The Linguistic Literalism of Four-Year-Olds: Muslims Missing the Point

Note: This Is The 3rd Part of a Guest Series By Pamela Taylor. See Part 1. See Part 2.

Have you ever given directions to a four-year old?
“Go to the end of the hall and turn left,” you say.
“Is this left?” he asks, holding up his left hand.
“Right!” you say cheerily.
He then lowers his left hand and puts up his right hand.
“Oh,” he says, “Then I have to turn this way.”
“No, no. That’s your right hand,” you say. “The other one was your left hand.”

The poor kid is now totally confused. His mind, focused on left and right, didn’t grasp the changed context of your initial response; he missed that you had switched from right/left to correct/incorrect, or, in other words, right/wrong.

I experienced a similar e-mail exchange the other day on a newsgroup I belong to.

One poster forwarded several Hadith (historical reports of what Muhammad said and did):

1) The Prophet (SAW) said: “The hanging of clothes below the ankles in pride is forbidden.” (Bukhari)

2) Hazrat Abu Hurairah (RA) relates that Rasulullah (SAW) said: “On the Day of Judgment Allah will not look at the one who lets his trousers down out of pride.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

3) Hazrat Abu Zarr (RA) said: “Such persons as are doomed, who are they Oh Messenger of Allah?”

Nabi (SAW) replied: “One who lets out his apparels out of arrogance, one who reminds or makes a show of favors done by him to another, and one who sells his (inferior) wares with false oaths.” Another version of Muslim adds: “One who lets down his pajamas or loin cloth.”

He concluded with the pronouncement that “The covering of ankles (for men) is forbidden and a major sin. The Holy Prophet clearly stresses the importance of keeping the trousers above the ankles! Let us Pray Allah gives us strength to enact His Commands!”

Like the four-year-old, this poster neglected to notice that the context has changed since the time of the Prophet. Wearing trousers that extend past one’s ankles is no longer a sign of arrogance. Wearing Armani suits or platinum rings with four-karat diamonds is. Indeed, a man wearing pants that didn’t reach the ankle would likely be considered slightly odd, or perhaps effeminate, since his pants would closely approximate the capri pants that are so popular with women these days. When I pointed this out, and that the purpose of the traditions were to remind us not to be arrogant, even in our dress, a protracted storm of debate arose about how long the pants could be, whether grazing the tops of the ankle bones was okay, or if the hem needed to be several inches over the ankle, whether socks and snow boots violated this command, and so on.

And, of course, several people lectured me about how even if you understand the metaphorical meaning you can’t throw out the literal one, which struck me as a really odd response since saying these traditions are about arrogance, not inches of cloth, has nothing to do with metaphor. It’s a rather direct interpretation of the hadith, just not one that insists on maintaining the old context. (Indeed, I’m not sure what metaphorical meaning one might make out of these hadith…hmm… Pants are a metaphor for legs, so we all have to shorten our legs… Yowza! Tall people are doomed!)

This kind of wrong-context interpretation, this myopic focus on literalism as opposed to concern for the intent, for the wisdom behind a given hadith or Qur’anic statement, has become the norm for our community. That old adage that we can’t see the forest for the trees is all too fitting. As a result we have entrenched ourselves in an ossified version of Islam that is rigid, inflexible, unfit for the current context, and all in all rather unappealing. Small wonder that we are perceived as backwards, and different, unable to fit into modern society. In reality, we are choosing by the busload not to fit into modern society.

In doing so, we not only make Islam difficult for ourselves (it is not easy being a social outcast, nor to straightjacket one’s life with a thousand picayune and demanding rules!) but we are apt to miss the point of the religion altogether. This religion, according to the Qur’an, is supposed to easy. It is designed to help a person reach their full potential as a good creature, as a blessing to this world and to his or her own self. Focusing on the literal meaning as opposed to the general principle more often than not works opposite to those inclinations. It focuses us upon details rather than the spirit of the law and, taken to the extreme that is has been in recent years, results in spiritual decay rather than spiritual development. It focuses us in upon our own deeds, rather than outward upon making the world a better place. It wastes unimaginable volumes of energy and time as we try to discern each and every rule to follow, debating back and forth with our co-religionists as to which interpretation is the most valid.

Furthermore, an islam based upon literalism fails to meet some of the most basic spiritual needs of humanity. It leaves no room for a personal relationship with God, demanding that everyone be a cookie-cutter copy of The Model – a detailed and exacting model. It leaves us confused and with inappropriate responses to our situation, just as the four-year old remains confused about whether this hand or that is the left one and unsure of which direction he should turn. Small wonder, yet again, that we are not the moral and spiritual leaders of the world. What is astonishing is that we think, with the Muslim community by and large practicing such a literal level of interpretation, that we should be such leaders!

One can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the Muslim community got stuck at the linguistic and interpretive level of a four-year-old. How and when we did we allow ourselves to slip into intellectual imprecision and moral immaturity? And how and when we are going to grow up, how we will learn to think like adults and take the place in the world that we should.

For more on Pamela Taylor, check out her website. This article was first published on the now-defunct, MWU.


  1. Carmen says:

    Great article. Focusing on the details instead of the spirit of the law resulting in spiritual decay to me is mirrored in the history of the Catholic church. It too became an entity run by a group who used power to keep certain groups down, including the sexist treatment of women. It took the horrible scandal of pedophilia for people in that religion to begin to take their church back.
    In some ways it took 9/11 to wake some Muslims up as to how their religion was also being hijacked by powerful groups.
    In this, the information age, with the internet, cell phones, blogs, etc. thankfully it is hard for power groups to perpetuate ignorance.

  2. nida says:

    Very well put. This problem of getting stuck in the severely literal and missing the point of the lesson itself is a big problem in the Muslim world. The lesson, the understanding is important, but people for some reason continue to discount it

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