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The Message of Fazlur Rahman
Association of Muslim Researchers ^ | 27/06/96 | M Yahya Birt

Posted on 09/25/2001 1:18:32 AM PDT by JasonC

The Message of Fazlur Rahman

M Yahya Birt



For all those Muslim Researchers out there, I would like to offer Fazlur Rahman as a paradigm of the modern committed Muslim intellectual. Often we hear the tired litany of historical triumphalism, ‘we gave the scientific and philosophical impetus to the European Enlightenment.’ This is no doubt true. But to say this when Muslims have fallen into the deepest intellectual stagnation, which no amount of self-defeating rhetoric can hide, we must face the uncomfortable truth: within modern accumulations of knowledge lie some of the tools for our intellectual re- ignition and renewal. This is something that Fazlur Rahman recognised, and, in this sense, he is a torch-bearer. For insight, independence of thought, and crucially, unremitting courage, his work bears repeated examination. His bravery is borne out by the fact that he was criticised by all sides, as well as praised by many. If I might begin with a brief outline of his life.

Fazlur Rahman (1911-88) was probably the most learned of the major Muslim thinkers in the second-half of the twentieth century, in terms of both classical Islam and Western philosophical and theological discourse. He came from a Punjabi family steeped in traditional Islamic learning; and then went on to familiarise himself with modern critical thinking at Oxford under H.A.R. Gibb and Van Der Bergh. In general, he was a committed teacher and research scholar (he was particularly innovative in Avicennian studies) with spells at Durham, McGill (Montreal) and California. From 1969 until his death, he held the post of Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago, and so far has been the only Muslim to receive the prestigious Giorgio Levi Della Vida prize (1983). A disastrous spell in Pakistan during the 1960s, attempting to reform the teaching of Islam at tertiary level there, led to a systematic attempt, when Fazlur Rahman returned to North America, to re-evaluate his religious heritage. He is virtually unknown outside of intellectual circles, not having been a scholar-activist like his contemporary, Isma‘il al-Faruqi (d. 1986). It remains to be seen whether Muslims by pondering his works will be inspired to popularise his ideas. Tonight, I hope to offer a critical appraisal of the pithy essence of his message, and in so doing, to demonstrate that Fazlur Rahman offered a constructive vision for rethinking our heritage. I hope to show that even if we use some of the modern critical tools of historical enquiry, that the results can be intellectually liberating, yet Islamically consistent.

By reviewing Fazlur Rahman’s works, it is hoped that the following contentions will be demonstrated. Firstly, it is argued that Fazlur Rahman’s approach was broadly in line with a ‘historicism’ that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe i.e. the view that the classics of one’s own society embody basic truths that must be reformulated to meet new circumstances. Put simply, Fazlur Rahman’s historicism was comprised of three stages: first, to understand the historical processes by which Islam has come to assume the form which it has today; second, in analysing this process to distinguish between essential principles and their particular formation as a result of specific needs of now probably outmoded social, economic and political contexts; and third, to consider how best to apply the essential principles of Islam after a critical assessment of the contemporary period. I have only spoken very briefly about this third stage, towards the end.

Secondly, it is argued throughout that this historicism is basically ethical in its manner of assessment. Given the basic definition of historicism mentioned above, to coin the term ‘ethical historicism’ may seem tautological. However, it is merely to emphasize Fazlur Rahman’s insistence that a meaningful assessment of the past can only be made with reference to a transcendent set of ethics. Fazlur Rahman saw himself as moving away from the particularities of the inherited Islamic tradition to abstracting general ethical principles which could be extracted from the Qur’an. It is the Qur’an that judges not only the Muslim past but adjudicates its present and presents the model blueprint for its future. For Fazlur Rahman, the Qur’an ‘is not a book of abstract ethics, neither is it the legal document that Muslim lawyers made it out to be. It is a work of moral admonition through and through.’ (1985a:8)

In a mainly descriptive exercise, it is hoped that a detailed outline of this ethical historicism can be sketched, with relevant examples from Fazlur Rahman’s oeuvre to illustrate how each of the three stages worked.


Initially, it would be useful to note what is meant by historicism. Hamilton (1996:2) defines it as ‘a reaction to the practice of deducing from first principles truths about how people are obliged to organise themselves socially and politically. The natural laws governing human behaviour at all times are formulated and cultures evaluated by the degree to which they approximate this ideal pattern.’ Formulating answers to these questions by the general systematic activity of building explanatory historical theories has been around, in the Western tradition, since Thucydides until the present day. Currently, however, there is a growing rejection of ‘the modernist project of constructing a universal, rational, scientific basis for natural, social, and historical knowledge and for political action.’ (Lloyd 1993:3) Fazlur Rahman (1982:8-9) entered this debate by defending historicism, founded upon the Qur’an, against a chief critic of this form of modernist narrative, Hans Georg Gadamer. This will be discussed more fully later on. It should not be thought that such a three-stage method as Fazlur Rahman’s is in disrepute in Western academic circles; it is only the Islamic bases of his historicism that marks it out as unusual. That Fazlur Rahman’s historicism was basically reformist in relation to Muslim thought was most markedly shown by the death sentence he received for his subversive thought from Pakistani ‘ulama’ in the 1960s, the most extreme manifestation of a generally hostile reaction in traditionalist Muslim circles.

Whilst Fazlur Rahman wrote innumerable articles and books , he indicated himself which books he viewed as pivotal to what I have described as ethical historicism. In Islamic Methodology in History (1965:ix-x), Fazlur Rahman critically assesses what he regards as the four basic principles of Islamic thinking: the Qur’an, the Sunna, ijtihad, and ijma‘. He also tries to look at the actual working through of these four principles in history. How these principles can be combined and applied, ‘can no longer be concealed behind the conventional medieval theory’. (ix) The work sets out to ‘indicate the way for further Islamic developments.’ (x) In the introduction to Islam and Modernity, he has made, in his own words, ‘an effort to enunciate a satisfactory hermeneutical method for the Qur’an’ as ‘normative criterion-referents for all expressions and understandings of Islam.’ (1985b:198) As noted in his review (1984) of Western writings on the Qur’an, Fazlur Rahman attempts make up for ‘the relative lack of attention to the content and message of the Qur’an’ (74) in his Major Themes of the Qur’an. He tries to avoid an atomistic or chronological account and instead make a ‘synthetic exposition’. (1980:xi) The extraction of various ethical principles allows Fazlur Rahman to make various recommendations in the above-mentioned works, and in other articles about the application of Islam in the contemporary world. It has been shown, therefore, that Fazlur Rahman consciously developed an ethical historicism, and aimed to create such a system through cumulative and directed researches, especially in the later part of his academic career. Perhaps, I am only able to offer a precis tonight, often without many of the corroborating examples that Fazlur Rahman gave. Those who are interested should look further into his work.


In the early 1960s, Fazlur Rahman was appointed by President Ayub Khan to the post of Director of the Central Institute for Islamic Research with a view to establishing a reformist syllabus for Islamic tertiary education in Pakistan. Later, he recounted his disappointment that for structural reasons, he could not effect serious change during his tenure (1962-68). (1982:123) In terms of the development of his views on re-assessing his Islamic heritage, he undertook thorough research, dedicated towards building religiously-committed but critical scholarship in Pakistan (and the Muslim world in general) that was on a par with scholarship in the Western academy, by looking at the basic tools of Islamic intellectual enquiry. These core tools were the Qur’an, Sunna, ijtihad and ijma‘. What Fazlur Rahman’s assessment in the 1960s has in common with his later thinking is a willingness to re-assert the primacy of the Qur’an over all the other sources by showing how it has been over-ruled by secondary sources. There is not sufficient time to analyse critically the veracity of all his historical analyses; the main focus in this section is to look at the general direction of his re-assessment, and its implications for his Qur’anic hermeneutics (see below).

The Sunna is defined as a behavioural concept, yet it is not just a law of behaviour but also a normative moral law. He rebuts the assertion of Western scholars, in the case of the Sunna, that practice precedes the normative status it acquires. Instead he defends it by appeal to logic : surely these practices would not been initiated, if the element of normativeness had not been prior to their inception. Sunna, translated as ‘exemplary conduct’, originally implied the setting up of a model; but it neither implied the necessity of following it, nor did its moral normativeness follow automatically (for there is the idea of a bad Sunna in tradition). The idea of correct conduct is closely related, however, to the setting of an example. He accepts the conclusion of Western researches on the Sunna, that in content it is composed of continued tribal customs and the free- thinking activity of early jurists on the incorporation of new elements from other Late Antique cultures; and in later centuries there was much fabrication of Hadith. However, it is wrong to conclude that the concept of Sunna did not start from the very beginning; and that it covered not only the Sunna of the Prophet himself, but the interpretations of the Prophetic Sunna. Whatever original Prophetic content there was in the Sunna, it was neither large, nor specific. In later centuries, Sunna became co-extensive with the ijma‘ of the community and the success of the mass-scale Hadith movement destroyed the flexible early relations between Sunna, ijtihad and ijma‘. It is argued (1965:10-11) that the Sira reveals the Prophet not to have been a pan-legalist at all. Firstly, he was mainly a moral reformer, and very rarely resorted to general legislation (as the paucity of specifically legislative verses in the Qur’an suggests). Secondly, when he intervened in a legal manner, it was generally in an ad hoc rather than in any systematic fashion, in a way that was entirely situational. So with this analysis, Fazlur Rahman concludes that the Prophet did not lay down rules for the minutiae of life, and so it follows that he intervened in events in a way which can only be seen as normative in a general sense. So the Sunna here becomes ancillary to the Qur’an, and is characterised as a loose umbrella-concept which informs particular interpretations in future settings.

The early generations of Muslims developed an elaborated and specific code of human behaviour through a process, ra’y (personal considered opinion), that wins Fazlur Rahman’s whole-hearted approval for its intellectual creativity. This very creativity produced much regional divergence in what was accepted as the Sunna of different regions. Intellectual and religious élites became concerned with this increasing divergence in Sunna, and promoted a more controlled form of systematic reasoning (qiyas). In contrast, the jurists of the early schools of law like Imam Malik, writing in the eight century, used Sunna and ijma‘ almost interchangeably to mean both his opinions and the views/practices of the people of Medina. Thus for Imam Malik, Sunna is simply what came to be accepted by the consent of the Muslim community. This gains Fazlur Rahman’s approval because ‘[t]he actual content of the Sunna of the early generations of Muslims was largely the product of Ijtihad when this Ijtihad, through an incessant interaction of opinion, developed the character of general acceptance or consensus of the Community, i.e. ijma‘.’ (1965:18) The eighth-century aphorism, ‘the Sunna decides upon the Qur’an, the Qur’an does not decide upon the Sunna’, thus gains real force for Fazlur Rahman. He interprets this in a way that gives primacy to continuing rational reflection upon the Qur’an.

The Community, under the direction of the spirit (not the absolute letter) in which the Prophet acted in a given historical situation, shall authoritatively interpret and assign meaning to the Revelation. [author’s italics] (1965:20)

Fazlur Rahman condemns the post-Shafi‘i consensus that the Sunna is not a living practice of interpretation, that instead it goes back to the ideal Sunna of the Prophet which has then been progressively interpreted by ra’y and qiyas. He sees it as disastrous that al-Shafi‘i's arguments concerning ijma‘ came to be widely accepted; namely that consensus had to be so total that it left no room for disagreement. Positively contrasted with this definition of ijma‘ is the earlier one of the ancient legal schools: ijma‘ is a continuous process (not a state) which requires informality and the continued existence of disagreement. In other words, ijma‘ is naturally linked with the continuous effort of ijtihad, so that the area of agreement can be widened. In place of a living and organic movement (Sunna>>ijtihad>> ijma‘), the Sunna became ideal, literal and specific; which could only be transmitted through Hadith. Thus instead of seeing ijma‘ as a natural outcome of ijtihad, al-Shafi‘i reversed the order into ijma‘>>ijtihad. Ijma‘ became ‘static and backward-looking’. (1965:25) The acceptance of this form of static consensus established great stability, but only ‘at the cost of creativity and originality.’ (loc.cit.)

It is important to defend a misapprehension about Fazlur Rahman here. He does not deny that the Hadith do not go back to the Prophet’s time. However, he does say that the idea of Hadith that we have inherited is a latter one. The lawyers of the ancient schools of law like Abu Yusuf, Awza‘i and Malik based their legal work on the ‘living Sunnah’ and through personal judgement interpreted their materials freely to elaborate the law. The emerging Hadith-movement, however, saw their task as reporting, with the purpose of promoting legal fixity and permanence. In the extant works of the second century, most of the legal and moral traditions are not from the Prophet but are traced back to the Companions; however as the decades passed these traditions came to be ascribed to the Prophet himself, perhaps inwardly propelled by their definition of authenticity. The early lawyers resisted this trend. They maintained different criteria. For instance, Awza‘i regarded Hadith of the Prophet and the living Sunnah as having the same fundamental obligatoriness.

The nature of the emerging Hadith-movement can be proven by one well-known fact, undisputed even by the most orthodox of Muslims. The classical traditionalists themselves argued that ‘moral maxims and edifying statements and aphorisms may be attributed to the Prophet irrespective of whether this attribution is strictly historical or not.’ (1965:44) Most of the Hadith corpus is, in fact, the Sunnah-Ijtihad of the first generations which after a serious struggle received the sanction of ijma‘, or the adherence of the majority of the Community. In addition to the necessary chains of narrators growing backwards, the nature of the corpus changed also: the living Sunnah had been primarily geared towards behavorial norms, but the Hadith came to incorporate legal norms, religious beliefs and principles as well.

It is natural that the audience might feel consternation at this interpretation, and those who are familiar with Joseph Schacht, will recognise his influence here. However, Fazlur Rahman is not saying that Hadith are unhistorical or even that if they are historical, they lack legal normativeness. For him, this is the apologetic stance of the modernist overwhelmed and enticed by the prospect of Progress, with a capital P, who is therefore guilty of wanting to throw the baby out with the bath- water. Of course, he realises that if all Hadith were to be given up, then all that would remain is an unbridgeable gap between us and the Prophet. The Qur’an would then become subjective putty in our hands, to be moulded into any shape that we desired. What anchors the Qur’an is the Prophetic activity itself. Although the technical Hadith, as opposed to the historical and biographical Hadith, are mostly not historical; they still remain normative. How?

On a logical basis, if those Hadith which define the Islamic Methodology itself - Hadith about principles of Ijma‘ and the role and status of Hadith themselves - prove unhistorical, then the prama facie case for the historicity of the most other Hadith fails.

To say that Hadith are mostly unhistorical is not to posit a gigantic conspiracy. The question to ask is whether the Hadith-movement saw its task as strictly historical in the first place. The Prophetic Hadith, ‘Whatever of good saying there be, I can be taken to have said it’ refers not only to moral Hadith but also to all Hadith that have moral implications, including political and legal ones. For al-Nawawi, it was a principle that Hadith arousing pious feeling ought not to be rejected. Even the famous Hadith which orders the acceptance those Hadith which are in accordance with the Qur’an, does not argue for historicity. Therefore, the ‘Hadith represent the integrated spirit of the Prophetic teaching - it represents the living Sunnah.’ (1965:74)

Even if the Hadith are not strictly historical, they still remain closely attached, being a record of the living Sunnah which contains the general Prophetic model, and the regionally- standardised interpretations of that model. The diversity of Hadith reflects the continuous activity of personal ijtihad and Ijma‘ of the early period. Of course, the living Sunnah was a process, while the Hadith attempted to ‘confer absolute permanence on the living Sunnah synthesis of the first three centuries.’ (1965:75)

Hadith represent, therefore, ‘the sum total of aphorisms formulated and put out by Muslims themselves, ostensibly about the Prophet although not without an ultimate touch from the Prophet.’ (1965:75) These Hadith may not go back verbally to the Prophet, but their spirit certainly does. They represent not forgeries but progressive interpretations according to situation and context.

Worries may arise, if this interpretation is accepted, about the impossibility of discerning the Prophetic content within the Hadith. Such a concern is unfounded in Fazlur Rahman’s view. There remain (besides the Qur’an) many undeniable historical contents of the Prophetic Sunnah like the five pillars and the Historical hadith relating to the biography of the Prophet. However, this material will allow a successful attempt to discern the purely Prophetic elements in the technical Hadiths, relating to fundamental principles, which are often without context.

This conception of the living Sunnah represents Fazlur Rahman’s most distinctive (or infamous, depending on your point of view) contribution to the renewal of Islamic thought. And it is absolutely essential to a re-understanding that enables rational meditation upon the ethical injunctions of the Qur’an so that they can be eternally renewed. Many instances of this rational meditation upon the Qur’an can be found from the earliest days e.g. during the Caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. During the Prophet’s time, in a clearly attested Sunnah, the booty of conquered tribes who did not peacefully surrender, was to be redistributed as booty. ‘Umar forbade the extension of this to the conquered territories of Iraq and Eygpt on the basis of the general Qur’anic injunction towards justice (59:10 - see Rahman 1965:180) which could not permit the neglect of these populations and future generations, for the short-term gain of the Arabs. Umar did so to implement the essence of the Prophet’s Sunnah.


In Islam and Modernity (1982:1-11), Fazlur Rahman defends his view of the philosophical possibilities of a genuine hermeneutical exercise which allows one to understand truly the mind of the Qur’an. Fazlur Rahman is perfectly prepared to defend a modernist conception of history in terms of his role as a professional historian, as well as that of a devout believer. Revelation generally, but the Qur’an ‘pre-eminently so’ (1982:4), ‘inspires [an] irreducible attitude of the mind called faith, which is both captivating and demanding.’ (loc.cit.) Fazlur Rahman’s Qur’anic hermeneutics, in its general aims, follows the traditional Muslim exegesis. That is to develop a method which allows Muslims, who have faith and commitment, to practise scriptural values from the level of the individual to society at large. He believes that pure cognition can be separated from emotive faith, and that practically, Muslims as well as non-Muslims can, with adequate sympathy and sincerity, attain a genuine understanding of the Qur’an’s message. Of course, only Muslims can have the motivation of faith to live by it.

Fazlur Rahman’s re-evaluation of Muslim intellectual meditation upon the sources has already been mentioned earlier. It remains to outline Fazlur Rahman’s method of the stages of Qur’anic hermeneutics (in themselves), and then to discuss Fazlur Rahman’s objections to Western philosophical and historical criticisms of his schema. Firstly, the Qur’an is a response to early stages of the Islamic community that were historically recorded, and it consists of moral, religious, and social directives in answer to specific problems of that time. Most Qur’anic responses to questions or problems are ‘stated in terms of an explicit or semi-explicit ratio legis.’ (1982:5-6) By examining the occasions of revelation, one can come to understand the rationale for such answers and then deduce general laws. Fazlur Rahman accepts the adage common to most Qur’anic commentators that although an injunction might have been occasioned by a certain situation, it is nevertheless universal in its general application (1982:17); with the proviso that this always meant in principle rather than in terms of the literal wording. Fazlur Rahman thinks, somewhat optimistically perhaps, that he can avoid the endless circular controversies about the provenance of particular verses that came from an atomistic approach in the past. One should understand the meaning of the Qur’an as a whole , in terms of specific tenets that are responses to the particular conditions during revelation, and any analysis of those conditions must involve a wide appreciation of modern scholarship on the whole Middle East of Late Antiquity. Then one should generalise the specific answers into general principles that reflect fully not only the weltanschauung (world- view), but the élan of the Qur’an. Previous interpretations are only to be regarded as secondary materials which are useful when necessary, but are strictly to be judged in the light of the Qur’an itself, especially as these interpretations hardened, multiplied and became more subjective as time went on. The next step is to embody the general ‘in the present concrete socio-economic context.’ (1982:7) This involves a double-checking of the elucidation of these general principles,

[f]or if the results in understanding fail in application now, then either there has been a failure to assess the present situation correctly or a failure in understanding the Qur’an.’ (loc.cit.) For it is not possible that something that could be and actually was realized in the specific texture of the past, cannot, allowing for the difference in the specifics of the present situation, be realized in the present context - where allowing for the difference in the specifics of the current situation includes both changing the rules of the past in conformity with the altered situation of the present (provided this changing does not violate the general principles and values derived from the past) and changing the current situation, where necessary, so it is brought into conformity with these general principles and values.’ (loc.cit.)

This is a crucial passage, I think for three reasons. Firstly, it indicates that Fazlur Rahman was hardly a cultural traitor or a religious hypocrite (as he was often accused of being by Muslims), but someone who was not prepared to accept all change if it clashed with Qur’anic core-values. It is very easy to miss the conservatism in his dynamism. Secondly, the manner of his description indicates a cyclical movement, and an oscillation through time between general principles and particular applications and therefore shows a holistic tendency in his thought. Thirdly, it is difficult to see where his analysis of conditions past and present ends and where his search for general principles begins. The suspicion remains, therefore, that Fazlur Rahman sets out to look for what he wants rather too obviously. The Qur’an is to be read in order to elicit a reformist programme of action, and everything is directed into a very Sunnite orientation towards praxis. As Kenneth Cragg (1985:93-94) notes that there is an acceptance of the command of God while assuming, and not really exploring the grounds which make this acceptance necessary. Fazlur Rahman sees the functionality of the Qur’an but sometimes seems to have less regard for its meditative and worshipful modes.

In selecting examples of general principles, it is obviously best to pick those which Fazlur Rahman sees as most central to the spirit of the Qur’an. There is little doubt for him that the ‘central concern of the Qur’an is the conduct of man.’ (1982:14; 1980:1-3, x) In this concern, the prominent motifs of the Judgement Day and even belief in God have a strictly functional role. No real morality is possible without the regulatory reminders of God and the Last Day: the ‘very moral function requires that they exist for religio-moral experience and cannot be mere intellectual postulates to be believed in. ’ (1982:14) The Qur’an is concerned with the conduct of humans in this world, and God exists in the mind of the believer to control his or her behaviour, if they have had a religious and moral experience. The key human response to this purpose of the Qur’an must be a sense of taqwa, or ‘deep God consciousness’, as Fazlur Rahman translates it. Such an attitude is symbolised in the Sunna (exemplary conduct) of the Prophet, and is naturally related to a morally-ordered society. This is to be negatively contrasted with secularism which intrinsically precludes any such order. For Fazlur Rahman, the only way humanity can create a society beholden to real moral order is to live under the rule of God; but only in the sense that moral rules are transcendent (their objectivity is vouchsafed by the Deity), and are not subject to change according to wilful human desires.


Fazlur Rahman says that the non-Muslim historical approach has its utility, but it has ‘little to do with any understanding of the Qur’an and its ideas - on the contrary, it tends to cloud and distort that content.’ (1979a:131) The concern with content, is for Fazlur Rahman, precisely the extraction of those timeless ethical principles, which remains an interpretative exercise to be attempted after filtering out the historical instantiations of the Qur’an. This interpretive exercise is solely the prerogative of believing Muslims. Why is this the case?

In looking at religions, one is attempting to understand a phenomenon that consists in values, convictions and feelings that involve the utmost depths of the human mind. Of course religions have observable expressions and institutionalised manifestations, but it is the meaning of these that is at issue. Must the outsider’s attitude not necessarily be empathic and participatory? Fazlur Rahman wants to make a distinction between the meaning of a proposition that can be understood to be universally true, even if it is reported to one who has no had direct experience of it; and the understanding of the meaning of a proposition which may not be universally understood. As will become clear later on, it is essential for Fazlur Rahman’s whole system of ‘ethical historicism’ to allow for the possibility of understanding other minds and their textual traces, even if a enquirer does not share the religious convictions of those whom he studies. For a meaning to be understood, then it has to become meaningful to someone, so that it ceases to be purely impersonal. In one sense, something can be meaningful even in an antagonistic way. In other words, a Muslim and a non-Muslim can temporarily comprehend one another, but can a real understanding emerge from such a temporary identification? Fazlur Rahman thinks this is ‘impossible in the final analysis.’ (1985b:192) What is possible is

not a religious experience but a quasi-scientific (intellectual) knowledge of a religious experience where the normativeness or authority of the experience vanishes, but something of its direct effect upon the experiencing subject (including the latter’s report of it can be preserved and made accessible to others. The experience as a living and integral whole, therefore, cannot be conveyed by a historian or a social scientist; such scholars nonetheless can appreciate it intellectually and convey it so that it becomes a part of scientific knowledge. (1985b:194)

Pure cognition ‘does not mean cognition of historical facts to the exclusion of values; on the contrary my central occupation is precisely with values their meaning and interpretation. [my italics]’ (1982:4) One need not be a believer to have cognition of historical values. Fazlur Rahman distinguishes between historical values, and those which are properly moral. Moral values have a higher ontological status than their disclosure at a certain point in history which does not limit their meaning or practical application to that moment. Historical values exhaust their life within their particular socio-economic context; but the transcendence and extra-historical nature of moral values allow them to overflow the date of their first articulation in terms of relevant application.

The definition of ijtihad that Fazlur Rahman accepts means it is possible that a text can be generalized into a set of principles, and that these principles can be formulated as new sets of rules. It implies that the tradition in question can be judged according to the normative meanings under which the tradition arose. In other words, that some form of orthodoxy is possible. Tradition or precedent can be ‘studied with adequate historical objectivity and separated not only from the present but also from the normative factors that are supposed to have generated it.’ (1982:8) So it is not surprising that Fazlur Rahman goes on to defend those modernist theorists who insist that one must find out the meaning intended by the mind that wrote the text under study. A reversal of the original creative process is possible whereby ‘the forms we try to understand and interpret now are led back to the creative mind whose original contents they were, not as isolated items, but as a coherent whole, and made to live again in the mind of the understanding subject.’ (loc.cit) But this is not the product of the mind only, one must consider the historical conditions to which it responded. Crucially, Fazlur Rahman’s radicalism, in Islamic terms, is to insist that the Qur’an is ‘literally God’s response through Muhammad’s mind to an historic situation.’ (loc.cit.) If the Qur’an was the literal word of God, which came to be the predominant interpretation among Muslims, and Muhammad was merely the passive recipient, then one could not discern abstract ethical principles behind the revelation of verses in particular circumstances. Instead, one would fall into a kind of slavishly literal attempt to recreate the society of the Prophet, no matter how misguided and inadequate such an endeavour would be. Fazlur Rahman’s conception places all scholarly Muslims in a position of equality with regard to the Qur’an, whose ethical principles must be instantiated in their particular epoch through the effort of ijtihad.

Fazlur Rahman has to protect this position against two lines of attack, and it is contestable as to whether he succeeds. The first is that of Hans Georg Gadamer, who attacks the view that one can know other minds truly as mere psychologism. He is sceptical about Gadamer’s view that context of ideas is merely mental: ‘for while their occurrence is in a mind, their intentio or meaning is referred outside the mind.’ (1982:9) Gadamer wants due acknowledgement of what he views as being predetermined i.e. because the experiencing subject is preconditioned it follows one cannot really understand the past on its own terms. Effective history, for Gadamer, is not only the historical influences upon the object of study but also all the other influences that make up the observer, or the experiencing subject. So any possibility of knowing the past truly by a sort of objective historical consciousness is overcome by this preconditioning. An individual is much more likely to be influenced by family, society and state than by ephemeral inklings where one can stand beyond one’s own historical horizons with the ‘perspective of God’. Therefore there is no distinction between history and dogmatics.

For Fazlur Rahman, this will not do. It is obvious that human traditions have changed over time but not as a series of disjunctures into which is read a fictive continuity. Continuity in an intellectual tradition is real because it is a manifestation of a well-recorded historical consciousness, played out between commentators over the centuries. Any critique of, or purposeful change in, a tradition does involve self-awareness to the extent that ‘there is consciousness of what is being criticized or rejected.’ (1982:10) It not fair to conclude that these responses were pre- determined to the extent that Gadamer advocates. It is still possible to separate an objective grasp of the past with a subjective response to that past which involves values that are a product of one’s present conditioning. Fazlur Rahman wants to distinguish history and dogmatics, as well as to defend their effectiveness in maintaining a real historical consciousness. When questions are asked, history, by definition and as an ideal, is concerned with historical facts and not with values, whereas at first sight dogmatics looks mainly at values. But often dogmatic questioning involved rational enquiry, in other words, it facilitated the discovery that certain parts of tradition contradicted more basic parts. So even in dogmatics, a second-order historical consciousness is present in that historical distance is bridged by reason which spans the past and the present. The endeavour of ijtihad is a continuous obligation that requires change in tradition to restore its normative element, and tradition is never immune from such questioning.

A second line of attack which Fazlur Rahman rebuts is scepticism about the historical veracity of Muslim tradition especially with respect to the Qur’an, which is most trenchantly discussed in relation to the work of John Wansbrough. One should not bracket Fazlur Rahman with those who categorised all Western studies of the Qur’an as examples of pernicious orientalism. In fact, ‘at present, Muslims, generally speaking, lack the necessary psychological and, consequently scholarly equipment’ (1979a:132) for a rigorous enquiry into the formation and canonisation of the Qur’an, a task which could only be carried out in Western institutions. Older studies that largely took the tafsir tradition at face value, like that of N'ldeke-Schwally’s Geschichte des Qorans, was the approach that Fazlur Rahman praised as ‘the most sober and reliable.’ (1979a:131)

Fazlur Rahman rejects what he terms the ‘literary criticism’ of a more modern school. His most general criticism is theoretical in nature. It is platitudinous, in his view, to state that unless the phrase in history has some mystical sense, then all religions are in history. The Semitic traditions are held to be historical religions because in them God intervenes in human events to fulfil purposes. Historical enquiry can establish whether are not these religions have, in actual fact, made such claims about the intervention of God in human history, and at what time such claims were first made. However, such historical enquiry is not concerned with trying to prove whether God intervened or where believers just claimed he did. Fazlur Rahman makes a distinction between a religious view of history and a historical view of religion, which he thinks is confused in the literary-analytic method i.e. after rejecting the claims of religions, one should not go on to reject historical enquiry itself. Whatever one thinks of claims made on behalf of religions, such claims should be historically investigated. What I understand this to be is a phenomenological position i.e. that religious texts are best understood through the internal premises upon which they are based, but only in the context of their explicit historical background. Literary criticism ignores the obvious historical context in favour of what Fazlur Rahman sees as a fairly arbitrary selection of Qur’anic motifs, which could only be credible if one is prepared to read in between the lines, and accept too many arguments e silentio.

Fazlur Rahman attacks the ‘literary criticism’ of Wansbrough, and his Canadian advocate, Andrew Rippin on a number of specific objections. These are listed from the general to the more particular. First, the insight that Muslim tradition is the product of a literary tradition is founded upon the studies of Schacht and Goldziher. This makes little sense. Firstly, their method is historical, and therefore does not logically support the literary method. Secondly, the Goldziher/Schacht thesis is read by Fazlur Rahman as only proving that certain Hadiths originated after other Hadiths, not that the whole corpus was suspect. Second, it seems to Fazlur Rahman that a historical method is efficacious enough critically, without looking to replace this with non-historical methods. Once one has given up on a historical approach, then it is no longer possible to make any sense out of the Qur’an. One has to appeal to Wansbrough’s notions of different background traditions rather than the chronological Meccan and Medinan periods to understand differences within the Qur’an. On what basis can one accept Wansbrough’s Qur’anic motifs retribution, sign, exile and covenant as the major themes, when one might more naturally reply the five pillars, social justice and jihad? A concomitant third point is that this relies upon an unreasonable number of conspiracies. Not only do we not know who has arranged for the Qur’an to appear to have a divine origin, but also that the original four themes have been hidden by the five pillars, now commonly accepted. Fourth, Wansbrough mentions the allusive character of the Qur’an i.e. that it assumes knowledge of Jewish prophetic literature. But the Qur’an also only alludes to authentically Arabian prophets and history, so what can be assumed of the audience? For Fazlur Rahman, the Qur’an is divine commentary on the Prophet’s milieu, which included general Semitic influences, and on his struggle. Fazlur Rahman is not convinced by his antagonist’s observation that the three separate citations of the story of Shu`ayb constitute three separate traditions, brought together in the same text. Within a chronological framework, one can understand these to be the anxious exhortation of a preacher to his people to desist from committing commercial fraud, by citing the story of a previous prophet. But because Wansbrough has abandoned history as such, he can give no explanation as to why these should be regarded as three separate traditions, or what were the sources of these traditions. In other words, it is speculation. Fifth, despite Wansbrough’s sweeping scepticism regarding Muslim tradition, he accepts it where it suits him, for instance where he refers to the visit of the Muslim delegation to the Nagus. (1984:88-89)

Some of the mistake-spotting that Fazlur Rahman has made is quite substantial in that it succeeds in pointing out internal inconsistencies in use of evidence, fidelity to the Qur’an and reliance upon a massive falsification of Muslim tradition. However, one might quibble that a positive appreciation of modern literary techniques would have been useful, given the fact that many of these tools are hardly new to Muslim exegetes (the outstanding example being al-Zamakshari); but perhaps have been further refined in useful ways in the past 100 years.


Unfortunately, I am not able to dwell upon Faxlur Rahman’s Qur’anic prescriptions for the present. This is partly because of lack of time, but mostly because the challenge really lies with us to analyse our present situation.

What is ironic is that while Fazlur Rahman set himself in opposition to fundamentalists, modernists and traditionalists, he recognised that he shared with them a concern to get rid of accretions, and return to a pristine Islam. Given that Fazlur Rahman was labelled a ‘modernist’ by more traditional opinion, it is interesting to note his objections against the ‘modernist’ school. Firstly, they were rarely concerned with questions of economic justice; although others, like Khomeini, have restored it to the centre of Islamic ideology. Secondly, the approach to the Qur’an (and the other main sources) was often selective and not systematic (something which Fazlur Rahman has tried to rectify). On certain serious points of disagreement with Western view, e.g. on jihad for instance, there was often ‘an alarming tendency towards apologetics’. (1988b:31). This led, quite rightly, to their loyalty to Islam itself being questioned, so unthinking were they in their uncritical acceptance of Western modernity. You can probably figure out what Fazlur Rahman’s objections to fundamentalists and traditionalists would be. That these three groups patently failed in his view to be successful in renewing Islam did not invalidate the attempt itself. As the determination of general principles has already been discussed, I will now briefly outline how Fazlur Rahman analysed modern conditions himself.

Fazlur Rahman decries the laissez-faire society (1982:159), and realises that social bonds are weakening in societies generally, but knows that Islam does not advocate coercion either. One cannot leave all attempts at the socialisation of future generations, to do so is to ignore the way societies have been maintained. If humans all chose to be individuals, then highly developed religious and educational systems could never have emerged initially. Rather starkly, liberals in Muslim societies who are over-reacting to crudeness and even cruelty of an outdated manifestation of Islam are in danger of letting their children grow ‘into animals’. (1982:159) Current manifestations of Islam tend towards indoctrination because they are infused with dogma. However, if ethics can be properly re-distinguished from law, then at least dogmas of the rational kind are acceptable to guide the ethical sense of a civilisation. One of the great dilemmas of modernity is the increasing relativity of values as a result of breaking loose totally from the constraints of older religious dogma.

It must be recognised that modern societies are much more complex than medieval ones, particularly in the fields of economics, politics, communication and education with developed thought, structures and institutions to match. If these societies have become more aware of the possible sources of social dislocation and how to deal with them systematically, such a sense of these dislocations is ultimately grounded in simple sense of right and wrong. But if the warning systems are effective, concurrently the ethical coherence of modern societies is weakening. Fazlur Rahman is optimistic that the relatively simplistic Qur’anic tales concerned with the macro-history of humanity of the rise and fall of civilisations and societies; of the moral decline of nations; of the succession of civilisations in political pre-eminence; of the function of leadership; of the nature of poverty and prosperity, peace and conflict; and of the need to realise when reform corrupts and continuity preserves can, with the Qur’an’s general ethical principles and a thoroughly factual survey of the current lessons of history, lead to real guidance; not just for the ummah, but for humanity at large.

In conclusion, Fazlur Rahman stands between East and West, and is critical and supportive of both in his reformulation of his heritage. From within his own tradition, he rejects a number of analyses of the contemporary period and proposes to emulate the successful empowerment of the earliest generations. While Fazlur Rahman was ambiguous about Western modernity, he did not believe, as some hold in the Muslim world, that all its problems stemmed from secularisation. He felt that the utopian impulse to apply uncritically the Islamic heritage to education, law and politics would, far from re-energising Muslim societies, prove a disastrous backwards step.

In contrast, Fazlur Rahman’s three-step assessment outlined above has much in common with an historicism which today is an intellectual movement with supporters in the West, and in the Muslim world. In the West, there are many formalists, structuralists and traditionalists who want to re- embody basic truths in contemporary society. In the case of Fazlur Rahman, he not only engaged with Muslim modernists who manipulated the Islamic tradition, without regard for intellectual consistency, but also with what he saw as the laissez-faire attitude of modern societies, as well as with his peers in the academy who separated any enquiry from historical method, or, in the case of Gadamer, from transcendent ethics. Ultimately for Fazlur Rahman, if one could not assume a universal truth, grounded for Muslims in the Qur’an, then historical enquiry itself becomes groundless.

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; Miscellaneous
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I have many thoughts myself on the subjects covered in the article. I offer the article first, to allow people to react. My main reason for posting it is to encourage people to engage on an intellectual level with the issues that are behind the present war of ideas involved in our relations with all the various schools of thought in the Islamic world. To those who are not scholars of the subject, it may give a sense of the ideas that are involved. To some of a theological or historical bent, some of the subjects may well be familiar from parallel controversies within historical Christianity (e.g. Newman on tradition vs. consensus).

I also offer it because, like the author of this article, I think Rahman's thought is a promising way forward, or at the very least that he has raised the right issues moderate Muslims will have to grapple with. I had the benefit of studying with the man briefly in the last years of his life, while he taught at the University of Chicago. He was a kind, urbane, measured, and impressively learned old gentleman.

A partial glossary of terms used in the article may be helpful. More detail about the nuances of each term are discussed in the body of the article.

sunna - exemplary conduct, moral example, precedent, tradition
ijtihad - interpretation
ijma - consensus, especially agreement of faithful muslims
ulama - body of religious scholars, divines
hadith - narration, especially reports of actions of Muhammad or his Companions
r'ay - opinion, especially personal
qi'ya - analogy, reasoning from similar cases

Here is a partial bibliography of Fazlur Rahman's works. The most useful for those new to the subject are "Islam" and "Islam and Modernity" -

Rahman, Fazlur (1962-3). ‘Post-Formative Developments in Islam - I’. Islamic Studies, I (4), (1962), pp. 1-23.

Rahman, Fazlur (1963). ‘Post-Formative Developments in Islam - II’ Islamic Studies, II (1963), pp. 297-316.

Rahman, Fazlur (1965). Islamic Methodology in History. Karachi, Central Institute of Islamic Research. [Out of Print]

Rahman, Fazlur (1979a) ‘Islamic Studies and the Future of Islam’. In Kerr, Malcolm H. (ed.), Islamic Studies: A Tradition and Its Problems, Seventh Giorgio Della Vida Conference, 1979. Malibu, Calif.; Undena Publications. Pp. 125-133.

Rahman, Fazlur (1979b). Islam. (2nd ed.) Chicago, Chicago University Press. [In Print, usually available from Dillons.]

Rahman, Fazlur (1980). Major Themes of the Qur’an. [In print, available from al-Hoda books.]

Rahman, Fazlur (1982). Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, Chicago University Press. [In print, available from Dillons].

Rahman, Fazlur (1984). ‘Some Recent Books on the Qur’an by Western Authors’. Journal of Religion, 64 (1), (1984), pp. 73-95.

Rahman, Fazlur (1985a). ‘ Law and Ethics in Islam.’ In Hovannisian, R. (ed.), Ethics in Islam: Ninth Giorgio Levi Della Vida Conference, 1983, in Honour of Fazlur Rahman. Malibu, Calif.; Undena Publications. Pp 3-15.

Rahman, Fazlur (1985b). ‘Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies: A Review.’ In Martin, R.C. (ed.), Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies. Tuscon, The University of Arizona Press. Pp. 189-202, 233-234.

Rahman, Fazlur (1988a). ‘Islamization of Knowledge: A Response.’ American Journal of Islamic Social Science, Vol. 5(1), 1988, pp. 3-11.

Rahman, Fazlur (1988b). ‘Roots of Islamic Neo-Fundamentalism’. In Stoddard, P.H., Cuthell, C. and Sullivan, M.W. (eds), Change in the Muslim World. Syracuse, US; Syracuse University Press. Pp. 23-35.

1 posted on 09/25/2001 1:18:32 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: JasonC
Gee, anyone really care about any of this stuff? Or are sound-bite sized barbs about whole civilizations the only thing that can spark interest these days?

Or perhaps nobody has seen it - thus this little bump...

2 posted on 09/25/2001 2:51:39 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: JasonC
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz, LOL. Just kidding. You obviously know a bit about this part of the world. Why do you think, as it says in the first paragraph "Muslims have fallen into the deepest intellectual stagnation"? They gave the world most of the scientific and mathematic developments after the Greeks and before the Renaissance and have contributed little since.
3 posted on 09/25/2001 7:59:57 AM PDT by Straight Vermonter
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To: Straight Vermonter
In a word, I think it was because of Al-Ghazali. A great medieval Islamic theologian, who wrote (among many other things) "The Incoherence of the Philosophers", against the tradition of the flourishing Islamic philosophy of the middle ages.

GOP Capitalist started a thread which discusses that aspect of the question, called "Understanding Islam - from early western roots to today's fundamentalism". I encourage you to read it. Basically, a skeptical view about the power of human reason came to dominate medieval Islamic thought. Chesterton notices some similar tendencies in certain schools of modern thought in the west and explains the practical issue thus -

"...there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary... That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought... If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, "Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?" The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself." But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all." There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped." - Chesterton

The authority to engage in real interpretation must stem in the end from a confidence in the power of human reason to arrive at the truth. Early Islam had that confidence. The philosophers had that confidence. But Ghazali did not, for reasons as perennial as philosophical skepticism, of the sort you also see e.g. in Hume, or the modern relativists, or radical historicists and postmodernists. Ghazali has the additional motive that the disorganization and uncertainty he can forsee from falliable and skeptical human thought, he doubts will manage to maintain a tradition of religious orthodoxy. Whereas literalism can. In a way, he combines the motives of Hume and Luther in the west.

Rahman understood the need to revive the idea of interpretation in Islamic theology. He faces the difficulty of maintaining an flexible and living, but still orthodox tradition, squarely. For him, men must be "authorized" to engage in interpretation to adapt the moral maxims of their faith to the conditions of later times. They must trust their reason that far. The requirement of substantial (but not uniform) consensus (especially of the learned), authoritative interpretation being restricted to faithful muslims, and the status accorded to the moral principles seen in the examples of the Koran and hadith, are meant to anchor this "living tradition" process.

Many of the ideas involved in this approach are more reminiscent of the catholic position on theological interpretation in the west, rather than the most common protestant one, with its emphasis on literalism. But that analogy is not completely correct, as there remains no hierarchy or central authority governing interpretation, simply the consensus of the learned "clergy".

Certain would-be reformers of catholic practice have sometimes called for a similar role for near-consensus of the learned. The 19th century liberal catholic thinker Lord Acton did, for instance, around the time of the first Vatican council (although he, wrongly in my opinion, insisted on consensus being 'complete'). In the high middle ages, Marsilius of Padua advanced somewhat similar ideas as reforms of the papacy. Each of those men were influenced by medieval philosophy, the first in its Acquinas form, the second as Averroism. Both of those, in turn are representative of the medieval philosophy Ghazali rejected.

I hope this helps.

4 posted on 09/25/2001 11:44:11 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: Straight Vermonter
Or, if that is too intricate to follow, here is an executive summary. Rahman is trying to do for Islam what Acquinas did for Christianity. His task is made somewhat easier because Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) have already accomplished much of the work. Islam didn't go down that path originally, because of the contrary influence of Al-Ghazali.
5 posted on 09/25/2001 11:55:41 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: Straight Vermonter
a little bump before this fades...
6 posted on 09/25/2001 9:03:21 PM PDT by JasonC
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To: secretagent
for later
7 posted on 09/27/2001 2:27:47 PM PDT by secretagent
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To: JasonC
See article by Paul Johnson at for some corroboration of your points.
8 posted on 09/27/2001 6:28:12 PM PDT by benjaminthomas
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To: JasonC
See article by Paul Johnson at for some corroboration of your points.
9 posted on 09/27/2001 6:28:14 PM PDT by benjaminthomas
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To: JasonC
I made it 16 paragraphs in, before I jumped to the last two paragraphs (Conclusion), and called someone else for an assessment. It would have been a little helpful, if you had provided an initial reference to the existence of a glossary at the end of your first reply. But even if you had, the glossary is quite vague, and provides little for comprehensive understanding, except possibly as a refresher to those who have looked into the subject in the past.

For the most part, at least of what I read, the article appears to me to be a collection of specific title phrases, names, and vague connections to vaguely written explanations. However, I'm not criticising it for such, as it appears to be a comprehensive summary of an in depth study. In that regard, I doubt you will find many here at FR who have studied the topic enough, to be able to formulate any opinion on the matter.

My curiosity will bring me back to this post to see if any of those who reply, actually grasp much if any of the subject matter covered. I'm sure a few will, but not very many. For those who do, I hope future discussion will lead to some simplification (progress), thus providing the rest of us with an increased understanding. In my case, I think a whole lot of simplification may be needed.

10 posted on 09/27/2001 10:11:17 PM PDT by jackbob
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To: JasonC
Excellent. Seems you knew what I was going to write in my above reply, before I wrote it. Thanks for the much needed simplifying anchor provided in #4 & 5.

It would however be helpful, if you were a little more clear (simplifying) on:

The requirement of substantial (but not uniform) consensus (especially of the learned), authoritative interpretation being restricted to faithful muslims, and the status accorded to the moral principles seen in the examples of the Koran and hadith, are meant to anchor this "living tradition" process.

Specifically, I'm not sure what you mean by the "requirement of substantial . . .consensus" and "authoritative interpretations being restricted to the faithful..."

11 posted on 09/27/2001 10:34:25 PM PDT by jackbob
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To: jackbob
I can probably explain it best by analogy with various groups within Christianity, noting some of the differences.

Fundamentalist Islam gets around the problem of wandering and different human interpretations changing the tradition out of recognition, by rigid literalism. Some fundamentalists here do so, too e.g Bapists of the Bob Jones variety. There are varying degrees of commitment to literalism in other Protestant denominations.

Some of the more liberal denominations just let wandering human interpretations work their will, but the result is often little better than the latest fad dressed up with a few out of context quotes. Fundamentalists here dislike that and regard the result as lacking in religious legitimacy, as just the random opinions of falliable people. Instead of modifying a tradition, tradition evaporates and you just get trendy opinion. Fear of the same sort of thing is one reason fundamentalists versions of Islam are popular.

Between these two positions there is another one possible, avoiding literalism on the one hand, and anything goes trendiness on the other. Avoiding the first necessarily implies someone can interpret the literal text, trying to preserve what is essential, but authorized to reject outdated aspects. Someone must have this authority. Avoiding the second, anything goes, necessarily imples limits on this authority, in terms of the questions decided, who decides, etc. So the authority to interpret must be limited rather than unlimited.

Summing up the previous paragraph, a limited authority to interpret away from literal meanings is the necessary condition of a flexible tradition. No such authority means no flexibility. No limits on it means no tradition. Between stagnation and aimless drift lies the option of regular reform, but reform requires definite but limited authority.

In Christendom, the catholic church has claimed such an authority and specifically vested it in a hierarchy of offices. With some questions left to bishops, others to the Pope, and the largest changes to a general council of bishops. The hierarchy filters changes proposed by theologians, the clergy, involved laymen, etc. Some other denominations agree that such an authority is needed, but disagree on who ought to exercise it (bishops, all clergy, congregations, etc). Sometimes only minor matters of church governance are covered by such authority, sometimes it extends to theological dogma.

Now, in Sunni Islam there is no hierarchy. There isn't even a legal distinction between clergy and laymen. Those thought of as "clergy" are simply the learned, religious scholars, or judges of traditional Islamic law. In practice these form a seperate body, referred to as the "ulama", but someone is a member of the ulama not by formal office, but merely because the term describes him. Shiites are different on this score, being led by ayatollahs with definite perogatives, like bishops. But for Sunnis, there is just a loose grouping of the learned, and everybody else.

So there is a difficulty about where a power to interpret can be lodged. If left to every Sunni, the result would probably not be the maintenance of a tradition. And those at all interested in Sunni Islam are generally interested in maintaining a tradition. Rather than being "liberal" and trendy like some "mainline", left-leaning denominations of protestant Christians, they'd just be secular or only marginally religious. So the reforming, interpreting authority can't be left to everyone, and there is no formal hierarchy to exercise it, as there is for catholics.

Where then does the interpreting power belong? That is the question Rahman is trying to address. Only a satisfactory answer to that question - one satisfactory to those for whom religious legitimacy and maintaining a tradition are important - can break the hold of rigid literalism among Sunni theologians. If they have to choose between literalism and chaos, they will choose literalism. If they have to choose between literalism as Sunnis, and a hierarchy as Shiites, they will choose to remain Sunnis and thus to remain literalists. What is needed is a non-literalist Sunni option, and that means some way for Sunnis to exercise an authority to interpret, without a hierarchy to do it for them and without licence for individual opinion to dissolve everything.

Rahman finds a basis for such an authority, and a means of exercising it, by examining the history of Islam, and the way things were dealt with before there was much to be so literalist about. In the early period after the Prophet, all of the later machinery of Islamic orthodoxy was in process of construction, rather than already existing as a received law. By necessity, the believers of that time exercised a sort of legislating power, as they settled a hundred questions raised by the changing condition of Islam in the world.

In terms of my analysis above, understand this is before the time of Al-Ghazali. Men were still confident in the power of human reason. Philosophy had not come in claiming "ownership" of such reasoning, in support of proposition that seemed doubtful. Skepticism about human reason had not yet been reached for as a sort of ward against such intrusions. Men reasoned confidently, with their own natural faith in their ability to find out the truth.

So what did they do? They did not listen to outsiders but legislated for themselves, of course. Only the voices of believing Muslims were listened to on questions of internal Muslim government and traditions. And they appealed to the moral examples in both the Koran, and in oral traditions about actions of Muhammad or his companions (Hadith, later written down). But they made these appeals not based on any literalism, but reasoning by analogy from the moral principle they saw in these sources. And then they settled such questions by an effective consensus among the learned. Which did not need to be total - some dissenters made no difference. And the process did not have to be formalized into parliaments, like Christian general councils. Islamic judges referred to consensus and precedent, in a sort of common law.

Rahman essentially argues that the authority so exercised back then was legitimate, was not any sort of usurpation or corruption of an imagined literalist purity. And the same sort of procedure provides a safe and legitimate place for the authority to interpret, including the authority to modify literalist readings, to drop outdated views, to preserve the best moral sense of the examples of the tradtion without being tied to literalism, the particular practices, rules, punishments of the 10th century, etc.

Incidentally, an analogy to a famous case in the 19th century may help some to see the sort of issues involved. Cardinal Newman switched from the Anglican to the Catholic church over basically the same point. As an Anglican, he had argued that the Catholic Church had innovated in doctrine and that it was proper to appeal against it to the authority of tradition, especially to the tradition of the early church fathers.

When he went and looked, however, he found that the church fathers themselves did not make as much of tradition as he did. They couldn't; they had too many questions to settle about which no traditions yet existed. What he found was the church fathers themselves appealed not to tradition but to consensus among the members of the church. This authorized innovation when it was substantially agreed upon.

Newman found that he was appealing by tradition to traditional authorities, but those authorities themselves told him to trust consensus rather than tradition, and not to fear innovation. They appealed themselves to the statement in the New Testament that a gathering of Christians would be guided, not left alone, and reasoned that what Christians agreed upon was thus worthy of trust, whether traditional, literalist, or not.

Newman decided (rightly or wrongly, I am merely relating how he saw the question) that this meant the method of the Catholics in allowing innovation was safe, and that his previous reasons for rejecting it, based on what he had imagined about the importance of tradition, was untenable.

Rahman has a similar piece of scriptural authority for his ideas about consensus among believers and an authority to innovate. Muhammad stated that "the community of believers will not agree on an error". The debator's point turns on whether an agreement needs to be total for this saying to apply, since the literalist can always say -he- doesn't agree with interpretion X. But assuming a substantial consensus is all that is meant, this authorizes innovation, if the body of believing Muslims agrees on the innovation. It allows reform through a kind of democracy or consent.

The particular passage in my earlier remarks that had you wondering, was about all of this. Rahman's approach is opposed by some fundamentalist Muslims because they fear it would leave the tradition too much adrift, compared to literalism. To them he offers three safeguards against undo chaos. One, it is the opinion of faithful Muslims that is to be considered, not those of every ideologue of some trendy outlook. Two, they are to reason by analogy from the writings of the Koran and the Hadith, trying to preserve the moral principle involved in a given passage, not to simply make things up as their private opinions. And three, there has to be a substantial consensus, more than a majority, of the learned in favor of an interpretation, for it to be considered authoritative.

So if most faithful Muslims are willing to set aside the literal meaning of some passage, not to overturn its moral meaning but to adapt it to modern times, they may ignore a literal meaning. This then becomes a legal precedent to which other Islamic judges can and should appeal, when deciding similar issues. A common law, consent based process of debate among scholars, should adapt Islam to the modern world. And should be accorded greater weight than literalism.

The underlying moral idea, in my opinion quite sound, is that the morals of a devout populace are a safer place to look for justice than dead letter a thousand years old. But this is not an easy decision for many to make. Bob Jones style Christian fundamentalists here are not willing to make it. In a judicial context, not everyone is willing to allow the principle in matters of our constitutional law. It is at bottom nothing less than the question of whether men govern their laws or their laws govern them. Which is the question of whether they are truly free, under a law of liberty, bound by what their consciences demand of themselves - or not.

Those who would use dead letter to claim rule over millions and direct their actions toward their own enemies, are not sympathetic to this approach. It is, in my opinion, the critical issue in the coming struggle within the Islamic world. How Islam faces and deals with modernity will depend on this queston. How the rest of the world lives with Islam will depend on the answer the Islamic world gives.

Fazlur Rahman saw all of this. The scholars have not been idle as this storm brewed. He knew what the critical issue was and is, why it was there, what in Islamic history stood in the way and what can favor, the answer that he regarded as preferable and essential. He proposed his solution out of a profound love of his own faith, and a desire to save it from a course he considered ruinous. Whether he will be listened to now, is the question. We should do what we can to see that his approach is at least respectfully considered.

I hope this is interesting.

12 posted on 09/28/2001 1:30:33 PM PDT by JasonC
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To: JasonC
I wonder if you see practical use in this for the Bush administration, for example in helping to find genuine moderate leaders and movements the Islamic world.
13 posted on 09/28/2001 4:29:12 PM PDT by secretagent
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To: JasonC
I want to echo the question raised by secretagent (#13) leaving Bush out of it. In other words, is their a moderate movement among Muslims? I do not mean a collection of scholars and independent thinkers, who might wishfully believe themselves to be a movement (i.e. most libertarian party members live a day dream that they have a real party in the electoral sense of the word - where as the sad humor of it is that they aren't even close.). If not, is their a real potential for such a movement? And of course, if there is, who are their chief proponents? Finally, should this movement, or potential movement be spoken/written about, and given credit, where ever possible, outside of government channels?

I don't expect you to have all the answers to this question, but any insight into this question (or secretagent's question), I'm sure will be note worthy.

I've been hearing a lot of really bad stuff about Islam recently. As a non-interventionist (temporary war monger), some of the material I've recently been presented with, I'm finding quite disturbing. I do not want to become a permanent war monger. That's one of the reasons I found your post interesting.

Your reply #12 is quite helpful. Thankyou.

14 posted on 09/28/2001 6:38:24 PM PDT by jackbob
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To: jackbob
As a temporary war-monger myself, I am interested in this question as well. My hastily reached conclusion is this:

To date, the path of the traditionalist, or extreme movement(s) has not been significantly (enough) impeded. That is to say, the methods used, including terrorism, to spread their influence and increase their power have been "successful", and have not resulted in cataclysmic reactions from the West. "Can't we all just get along?" attempts at diplomacy and weak military countermeasures have been ineffective in persuading anyone (I use the term loosely) that "this way lies ruin."

Therefore, I believe that a massive and sustained campaign to destroy the "sponsors" and supporters of this terrorism is needed to provide the "significant emotional event" which could engender a moderate movement of overwhelming size. IMHO.

15 posted on 09/28/2001 11:48:26 PM PDT by benjaminthomas
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To: secretagent
Yes, certainly. The obvious level to explore it on is through the foreign service people actually in the countries. Below the level of ambassadors, probably. Ask about who respects Rahman or similar ideas, about what intellectuals (and especially theologians) support consent and equity over literalism. The critical thing is to find those working within Sunni Islam for reform, not secularists trying to marginalize it, nor fundamentalists committed to literalism.

Let the bright young things in the foreign service talk to them, listen, find out what they are up against and what can help. Then work through the ambassadors in country, and through state and the cabinet over here, to do what can be done.

The immediate results may be things like exchanges of students, conferences, lectures, CSPAN presentations, publications, changes in educational policy, other policy recommendations in the host country.

It will not produce any dramatic, quick results. But in the long term, it may make a difference. And if nothing else, some decent people wrestling with a difficult problem, in ways that are profoundly in our interests and theirs, may see the effort is appreciated.

Rahman was at one time a highly respected figure in Pakistan. He had a crack at reforming their education system himself back in the 1960s, but encountered serious resistence. That was before he had worked out his whole, nuanced understanding of the issue and its problems. The less strident religious people in the country, especially those with a basically nationalist political orientation, may be open to his ideas.

In some other places (e.g. in Algeria, to a lesser extent Turkey), his ideas may be useful in other ways, to moderate somewhat the sometimes illiberal anti-religious policies sometimes engaged in by governments fearful of the influence of Islamic fundamentalism. Just dislike of Islam and repression, can wind up creating recruits for the extremists. Whereas reform ideas can accomodate the value many see in their traditional faith, without delivering people into the hands of the extremists.

As for the perception that Islam has all sorts of bad things wrapped up in it, that is certainly true, as things are today. The more the majority stays trapped in literalism, the more this is so. It is easy to see why. Literalism means making the historic practices of the 7th to 10th centuries a normative model for current actions and attitudes. Just as excessive literalism about Leviticus, or reflections on the political and military practices of the ancient Israelites, would produce unduly harsh practices here.

We often forget how general the problem was. Religious tolerance is a recent achievement in the west, historically speaking. Even after it was recognized in principle, it was often lacking in practice, and modern ideologies often repeated the same stance as previous religious intolerance. Nor was this problem denominational; it was quite general.

Some debators and apologists right now pretend that anything intolerant in the history of Christianity was an aberration, but this is a whitewash of the historical facts. I am not speaking of the origin of Christianity, to be sure. But every denomination, when it had power to do so, practiced intolerance (except the Quakers, perhaps a few others that late).

Luther and Calvin approved the suppression of heresy by violence. The puritans in Massachussets hanged Quakers on Boston common. A catholic king of France ordered all protestant subjects in his domains to be killed. The inquisition was not formally disbanded until the 19th century. Anti religious sentiment was just as extreme. The French revolutionaries cried "all the bishops to the lamposts". Confiscations of property simply because of the denomination that controlled it was a regular feature of European civil war and insurrection until the 19th century. And these practices extend nearly as far in the other direction. Suppression of heresy was nearly the first use the established church made of its power, once recognized by Rome. In the high middle ages, some Popes (ones not indeed renowned for their piety) claimed a right to rule every country in the world.

There were better men too, of course, who opposed unjust practices, however speciously argued. The point is merely that no doctrine has ever been immune to intolerance, and that tolerance established as a principle is of comparatively recent date.

It matters, then, whether contemporaries can provide their own input about the nature of justice. Contemporaries have something quite important to say about the matter. And if a religious tradition is sealed against all internal reform, then such input can only occur as hostility to that tradition, in toto.

The great calamity in that, is that many people will have attachments to both sides, some to the better aspects of a tradition they see threatened by outside hostility, others against a tradition that seems deaf to demands for obvious justice. The extremists gain as allies everyone who has seen anything good in one of the great monotheisms. Not the way we'd like to go if we can help it.

But for those who see good things in their religious traditions to also abide by modern standards of tolerance, they have to see, not an irreconcilable clash between them, but a way to preserve what is best, while modifying what can be improved. Literalism will always see any claim of improvement as a usurpation by mere men of a perogative not properly theirs. Because tolerance was nowhere to be found in the 7th century, a truly rigid literalism will never approve tolerance.

That is why I said earlier, that the way Islam answers the question of legitimate interpretion and reform, will determine how it deals with the modern world, and the modern world's relationship to Islam will depend on that answer.

The history of Islam contains lessons enough for them to learn what they need to know. They do not lack men of conscience or insight to show them justice. It is a question of whether they hold themselves free, as a people or as a civilization, to legislate equitably based on such lessons. Or whether they choose to view themselves as incapable of arriving at knowledge of such things, and therefore as bound to dead letter a thousand years old.

We cannot make that choice for them. Some will choose wrongly, and many or few, sooner or later, we will have to fight those who do so. The more choose rightly, the less they will hurt us and the less we will hurt them. In the end, they can only cease to be our enemies by becoming their own masters, by assuming the difficult authority to think for themselves, instead of letting an old book do it for them.

Rahman has shown at least one way that leads to that end. For that he deserves praise, and his ideas deserve a wider audience.

There is also another book I recommend, by a man named Leonard Binder, called "Islamic Liberalism". It is not an easy book for an outsider to the field, but for foreign service types dealing with this issue it may be worth mastering its contents. It examines numerous recent (well, 70s and 80s) movements of thought within Islam that contain elements favorable to democracy. Which does not always mean pro-western. But it might help to get a sense of the lay of the land, for people whose business is to know such things.

I hope this helps.

16 posted on 09/29/2001 9:23:26 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: jackbob
One other misunderstanding making the rounds these days. Some are talking as though we have to insist on something like pacifism as supposedly the true doctrine of Islam, or that only pacifists aren't our enemies here. This is poppycock, I presume driven by soundbite self-righteousness. Islam is not a pacifist doctrine.

And no major western country is seriously pacifist, either. Some sects, like the Quakers, and some callings, like missionaries, some thinkers, like idealistic theologians - are committed to pacifism. The United States is not; it has a "vital national interest" doctrine instead. The Catholic Church is not; it has a just war doctrine instead. Hypocrasy on this subject at this moment helps absolutely no one.

We don't expect Islam to become Quakerism - and we aren't about to take what happened in New York like Quakers ourselves. Not all struggle is merely metaphorical, for us or for them. But terrorism is something beyond war between states, for it seeks to destroy that which allows states themselves to exist. That being responsible authorities in charge of all use of force from a given part of the earth, wielding that force for vital interests.

Even that is seperate from the larger question about religious tolerance. Our demand that Islam learn the lessons of religious tolerance is not a call from them to become pacifist, and it is something beyond calling on them to renounce and suppression disorganized terrorism. It is instead something applicable both within and between states - even states that do not tolerate terrorism, and even states that do sometimes fight wars with each other.

It is a lesson western civilization learned at great cost in blood and treasure during the early modern period. That religious war is more war than it is religious. That it corrupts consciences, debases religion, can make some states well nigh demonical; and all in all, that it is one of the greatest scourges that human wickedness can inflict on mankind. We hope Islamic civilization can learn this lesson rather more cheaply than we did. And do not relish paying full price to learn it all over again as their instructors.

17 posted on 09/29/2001 9:55:03 AM PDT by JasonC
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To: JasonC
Thanks as always for your most helpful posts.

I nominate you to head our Department of Middle Eastern Affairs, or whatever they call it. Until we find a way to climb out of these foreign entanglements...

18 posted on 09/29/2001 10:07:14 AM PDT by secretagent
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To: JasonC, benjaminthomas
I don't have time right now to reply to the above. But one quick note.

I am currently questioning my own anti-interventionist beliefs. Not just on the immediate crises created by the airlines murders of 9-11, but on Islam as a whole. The question I'm asking myself, is this:

Is Islam actually a large scale, international murder cult (as opposed to being a religion)? And if so, does it pose enough threat to civilization everywhere, that it needs to be eradicated from the earth? And of course, is it reasonably possible to do so?

I honestly do not ask these questions of my own beliefs lightly. I am a radical libertarian, who has generally sided with the Islamic's against the U.S./Israel interests in the past. I want to believe that Islam is/can be a religion, like any other religion. But elsewhere (not on this thread), a good amount of disturbing information about Islam has been coming my way.

I'll be back later to respond to the above replies.

19 posted on 09/29/2001 3:09:55 PM PDT by jackbob
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To: JasonC
Interesting stuff here. Where can rationality enter Islam? The universities?
20 posted on 10/09/2001 3:17:53 AM PDT by Aquinasfan
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