Fazlur Rahman as a Modern Mutakallim

A Book Review of The Theological Thought of Fazlur Rahman: A Modern Mutakallim by Ahad M. Ahmed

Fazlur Rahman (1919-88) was “a notable scholar of Islamic philosophy and an important liberal Muslim thinker of the twentieth century,” who is considered “to be amongst the most influential Muslim modernists in both the Western and Muslim worlds.” This is how Ahad Ahmed introduces this famed Pakistani-American scholar of the twentieth century.

During his lifetime, Fazlur Rahman was praised as “an outstanding intellectual” and “one of the clearest and wisest Islamic thinkers of the Islamic world today.” After his death, he has been described variedly as “Pakistan’s Influential Reformist Thinker,” “one of the most important and influential Muslim modernist thinkers of the second half of 20th century,” and “one of the most daring and original contributors to the discussion on the reform of Islamic thought in the twentieth century.” He wrote on diverse topics, and 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.”[1]

In this context, Ahad Ahmed’s work is a significant contribution that introduces 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). Using “constructive method” as the major methodological tool, Ahmed’s work examines in detail the following issues and topics vis-à-vis Rahman’s treatment of Kalam: sources/influence shaped Rahman’s thought; the nature of his modernist thought; the methodology of his theological thought; and his dealing with the primary sources of Islam and theological schools (see, pp. xv-xvi). The book comprises four chapters, all of which are exploratory in nature and amply referenced.

In Chapter-I (pp. 1-70), Ahmed contextualizes Rahman’s life and works in a detailed manner vis-à-vis different phases of his academic life. He argues that his writings can be categorized into four categories: the initial Pakistan period, UK and Canada period, Final Pakistan period, and the American period (p. 16). Among Rahman’s major works, Ahmed describes his Islamic Methodology in Islam and Major Themes of the Qur’an[2] as his “magnum opus,” the former being a “work on the historical development of Usul ul-Fiqh” and the latter representing 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 [3]—the former “provides a panoramic view of Islam and is presented using the methodology in the history of religions” (p. 23) while the latter 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,” Ahmed 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).

In Chapter II, “Emergence and Early Development of Islamic Theology” (pp. 71-153), Ahmed begins with 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 that 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). Some of the major figures whose thoughts and ideas, and whose works are referred to here, are: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who represented the first great reaction against the rationalist systems of the philosophers; Ibn Taymiyya, who is described as a representative of a form of “Islamic positivism” or “reformist orientation”; Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Abduh, who “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 The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (see a review of this book here)[4], which “represents an attempt by a Muslim modernist to address the need that [Sir Syed Ahmad] Khan identified” (see pp. 80-144).

In Chapter III, Ahmed elucidates Rahman’s “Concept of God” (pp. 154-207) in his theological thought and begins by the argument that 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). The chapter highlights “Functional Nature” of God, God as necessary being, God’s immanent-cum-transcendent nature, God-universe relationship with man, and the doctrine of divine trust (Amanah).

In Chapter IV, Ahmed discusses Rahman’s “Concept of Prophethood” (pp. 208-262) that is based on Ibn Sina’s doctrine, incorporating further elements from Shah Wali Ullah and Iqbal regarding revelation. It argues that prophethood consists of two main principles: (1) the moral élan of divine revelation and (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 behavior is deemed the Sunnah (the trodden path), or the “perfect model”” (p. 226). It is pertinent to mention here that Rahman, in his book Prophecy in Islam[5], 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” and that “the doctrine of moral élan of the Qur’an” is the second essential component in the conception of prophethood (p. 227). Also, noteworthy are the following arguments of Rahman: he believes that “there are two kinds of prophetic activities: the intellectual revelation and the imaginative revelation” (p. 231). While 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 “entirely against the Qur’anic élan.” He believes that “the doctrine of intercession was in contradiction with his purported “doctrine of responsibility”,” and here he bases his views on these Qur’anic verses: Q. 6: 94, 165; 17: 15; 19: 80; 35: 18; 39: 7; and 53: 38 (p. 242).

Though the book is rich both in its content and analysis, it unfortunately ends without a conclusion, and thus, the author has ignored, and skipped, a significant part of Rahman’s work. This deprives the reader of a closer understanding of the overall contribution of the book. Moreover, the book is flawed by many typos as well (see, for example, pp. 59, 75, 120, 143) and has a gross error in providing proper reference to some quotes as well (see, pp. 35 and 67-8).

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 more as a philosopher or modernist thinker and less as a theologian-philosopher. This is where the merit of this book lies, and by this, the author has fairly justified his claim that “Fazlur Rahman was not simply a falsafi which the majority hold him to be but a mutakkalim in the full-blooded sense.” In sum, Ahmed’s The Theological Thought of Fazlur Rahman is a significant addition to modern Islamic thought in general and to the literature on the life and thought of Fazlur Rahman. It will be well received by scholars of Islamic studies, theology, and Islamic philosophy alike.

Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.

Works Cited:

  1. For example, see, Riffat Hassan, “Islamic Modernist and Reformist Discourse in South Asia”, in Shireen T. Hunter (Ed.) Reformist Voices of Islam—Meditating Islam and Modernity (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2009): 159-186, p.170; Fazlur Rahman, Revival and Reform in Islam Revival and Reform in Islam: A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism. Edited and Introduction by Ebrahim Moosa. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000); Robert Rozehnal, “Debating Orthodoxy, Contesting Tradition: Islam in Contemporary South Asia”, in R. Michael Feener (Ed.), Islam in World Cultures—Comparative Perspectives (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004): 103-31, p. 113; Abdullah Saeed, “Fazlur Rahman: A Frame for interpreting the ethico-legal content of the Qur’an”, in Suha Taji-Farouki (Ed.), Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 37-38.
  2. Fazlur Rahman, Islamic Methodology in Islam (Islamabad, Pakistan: Islamic Research Institute, 1988); Idem., Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980).
  3. Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellection Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
  4. Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (London: Oxford University Press, 1934 [1930]). It is interesting to add here that a new edition of this book was published in 2013 “With a New Introduction by Javed Majeed” from Stanford University Press.
  5. Fazlur Rahman, Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

About the Author: Dr. Tauseef Ahmad Parray is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the Govt. Degree College for Women, Pulwama, Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir. He has published in numerous academic journals, magazines, and newspapers from over a dozen countries around the world. His works include “Towards Understanding Some Qur’anic Terms, Concepts, and Themes” (2017), “Muslim Intellectual Deficit” (2018), “Exploring the Qur’an: Concepts and Themes” (2019), “Mediating Islam and Modernity: Sir Sayyid, Iqbal, and Azad” (2019), and “Recent Trends in the Qur’anic Scholarship’”(2020). You can contact him at [email protected].

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