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Rahman, Fazlur

By:
Tamara A. Sonn
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Rahman, Fazlur

Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988) was a Pakistani philosopher and educator and prominent liberal reformer of Islam. Born in what is now Pakistan, Fazlur Rahman received a master's degree in Arabic from Punjab University, Lahore, in 1942, and a doctorate in Islamic philosophy from Oxford University in 1949. He was lecturer in Persian studies and Islamic philosophy at Durham University from 1950 to 1958, associate professor at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies from 1958 to 1961, visiting professor at Pakistan's Central Institute of Islamic Research from 1961 to 1962, and that Institute's director from 1962 to 1968. He left Pakistan under criticism for his reformist views and was appointed visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in spring of 1969. That fall he went to the University of Chicago as professor of Islamic thought. In 1986 he was named Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago, a title he held until his death in July 1988.

Rahman first achieved international renown with the publication of Avicenna's Psychology (1952), in which he demonstrated the influence of the Muslim philosopher-physician Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) on the medieval Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1275). An expert in medieval philosophy, Rahman wrote two more books on Ibn Sīnā (Prophecy in Islam, 1958, and Avicenna's De Anima, 1959), but he was best known for his pioneering work in Islamic hermeneutics (Islamic Methodology in History, 1965) and educational reform (Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, 1984).

Rahman believed that contemporary Muslim conservatives, in trying to maintain the status quo in religious tradition, and fundamentalists, in interpreting the Qurʿān literally, are as misguided as secularists who deny Islam's relevance to the political and economic spheres. Both conservatives and fundamentalists have failed to distinguish the prescriptive or normative elements of revelation from the merely descriptive elements that are pertinent only to the time and place in which revelation occurred. In order to make Islam relevant to today's specific circumstances, he believed, Muslims must go beyond a literal or traditional interpretation of the Qurʿān to an understanding of its spirit. They must study the background or “occasions” of each verse in order to find the true essence of the revelation. Muslims must also study in detail the specific circumstances of their own time in order to be able to apply the principles derived from revelation.

Overall, he was convinced that the disarray of the modern Muslim world was caused by inadequate understanding of Qurʿānic teachings. This he attributed to stagnation in Islamic education, beginning in the early Middle Ages and incorporated into traditional formulations, including Islamic law. He therefore devoted himself to educational reform and the revival of Islamic interpretation (ijtihād) through his later writings and teaching.

Rahman was greatly respected by other Islamic reformers such as ʿAbd Allīāh al-Naʿīm of Sudan. He was, however, criticized by those he considered fundamentalist as being overly liberal in his interpretation of the Qurʿān, the sunnah, and classical Islamic law. In Pakistan his detractors referred to him as “the destroyer of ḥadīths” because of his insistence on judging the weight of ḥadīth reports in light of the overall spirit of the Qurʿān. However, he believed his reformist views would eventually be vindicated; he felt that contemporary Islamic fundamentalism was a defensive and temporary posture taken in response to the political and economic setbacks experienced by the Muslim world.

Bibliography

Primary Works

  • Avicenna's Psychology. Edited and translated by Fazlur Rahman. London, 1952.
  • Avicenna's De Anima (Arabic text). Edited by Fazlur Rahman. London, 1959.
  • Islamic Methodology in History. Karachi, 1965.
  • Intikhāb-i maktūbāt-i Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (Selected Letters of Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī). Edited by Fazlur Rahman. Karachi, 1968.
  • Philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā. Albany, N.Y., 1975.
  • Islam. 2d ed.Chicago, 1979.
  • Major Themes of the Qurʿan. Minneapolis, 1979.
  • Prophecy in Islam. 2d ed.Chicago, 1979.
  • Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1984.
  • Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity. New York, 1987.

Secondary Works

  • Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Sonn, Tamara. “Fazlur Rahman's Islamic Methodology.”Muslim World81 (July–October 1991): 212–230.
  • Taji-Farouki, Suha. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qurʿan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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