Even while entertaining the most conservative versions of Islam and Islamic theology, I was never a big proponent of reading religious texts, including the Quran, literally. I believe some truths about human kind and our place within the universe are so profound, so bewildering, and perhaps even ungraspable that metaphor and myth are the only feasible way that they might be expressed in language.
In our modern times, the word “myth” has become a somewhat perjorative term. Many see something described as myth as being false, or untrue. I’d disagree. Just as poetry seeks to capture the deepest of human feeling and emotion, to capture something that is nameless but felt and understood by all of humanity, so is the case with myth and metaphor. Essentially, wrangling the darkness and chaos of the universe and forming it into something tangible, something distinct and formed, a manifestation of the Mystery, is perhaps the very purpose of religion.
As an example, the story of Adam and Eve. I can understand why a literal interpretaion of this narration has perhaps led many away from religion as humanity’s worldview has changed profoundly in the light of science. For instance, in our understanding of the origin of life and evolution, the story can in no way ring true in the literal sense. It is a simple creation myth and these types of myths are found in virtually every religion large and small.
Indeed, it is the most basic human question, our origins. While science tries to answer the how, religion serves to bring a human element into the seemingly unknown. Adam and Eve were mere humans, like us, sinners, like us. God both loved them and punished them for their disobedience. The myth is powerful and hold truths about the nature of the universe and our place therein. Furthermore, it is a paradise myth, a way to look at our lot and imagine that it must not have been so difficult, this act of surviving. God must have made us with more mercy, free of disease, famine and pain. It was only by our own insolence, our insatiable curiosity and natural rebellion, that we “fell” from Eden.
Even more unlikely to be based in reality, is the story of Noah and the arc. It doesn’t take a thouroughly rational mind to reason that the story is impossible as it is written. Firstly, a global flood did not happen, at least as much as is know about the geographical record. Secondly, it’s ludicrous to think that a human could collect a pair of every known species and put them in a boat for 40 days and 40 nights. This is not to mention the number of species that isn’t known to man. And what about microbes?
However, there is greater meaning to the story. It’s a story of a man standing up for monotheism and moral values in the face of dissent and corruption. It is also a story of God destroying His creation, because of our disobedience. It’s also a metaphor for rebirth and salvation in God alone. Do you see a theme here?
While you do certainly find Christians and Jews who read the texts literally, you also are just as likely to find those who accept the myth and the truths found within. Unfortunately, Islam, has not entertained as high of a stature of scholarship than the aforementioned faiths. In fact, I don’t know of one mainstream Islamic thinker who has dared to suggest that the truths held in the Quran might be metaphorical, mythic, yet still within in the realm of truth.
So what do you guys think? Do you take it all, every last word of the Quran and hadith literally? If so, how do you reconcile the most exhorbitant and fanciful stories juxtaposed with what is known as physical reality. Do you accept some stories as metaphorical and not others. Or do you, essentially think all of the antedotes found within the texts are the stuff of myth?
Or, is it just easier not to think about it?