunni Muslims are not a monolithic entity, many of them interpret anyway without claiming to be engaging in ijtihad. Interpreting despite an age-old ban on interpretation carries a great deal of social risk if you don’t manage to end up agreeing with the perceived Islamic consensus.

The word bidah mean innovation. While there is supposedly a good kind of bidah within Islam, I have personally never heard the term used in a positive way. Instead, I’ve seen in used to shut down questions as well as to criticize other Muslims’ practice of Islam in a way that triggers defensiveness. Another word used to shut down intracommunity conflict or disagreements among Muslims is fitnah. Fitnah implies civil war or community strife and is a wholly negative term. Ijtihad that leads to differences from the perceived Islamic consensus will lead to accusations of engaging in bidah, spreading fitna, or, worst of all, committing apostasy and rendering yourself a murtad.

That doesn’t stop Muslim reformers from explicitly call for ijtihad — in favor of women’s rights, for example. As someone who, pragmatically speaking, favors reform for religion, I wholeheartedly support such efforts. Not that my opinion counts for much among Muslims, mind you, since I’m actually a murtada.

One Reason Why Islam Seems “Stuck”: Interpretation vs. Analogies

6 thoughts on “One Reason Why Islam Seems “Stuck”: Interpretation vs. Analogies

  1. 2

    Time travel is such an interesting thought experiment, not only for changing history, but also for observing history. It would be so nice to set the record straight on many important events. Like find out what the prophet Mohammed was really like, for instance. For my part, I’ve imagined what it would be like to visit the Earth over geological time. Like visit 3 billion years ago, and find a bleak landscape, even in a very rainy area. You’d need to take some air with you, because the Earth’s atmosphere back then was unbreathable by us. But that’s Dana Hunter’s department. 😀

    On Islam and interpretation, does literal vs. allegorical come up very much? What do they often say about Koranic flat-earthism and other such scientific boners?

    1. 2.1

      Literal vs. allegorical comes up all the time. It’s canonical among Muslims to believe that Arabic is the most complicated language and that it’s therefore impossible to translate or properly interpret the Quran without an understanding of Quranic Arabic. Within the Quran itself, there’s a verse:

      It is He Who has sent down on you this (glorious) Book, wherein are verses absolutely explicit and firm: they are the core of the Book, others being allegorical. Those in whose hearts is swerving pursue what is allegorical in it, seeking (to cause) dissension, and seeking to make it open to arbitrary interpretation, although none knows its interpretation save God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say: “We believe in it (in the entirety of its verses, both explicit and allegorical); all is from our Lord”; yet none derives admonition except the people of discernment.
      Quran 3:7

      So there’s that.

      As for Quranic flat-earthism, it wasn’t taken seriously in the communities in which I found myself when I was a Muslim. A lot of the allusions to the earth being flat are explicitly similes/metaphors, so I got around that one just fine when I believed.

  2. 3

    As I understand it, translations of the Koran are not real translations but commentaries.

    But it seems like many Muslims believe that the meaning of the Koran depends on linguistic subtleties and quirks that are difficult to translate. Sort of like how puns are difficult to translate. Or how translating poetry typically loses the rhythms of the original.

    The Origins of the Koran
    From: The Origins of the Koran, Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book Ed. Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books

    It points out some interesting things, like

    In his classic paper, “On the Development of Hadith,” Goldziher “demonstrated that a vast number of Hadith accepted even in the most rigorously critical Muslim collections were outright forgeries from the late 8th and 9th centuries—and as a consequence, that the meticulous isnads [chains of transmitters] which supported them were utterly fictitious.”

    So the Mohammed-Aisha child marriage would have been invented by someone later to justify that practice.

    It also proposes that there was a historical Mohammed, but that he lived and worked near Jerusalem and not Mecca, and that he was moved to Mecca by later Muslims wanted to give their religion a more Arab identity.

  3. 4

    […] Though I don’t rely on poetry for my arguments anymore, my ability to draw parallels is what started my interest in better argument formation. I was able to make analogies that seemed very clever and apt, convincing myself that my position was also very clever and apt. Analogies-as-reasoning are classic religious tactics (Christians comparing the world to an airplane, anyone?) but Islam is a particularly analogy-loving faith. […]

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