Fazalur Rahman (1919-1988)


    Fazlur Rahman Malak, was known as Fazlur Rahman, because he did not use his family name “Malak” was born on September 21, 1919 in Hazara district, in the North West Frontier Province of what is now Pakistan. He was the son of a learned `Alim, Mawlana Shihab al-Din, who had studied at one of the most prestigious madrasa of the Indian subcontinent, Dar al-Ulum Deoband and who was an accomplished scholar in the traditional Islamic subjects fiqh (law), `ilm al-kalam (dialectical theology), hadith (prophetic traditions), tafsir (Qur’an exigesis), mantiq (logic) and falsafa (philosophy). Fazlur Rahman graduated with distinction in Arabic from Punjab University, Lahore and then went to Oxford, where he wrote a dissertation on Ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Najat. He joined Durham University in 1950 and taught Persian and Islamic philosophy (1950-58) before moving to Canada where he taught Islamic Studies at McGill University, Montreal (1958-1961).

    Fazlur Rahman returned to his native Pakistan in 1961 and became the Director General of the newly established Central Institute of Islamic Research which was given the mandate of reviving Pakistan’s national spirit through political and legal reform by implementing an Islamic vision. It was an exceedingly difficult task which brought him in direct conflict with numerous groups and institutions. Eventually, he resigned from his position and left Pakistan for the United States where he first became a visiting professor at UCLA and, later, professor of Islamic thought at University of Chicago (1969-1988). It was in Chicago that Fazlur Rahman became most of the most outspoken voice for a fundamental reform in the Islamic polity. He also served as advisor to the US State Department on matters affecting Muslim countries and was awarded the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago (1986). He died on July 26, 1988.

    Fazalur Rahman did not explicitly deal with the question of relationship between Islam and science but, like many other reformers of his time, he was acutely aware of the malaise of the Islamic educational system which had become ossified. He thought that the decline of the Muslim power was closely linked to the decline of the intellectual vigor of the Islamic civilization and its revival, therefore, could only happen through an intellectual revolution. Some of Rahman’s ideas, however, do not fit well with the normative Islamic tradition. For instance, his insistence that the distinction between “historical Islam” and “normative Islam” must be drawn both in regards to Islamic principles as well as Islamic institutions and his view that a large part of the Qur’an was revealed “in, although not merely for, a given historical context”, has been criticized on various grounds. The most important opposition to this view comes from the traditional school which construes this approach to mean that a large part of the Qur’an would be rendered “historical” and not of relevance to the contemporary situation. This, they argue, would amount to a denial of the divine nature of the Qur’an and would invalidate a central pillar of Islam. Likewise, his insistent demand that asbab al nuzul (the historical circumstances surrounding a specific revelation) should be used to examine specific pronouncements, to ensure that the pronouncement is in keeping with the elan of the Quran, does not reflect general consensus of the `ulama.