Damning History but Saving the Text: Fazlur Rahman between Tradition and Modernism

Damning History but Saving the Text: Fazlur Rahman between Tradition and Modernism

S Parvez Manzoor

  One of Nietzsche’s claims to notoriety rests on his contention that there is no text, only interpretation. Islam, it should be obvious to anyone, makes a diametrically opposite claim. It not only affirms that behind the multiplicity of phenomena and experiences, there exists an ultimate text but it also insists that this writ is accessible to us in two complementary redactions: as the transcendent text of creation and as the historical one of revelation. Islamic intellectualism thus entails a dual commitment to upholding the reality of transcendence and to avoiding its ‘con-fusion’ (shirk) with the created order. The only bridge between the beyond of the text and the here-and-now of its reading is conscientious righteousness (taqwa); a cognitive-moral effort that shatters the confines of rationality without being irrational, that abolishes the regime of historicity without being ahistorical. No one better personified in our times this calling of Islamic intellectualism and this ideal of the unity of intellect and righteousness, than FR.

  The worldview of transcendentalism and its attendant traditional lifestyle, it has become an uncontested cliché in our times, has been replaced by modernity. History does not move in mysterious ways but guides its own destiny. The modernization and westernization of the world has been, as it were, inscribed into the process of history by history itself. Modernity, according to this self-authenticating logic, is what both completes and abolishes traditionalism. Whatever the cogency of this argument, it is proper to point out that Islam has not experienced the full force of modernist polemics against the epistemology of traditional religion at first hand. It has not experienced modernity as a historical process, as a voluntary march away from revelation to reason, from theology to humanism, or from theocracy to secularism. It acquired only a smattering acquaintance, and that too quite late, of the scientific discoveries that undermined the faith of the European wo/man in the literal truth of his/her scriptures. Islamic civilisation also remained blissfully unaware of the great philosophical debates that ultimately brought a paradigm shift in the worldview of the Western wo/man. Spinozan pantheism, Hegelian historicism, Marxian materialism have not disturbed Islamic conscience, nor has Islamic tradition been unduly bothered by Feurbachian or Comtian atheism. Of the Nietzschean nihilism, as rule of the Superman after the ‘death of God’, there is practically no trace in the Muslim consciousness

  Islam encountered western modernism, it is fair to say, not as the will-to-truth of science or philosophy but as the will-to-power of the Faustian man. Modernity descended upon Dar al-Islam in its most brutal form as the political will of an alien civilisation. Compared to this overwhelming and shattering blow at the heart of the Muslim polity, the intellectual challenges of modernity, the seeds of inner doubt so to speak, were conveyed by relatively feeble institutional agents of the West: the missionary who aspired to convert Muslims away from their faith and the Orientalist who wanted merely to subvert their worldview and historical self-image.

  Muslim intellectualism of the last few hundred years has thus been nothing but a calling to combat these twin challenges of sacred conversion and secular subversion. Despite his flirtation, indeed fascination, with modernity, FR was very much part of the Muslim resistance against alien gods. It is highly ironic, if not deeply tragic, therefore, that in defending the Text, FR came to a head-on collision with the readings of the guardians of the tradition itself and fell from grace. Indeed, his faith and honour came under the fanatics’ fire and he was forced to flee his homeland, salvaging only his wit, erudition and piety. One cannot help wondering what hurt him most in the end: the arrogant irreverence of his academic adversaries, or the unquestioning devotion of his simple brothers in faith!

  Fortunately, this is not a story with an unhappy ending. The exile was to prove a loss not to FR but to his opponents. As an expatriate, he received from the host country all the honours, considerably sweetened by the serenity and comforts of an academic haven, which were denied to him at home. For his part, FR paid back his debt to the hosts in style. He produced some of his best work in exile. For this, both the scholarly community and FR’s community of faith are grateful. FR’s scholarly achievement in the West also explodes the myth that Islamic thought does not thrive in ‘unIslamic’ environment, or that freedom of debate and polemics hinders its growth. Indeed, FR showed that the old polarities of Orientalism and Muslim scholarship, or indeed the facile dichotomy prevalent in the West between normative and historicist thought, have become redundant. The foreign scholar is as much under obligation to take into account the normative claims of Islam as is the indigenous one constrained by the rigours of historicity. The cross-cultural polemic has had at least one positive effect in that today everyone pays more attention to the metaphysical premises and ideological parameters within which a discourse takes place. The general temper of contemporary ‘Islamology’, to use a clumsy continental neologism, may still be polemical, but it does not lack moments of genuine self-enlightenment and cross-fertilization. Much of the credit for this, it cannot be denied, goes to FR and his school.

  Following in FR’s footsteps, and eschewing the discourse of power for the discourse of truth, we may choose to observe the conflict between traditionalism and modernism through the metaphysical prism and regard it as a matter of tension between the transcendent and immanent conceptions of the ultimate scheme of things. Modernity, it has been suggested by one quite perceptive minds of our century, (Eric Voegelin) is a gnostic project. For it is through Gnostic speculations about the burden of man, left alone in the universe by the absent God (deus absconditus) to achieve salvation for himself and for nature, that modernity discovers its own calling as the creation of an immanent Utopia. Little wonder that the secular realm gets sacralized in modernity and the Here-now abolishes the Here-after.

  The paramount traits of modernist consciousness, renunciation of transcendence and eternity and espousal of immanence and temporality, then, emanate from a fallacious and spurious theology. It is thus legitimate on the part of a sensitive religious thinker to mourn that ‘the modern world has lost Transcendence beyond all possible recovery.’ This insight is further buttressed by the following argument: ‘The Greeks contemplated nature and sought first causes. The modern scientist seeks mere uniformities, and his purpose with nature is not the contemplation of it but rather control over it. But who will find - or seek - Transcendence in what he controls?’ Nor is the picture any different for consciousness within than for nature without. Not even the soul, within which mystics have always found Transcendence, offers any retreat today. For ‘the pale cast of psychological and sociological thought has reduced what was once “Reality” to a mere feeling itself.‘1

  It was with a modernity that had grown weary of all talk about transcendence that FR’s Islamic thought was forced to strike a deal. Not surprisingly, this encounter, which posed a Herculean intellectual challenge to FR, turned into a monstrous personal tribulation. In a work published abroad and that too in a foreign tongue, FR sepeculated on the nature of the Qur’an. He even attempted to harmonize the orthodox dogma of the otherness and external character of the Revelation, its transcendentalism, with the modern perception of the work that construes the intimate connection between the Book and the the religious ‘development’ of the Prophet’s personality, fully recognized by the Islamic tradition, in purely immanentist terms. Cognizant of the fact that ‘orthodoxy (indeed all medieval thought) lacked the necessary intellectual tools’ for such an enterprise, but supremely confident of his own ‘intellectual capacity’ to do so, FR felt no compulsion in asserting ‘that the Qur’an is entirely the word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad.‘2

  Later, recounting the furore that followed the publication of this formulation, FR re-iterated his position in the following language: ‘the Qur’an is entirely the Word of God insofar it is infallible and absolutely free from falsehood, but insofar as it comes to the Prophet’s heart and then at his tongue, it was entirely his word.‘3 Insisting that ‘this idea has had a history in Islam in writers like al-Ghazali, Shah Wali Allah of Delhi, and, recently, Muhammad Iqbal’ though ‘none of them stated the position in such clear-cut and blunt manner’, FR attributed the public outcry against him in Pakistan to political motives. Indeed, he was adamant that ‘far from detracting from the Qur’an’s revelatory status’, he ‘had given a rational account of it in accordance with what the Qur’an says about itself.’ The public, on the other hand, he laments, ‘was given the impression by the campaigner that I had said that the Qur’an is the joint work of Allah and Muhammad - a position which no Muslim can hold.‘4

  True enough, the problem of the Revelation is intellectually insurmountable, and the inherited imagery of the orthodox tradition philosophically irredeemable. Yet, we cannot deny that FR’s ‘solution’ to this problem smacks too much of a concession to modernist consciousness to be Islamically satisfactory. In fact, it is reprehensible on many counts, not the most insignificant of which is its incarnationist immanentism. Like Christological formulae which proclaim that Jesus has a ‘dual nature’, that he is both ‘true God’ and a ‘true man’, any further elaboration of FR’s ‘Qur’anology’ is bound to lead us, a lá Christianity, to the cul-de-sac of unintelligible non-statements. They would be taxing not only of faith but of intelligence as well. The ulema’s reaction was not merely politically reactionary as FR seems to imply but embodied a far sounder religious instinct that they are given credit for.

  The closest intellectual encounter Islam had with the modernist ethos, it has been suggested, was through the enterprise of Orientalism. Orientalism, however, encounters Islam on a purely immanentist ground: it conceives of its as a wholly historical phenomenon. And yet this absolutization of the historical, as it were, exacts a price. Like all votaries of reason, the Orientalist gets bogged down in the niceties of method, or looses his bearing in the maze of instrumentality. The Orientalist scholarship of the Qur’an, then, is pre-eminetly concerned with the logistics of the revelation, the chronology of the text and its temporal vicissitudes, while it has little to say about its meaning, source and evaluation. Ultimately, of course, Orientalist ‘science’ cannot evaluate the text because it pretends not to have any value at all! Where it does possess any theory of meaning, it turns it into an apotheosis of history. For it proclaims that not only is meaning historically constituted, but that it is also fully consumed by it. Or, in other words, that the true meaning of a text is contemporary and all subsequent readings are superfluous for its recovery. Not surprisingly, the Orientalist enterprise foreshadows the nihilist tendencies of postmodernist thought whose historicist enterprise comes to grief in the wasteland of cognitive and moral relativism. (The idolization of Eurocentric history has, after all, led to the its dissipation into a number of axiologically irredeemable ‘contingencies’!) It is to FR’s credit to have saved this scholarly enterprise from its nihilistic and vindictive temperament. Indeed, by introducing the Muslim cogito and his methodological taqwa into the Orientalist discourse, FR gave it a new vocation and new respectability. That some of the contemporary Western scholarship of the Muslim scripture shows great empathy and even augments Muslim self-understanding with genuine insights is in some measure a result of the FR’s efforts.

  FR’s radicalism, or revisionism, did not affect merely the Orientalist discourse. He was, despite his much misunderstood radicalism, modernism and westernism, very much part the Islamic tradition, where the immanent text of the Qur’an is taken as indicative of the transcendence will of God. (Apparently, language, text, is deemed more transcendent than person, body, and accepted as a more appropriate medium of divine revelation.) For all his intellectual boldness, recklessness to his detractors, there can be no denying that FR consciously and willingly, indeed enthusiastically, joined the orthodox enterprise of moving from text to hukm, from immanent language to transcendent values. Nor may we doubt that his participation radically transformed this discourse because he imparted to it a consciousness which, for its allegiance to traditional themes and motifs, was essentially, though not exclusively, modernist in that it never renounced the historical moorings of the Text. Indeed, in the manner of some modern historicists, such as Friedrich Meinecke, who purged Hegelian immanentism of its relativism by reaffirming the existence of the absolute in each unique moment, and certainly like the classical Jewish and Muslim metaphysicians of the law, who atomize all temporality into an eternal present before God5, FR’s historicism is an affirmation of the freedom of the moral will. What each moment incarnates is not chance temporality but meaningful transcendence, not the loss of self in cosmic nothingness but its affirmation through action, through submission (islam). History as existential temporality carries within each moment the possibility of ‘doing right and refraining from wrong’, the attainment of Taqwa if you please.

  The paradox of FR’s scholarship is that while he stood firm in his commitment to the historicity of the text, he readily abandoned its interpretations by the tradition. In saving the text, he had to damn the history of its reading. But then this is the power (I´jaz) of the Text: it creates is own context, prevents the closure of its meaning and forever remains open to new interpretations. It outlives and transcends its history.



1. Emil Fackenheim: “Transcendence in Contemporary Culture”, in Transcendence, Ed. by Richardson, H & Cutler, D. Beacon Press, Boston, 1969. p 143.
2. Fazlur Rahman: Islam, New York, 1987. p 27).
3. Fazlur Rahman: “Some Islamic Issues in the Ayyub Khan Era”, in Essays on Islamic Civilization, Presented to Niazi Berkes. Ed. by Donald P. Little, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1976. p 299)
4. ibid.  p 300.
5. Cf. for instance, Abduljavad Falaturi: “Experience of Time and History in Islam”, in We Believe in One God, Ed. by Annemarie Schimmel & Abdoljavad Falaturi, Burns and Oates, London, 1979 (pp 63-76) for a modern restatement of the classical Muslim position.

Originally published at http://www.algonet.se/~pmanzoor/FR-Saving-Text.htm