IN MEMORIAM:  Prof. Fazlur Rahman 1919-1988

Prof. Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988)

by Mumtaz Ahmad

Professor Fazlur Rahman, arguably one of the most important thinkers of 20th century Islam, was the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago at the time of his death in July 1988. Born in Punjab, Pakistan in 1919 in a traditional Deobandi family, he received his early education in traditional Islamic sciences. He obtained an M.A. in Arabic from the University of the Punjab, and his D.Phil. in Islamic Philosophy from Oxford in 1951. He began his teaching career in Durham, England and later joined the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. From 1961 to 1968, he served as the Director of the Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan, a position from which he had to resign as a result of a politically-motivated campaign by some influential ulema (Islamic scholars) against his “modernist” interpretations of some traditional Islamic beliefs and practices.

A prolific writer and an outstanding scholar of Islam in the tradition of classical Muslim reformers, Dr. Fazlur Rahman influenced generations of young Muslim intellectuals and students and, probably more importantly, his Western colleagues and students in the fields of Islamic studies and Islamic philosophy. His influence spread far and wide: several of his former students, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are outstanding scholars in their own right, and are advancing the intellectual tradition of their illustrious teacher.

Although it is considered controversial by traditional Islamic scholars on certain issues – the nature of revelation, the distinction between Hadith and Sunnah, the methodology of Quranic interpretation, and the distinction between riba and bank interest, for example – Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s critique of the historical formulations of Islamic theology and jurisprudence remained firmly rooted in his deep respect and discerning appreciation of Islamic tradition. It was this quality that distinguished Fazlur Rahman from many other Islamic modernists.

Fazlur Rahman was a scholar of encyclopedic breadth in the true tradition of classical Islamic scholarship. His interests ranged from the classical period to modern times; from the Quran and Hadith to fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and ethics; from philosophy and science to theology and medicine; and from education and history to the contemporary socio-political and intellectual developments in the Muslim world. His scholarship of classical Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish was equally matched by his easy access to the Greek, Latin, German, and French languages.

Throughout his scholarly career, however, his first and foremost loyalty and devotion was to the Quran and to the understanding of its worldview, its metaphysics, and its socio-economic teachings. He was a brilliant student of, and an extraordinarily perceptive commentator on, the Quran. He lived, wrote and thought for most of his life within a framework that was defined by his love and study of the Quran. Major Themes of The Quran (Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980) is a living testimony to his Quranic scholarship and his interpretive methodology that seeks to elucidate the theological, moral, and social teachings and principles of Islam on the basis of a systematic study of the overall thrust of the sacred text, rather than looking haphazardly at individual verses.

His was a mind of a logician and philosopher, and a heart of a devout Muslim. His writings on Islam are not only the product of a meticulous scholar with great intellectual rigor and analytical skills, but also that of a passionate Muslim who was deeply concerned about the spiritual, moral and socio-economic and political well-being of the Ummah (community of Muslims). He believed in the fundamental importance of intellectual renaissance as the most important prerequisite for Islamic revival.

Fazlur Rahman was sharply critical of both the Ataturkish model of reform, which sought to build a future for Muslims without historic Islam, as well as that of Islamic modernists, due to their haphazard and atomistic methodology. At the same time, he was equally critical of the “neo-revivalist” who, in his view, is “shallow and superficial” – really rooted neither in the Quran nor in traditional intellectual culture, of which he knows practically nothing.

A careful examination of his writings reveals a vigorous mind working in the highest traditions of the humanities of East and West and providing the intellectual and moral underpinnings for the revitalization of the Islamic Ummah.

Some of Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s most important publications follow:
1. Islam, 2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1979.
2. Islamic Methodology in History, Islamic Research Institute, 1965.
3. Major Themes of the Quran, Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
4. Islam and Modernity, University of Chicago Press, 1982.
5. Revival and Reform in Islam, Oneworld Publications, 1999.

Mumtaz Ahmad, Professor of Political Science at Hampton University, VA, was a student of Professor Fazlur Rahman at the University of Chicago from 1976 to 1981.

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