Fazlur Rahman’s Influence on Contemporary Islamic Thought

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According to Rahman, the focus of the Qurʾān on ethical and justice issues is what makes the Qur’anic text fully understood as a comprehensive whole. Therefore, at the heart of Rahman’s hermeneutic approach is the idea that the Qur’an should be read as a whole, not in an atomistic way.”

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Reading comment on, “Fazlur Rahman’s Influence on Contemporary Islamic Thought”, Ali Akbar, 2020, Muslim World (Vol. 110), P. 129-153, The University of Melbourne. by Musa Alkadzim


Frederick Mathewson Denny says, “Wherever I have traveled in the world … I have never met a Muslim scholar or other specialists on Islam who has not heard of Fazlur Rahman or who is neutral about his contributions to the making sense of life in Islamic ways.” [2]

Denny shows the strong influence of Rahman’s thinking in many regions of the world, ranging from North America, Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, the Arabian Peninsula, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Europe.

The majority of studies on Fazlur Rahman’s works have focused on his approach to interpreting the Qurʾān and little has been written about his influence on the generation of Muslim scholars that followed him. A few scholars have acknowledged the influence of his works and their contribution to the field of Islamic Studies.

Akbar then tries to examine Rahman’s influence as one of the most cited Muslim scholars among contemporary Muslim modernists on Islamic thoughts. Rahman’s ideas about revelation and interpretation of the Qur’an have influenced several contemporary Muslim scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Arash Naraqi, Abdullah Saeed, Nurcholish Madjid, Farid Esack, and Amina Wadud. This in turn has given rise to – directly or indirectly – new streams of thought such as Islamic liberation theology and feminist interpretation of the Qur’an.

Akbar also provides a critical evaluation of Rahman’s thinking and gauges how his followers have corrected the shortcomings of Rahman’s general ideas. The article then concluded with some recommendations for the contextualization of justice in the Qur’an and its relation to our contemporary understanding of justice.

Rahman’s ideas about revelation and Qurʾānic hermeneutics

Fazlur Rahman rejects the traditional explanation of revelation, which states that the Prophet only accepted the Qur’an, and played no role in shaping its contents. Instead, he suggested that Muhammad’s personality, experiences, decisions, feelings, and reflections played an important role in forming the contents of revelation.

According to Rahman, the Qurʾān is transcendent, because it was revealed by Allah, but its contents are also related to the personality of the Prophet Muhammad and his reaction to the conditions he faced and the society at the time of revelation.

In other words, the Qurʾān is an eternal text, while the Prophet, as a human being, is bound by context. Therefore, Rahman argues, it is irrational to think that the Qurʾān was revealed: “without involving … the activity of the Prophet as the central background-activity which included [his] policy, commands, decisions, etc.”

In the past, Rahman stressed, Muslim scholars and commentators of the Qurʾān lacked the intellectual tools to understand the relationship between “the verbal character of revelation on the one hand, and its intimate relationship with the work and religious personality of the Prophet on the other.”

For Rahman, Islamic revelation has a dual nature (divine and human); therefore, the Qurʾān should be treated as the word of Allah and the words of the Prophet simultaneously. “The Qurʾān is entirely the Word of God insofar as it is infallible and absolutely free from falsehood, but, insofar as it comes to the Prophet’s heart and then his tongue, it was entirely his word”.

Akbar observes that there are two key ideas related to Rahman’s hermeneutical approach of the Qurʾān:

First, the revelation of the Qurʾān took place in a concrete historical setting and reflects the circumstances of seventh-century Arab society and the Prophet’s first audiences. Indeed, the Qur’an is “God’s response through Muhammad’s mind … to a historic situation.”

This factor, Rahman emphasizes, has been “drastically restricted by the Islamic orthodoxy in a real understanding of the Qurʾān”. For Rahman, any examination of the meaning of the Qurʾān should follow a historical-critical approach. Central to such an approach is the idea that the Qurʾān’s “concerns, interests, and guidance were directly connected with and organically related to the linguistic, cultural, political, economic and religious life” of the Arabs of the seventh-century, to whom the text was initially revealed.

Each of the Qurʾānic pronouncements on social, political, and moral matters, therefore, had a background rooted in the “flesh and blood of history”. Understanding the Qurʾān requires one to acquire knowledge about its proper context which includes “the struggle of the Prophet and the background of that struggle.”

The second key idea to Rahman’s hermeneutical approach to the Qurʾān is that the texts has ethical foundations: “The basic élan of the Qurʾān is moral.”In the sense that the Prophet’s personality played a fundamental role in shaping the worldview of the Qurʾān, which ultimately aimed to establish social justice and moral values in his society.

Rahman argued that there was a general failure of Islamic thought in the course of history to identify the underlying unity of the Qurʾān’s message, which has to do with themes of ethics and justice. Indeed, Muslim scholars failed to produce a coherent ethical system out of the Qurʾān itself: “a Qurʾānic ethics was never worked out by Muslims,” he emphatically declared.

According to Rahman, the focus of the Qurʾān on ethical and justice issues is what makes the Qur’anic text fully understood as a comprehensive whole. Therefore, at the heart of Rahman’s hermeneutic approach is the idea that the Qur’an should be read as a whole, not in an atomistic way.

An atomistic way of reading and interpreting the Qurʾān, according to Rahman, will derail the underlying unity of Qurʾān messages. Therefore, “to select certain verses from the Qurʾān to project a partial and subjective point of view will necessarily do violence to the Qurʾān itself and results in extremely dangerous abstractions”.

The implications of Rahman’s hermeneutical approach are twofold. First, it requires that the Qurʾān should not be read as a legal manuscript consisting of specific rules and literal Instead, the Qurʾān is primarily a book of religious and moral principles and guidance and not a legal document”. For Rahman, general legislation is only a small part of Islamic teaching. By this statement, Rahman challenged classical Muslim jurists and contemporary Muslim scholars who placed great importance on the Qurʾān’s legalistic precepts: “The Qurʾān … is not a legal document that Muslim lawyers have made it to be…and does not give many general principles: for the most part it gives solutions to and rulings upon specific and concrete historical issues.”

The second implication of Rahman’s hermeneutics is that the verses of the Qur’an that deal with legal matters must be approached and understood as the fulfillment of a moral purpose. The Qurʾān contains some legal enunciations, but their applications have to be first examined within the broader historical context in which the Prophet lived, and then examined in light of the moral ideals that were founded upon them.

For Rahman, ethics is superior to “specific theology” or any specific legal Qurʾānic precept. After ethics comes law, and that law must satisfy the demands of the Qurʾān as unitary teaching. Rahman called this approach as “the double movement theory”. The first movement includes an examination of the immediate setting of revelation and the second is to apply universal principles or values achieved from the first movement for formulating laws related to the current situation or contemporary setting.

Fazlur Rahman’s Influence on the New Breed of Islamic Scholarship

Akbar then delves into the influence Rahmad had in forming a trend of scholarship among Muslim scholars which has been identified as a humanistic approach to the Qurʾān. One of the representatives of this thinking is Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush. He seems to have been influenced by Rahman’s ideas even in his early academic career.

Rahman may not have had any illusions about the incalculable consequences his ideas had on the interpretation of the Qurʾān. For example, he did not write about the rights of homosexuals, as Arash Naraqi did when questioning the prohibition of same-sex sexual acts. Rahman may not even imagine that his ideas on revelation or gender issues would lead to a new line of thought among some Muslim scholars, such as Amina Wadud (b.1952) and Asma Barlas (b.1950). His approach had revised old interpretations of the verses of patriarchy, polygamy, and legal rulings in the Qurʾān.

Rahman also without a doubt has had an influence on Nurcholish Madjid discourse of contextualization. As a leading Indonesian Muslim scholar who played a major role in broadening Islamic studies, Madjid worked directly with Rahman for a few years when he switched from the political science program under Leonard Binder to Islamic studies under Rahman. Inspired by Rahman’s idea about ratio legis, Madjid argued that the application of a law is determined by the reason for which it was prescribed. If this reason changes, then the application of the law changes. Like his mentor, Madjid believed that the legal precepts of the Qurʾān cannot be fully understood without the underlying purposes for which they were originally revealed.

Therefore, like Rahman, Madjid rejected the implementation of the traditional fiqh in today’s world. He stated that fiqh has lost its relevance to the present mode of living. Its complete restoration, however, such that it might become viable to modern life, would require a comprehensive knowledge of modern life in all its aspects. Indeed, Madjid has found his true match in Rahman’s views, considering that earlier in his life Madjid had already declared his famous statement “Islam Yes, Islamic Party No.” (AL)

[1] Frederick Mathewson Denny, “Fazlur Rahman: Muslim Intellectual,” Muslim World 79 (1989): 101

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