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What Does It Mean To Be A Literalist And A Fundamentalist?



By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

12 March, 2015

Let us take the dictionary words of Literalism and Fundamentalism. We will stick to these meanings in our discussion.

Literalism: The interpretation of words in their literal sense, adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression. 

Fundamentalism: is a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.

The Quran contains two types of verses as described by the Quran itself:

1.       The Mutashabihat: These verses deal with realities that are outside human experience or knowledge. Such reality is communicated through similitudes. The term Mutashabihat actually translates to similitude.

2.       The Muhkamat: “Verses which are basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book” (3:7).

The Mutashabihat verses:

The verse which talks about the face (Wajha) of Allah falls under the Mutashabihat since “Allah is the one and Only and there is none like Him”. Such a verse cannot be extrapolated to form an anthropomorphic concept of Allah. “But those in whose hearts are perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah.” (3:7)

There are also verses which deal with this world but the knowledge of which was unknown to the people of the seventh century. For example, comprehending the meaning of “genetic memory” requires knowledge developed in the last hundred years – knowledge that did not exist in the seventh century. If the Quran had to use the term “genetic memory” it could have communicated the meaning only through an allegory. For example (7:172) “When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): "Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?"- They said: "Yea! We do testify!" (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: "Of this we were never mindful":”

The verse 7:172 has been interpreted to conjure a scene of A’alam-e-Arwah where every soul that is yet to be born is created and testifies. Such interpretations born of a fertile imagination inevitably lead to false beliefs. The belief that follows from the myth of ‘A’alam-e-Arwah’  is that all those who will be born is pre-ordained since the souls are already created and birth control is therefore both meaningless and going against the will of God and therefore a sin. Souls are not drawn from the loins of man/Adam nor is there a concept of soul in the Quran as it is commonly understood. What is drawn from the loins of Adam/man is his seed and the verse only means that belief in a single God who is the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Universe is instinctive or part of every human’s genetic memory.

Incidentally recent studies appear to support the same view. The Quran does not support the view that the souls of all those who will take birth were all created much earlier (along with Adam?)

Belief in God is part of human nature - Oxford study

Is Belief in God Ingrained in Our ‘Human Nature’? A New Study Says So

The Muhkamat verses:

Very clearly, the verses regarding fighting fall within the Muhkamat and cannot be interpreted as an allegory and must be taken literally.

Taken literally does not mean taking the dictionary meanings of words but taking the meanings exactly as the Quran itself makes clear the meaning of key words like `Islam’, `Muslim’, `Kafir’, `Mushrik’, `Nafs’, `Ruh’ and expressions such as `Ma Malakat Aimanukum’ etc.

Some examples of the literal meaning of key words as used in the Quran:

a)       Nafs or Ruh is not Soul!

The Quran does not have any word which is the equivalent of soul as the dictionary describes it or as the word is commonly understood. However, the translators freely use the word soul and the Urdu meaning of `Ruh’ is also `soul’ but in the Quran the `Ruh’ is not a soul.

(39:42) It is Allah that takes the Nafs (of men) at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep: those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed verily in this are Signs for those who reflect.

Here Nafs implies "consciousness of self". The consciousness of self is certainly taken away at death and when asleep and also when in coma. Once again, Nafs is not soul as soul is understood and the translators err when they translate the word as soul.

Then there is the word "Ruh"

(15:29) "When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed (Ruhi) into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him."

and in 3:49  where  Jesus "makest out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird by My leave"

The "Ruh" or the breath of life may be like the spark that starts combustion in an engine or lights up a gas stove and brings it into life and nothing more. Indeed, this breath of life is no different from breathing into a person to resuscitate him and is not "soul".

Also, the verses that talk about bringing the dead back to life make no mention of the "soul". They talk about reconstructing man down to his very "fingertips"

(75:3) Does man think that We cannot assemble his bones?(4) Nay, We are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers.

Once again take the example of 7:172

 It talks about "AND WHENEVER thy Sustainer brought forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam, He [thus] called upon them to bear witness about themselves:…..”

Is the soul brought forth from the loins of the parents? How then this verse is interpreted in terms of the “souls” in the fairy tale of A’alam-e-Arwah?

The concept of soul in Islamic literature is a borrowed concept and does not derive from the Quran. All Ahadith that use the concept of "soul" are therefore of doubtful origins.

b)       Kufr, Kafir, Shirk, Mushrik, Idol Worshipper

I wrote an article in 4 parts to extract the meanings of these words used in the Quran since these words are among the most misunderstood and mistranslated.

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 1): 'Kafir,' 'Mushrik' And 'Idolater' Are Not Synonyms

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 2): Muslim– Non-Muslim Relationship

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 3): Why Kufr Is A Relative Concept While Shirk, Idol Worship Etc. Have Fixed Meanings

Who is a Kafir in the Quran? (Part 4) Defining Kufr

c)       Ma Malakat Aimanukum

The meaning of this expression is derived in my article:

The Art and Science of interpreting the Quran

d)       Muslim

The meaning of this word is derived in my article:

Who is a Muslim in the Quran?

A glaring example of departing from literalism

The following is from a published book:

The premises of the argument: (the words in Arabic are added by me).

(10:47) And for each community, there is a messenger. Then when their messenger comes, their fate is decided with justice and they are not wronged.

(14:13) And the Unbelievers said to their messengers: "Be sure we shall drive you out of our land, or ye shall return to our religion." But their Lord inspired (this Message) to them: "Verily We shall cause the wrong-doers to perish! (14) "And verily We shall cause you to abide in the land, and succeed them. This for such as fear the Time when they shall stand before My tribunal,- such as fear the punishment denounced."

(58:20) Those who resist (Yuhadduna) Allah and His Messenger will be among those most humiliated.(21) Allah has decreed: "It is I and My messengers who must prevail": For Allah is One full of strength, able to enforce His Will.

The Conclusion:

Consequently, the Almighty grants dominance to these messengers, and punishes those who reject the message presented by these messengers

This conclusion gets modified in subsequent paragraphs to:

In the judgement Phase of the mission of a messenger, a messenger and his companions subdue their nation by force, and execute them if they do not accept faith.

This is anything but being a literalist and a fundamentalist. This is being an imaginative interpretationist!

Now what is being literal?

Being literal would lead to the following conclusion:

Following the argument presented in the book, the people who will be punished in the Judgment Phase are:

Those who drove out the Messenger and his followers from the land or asked them to return to their religion ("Be sure we shall drive you out of our land, or ye shall return to our religion." 14:13) or actively resisted, opposed obstructed or hindered the `faithful’ (And resist (Yuhadduna) Allah and His Messenger 58:20). It does not mean all those who “did not accept faith”.

Also punishing for merely not accepting the faith would not meet the assurance in (10:47) their fate is decided with justice and they are not wronged. Since (2:256) “ there be no compulsion in religion “and 109:6 “To you (the peaceful rejecter) be your way and to me mine” grant an absolute right of freedom of conscience and religion under all circumstances.

Moreover, there is no verse in the Quran and even in Surah Taubah, which contains the so called sword verses, where punishment is for not accepting belief.

 (9:12) But if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and taunt you for your Faith,- fight ye the chiefs of Unfaith ( a-Immat-al-Kufri) : for their oaths are nothing to them: that thus they may be restrained.(13) Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you?

There is no argument regarding not accepting the faith. Kafaru in these verses therefore does not mean non acceptance of belief but acts against man and God that are Kufr and deserving of the punishment decreed in the Quran by common or secular standards.  

A literalist and fundamentalist understanding of the Quran requires getting to the meaning of the verses and not interpreting. As has been shown in all my articles including those cited in this article, a literalist and fundamentalist understanding also means shutting out the noise from all secondary sources and relying only on a holistic understanding of the message of the Quran.

Are the extremists Literalists and Fundamentalists?

The simple test to show that the extremists are neither literalists nor fundamentalists is the fact that they ignore:

2:256 Let there be no compulsion in religion

109:6 To you (peaceful rejecter of ‘faith’) be your way and to me mine

Besides every other verse that stands for peace, moderation and justice.


Islam is fundamentally and literally a religion of Peace, Moderation and Secular Justice, and it is the interpretations that distort the message and not the literal meaning of the verses. However, it must be clearly understood what it means to be a literalist and a fundamentalist. A literalist and a fundamentalist ignores nothing while arriving at the meanings and once he has arrived at the meaning, there is neither any need nor scope for interpretations nor does such meaning then contradict any other verse of the Quran.

Related articles:

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 1): 'Kafir,' 'Mushrik' And 'Idolater' Are Not Synonyms,---mushrik--and--idolater--are-not-synonyms/d/101509

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 2): Muslim– Non-Muslim Relationship–-non-muslim-relationship/d/101525

Who Is A Kafir In The Quran? (Part 3): Why Kufr Is A Relative Concept While Shirk, Idol Worship Etc. Have Fixed Meanings,-idol-worship-etc-have-fixed-meanings/d/101618

Who is a Kafir in the Quran? (Part 4) Defining Kufr

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to The author initially used a pseudonym "Observer" for this article.