An outstanding intellectual

Fazlur Rahman (1919—1988) was ‘a notable scholar of Islamic philosophy and an important liberal Muslim thinker of the twentieth century’. He is considered ‘to be amongst the most influential Muslim modernists in both the Western and Muslim worlds’. This is how Ahad Ahmed has introduced this Pakistani-American scholar of twentieth century’.

During his life time, Fazlur Rahman was characterized as ‘an outstanding intellectual’ (Charles Adams), and ‘one of the clearest and wisest Islamic thinkers of the Islamic world today’ (Philip L. Bermann). After his death, he has been described variedly as the ‘Pakistan’s Influential Reformist Thinker’ (Riffat Hassan), ‘the doyen of Islamic modernism in the latter half of twentieth century’ (Omid Safi), ‘one of the 20th century’s foremost Muslim intellectuals and scholars whose ideas on modern Islamic thought reached a global audience’ (Ebrahim Moosa), and ‘one of the most daring and original contributors to the discussion on the reform of Islamic thought in the twentieth century’.

‘Fazlur Rahman is best known’, as Abdullah Saeed puts it, ‘for his major contribution to modern discussions of reform in Islamic thought’ and for writing on a wide range of subjects, including ‘Islamic education, interpretation of the Qur’an, hadith criticism, early development of Islamic intellectual traditions and reform of Islamic law and ethics’.

In this context, Ahad Maqbool Ahmed’s work under review is a significant contribution which introduces and contextualizes, Fazlur Rahman’s life and works, explores his (theological) thought, and ‘exemplifies’ him as a ‘modern theologian who reformed traditional (mutaqaddim) and medieval (muta’akhir) and addressed the challenge of Western modernity by formulating an Islamic theology of modernity (jadid ‘ilm al-kalam)’ (p. xv). Originally based on author’s MPhil dissertation (carried at IIUI, Pakistan), the work examines in detail the following issues/ topics, by using ‘constructive method’ to analyze Rahman’s treatment of Kalam: sources/ influence that have shaped Rahman’s thought; nature of his modernist thought; methodology of his theological thought; and his dealing with the primary sources of Islam and theological schools (pp. xv-xvi).

The book consists of four (4) chapters, and is preceded by a detailed ‘Introduction’ (pp. xiii-xxv), and is followed by Bibliography and Index. All these chapters are explored in detailed manner, and the arguments put forth are sufficiently referenced.

In chapter-I (pp. 1-70), Rahman’s life and works are discussed, and contextualised, in a detailed manner vis-à-vis different phases of his life, academically. Ahmed argues that his writings can be categorized into four categories: initial Pakistan period, UK and Canada period, Final Pakistan period, and American period (p. 16). Among his major works, Ahmed describes his Islamic Methodology in Islam and Major Themes of the Qur’an as ‘magnum opus’—the former being a ‘work on the historical development of Usul ul-Fiqh’ and later represents both ‘a culmination’ of as well as ‘the final presentation of a well-nigh forty year career spent in the study of Quran’ (see, pp. 21, 29). Rahman’s two other major works are Islam and Islam and Modernity (a column on Fazlur Rahman’s later work was published in GK on 16th May, 2019)—the former ‘provides a panoramic view of Islam and is presented using the methodology in the history of religions’ (p. 23) while as the later commemorates his ‘scholarly contribution to the study of Islam and Modernity’ with a focus upon the ‘Islamic intellectualism created as a result of the medieval learning attained from higher Islamic education’ (pp. 28, 29). The chapter also highlights the sources of Rahman’s thought. ‘Fazlur Rahman considers’, the author says, ‘that Islamic doctrine, law and thinking in general are based upon four sources, or fundamental principles (usul): (1) Qur’an, (2) Sunnah (“Traditions”), (3) Ijma (“consensus”), and (4) Ijtihad (“individual thought”) (p. 41).

Chapter II, “Emergence and Early Development of Islamic Theology” (pp. 71-153), begins by the argument that the ‘historical studies of Fazlur Rahman on Islamic theology (kalam) have attempted to analyse and evaluate the entire history of kalam’ and his ‘analytical method is synthetic’, for it attempts to provide a ‘synthesis between Modern Orientalist methodology and the history of kalam literature’ (p. 71). Later, it deliberates on his categorization of kalam into four major stages: Classical, Medieval, Classical Modernism, and Contemporary Modernism (p. 72). In this chapter some of the arguments put forth by Ahmed are: Rahman considers that early schools of dialectical theology (kalam) emerged in 2nd century AH; ‘the Mu’tazila posed and solved all these problems theologically, not philosophically; their entire thought was theo-centric’; ‘the problem of the freedom of the human will versus divine determinism’ was ‘the second major theological difference which threatened the unity of the community’ in the second and third century AH; ‘Al-Ghazali (d. 505/ 1111) represented the first great reaction against the rationalist systems of the philosophers, monumental in the depth of durability of its influence’; Ibn Taymiya’s theology can be described as a ‘form of Islamic positivism’ or ‘reformist orientation’; ‘Puritanical traditionalism’ and ‘Modernism’ are two basic approaches to ‘modern knowledge by modern Muslim theorists’; the classical modernists, like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Abduh, ‘developed a reformist ideology of Islam whose centre was the creation of a modern ‘ilm al-kalam that would be compatible with the weltanchauung born of the new 19th century scientism and the Qur’anic teaching at the same time’; and Muhammad Iqbal’s work, especially his The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, ‘represents an attempt by a Muslim modernist to address the need that Khan identified’ (see, pp. 80, 81, 93, 124, 131, 134, 138, 143, 144).

Chapter-III elucidates Rahman’s “Concept of God” (pp. 154-207). It begins by the argument that in his theological thought, it holds ‘the position of representing the worldview or weltanchauung of Islam’, and that the sources of his ‘conceptualization are in Islam’s normative sources and not in the historical sources’ (p. 154). It further elaborates that ‘Rahman’s theological thought is representative of two criteria: (1) fulfilling the demands of the Qur’anic message (2) satisfying the needs of the contemporary modern Islam’ (p. 156). It concludes with the argument that ‘the correct methodology that needed to be followed in developing a creative and dynamic system of thought necessitated that the Qur’an be studied as a unity, after which the metaphysical foundations for the God-World-Man relationship be expressed in a systematic theological expression; thereafter Islamic ethics and law’ (p. 202).

Chapter-IV deliberates on Rahman’s “Concept of Prophethood” (pp. 208-262) which, for him, “comprised of human beings that are specially elected by God to receive divine revelation’ (p. 219). He posits his theory based on Ibn Sina’s doctrine, incorporating further elements from Shah Wali Ullah and Iqbal regarding revelation, and argues that ‘prophethood is comprised of two main principles: (1) the moral élan of divine revelation (2) prophecy and divine relation (pp. 218-19). Rahman, in Ahmed’s opinion, is of the belief that the ‘prophetic insight is so strong that it generates new values and is creative of knowledge. Hence, the prophet’s overall behaviour is deemed the Sunnah (the trodden path), or the “perfect model”’ (p. 226).

Ahmed further highlights that Rahman, especially in his book Prophecy in Islam, affirms that: ‘the Qur’an is the only miracle professed by the Prophet (s) and only by its veracity the Prophet is proven to be a prophet’; ‘the doctrine of moral élan of the Qur’an’ is the second essential component in his conception of prophethood (p. 227); ‘there are two kinds of prophetic activities: the intellectual revelation and the imaginative revelation’ (p. 231); he agrees with the ‘orthodoxy’s doctrine of prophetic infallibility (‘isma)’ (p. 239); he ‘rejects the orthodox doctrine of intercession [Shifa’at al-Nabi] and considers it to be: (1) entirely against the Qur’anic élan and (2) an innovation accrued in the second and third century [AH]’; ‘the doctrine of intercession was in contradiction with his purported “doctrine of responsibility”’, basing his views on these Qur’anic verses: Q. 6: 94, 165; 17: 15; 19: 80; 35: 18; 39: 7; and 53: 38 (p. 242); and ‘In the Qur’an the “doctrine of intercession” has been rejected and affirmed in different verses’ like Q. 19: 87 and 20: 109 (p. 254).

Though the book is rich both in its content and analysis, but unfortunately it ends without any Conclusion. By doing this, the author has ignored, and skipped, a significant part of his work; further, it has deprived the readers to know the overall contribution of the book. Moreover, the book is flawed by many typos as well; some examples are: ‘Fazlur Rahman responded to it was more appropriate’ (p. 59); ‘practical attitude developed within in the community’ (p. 75); ‘an orientation towards to the contemporary West’ (p. 143), etc.

Keeping aside these shortcomings, the book is a significant contribution in highlighting Fazlur Rahman’s works and thought as a Mutakkalim/ theologian, for he has been discussed mostly as a philosopher, or modernist thinker, or as a precursor to the Qur’anic hermeneutic and less as a theologian-philosopher. This is where the merit of this book lies. In sum Ahmed’s The Theological Thought of Fazlur Rahman is a significant addition to the trends in Islamic thought in general and to literature on the life and thought of Fazlur Rahman in particular. It will be received well by the scholars of Islamic Studies, Theology, and Philosophy.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir.