(An old article that perhaps deserves renewed focus. On another note Pakistan was once the bastion of Islamic modernism and was thought to be leading the way to an Islamic reformation. We went wrong when we rejected Fazlurrahman – not to confused with the Maulana with the same name- and adopted Maududi instead.)
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.
A NOTE ON ETHICAL HISTORICISM
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.
RE-ASSESSMENT OF THE HERITAGE
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.
RAHMAN CONTRA THE HISTORIANS
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.
APPLICATION OF ISLAM TO THE PRESENT
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
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.