"As Professor Fazlur Rahman shows in the latest of a series of important contributions to Islamic intellectual history, the characteristic problems of the Muslim modernists—the adaptation to the needs of the contemporary situation of a holy book which draws its specific examples from the conditions of the seventh century and earlier—are by no means new. . . . In Professor Rahman's view the intellectual and therefore the social development of Islam has been impeded and distorted by two interrelated errors. The first was committed by those who, in reading the Koran, failed to recognize the differences between general principles and specific responses to 'concrete and particular historical situations.' . . . This very rigidity gave rise to the second major error, that of the secularists. By teaching and interpreting the Koran in such a way as to admit of no change or development, the dogmatists had created a situation in which Muslim societies, faced with the imperative need to educate their people for life in the modern world, were forced to make a painful and self-defeating choice—either to abandon Koranic Islam, or to turn their backs on the modern world."—Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books
"In this work, Professor Fazlur Rahman presents a positively ambitious blueprint for the transformation of the intellectual tradition of Islam: theology, ethics, philosophy and jurisprudence. Over the voices advocating a return to Islam or the reestablishment of the Sharia, the guide for action, he astutely and soberly asks: What and which Islam? More importantly, how does one get to 'normative' Islam? The author counsels, and passionately demonstrates, that for Islam to be actually what Muslims claim it to be—comprehensive in scope and efficacious for every age and place—Muslim scholars and educationists must reevaluate their methodology and hermeneutics. In spelling out the necessary and sound methodology, he is at once courageous, serious and profound."—Wadi Z. Haddad, American-Arab Affairs
A framework for interpreting the ethico-legal content of the Qur'an
A review of Fazlur Rahman's work.
Rahman argued that, in order to understand the ideal and the contingent in Qur’anic pronouncements, the best tool available was ‘historical criticism’, which could clarify the context and the rationale of the guidance, and distinguish the ideal from the contingent. To demonstrate this point, Rahman used the example of polygamy. The Qur’an undoubtedly improved the rights and status of women compared with their pre-Islamic condition in Hijaz. One of its instructions was that a man should not marry more than one wife if he could not do justice to all of them, adding categorically that, no matter how he tried, just treatment would be impossible. However, it was equally true that the Qur’an gave permission to many up to four wives. How then could these two sets of instructions be understood? One way was to say that the Qur’an wanted to promote the maximum happiness of family life and that, to this end, a monogamous marriage would be the ideal, but that this declared moral purpose had to be compromised in the reality of seventh-century Arabian society, in which polygamy was too deeply entrenched for it to be removed without defeating the moral purpose itself. The Qur’an therefore accepted polygamy at the legal level, but restricted it and placed as many safeguards as possible, while at the same time enunciating the ideal of the monogamous society towards which the Prophet wanted Muslims to move. The distinction between the ideal and the contingent, Rahman argued, was given little importance, if any, in the construction of Islamic law and in the interpretation of the Qur’an.
The various purposes and principles of the Qur’an must, therefore, he brought together to yield a unified and comprehensive socio— moral theory squarely based upon the Qur’an and its sunna [sic] counterparts. It must he frankly admitted that this task has not been attempted in the past and, although the Qur’anic teaching on socio—moral questions has a definite character, this teaching has never been formulated as a comprehensive and cohesive doctrine.
Rahman argued, however, that the Sunna content left by the Prophet (prophetic Sunna) was neither extensive nor meant to be absolutely specific. In the post-prophetic period, this limited material was further added to by the early Muslim communities through the ‘living Sunna’. However, in order to maintain the link to the prophetic legacy, this living Sunna was legitimised by the ijma’ of the community. This function of ijma’ thus kept isolated hadith outside the boundary of Sunna, giving the living Sunna a certain degree of cohesiveness. Following the mass hadith movement, however, the organic relationship between Sunna and ijma was destroyed. Similarly, the distinction between the ‘prophetic Sunna’ and ‘living Sunna’ became blurred. All was subsumed in the broad category of hadith, which became synonymous with the Sunna of the prophet, a gross distortion of the concepts. Much of this distortion took place over the second and third centuries AH, and in particular in the work of al-Shafi. ###
While Rahman saw a close connection between the Quran and the prophetic Sunna, he argued that hadith material should be used advisedly, particularly as the hadith came to include many superstitions that developed in the post-prophetic period, such as the Prophet’s ascension or mi’raj, which, for Rahman, had virtually no support in the Qur’an but appeared often in the hadith. Nonetheless, Rabman thought that the hadith, even though they might not necessarily reflect ‘prophetic Sunna’, could be useful if subjected to historical criticism. If the study of early hadith material were carried out under the canons of historical criticism in relation to historical and sociological background, even an isolated hadith could become meaningful for now. In keeping with his belief and his education, Rahman always gave priority to what the Qur’an said, and in particular to its overall message, on any given issue. Where that message conflicted with the hadith, Rahman was in no doubt that the Qur’an was to be preferred over the hadith as representing the actual legacy of the Prophet. In any interpretation of the ethico legal content of the Qur’an, the actual, explicit and overall message of the Qur’an, in his view, should he given priority. Rahman saw the two main problems for Muslims in rethinking the interpretation of the Qur’an in order to relate it to present needs as the historical belief that the hadith contained the Sunna of the Prophet, and that the Qur’anic rulings on social behaviour had to he literally implemented in all times: ‘This stood like a rock in the way of any substantial rethinking of the social content of Islam.’ Both beliefs thus had to be challenged and rethought.