Islam by Fazlur Rahman

“Islam” by Fazlur Rahman gives an interpretive history of Islam. It is a slim volume and focuses on Fazlur Rahman’s opinions of the major theological developments. It is nevertheless very readable.

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).

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

9 thoughts on “Islam by Fazlur Rahman”

  1. Long ago I had read book written by Fazal ur rehman not keenly but just like a novel. His argument was mostly appealing but there were certain arguments which counldn’t find place in my mind.

    Sufi-ism helped establish good society but, later, it’s followers adopted sufis’ person as their guide than what sufis tought. That led to Bida’at. As a reaction to put the things straight Salfis took birth. Again, later people, instead of following what salfis tought, started following the person of salfi leaders. All this was due to lack of following the spirit of Islam.

  2. “On the historicity of Hadith, he sides mainly with the modern scholarly consensus…”

    You mean the scholarly consensus of Western academics which is built on the work of Joseph Schacht and Ignaz Goldziher, but which are more difficult to maintain for Western historians of Islam given all the work done since (by “Western” I simply mean academics in western, secular, universities, Muslim or otherwise). There have been Western academics who have started to question this ‘scholarly consensus’ and MM Azami defended Islamic disciplines from the attack by Schacht. Muslims from traditional institutions do not accept such a view, though there have been some criticisms of the way in which Muslims approach the hadith by some Indian and Pakistani scholars (like Amin Islahi). I think Rahman was more interested in asking Muslims to engage in dialogue with these views of the classical Orientalists, rather than asking them to accept them wholesale.

    As for secularism, which he calls a ‘corrosive acid’, he was criticising what he perceived to be the flaws of secularism as a philosophy of truth (as opposed to political secularism which gave him shelter from Pakistanis angry with an Urdu translation of Islam). He believed that such a secularist truth eroded the difference between Good and Evil, without which societies do not function. Moreso, this difference was vital to allow justice to be established (he strongly ties in faith in One God with social and economic justice).

    The most interesting point about Rahman, from his biography, is that his father was a Deobandi scholar, who was close to leading religious authorities in Indian Islam. For this reason, Rahman had a first hand understanding of traditional Islamic disciplines.

  3. thabet:

    You mean the scholarly consensus of Western academics which is built on the work of Joseph Schacht and Ignaz Goldziher

    Yes, I should have qualified my statement.

    I think Rahman was more interested in asking Muslims to engage in dialogue with these views of the classical Orientalists, rather than asking them to accept them wholesale.

    In the book, Rahman discusses this for several pages. His disagreement boils down to where he thinks Hadith came from (mostly from the practices of the early Islamic community rather than the Prophet) and what should be done about it (an honest appraisal of the historicity of Hadith and understanding its place and importance, rather than rejecting it wholesale.)

    he was criticising what he perceived to be the flaws of secularism as a philosophy of truth (as opposed to political secularism

    True, but he does think that beliefs like secular humanism, for example, are bad for society. I don’t agree with that. A system of justice, in my opinion, can be established without the necessity of relying on religion or God. But that is a long (and often boring) discussion.

  4. I remember reading his book a couple of years ago. It was different from what I had ever read before on the subject of Islam. It was an interesting read. I remember really liking it. This reminds me. I believe there is another good book by him which I had planned to read right after I read his Islam. Now if I can only recall the title.

  5. Abdussalam: It is definitely different than most other books on Islam by Muslims. Rahman is opinionated but does exercise skepticism towards the orthodox narrative which is refreshing.

    There aren’t that many books he wrote, surely you can remember which one you wanted to read. Was it one of the following?

    1. Major Themes of the Quran
    2. Islam and Modernity
    3. Revival and Reform in Islam
  6. Abdul: If you look in detail, you’ll find problematic hadith. Also, do remember that a lot of the jurisprudential work by the great scholars doesn’t rely much on hadith.

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