Revival and Reform in Islam

With special reference to Fazlur Rahman Malak, known as Fazlur Rahman

Muhammad: Differences among my community are a source of blessing (Rahman, 2000, introduction by Moosa, 28)

At one time Muslims translated Greek culture, kept it alive and extended it. They developed Aristotle (over Plato's other worldliness). Science, medicine, mathematics and architecture were advanced. Baghdad was the centre of culture in the Abbasis Dynasty. Christian minority churches were able to exist unaffected by imperial Churches within Christendom.

Yet today Islamic states are seen as variably backward and repressive, where Christians, Jews after the rise of Israel and its oppression of Palestinians, and others (especially Bahais) feel threatened and persecuted. Culture is restrictive and, as well as religious elites interpreting law, generates repression against women. Scholarship bends realities to the revelation of the Qur'an rather than acting freely: science, for example, is distincltly anti-evolution (following contemporary genetics) despite the information available and consensus of the Western scientific community.

In general the ulama or religious leadership has become conservative and traditional in relation to the output of education, narrowing itself and its institutions and failing to produce important new thinking since the renaissance. In the Middle Ages, theological possibilities failed to develop despite initial and minority ideas about revelation as it goes from divine source through human hands (Rahman, 2000, introduction by Moosa, 15). A Muslim legalism grew without a dynamic legal culture (17).

There have been a number of Islamic modernists, of course. Historical characters include Ibn Tayymiya, Ali al-Shawkani and Sha Wali Allah, and the later Sufi writer al-Ghazali (1058 to 1111 CE). Most more recent figures have been marginalised. Ali Dashti of Iran opposed "myth making and miracle mongering" regarding Muhammad's life. He had said:

All students of the Qur'an wonder why the editors did not use the natural and logical method of ordering by date of revelation, as in 'Ali ibn Taleb's lost copy of the text. (Dashti, 1985, 28)

In the field of moral teachings, however, the Qur'an cannot be considered miraculous. Muhammad reiterated principles which mankind had already conceived in earlier centuries and many places. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus had said similar things. (54)
Neither the Qur'an's eloquence nor its moral and legal precepts are miraculous. The Qur'an is miraculous because it enabled Muhammad, single-handedly and despite poverty and illiteracy, to overcome his people's resistance and found a lasting religion because it moved wild men to obedience and imposed its bringer's will on them. (57)
He died in unclear circumstances after the Iranian revolution. S. Parvez Manzoor, argues for new methodology regarding understanding the Qur'an - even though he opposes Western revisionists of the text. Mohammed Arkoun is the Algerian professor at the University of Paris and has argued for taking risks as do all cultural traditions with Islam and Qur'anic understanding given contemporary scientific knowledge; the Qur'an should engage with today's understandings. Change, he has stated, should come from within Islam rather than what is perceived as hostile. Nasr Abu Zaid was exiled from Egypt an apostate. Before him there was the Egyptian Taha Hussein, declared an apostate, who found that pre-Islamic Arabian poetry was developed after Islam had begun to support Islamic theories of its origin. The father of Egyptian modernism was Muhammad Abduh in the nineteenth century. He drew on the ideas of the Mu'tazilis of the 800s and this is where the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman Malak came in, pursuing the same ideas.

He went to the United States from the 1960s when he had to leave Pakistan and died in 1988. Fazlur Rahman proposed academic freedom and criticised Asha'ari Sunni ideas which, he claimed, pursued predestination and irja or suspending ethical judgment.

Rahman's approach was a combination of revelation, as in the Qur'an and a critical approach to history. He sought to retain the objectivity of the highest ethical value as in the Qur'an, where Taqwa is the illuminating transcendental ethical guide (22), with a thoroughgoing rejection of tradition when it departed from that Qur'anic essence. And there was much to reject.

By revelation, Rahman departed from the wholly otherness of Sunni orthodoxy, which reduced Muhammad's involvement to little other than a receptive and pouring vessel. The Qur'an under their tradition became as uncreated as God himself, and this Rahman, like the Mu'tazilis, could not accept. The Qur'an cannot be co-eternal with God, because it becomes an offence to monotheism. Orthodox Asharis replied that whereas the paper and ink into the Arabic language was created, the text is indivisibly God's mental act. (Rahman, introduction by Moosa, 2000, 11-12).

The follow on from this position is that for the Asharis and Muslim orthodoxy, the ethics of the uncreated Qur'an as written and understood come by revelation alone and cannot be reasoned. The Mutazili's reply was that the ethics were approachable by reason, because the Qur'an is grounded in real human history. Rahman favoured this second view, saying it is consistent with Qur'an ethics which are very practical and specific and refer to more generalised ethical positions. If there is reasoning possible then the interface of revelation and history is open to study. If this is the case then it links to philosophy, psychology, sociology and history. If revelation descended on the heart of Muhammad, then that is on a person who lived in time. (12-14)

Sirhindi influenced Rahman, so that revelation has an unmanifest and manifest form. When unmanifest, it is the unfathomable identity of the creator (14). When manifest, it appears in diverse forms such as various scriptures of the religions. One can see how this can annoy the orthdox when religions except Islam are supposed to have corrupted the one undiverse revelation of God.

Shah Walli Allah was more limited, but stated that Muhammad already had his words, idiom and style into which the Qur'an was revealed. So there is a match from that special receptive human to the revelation in its Arabic words.

Rahman went on to conclude that the revelation with God is idea-words, and they were spoken by Muhammad as sound-words, and the Qur'an is both combined. With some parallel with the Christian conundrum that Christ is both fully man and fully God, Rahman was stating that the Qur'an is both fully the word of Muhammad and fully the word of God. So here was a combining of the divine and history, known as the double movement theory (15).

Islamic modernism was an attempt to relativise the historical tradition in order to get back to the absolute ethical value in the Qur'an. However, it came across the Western debate about how intellectual disciplines have a total life of their own, and may not be simply objective to the world at any point. Ethical values are seen as subject to the intellectual tradition. Historicism dominated metaphysics in the 1940s when Rahman grappled with how to recover metaphysical stability (23). Rahman's answer away from subjectivity was idealistic: spiritual values are the highest we know, so they rise above all else and therefore retain their own (idealist) objectivity and law (18). This might be called rationalistic objectivism where the value has an existence in itself (19-20). As for writing within an intellectual tradition, and not being subjective about understanding the words of a book, the mental understanding that is valid requires getting back to the whole intentions of the creative mind of the author as a whole. The past setting has to relate to the reader's own environment and then the two are interplayed one with another. One side then is the source material and one side is the historical context, therefore relates closely to Rahman's double movement theory. (See 18-19)

So he followed Emilio Betti's view (1980) of values and how the reader constructs the intellectual response. This is (condensed, and according to Moosa):

(condensed from 18-19)

What Fazlur Rahman was trying to do was find a method to go back to source that could, if needed, overturn a tradition as delivered if that tradition had moved from the source. They are not just adjustments from within the tradition as a piece of ongoing evolving history. People like al-Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyya made huge changes that then could not be ignored; they were not simply tweaking the available resource of the tradition. However, there was a weakness in Rahman's argument in that he relied on the original historical setting and conceded (regarding Gadamer's position, one that he opposed) that there is effective history. That, of course, can be seen as within historical evolution, as a resource to be recovered and reemphasised. Yet still Rahman wanted distance between the source of meaning and its activity within history.

Of course he did, because he wanted to preserve revelation whereas a humanist social scientist finds the workings of history and evolving ideas to be of a unity of process (See 20-21). He saw instead, not active history alone, but active revelation available to come into history. (23)

Rahman wanted tradition to be dramatically changeable, rather than it acting as a weight against change. It meant no historical point was immune from criticism (criticism of any historical period to recover the supreme ethical value: even the period when the Qur'an was delivered). All history was subservient to the absolute value in ethics, as contained within the Qur'an, and was subject to the one objective truth driving real knowledge over and above its many expressions. (22-23)

So the study of history was to get to the core ethic. The study of history is necessary. Revelation has to be understood within a community, within the time, and understood in a later time. The person reading the Qur'an does so in a time period. Any period of time draws on the social sciences and humanities (like, indeed, history) (16).

This obviously works against Islamisation, where any form of knowledge is straight-jacketed into dogmatic Qur'anic revelatory human understandings. These were not revelation, but in historical tradition that disguised and distorted as much as it enlightened. So the social sciences and humanities should be allowed to develop freely and create new understandings, but with the ethic of the Qur'an as a guide to the endeavour (16). There would then be an evaluation of new knowledge in the light of the Qur'an formed by consensus of the community (16). The renewed interpreters need to grasp the broad understandings of then compared with the broad understandings of now and apply the Qur'an accordingly.

The argument went as far as to show that the Islamic tradition was very much a human construction. Intellectual disciplines that defined the tradition developed through time. Some people fixed a uniquely reverential historical period, a normative past, and such a time should be the guide to what was unchangeable. (See 17-18)

This was Rahman's target. There was no such time, as all history was open to criticism. Intellectuals in the Middle Ages were timid regarding getting back to the root of the Qur'an. They lacked the intellectual apparatus. Now they were a dead weight. For reform, Rahman said that education must be unencumbered by dogma; institutions of education should promote the free expansion of ideas.

Two principal means of gaining reform in Islam are ijtihad or independent thinking and tajdid or reform. Both are consistent with the Qur'an. They would so work as to allow the Qur'anic ethic to shine through. As a programme, he wanted Islamic ethics and law to be based back on the Qur'anic hermeneutic rather than secondary reflections, culture, additional histories and other philosophies: this meant Qur'anic teaching and the sunna of Prophet Muhammad, whilst applying these to contemporary circumstances. This was reform by returning to roots.

In Western terms, this was still fundamentalist regarding the Qur'an, consistent with its self-claim of uncorrupted revelation in the Arabic, but it was away from traditionalism and parochialism and for contemporary times. It is not a relativising of the Qur'anic message, as has happened with the Bible, for example, in the hope of getting to truth. Nevertheless, intellectual freedom might relativise the Qur'an as wholly historically grounded in the concerns of Muhammad and the Quraysh tribe, and an ethic suitable for Arab society undergoing mercantalist development and seeing the practical benefits of monotheism over its polytheistic inheritance. It shows a huge confidence in the Qur'an as a book of revelation, but this confidence was not enough for Islamic authorities.

The Pakistani Ulema rejected this approach out of hand and there were large demonstrations against Fazlur Rahman. He thus found a whole political religious system against him and the argument to free the intellectual tradition from Islamisation. He went to the United States where he could work freely.

His ideas left philosophy largely to itself and focussed more practically on the Qur'an (23). He took on the role of ulema, applying ijtihad and tajdid. This sidelined tashri, or divinely inspired religious-moral instruction. The Qur'an would be applied to this age.

He did, through practical issues like women in Islam, a contemporary ethical signpost. He looked at Islam's view of other religions, the application of law and ethics. (24)

The bigger question is critique of the Qur'an itself in such a throughgoing way that revelation is itself questioned. This was not a concern of Rahman, who remain completely loyal to the Qur'an's full nature as revelation, even if it was fully given in history.

His focus was historical and cultural. He wanted an Islamic modernity and not the Western modernity that was overtaking every culture in the world, preventing self-definition. He saw Western critical postmodernity as inadequate against this global sweep (see 24). Nevertheless, Rahman seemed Western in his approach regarding its economic and social liberalism, although he would also be Islamic regarding egalitarianism and equality issues (25). His consistency was being against the legacy of an Islamic triumphalist empire with its inherited justification of hierarchy (see 26). This hierarchy simply cannot deal with new problems Islam faces in the world. It is also the case that Western imperialism has corrupted the Islamic authorities and made its own contribution to their moribund state (see 27).

The result is that Islam is wary of Western countries with Islamic departments as if these will reform the faith to the West's own ends (27). They are part of the economics of dominance. Islam should resist these too, say Islamic radicals and authorities. Even more than this, whilst the West is visible and open to resistance, there are insiders of Islam in Islamic states who could themselves undermine the faith's inherited structure. Scholars within Islamic states find they are less free than their tradition creating forbears. Thus censorship within is growing, the mob is used, and people are exiled like Fazlur Rahman. Yet by so doing they are continuing Islam in its secondary role in the world, with a huge chip on its shoulder grown since the West's Renaissance.

One can argue that rather than authorities being needlessly obstructive for the purposes of self-preservation, they are doing what is necessary to maintain the view that the Qur'an is uniquely pure in revelation. If there is ijtihad and tajdid, then it will come to the Qur'an too, rather as it did with Ali Dashti of Iran. Starting with historical insight at that time, it will be seen as somewhat removed from the revelatory essence, if there is an essence at all. Key beliefs that the Qur'an is the Book of all revelations of God will be undermined. So, arguably, it is not the restrictive view of history that is holding back Islamic society, but the demand to maintain the Qur'an in all its major claims. An Islam confident to tackle the Qur'an and see what is strengthened by the fires of criticism will be one where there is real ijtihad and tajdid, but such is hardly likely within any Islamic jurisdiction. It is happening, of course, but outside Islam.


Principal Source

Rahman, F. (2000), Moosa, E. (ed.), Revival and Reform in Islam, Oneworld, introduction by Ebrahim Moosa 1-29.

Note that the work referred to of Emilio Betti is: Betti, E. (1980), 'Die Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften' ['Hermeneutics as the General Methodology of the Geisteswissenschaften'], in Bleicher, J. (ed.) (1980), Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy and Critique, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years: A study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, Allen and Unwin, London, 1985


Adrian Worsfold