Anyone examining the newspapers of second half of 68′ would know with ease that the whole episode was one of the earliest and most unfortunate sagas of political hijacking of Islam. It is immaterial whether Fazlur Rahman was labeled a kaafir, an apostate or a religious hypocrite and how the political environment at that time overshadowed an otherwise academic issue; what is important however, that Fazlur Rahman proved to be a victim of misdirected traditionalist emotionalism and paid the heavy price of abandoning his cherished goal of transforming intellectual heritage of Muslims and deploying a modern religious education policy in Pakistan.
Tragically, he suffered a lot due to peculiarity of his dual associations; wherein he was an active proponent of reforming traditional understanding of primary religious sources while being an academic chairing a prestigious national institution (Central Institute of Islamic Research) at the same time. The tradionalist circles, in their blinded zeal to safeguard Islamic tradition, targeted him in person by unjustly questioning his intentions rather than postulating a fair and academic rebuttal to his thought and works. Additionally, he was misquoted by way of limiting his statements (made in his book) to specific meanings. Whereas these were deep philosophical assertions directed only to academics and students who were presumed to be technically familiar with that kind of discourse. It is also important to understand that Rahman was primarily trained in philosophy and two specific angles from which he analysed and re-evaluated the historical development of Islam are philosophy and education. He dealt with both these aspects throughout his writings and proved himself as one of the most important contemporary proponents of Islamic modernity.
Purposefully searching his works to find controversial parts is an intellectually trying experience and most of the times it is obvious that scholars who vociferously spoke against him did not take enough pain to read and understand him at all. For instance the objectionable parts in ‘Islam’ where Fazlur Rahman allegedly denied the physical existence of angels or doctrine of locomotive mir’aj are basically pointers towards the intellectual immaturity (according to Rahman) of orthodoxy and possiblities of better philosophical expositions of nature of Prophetic religious experiences. Moreover, all these arguments are rooted in the language of Quran and doubting his intentions is nothing but religious bigotry. Rahman’s assertions against the externality of revelation vis-à-vis the person of Prophet instigated most of the clamoring in traditional circles. Albeit, no direct denial of objectivity and verbal character of revelation came from him and he explicitly explained his views afterwards, controversialists argued incessantly that he has questioned the divine nature of revelation. Even if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that Rahman actually believed in divine revelation of meanings and Prophetic transmission of words, he would not have been the first one to contend so. Years before him Jalaluddin Suyuti recorded a similar opinion (one of three opinions) regarding nature of revelation in his magnum opus on Quranic studies. If language is understood to support such a belief 500 years ago, there is no academic justification whatsoever to blatantly disregard any of the textual interpretation in modern times.
On a different note, it is also true that parts of Rahman’s overall methodology can be disagreed with strongly. He was an intellectually honest scholar and kept no secrets while admiring the work of Joseph Schacht and other orientalists in general. It is interesting however that while positing a strong criticism against some of Schacht’s assertions he also ended up drawing heavily from one of his major works as well. I always remember a valuable comment by one of my teachers who wrote (while helping me to evaluate some of Rahman’s contentions):
Max Weber’s ‘methodology of history’ demonstrates that Rahman’s position on the method of historical research was seriously flawed. Harlad Motzki’s research on the reliability of hadith reports demonstrates that Rahman’s position on hadith was flawed. Rahman was part of that generation of scholars (both in the West and the Muslim world) who treated traditional sources of knowledge with great deal of skepticism. More recently developments, variously called the post-critical school or the Yale School, assert that while there are some problems in the traditional sources those problems are not egregious enough to discount the entire tradition. This is a position that has emerged within modern western secular academia. Those Muslims still taking Schacht and Goldziher seriously are way behind the times.
Its tricky to unbrace all the knots, articulate every disagreement and encompass each complication of this great scholar’s thought. I ramble on and eventually meander whenever I sit to do so. But while I drift and sway, I revisit some enlightened bits of Fazlur Rahman’s legacy and live over the bitterness of his times.