Fazlur Rahman
Nabaa Khan

Why is it, that among followers of a divine scripture, bigotry, extremism and hatred run parallel with acceptance, moderation and love. How can the same text give rise to two different kinds of people with opposite mind sets. The only explanation for such a dichotomy, has to be in how the divine words are interpreted. It is as if there are two interpretations for any scripture with opposite results. Quran is not an exception.

Muslim world is teeming with examples where two interpretations of Quran are so violently juxtaposed. There are movements around the Muslim world, in the shape of Taliban, Boko Harm, Al-Shabab and ISIS to name the few prominent ones, that represent literal, telescopic and rigid-to-the-core interpretations of Islam. While their political underpinnings could not be ignored, the cruelty they have demonstrated is nevertheless unimaginable and if it is due to an exclusive interpretation of the scripture and prophet’s life that they claim to follow, there is a huge problem.

The subcontinent especially, for the past few decades, has become the breeding ground for extreme bigotry and violent intolerance where such splinter movements have mushroomed under the guise of following the same Qur’an which for centuries gave the message of love and salvation for all human beings and brightened their lives with guidance.

In the following article Ms. Nabaa Khan a graduate (Summa Cum Laude) in International Relations from Boston University and a promising young writer, presents a review, and her own intellectual experience with “The Major Themes of Qur’an”, the work of a renowned scholar Fazlur-Rahman. His book gives an interpretation of Qur’an which is broad minded, nuanced, and more compassionate. Such an interpretation obviously has to be thematic than literal. The need for such an understanding of Deen has never been greater today, in order to counteract the bloodshed, violence and havoc unleashed by bigotry and intolerance in the Islamic world. We hope her article would stimulate educated Muslims to critically research and study Fazlur-Rahman and unshackle their minds from the suffocating interpretations of the verses of Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, preached by rigid Mullahs and so called scholars who unfortunately attract and brainwash, vulnerable, suggestible, illiterate and exploitable masses by their acrobatic oratory devoid of substance.

Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988), is a modernist, philosopher and a reviver of analytical reasoning (Ijtihad) in Islam. He was opposed by orthodox ulema and declared an apostate. They even declared him wajib ul qatl “deserving of execution”. He was forced to resign from the post of the head of the Central Institute of Islamic Research Karachi and take exile in the U.S. He held faculty positions in the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago. He died Juy 26, 1988.
Masood N. Khan. M.D.

Fazlur Rahman engages in a thematic approach to understanding Qur’an, which extracts the main themes found within the text and explores them deeper to a value-oriented interpretation of the divine words. In the text titled Major Themes of the Quran, his approach is tremendously useful because he structures his short text into chapters that coincide with the eight major themes in Qur’an that he identifies (Rahman, prologue, viii). They are as follows:

God, man as individual, man in society, nature, prophethood and revelation, satan and evil, eschatology (the part of theology that deals with death and hereafter), and the emergence of the Muslim community (Rahman, prologue, vii).

The discussion of these topics generally centers around unity of God, human beings’ individual and social responsibilities, and human accountability on the Day of Judgement for deeds committed in this world (Rahman, prologue, vii). They essentially serve to guide how human relations should be with God, with people, and with nature, and thus they discuss important features of the “the straight path” that keeps human conduct under check and leads to higher levels of moral and spiritual well being. Mentioned in the very opening chapter of Qur’an, “the straight path” unfolds as a complete moral code in the entire divine text that follows (S1:V6). However, it is useful to note that though many of the ideas iterated in his text are not uncommon, his approach diverts from convention in two major ways. First, he chooses to deviate from the traditional verse by verse (explanation), by engaging in a holistic approach by which he identifies the major themes while including verses as evidence to back up his claims (Rahman, prologue, xv). Second, he asserts the importance of interpreting Quran with “the story of progress” (of human civilization), because for him traditional interpretations of the Quran tend to accommodate outdated cultural and contextual practices and are frozen in the past (Rahman, prologue, xiii). The Quran was sent to all people, for all times, and thus it is necessary to interpret its text within the context of the current evolutionized world, in order to make it relevant to the modern civilization (Rahman, prologue, xiii). Despite these features, I find that his work resonates with many of my own opinions. In particular, I found his discussion of human nature and human purpose most interesting, because when studying Islam I have always found the ideas relating to mortality, impermanence of human life, and insignificance of human beings irksome (Rahman, p.25). God, being Most Powerful, did not need humanity. Then, why create humanity at all, and especially with inherent susceptibility to sin? And why create humanity in an illusionary world with an unperceivable distance between the Creator and the creation? Why allow for emergence of a multitude of religions and beliefs when the Quran could have been the sole message revealed from the first prophet to the last? These are large theological enigmas that one finds handicapped to answer, yet I approached Fazlur Rahman’s Major themes of the Qur’an with these questions in mind. I found some solace if not complete satisfaction, in his arguments, because they propose a foundation to stand on, for a researching mind.

First, with regard to the question of why God created humanity and especially in such a way that makes them susceptible to sin, Fazlur Rahman provides a justification in the story of Adam, mentioned in Qur’an to describe the origin of humanity (Rahman, pp.18, 25-25). It was made known that Adam, representing humanity, was created with a genetic code to acquire and develop knowledge which includes inseparably, the free will (Rahman, p.18). So human beings are born with this inherent capacity which seemingly the angels did not have (Rahman, p.18). Additionally, to the protests of angels who highlighted human beings’ fallible nature and susceptibility to sin and disorder, God did not refute their assumption but simply responded that He was All-Knowing (Rahman, p.17). This emphatic assertion by God who is the best of planners and All-wise provides us with the confidence that whatever might be the hidden purpose of human creation, it had to be good and meaningful (Rahman, p.17). It could be that human beings are just one of the many creations of God like angels and jinns. Or it could be that God created human beings because he wanted to see whether they would willingly obey Him, having been endowed with free will (Rahman, p.18). However, even such apparently logical explanations open up more questions. For instance, if God wanted to see whether human beings would worship Him despite their susceptibilities and free will, wouldn’t God, being All-Powerful and All-Knowing, already know (Rahman, p.17)? Is He not aware of past, present, and future? Why then are human beings subjected to live out their lives in a world characteristized with temporality? Fazlur Rahman also suggests how “God intended to create Adam in order to establish ‘a vicegerent on earth,” (Rahman, p.17). But why would that be needed if the world was to face complete destruction on the Day of Judgement as was indicated by the apocalyptic imagery employed in the early Meccan surahs (S101:V1-11)?

Whether human beings will ever be able to find answers to such questions is unknown, but for now it is obvious their knowledge is limited to that which God has allowed to be known, whether directly through revelation or indirectly through their own cognitive abilities and achievements (S96:V4-5). This is indicated through Surah Alaq where God asserts himself as both The Creator and The Teacher (S96:V4-5). He created human beings and taught them that they did not know (S96:V4-5). So, limited as we are in our knowledge, if we are to assess human purpose, we must do so, most helpfully, from the guidance of God. His guidance in the form of prophethood and revelation, in addition to human beings’ own intellect as given to them by God, then gives them a purpose, which is to pursue the moral pathway to their own benefit (Rahman, p.29).

In the large scheme of things, do human beings need to know the theological purpose of their existence? And to what avail? However, if they desire a peaceful, healthy, productive and caring world, it is critical that they know their purpose in establishing good and removing evil in this mortal world (Rahman, p.107). This is not to mention the hereafter which is also determined by decisions and actions taken within this mortal life (Rahman, p.107). Giving a panoramic view of creation, Fazlur Rahman thinks God engages in “creation – preservation – guidance – judgment,” and humans as servants of God need to constantly engage in a struggle against their flawed nature to get closer to God in both the private and the public realms (Rahman, p.9). Moreover, Rahman also incorporates verses 7-10 of Surah 91, which allow for a greater understanding of the composition of human nature. It follows:

“[I swear] by man’s personality and that whereby it has been formed, God has engraved into it its evil and its good [whereby it can guard itself against moral peril]. He who makes his personality pure, shall be successful, while he who corrupts it shall be in the loss” (S91:V7-10).

Fazlur Rahman frames his argument by stating that while all of the universe is Muslim in that it obeys God’s will sensibly or insensibly, humanity is not subject to such involuntary submission (Rahman, p.24). The human soul has been endowed with the knowledge of “evil” and “good,” and consequently with a choice to take the path of success or self-destruction (Rahman, p.124). The ability to overcome human flaws in taking the right path, according to Fazlur Rahman, comes from belief in God (Rahman, pp.26-27). He refers to the story of Prophet Yusuf in Surah 12 where the story of Zulekha’s seductive advances are mentioned (S12:V24-25). However, right at the moment of temptation, Prophet Yusuf’s belief in God strengthened him with a clear sign against it so that he was saved from acting on his momentary desires and passions (S12:V24).

It is interesting to see how even a chosen prophet of God is susceptible to moral failures, let alone common human beings (S12:V24 in Haleem, pp.146). But a conscious and firm belief in God does rescue human beings out of their natural vulnerabilities. However, at the same time I do feel that human beings are not given equal chances to pursue “the straight path”. I feel that the behaviors and decisions of people are not only guided by an innate moral compass (of belief in God), but also by circumstances (Rahman, p.25). A person who is bestowed with a comfortable life will not make the same moral choices as someone who was given a life that involved danger, suffering, or insecurity. There has to be some explanation as to why one would not have advantages or disadvantages in protect ing him/ her in testing circumstances. Rahman simply touches on the part about how it is not appropriate to use the excuse of blaming predecessors for inheriting the wrong set of beliefs or religion, but the discussion he invites to, makes me think and reflect (Rahman, p.24). It seems to encourage speculative thought as Prophet Abraham did when he tried to find God in the moon and the sun in Surah 6 verses 76 and 78. Islam’s tremendous focus on individual responsibility is understandable, yet does it give total immunity against evil is an unanswered question (Rahman, p.24). The story of Yusuf referred to by Fazlur Rahman, provides a plausible answer by indicating that even in unavoidable circumstances that are beyond human control, belief in God does protect human beings in fallible situations by giving them strength to stand firm, and even by changing the circumstances instantaneously to one’s rescue and amazement (S12:V24).

Overall, I really admire Fazlur Rahman’s work, because although at first glance it appears to be a discussion of very basic ideas, it does not hesitate to address deeper theological issues that have baffled human mind for many ages. His treatises provide most plausible explanations possible while encouraging one to further investigate and research. Those who give black and white answers as traditional Mullahs do, indeed stunt human intellect and create a mind that is intolerant. Fazlur Rahman’s discourse on a topic stimulates Muslims to think and ponder in search of right answers, not remain intellectually idle and outsource one’s thinking to others.

I, for one, benefitted from his exposition on human nature and purpose even though the Quranic verses that I have interacted emphasize the superiority of God in every way leaving humans to appear as feeble creations who are constantly vulnerable to moral decay (Rahman, pp.25-26). I failed to understand how God in his perfection would create human beings with a nature that can be deemed as flawed because of its inherent weaknesses like forgetfulness, vanity, pettiness, anger, jealousy and other emotional instabilities (Rahman, pp.26-27). It just doesn’t make sense to what purpose is this illusionary world given to people. Sow as you will in this world, and reap an eternity of reward or punishment in the afterlife?

I do not belittle the guidance of God, but I do feel like there are many questions that are left unanswered. And perhaps those questions exist so that the more we search for the answers the closer we get to God.

It is hard to believe that with the changes brought with time, the emergence of new thoughts, and with the immense diversity apparent in this world, consensus on these large theological issues is possible. But engaging with Fazlur Rahman intellectually in my experience, has helped me to see the world as evidence of Allah’s existence (Rahman, p.71). To see the revelations as evidence of His mercy (Rahman, p.9). To see the struggle of good and evil as proof of free will (Rahman, pp.17, 21). To have faith and taqwa, because He owes no proofs to us, yet we owe everything to Him.

WORKS CITED Rahman, F. (2009). Major Themes of the Qur’an. Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Abdel Haleem, M. The Qurʼan (Oxford world’s classics (Oxford University Press)). New York: Oxford University Press.