One of the central concerns of Islamic scholars today is the need to engage in a rereading of the various “texts” that form the core of Islamic doctrine and practice: the Qur'an; the Sunna, or example of the prophet Muhammad; the hadith, or sayings of the prophet; the tradition of Shar`iah, or Islamic law; and other crucial concepts such as ijtihad or independent reasoning and ijma' or consensus.
This essay will argue that the so-called fundamentalist versions of Islam are burdened by a literalism that has no grounding and no sanction in the sacred texts of Islam. The myth of literalism has long been exploded by various branches of philosophy and literary-cultural theory. The fundamentalists posit a primordial—and mythical—“literal” meaning of the Qur'an that has never in fact been articulated. The so-called fundamentalists wish to ignore both history and the necessity of interpretation. In contrast, the Qur'an itself and the other various apparatuses of Islamic interpretation (hadith, et cetera) explicitly acknowledge their own use of metaphor and figurative speech. This essay will argue that the meanings attributable to Qur'anic passages are a product of interpretation and historically accumulated exegesis. The rereading of the sacred texts of Islam, from perspectives enriched by both the history of Islamic thought and more recent modes of literary-cultural theory, is one of the most urgent tasks facing the twenty-first century.