Dr. Fazlur Rahman

Print Friendly

By

A. G. NOORANI[1]

An entry of 30 April 1967 in the diary of President Mohammed Ayub Khan reads: “Dr. Fazlur Rahman of the Islamic Research Institute came to see me. He was engaged in writing a book on the ideology of Islam. I read his first chapter. It is fascinating, but the language he has used is scholarly and difficult. It has been arranged to attach a couple of knowledgeable people with him so as to discuss the theme of each chapter and then put it in simple language. The doctor can then review it to ensure that his theme has been properly brought out. I am sure that this book, when written, will be a real contribution in the service of Islam. The requirement of simplicity of language is necessary to make it easily intelligible even to the man of limited education.”  (Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan 1966-1972; Edited and Annotated by Craig Baxter; Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2007; p 90).

Only seventeen months later, on 5 September 1968, Ayub Khan noticed the rise of bigotry in the country and made a prediction which, sadly, came true. “Dr. Fazlur Rahman, director of the Islamic Research Institute, came under countrywide adverse criticism fanned by the ignorant and politically motivated mullahs. The allegations, which were totally false, were made against some remarks made in his book, Islam, which he wrote some years ago and which was later published by the Oxford University Press. This book is a highly scholarly work written for a European audience and is an attempt to remove some false impressions about Islam. When the criticism gained momentum he held two press conferences refuting all the allegations. These clarifications would have satisfied any honest critic, but the mullah, who regards any original and objective thinking on Islam as his deadly enemy, was not going to be pacified. This sort of argument is just the grist he wants for his mill. Meanwhile, the administrators at the centre and the provinces got cold feet. Some of them persuaded the doctor to resign. He must have also got frightened. After all, it is not easy to stand up to criticism based on ignorance and prejudice. So I had to accept his resignation with great reluctance in the belief that he will be freer to attack the citadel of ignorance and fanaticism from outside the governmental sphere. Meanwhile, it is quite clear that any form of research on Islam which inevitably leads to new interpretations has no chance of acceptance in this priest ridden and ignorant society. These people will not allow Islam to become a vehicle of progress. What will be the future of such an Islam in the age of reason and science is not difficult to predict.”(ibid.; p. 253. Italics mine throughout).

One fellow researcher described Fazlur Rahman as “probably the most learned of the major Muslim thinkers in the second half of the twentieth century, in terms of both classical Islam and Western philosophical and theological discourse” (ibid.; p. 562). Few have been associated with such an accomplishment; erudition in Islamic as well as western intellectual tradition.  Suha Taji – Farouki, Lecturer in Modern Islam, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter rightly lauded him as “a towering figure of twentieth century reform” (Suha Taji – Farouki; Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Quran; Oxford University Press and the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2004; p. 22). Abdullah Saeed, Associate Professor and Head of the Arabic and Islamic Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, Australia remarked in his essay “Fazlur Rahman: a framework for interpreting the ethico-legal content of the Quran” that “The Pakistani-American  thinker and scholar Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) was one of the most daring and original contributors to the discussion on the reform of Islamic thought in the twentieth century. As the Qur’an is central to any such discussion, innovative approaches to its interpretation are part of any reform agenda” (ibid.; p. The essay, at pp. 37-66, is one of the best; vastly superior, instance to Kenneth Cragg’s appraisal in The Pen and the Faith; George Allen, 1985; pp. 91-108).

Ebrahim Moosa’s Introduction to Fazlur Rahman’s posthumously published writings is most informative. (Ebrahim Moosa [Ed.]; Revival and Reform in Islam: A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism; One World, Oxford, 2006; pp. 1-29).

Fazlur Rahman was born on 21 September 1919 to the Malak family in the Hazara district. His father, Mawlana Shihab al-Din, was a graduate from the Dar al-Ulum Deoband where he studied with some of the great figures like Mawlana Mahmud ul-Hasan (d. 1920), the “Shaykh al-Hind” and the jurist (faqih) and Sufi mentor Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (d.1905). Fazlur Rahman mastered the dars-e-Nizami curriculum in private studies with his father. He studied Oncology in law (fiqh), dialectical theology (‘ilm al-kalam), hadith, Quran exegesis (tafsir), logic and philosophy.  He attended Punjab University in Lahore where he graduated with distinction in Arabic and later also acquired a M.A. degree. In 1946, he went to Oxford where he prepared a dissertation on Ibn Sina’s psychology. After Oxford he taught Persian and Islamic philosophy at Durham University from 1950 to 1958. He left England to become associate professor in Islamic Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies at Canada’s McGill University in Montreal

General Ayub Khan embarked on a renewed effort to initiate political and legal reforms. Fazlur Rahman joined the newly formed Central Institute of Islamic Research, first as a visiting Professor and later Director over a seven-year period from 1961 to 1968. He also served on the advisory Council of Islamic Ideology, a supreme policy-making body.

He became involved in issues on the status of bank interest, zakat, mechanical slaughter of animals, family law and family planning, the authority of hadith and Sunna, and the nature of revelation. The agitation affected his health and he resigned. After a short spell as visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was appointed as a professor of Islamic thought at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1969. In 1986 he was named Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago.

Ebrahim Moosa records: “The controversies reached a high point after sections of Fazlur Rahman’s book Islam were translated into Urdu. After such publications, charges that he denied the uncreated and divine nature of the Quran were leveled at him. This was after he asserted that the issue of the nature of revelation was a more complex issue than the version commonly stated by Muslim dogmatists. Following the public outcry against him, he tried in a joint press conference with the Law Minister of Pakistan, Mr. S.M. Zafar, to explain the folly of the charges leveled at him. So charged was the situation that while the Minister categorically stated his support for Fazlur Rahman and that he found ‘nothing objectionable’ during the press conference, afterwards he instructed pressmen ‘to remove the ‘no objection’ sentence from his statement.’ For the politicians it was clearly a clash of interests : politics vs. principles. The cumulative effect of these controversies resulted in Fazlur Rahman being exposed to bear the brunt of vicious verbal attacks orchestrated by reckless and petty-minded conservative elements in Pakistan”. (ibid.; pp. 1-3).

The one who had invited him to join his Jamat-e-Islami led the pack of wolves as Nadeem F. Paracha recalled in a recent column in Dawn; (11 August, 2013): “Leading the attack on Rehman was the prolific Islamic scholar and founder of the Jamaat, Abul Ala Mauddudi, who demanded that Rehman be expelled from Pakistan and from the fold of Islam.

“Then, in 1967, during a lecture that he was delivering on Pakistan’s then nascent state-owned TV channel, PTV, Rehman suggested that drinking alcohol was not a major sin in Islam. Even though alcohol was legal in Pakistan till 1977, the religious parties went berserk and held a number of rallies against Rehman.

“Rehman, more or less, was basically repeating what early scholars of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence had already suggested. And ironically, some 40 years after Rehman’s musings, and 30 years after the sale of alcohol (to Muslims) was banned in Pakistan, the highly conservative Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan finally decreed that consuming alcohol indeed was a minor sin. On 28 May 2009, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) declared whipping for the offence of drinking as un-Islamic and directed the government to amend the law to make the offence bailable – even though the last person to be whipped for consuming alcohol was in 1981.

“In 1969 as Pakistan entered a turbulent period in which a far-reaching political movement led by leftist parties and student oranisations forced Ayub to resign, Rehman continued being pursued and harassed by the Islamic parties until he was left with no other choice but to leave the country. He went to the US and distinguished himself as a highly regarded Professor of Islamic Thought and researcher at the University of Chicago”. He never returned to Pakistan. He passed away at 68 on 26 July 1988 due to complications of heart surgery.

Islam, published in 1966, was preceded by a series of erudite essays from March 1962 to June 1963 published in Islamic Studies, the Journal of the Islamic Research Institute, now a part of the International Islamic University at Islamabad. They were published in 1965 in a volume entitled Islamic Methodology in History. A new edition was published by the Institute in 2009. A seminal work Islam and Modernity: Transformation of Intellectual Tradition took the world of Islamic scholarship by storm. (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1982). It was preceded in 1980 by Major Themes of the Quran. A second edition appeared in 1989 (Bibliotheca Islamica, Inc., Minneapolis, USA).

These are all knit together by the twin themes of reform and renewal. As Taji-Farouki notes “Rahman saw that the primary reason for the decline of Muslim societies was rooted in the intellectual legacy of Islam. This decline, for him, did not begin with the Western encroachment on Muslim societies from the eighteenth century onwards, as claimed by many a modern reformer, but much earlier. For him it was the intellectual ossification and the replacement of scholarship based on original thought by one based on commentaries and super-commentaries, the closing of the gate of ijtihad, and the basing of Islamic method solely on taqlid (blind imitation) which led to the decline. Given this, from his point of view, any hope for revival should be based on addressing this intellectual problem, and giving it top priority.

“For Rahman, then, the first step in the renewal of Islamic thought was a historical critique of the legal, theological and mystical developments in Islam. It was essential to his project to reveal the dislocation between the worldview of the Quran and areas such as theology, interpretation and law. … He dated the traumatic departure from the Qur’an to the period that saw the formation of ‘Sunni Orthodoxy’: namely, the advent of the Umayyad rule. He believed that the appearance of ‘dynastic rule’ had the most negative impact on the development of Islam.” (pp. 40-41). So, also, one might add was the rule of dictators in the Muslim world.

The Qur’an always remained at the centre of his thought. Taji-Farouki examines closely the cause of the uproar which greeted Islam in its Urdu translation. It was his “critique of the ‘dictation theory’ of revelation accepted by most Muslims, which rejects the possibility of any role for the prophet except that of receiver of the message from God. The Prophet is reduced to a channel for the transmission of God’s word, much like an audio-recording instrument such as a tape-recorder, which simply records the message exactly as it is given in sounds, words and sentences, and then transmits the ‘text’ as received. Rahman saw revelation as more complex.

“First, his position on prophecy was that he believed that the Prophet was the recipient of the final, verbal revelation of God: ‘Without this belief no Muslim can be a Muslim even in name’. Yet, despite this statement, Rahman’s position did cause a stir when it first appeared in his book Islam (1966), and continues to do so today. According to Rahman, for the Qur’an itself, and for Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God (kalam Allah)”. (ibid.; p 450). The Holy Book was revealed over a period of twenty-two years.

Rahman himelf wrote that “legal or quasi-legal part of the Qur’an itself clearly displays a situation character. Quite situational, for example are the Qur’anic pronunciations on war and peace between the Muslims and their opponents – pronouncements which do express a certain general character about the ideal behaviour of the community vis-a-vis an enemy in a grim struggle but which are so situational that they can be regarded only as quasi-legal and not strictly and specifically legal.” (ibid.; quoted at p. 49).

Muslims neglected ethics as a discipline in Islam. There was no effort to work out “a genuine ethical value system from the Quran”.

Rahman sharply criticised J. Schacht’s sweeping rejection of the hadith in his Origins of Muhammedan Jurisprudence. He himself rejected only the hadith of dubious provenance. It must be subjected to historical criticism. The core of his thought is crisply summed up by Taji-Farouki. “Rahman saw the two main problems for Muslims in rethinking the interpretation of the Qur’an in order to relate it to present needs as the historical belief that the hadith contained the Sunna of the Prophet, and that the Qur’anic rulings on social behaviour had to be literally implemented in all times: ‘This stood like a rock in the way of any substantial rethinking of the social content of Islam.’ Both beliefs thus had to be challenged and rethought.” (p. 56).

Islam e Modernity broke a new path with the “two-fold movement” theory which is a most useful intellectual tool for any student of Islam, especially one who is a devout Muslim. He wrote ‘In building any genuine and viable Islamic set of laws and institutions, there has to be a twofold movement : First one must move from the concrete case treatments of the Qur’an  taking the necessary and relevant social conditions of that time into account to the general principles upon which the entire teaching converges. Second, from this general level there must be a movement back to specific legislation, taking into account the necessary and relevant social conditions now obtaining.” (p 20. The entire passage is underlined in the book, significantly).

This is far removed from medieval scholarship in which scholars put in the books they wrote what they compiled from the books they had read. In the Introduction Fazlur Rahman called it “a double movement” and explained it at length. It deserves to be quoted in extenso: “The process of interpretation proposed here consists of a double movement, from the present situation to Qur’an times, then back to the present. The Qur’an is the divine response, through the Prophet’s mind, to the moral-social situation of the Prophet’s Arabia, particularly to the problems of the commercial Meccan society of his day. The Qur’an, quite early, speaks of a ‘burden that was breaking your back,’ which was relieved by the revelation (94:1-3). The relation, of course entailed a further ‘burdensome call’ (73:5). The early suras of the Qur’an make it abundantly clear that the acute problems in that society were polytheism (idol worship), exploitation of the poor, malpractices in trade, and general irresponsibility toward society (which there is good reason to believe the Qur’an perceived as interconnected). The Qur’an put forward the idea of a unique God to whom all humans are responsible and the goal of eradication of gross socioeconomic inequity. Qur’anic theology and moral and legal teachings then gradually unfolded themselves in the political arena : the Meccans’ rejection of Muhammad’s message, the protracted debates that followed, and later, in the Medinan phases of his life, the controversy waged against Jews and to some extent against Christians formed the backdrop against which the Qur’an was revealed.

“We see, then, that the Qur’an and the genesis of the Islamic community occurred in the light of history and against a social-historical background. The Qur’an is a response to that situation, and for the most part it consists of moral, religious, and social pronouncements that respond to specific problems confronted in concrete historical situations. Sometimes the Qur’an simply gives an answer to a question or a problem, but usually these answers are stated in terms of an explicit or semi explicit ratio legis, while there are also certain general laws enunciated from time to time But, even where simple answers are given, it is possible to understand their reasons and hence deduce general laws by studying the background materials, which for the most part have been fairly intelligibly presented by the commentators.

… “The first step of the first movement, then, consists of understanding the meaning of the Qur’an as a whole as well as in terms of the specific tenets that constitute responses to specific situations. The second step is to generalize those specific answers and enunciate them as statements of general moral-social objectives that can be ‘distilled’ from specific texts in light of the sociohistorical background and the often-stated rationes legis. Indeed, the first step the understanding of the meaning of the specific text – itself implies the second step and will lead to it. Throughout this process due regard must be paid to the tenor of the teaching of the Qur’an as a whole so that each given meaning understood, each law enunciated, and each objective formulated will cohere with the rest. The Qur’an as a whole does inculcate a definite attitude toward life and does have a concrete weltanschauung; it also claims that its teaching has ‘no inner contradiction’ but coheres as a whole. …

“Whereas the first movement has been from the specifics of the Qur’an to the eliciting and systematizing of its general principles, values, and long-range objectives, the second is to be from this general view to the specific view that is to be formulated and realized now. That is, the general has to be embodied in the present concrete sociohistorical context. … To the extent that we achieve both moments of this double movement successfully, the Qur’an’s imperatives will become alive and effective once again.” (pp 5-7). Only a devout but thoughtful and erudite Muslim would have written thus “The Divine World flowed through the prophet’s heart” (Islam; p. 33) What the Qur’an says about Revelation is important. “It does not belong to any human that God should speak to him [directly] except by Revelation [i.e., infusion of the Spirit] or from behind a veil [i.e., by a voice whose source is invisible] or that he should send a [spiritual] Messenger who reveals [to the Prophet] by God’s permission that He wills – and He is exalted and Wise. And even so have We revealed unto you [i.e., infused in your mind] the Spirit of Our Command – you did not know before what the Book is nor what Faith is, but We have made it a light whereby We guide whomsoever We will of our servants, and you, indeed, guide [people] to the straight path. (42:51.52).”

Ijtihad receives a fruitful definition from him. It means “the effort to understand the meaning of a relevant text or precedent in the past, containing a rule, and to alter that rule by extending or restricting or otherwise modifying it in such a manner that a new situation can be subsumed under it by a new solution.” (p. 8).

Fazlur Rahman does not conceal his contempt for the neo-revivalist – “a shallow and superficial person – really rooted neither in the Quran nor in the traditional intellectual culture, of which he knows practically nothing” (p. 137). Mawdudi receives his just deserts in a fair and nuanced assessment. “Mawdudi, though not an ‘alim’, was nevertheless a self-taught man of considerable intelligence and had sufficient knowledge of Arabic to have access to the classical Arabic literature of Islam. He was by no means an accurate or a profound scholar, but he was undoubtedly like a fresh wind in the stiffling Islamic atmosphere created by the traditional madrasas, and he represented a definite advance over the ulema in that he had a working knowledge of English and read some works of Western writers. The lay-educated youth, fired by Iqbal’s message, became an almost automatic clientele of Mawdudi. But Mawdudi displays nowhere the larger and more profound vision of Islam’s role in the world. Being a journalist rather than a serious scholar, he wrote at great speed and with resultant superficiality in order to feed his eager young readers – and he wrote incessantly. He founded no educational institution and never suggested any syllabus for a reformed Islamic education.” His forte was over – simplification and appeal to emotion. He was a political activist if not a politician himelf.

However, “The unfolding of the Qur’an and the prophet’s activity took approximately twenty-three years, and because fourteen centuries have elapsed since that time, the problem inevitably arises of understanding what the Qur’anic message and the protracted struggle of the Prophet were about and what they aimed at achieving – which is by no means a simple affair. Further, complications have occurred in the development of what is called the Prophet’s Sunna, on which a great many historic Islamic institutions and laws have been based or rationalized. The study of all this is therefore inescapable no matter how much of an activist one wants to be. I myself remember well that after I had passed my M.A. examination and was studying for my Ph. D. at Lahore, Mawdudi remarked, after inquiring what I was studying. ‘The more you study, the more your practical faculties will be numbed. Why don’t you come and join the Jamaat? The field is wide open.’ At that time my reply was, ‘Somehow, I love studying.’ And so it is no matter for surprise that, when a few years ago Mawdudi decided to retire from the active leadership of the party, his successor was Mian Muhammad Tufayl, an obviously well-meaning lawyer but without any pretensions whatsoever to Islamic scholarship. Generally speaking, Pakistan has not been able to create an intellectual base for itself” (pp. 116-117). Far from turning the Muslim towards the Quran, revivalists have turned them away from it. They revel in ignorant simplifications. Mawdudi took his revenge later.

“In a sense, of course, the Qur’an is simple and uncomplicated, as is all genuine religion – in contradistinction to theology – but in another and more meaningful sense a book like the Qur’an, which gradually appeared over almost twenty-three years, is highly complicated – as complicated as life itself. The essence of the matter is that the neorevivalist has produced no Islamic educational system worthy of the name, and this is primarily because, having become rightly dissatisfied with much of the traditional learning of the ulema, he himself has been unable to devise any methodology, any structural strategy, for understanding Islam or for interpreting the Qur’an.” (p. 137). Fazlur Rahman and Maududi personify two schools of thought for the modern Muslim to chose from.

Fazlur Rahman does not stop at critiques. He always propounds constructively an alternative. “The first essential step to relieve the vicious circle just mentioned is, for the Muslim, to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam. Unless effective and sustained efforts are made in this direction, there is noway visible for the creation of the kind of Islamic mind. I have been speaking of just now. No amount of mechanical juxtaposition of old and new subjects and disciplines can produce this kind of mind. If the spark for the modernization of old Islamic learning and for the Islamization of the new is to arise, then the original thrust of Islam – of the Qur’an and Muhammad – must be clearly resurrected so that the conformities and deformities of historical Islam may be clearly judged by it.” (p. 141). The faith that is Islam is altogether different from “historical Islam”. It must be recalled.

This sums up the intellectual challenge which Muslims face today. I am not competent to comment on how Fazlur Rahman’s writings are received in Pakistan. In India, the mullah rules the roost. A comprehensive intellectual biography of this towering figure in the world of Islam is overdue.


The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.