I read Islam by Fazlur Rahman quite some time ago but didn’t get around to reviewing it. The book gives a sort of interpretive history of Islam over the last 1,400 years. It is a slim volume and focuses on Fazlur Rahman’s opinions of the major theological developments. It is nevertheless very readable.
Fazlur Rahman has been dead now for almost two decades and this book was written in the 1960s. His book is definitely still one to be read but there are a few things that have become dated:
there is every danger that the Muslim countries will be taken over, one by one, by totalitarian regimes of the Communist type.
Fazlur Rahman does somewhat conflate secularism with the Soviets and considers secularism along with communism to be major threats. That is no longer so but this fixation of secularism with communism was very common in his times and is jarring for us now. Fazlur Rahman considers secularism and nationalism (“nation above everything else”) to be specific dangers to Islam and Muslims. Due to this, a lot of American hawks would not have liked him, if he lived now, despite his modernist ideas.
An interesting thought (and very attractive to me) in the book is that the Quranic injunctions are not eternal in the sense that later scholars decided. For example, in the case of slavery, the spirit of the Quranic legislation exhibits an obvious trend towards freedom of the slaves but slavery was not abolished. Obviously, Muslims never really abolished slavery until modern times. One reason (a theological one) is that scholars began interpreting Quran as a legalistic text and making the allowance of slavery, for example, eternal. A better approach is to look at the Quran as a moral text than a legal one. (See my post on slavery and Islam if you are interested.) A system of ethics can then be developed from the Quran and the legal issues derived from that.
Fazlur Rahman’s opinion about Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) is controversial and will probably please nobody except me. On the historicity of Hadith, he sides mainly with the modern scholarly consensus (?) that most of the Hadith does not actually date from the times of the Prophet. However, he thinks that it does represent a living tradition from the earliest generations of Muslims. Now that our only link with that time is the Hadith, we cannot disregard the “ethos of the Hadith,” but we can analyze and study the history of the hadith to establish that ethos.
His comments on education are also interesting. He thinks that classical education among Muslims was too limited and focused too much on commentaries on previous work, rather than originality.
Fazlur Rahman perceived correctly that Wahhabism (or Salafism) was a reaction to perceived moral degradation in a society dominated by traditional and Sufi scholars. Wahhabism itself is a fundamentalist literalist movement but it shares with the modernists the idea of ijtihad (independent reasoning) being alive and needed. Traditional scholars, on the other hand, were rigid in sticking to the rules set forth in the early centuries of Islam. It seems to me that traditional ulema, who have a lot of sufi influences and superstitions, are on the way out.
There is also this about the revivalist movements of modern times:
purely activist movements … devoid of the spiritual depth of the old Sufi brotherhoods … become coteries, narrow and intolerant. Indeed, they borrow techniques from Fascism and Communism.
Overall, it is a book I would recommend to anyone who is interested in Islam and modernism. Next on my Islamic reading list is a Ph.D. dissertation titled “The Beginnings of Islam in Syria During the Umayyad Period” by David Cook (hat tip: Brian Ulrich).