Significance of Revisiting Fazlur Rahman


Following Iqbal, Fazlur Rahman has been arguably the last major philosopher of our subcontinent and like the former’s philosophical lectures, his works are largely unheard, and certainly  unheeded. He has been one of the most brilliant minds who was deeply informed about traditional Islam’s most important languages, thinkers, history and general self understanding.   It is shocking how little he has been read or understood or engaged with by Ulama whose key premises he interrogated. His great works have been and could be criticized on this or that point, but that does not mean his many an insight and contribution could be ignored. We can’t proceed to solve certain problems today for the Muslim world, especially in the subcontinent, without taking note of Fazlur Rahman. He was indeed fazl of Rahman and so far we have been absent to receive the treasure he uncovered. Today we take note of some of his questions he has raised regarding Quran exeges for Ulama to respond to. He must be turning in his grave seeing the world at large taking his ideas seriously and Ulama of his own land largely oblivious. Let us focus on only one text Islam and Modernity today.

Limitations of Muslim Hermeneutics

Rahman states that  “the basic questions of method and hermeneutics were not squarely addressed by Muslims. The medieval systems of Islamic law worked fairly successfully partly because of the realism shown by the very early generations, who took the raw materials for this law from the customs and institutions of the conquered lands, modified them, where necessary, in the light of the Qur’anic teaching, and integrated them with that teaching. Where interpreters attempted to deduce law from the Qur’an in abstract, for example, in the area of the penal law called, Hudud, results were not very satisfactory. This is because the instrument for deriving law and other social institutions, called qiyas, or analogical reasoning, was not perfected to the requisite degree. The imperfection and imprecision of these tools were due in turn to the lack of an adequate method for understanding the Qur’an itself… There was a general failure to understand the underlying unity of the Qur’an, coupled with a practical insistence upon fixing on the words of various verses in isolation. The result of this ‘atomistic’ approach was that laws were often derived from verses that were not at all legal in intent.”

These are extremely important observations that haven’t been refuted and seem to be amply substantiated by all available evidence. Rahman adds other points that may be listed below.

•The literature on the “occasions of revelation” is often highly contradictory and chaotic.

•The traditionally enunciated principle that “although an injunction might have been occasioned by a certain situation, it is nevertheless universal in its general application” is sound on the condition that one means  by an “injunction” “the value underlying that injunction and not merely its literal wording.” (emphasis mine)

•Muslim exegetes have often been textualists and as such contexts have been either ignored or not properly accounted for. Since the values can be excavated by “understanding well not only the language, but above all the situational context of a given injunction. This, however, was generally not done.” The Companions did not care to record occasions of revelation and later generations have been often forced to keep guessing about them.

•The real task consisted in “understanding the Qur’anic injunctions strictly in their context and background and trying to extrapolate the principles or values that lay behind the injunctions of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna. But this line was never developed systematically, at least by Muslim jurists.”

• “To insist on a literal implementation of the rules of the Qur’an, shutting one’s eyes to the social change that has occurred and that is so palpably occurring before our eyes, is tantamount to deliberately defeating its moral-social purposes and objectives.”

•He warns against complacent posturing of those who claim that the Quran gives us “the principles” while “the Sunna or our reasoning embodies these fundamentals in concrete solutions.” He notes that the Quran does not in fact give many general principles and instead one is required to deduce them and this constitutes “the only sure way to obtain the real truth about the Qur’anic teaching. One must generalize on the basis of Qur’anic treatment of actual cases-taking into due consideration the socio-historic situation then obtaining.”

•Here enter relevant historical, sociological, psychological and other enquiries that inform modernity as such. One can’t adopt the comfortable strategy of writing glosses over glosses of traditional commentators in many cases if the Quran is to be understood/implemented in a world that has significantly changed.  We also know Iqbal’s rejection of the style of writing glosses over glosses of previous Masters for failing to address modern problems. The anxiety in certain influential scholars/exegetes to stick to the text of scripture as if consideration of context is somehow admitting a foreign body is itself premised on ignoring the extratextual origins of a text. The Quran that would ultimately win our hearts and minds is the cosmic Quran or one inscribed in our being – an extra-textual Quran and this implies it is Sufis, whom Rahman rather problematically engages with or fails to deal with on their own terms, who master such a reading are the best judges.  Interestingly Sufi exegesis has always been marginalized by Muslim modernists and fundamentalists alike and consequently we find frantic efforts to make sense of God’s word in absence of support from the science of symbolism and the only really convincing – “heart touching” method of school of realization. There would remain certain problems in any attempt to delineate major and minor themes of a sacred text and irreducible human element or situatedness in any reading of the text. 

•We need maqasid centric approach, a point many Ulama would pay lip service to but rarely take seriously in situations that call for departure from the letter of great fiqh manuals. Shatibi, Shah Waliullah and others who especially emphasized this maqasid point have been largely ignored. Recent developments in theory of maqasid have yielded quite radical insights that Ulama or masses seem to be ignoring to their own peril. Rahman’s reproduction of lengthy quote from Shatibi needs to be excerpted here:

This being so, i.e., that pure reason divorced from the Shari’a principles is unable to yield religio-moral values, reliance must be placed primarily on Shari’a proofs in deducing law. But according to their common use, these latter either have no certainty at all or very little. I mean when Sharia’as proofs are taken one by one. This is because if these proofs are in the category of Hadiths coming from single or isolated chains of transmission, it is obvious that they yield no certainty. But if these Hadiths are traceable to an overwhelming number of chains of transmission [mutawatir], certainty with regard to them, i.e., their meaning, depends upon premises all or most of which are only conjectural. Now that which depends upon what is uncertain is inevitably itself uncertain as well. For a determination of their meaning depends upon the correct transmission of linguistic usage, grammatical opinions, etc.; thus taking all these factors into consideration the possibility of establishing with certainty the meaning of these Hadiths is nil. Some jurists have taken refuge in the view that although these Shari’a proofs are in themselves uncertain, when they are supported by indirect evidence or concomitants [qara’in] they can yield assurance. But this occurs rarely or not at all. The proofs considered reliable here are only those inducted from a number of conjectural proofs which converge upon an idea in such a manner that they can yield certainty, for a totality of proofs possesses a strength which separate and disparate proofs do not possess.”

Rahman adds his comment:  “The nass has traditionally been considered the surest ground for decisions and thought to be absolutely incontrovertible; yet the passage I quoted from al-Shatibi in the preceding section strongly contradicts this stand, for, according to al-Shatibi, no individual text by itself can have absolute probative force unless it is understood in the light of its historical background and the total relevant teaching of the Qur•an and the Sunna.” One can thus see dangers in all too readily supplying Chapter and verse numbers by popular preachers and polemicists. The Quran calls for some pause after reading/listening to it  help understanding. The Quran calls for taking guidance from all phenomena or events at hand.               

Now read these insights in light of Allama Anwar Shah Kashmir’s candid admission that this Ummah has failed to attend to what has been the Quran’s due, that Muslims haven’t paid enough attention to hermeneutics of the Quran,  that one could reduce the number of so-called abrogated verses to zero, that Madrasas need Harvard style lecturing style rather than reading and memorizing  texts, that one can – he can – write comparable/better books than our ancestors in almost all cases (except such works as Hedaya, Futuhat and he admits his utter awe before Abu Hanifa),  his criticism of Imam Shafi’s interpretation of hikmah as sunna/hadith, his appropriation of philosophers such as Mulla Sadra in explaining afterlife, his critical though respectful engagement with stalwart scholars/philosophers/Sufis, his critique of likes of Suyuti and Shah Waliullah on many points, one sees how far and how near are our pioneering scholars to challenges posed by new thought currents calling for revisiting the classical heritage. It seems indeed little difficult to envisage likes of Iqbal, Allam Kashmiri, Fazlur Rahman, Askari, S.H. Nasr, Hafiz Ayub Dehlavi and Soroush converging on many important points to pave way for better dialogue between Ulama and intellectuals/philosophers and pull Muslims out of tragic divide. Fazlur Rahman had a brief stint with a student of Anwar Shah, Mawlana Binori, but it has been a quirk of history that the proposed joint project of Iqbal and Allama Kashmiri couldn’t materialize. It might not be irrelevant to recall Dr Israr’s meeting with Fazlur Rahman or the latter’s attempt to carve extensive association with Faruqi. Fazlur Rahman is dismissed unheard by such scholars as Mufti Zarwali Khan. Failure of dialogue between Fazlur Rahman and Ulama or influential Jamate Islami illustrates tragedy of modern Islam struggling for authenticity.