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Islam and Modernity

Fazlur Rahman


Fazlur Rahman (Pakistan–United States, 1919–1988) was born and raised in the British colonies that would later become Pakistan. He embarked on an academic career that took him to graduate degrees at Punjab University and Oxford and teaching positions in Islamic philosophy in England and Canada. He returned to Pakistan in 1961 to lead the Central Institute of Islamic Research in Karachi, a state-sponsored organization that Rahman mobilized to battle religious traditionalists and radicals. Rahman's modernist views were controversial: “his detractors referred to him as ‘the destroyer of hadiths [traditions of the Prophet]’ because of his insistence on judging the weight of hadith reports in light of the overall spirit of the Qur'an.” 1 Tamara Sonn, “Rahman, Fazlur,” in John L. Esposito, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), volume 3, p. 408. Rahman returned to academia in 1968 as a professor at the University of Chicago, where he continued to argue for a modern reinterpretation of Islam. 2 Tamara Sonn, “Fazlur Rahman's Islamic Methodology,” The Muslim World, volume 81, numbers 3–4, July–October 1991, pp. 212–230. “A measure of this leading thinker's impact,” a colleague wrote after Rahman's death in 1988, “is that wherever I have traveled in the world . . . I have never met a Muslim scholar or other specialist on Islam who has not heard of Fazlur Rahman or who is neutral about his contributions.” 3 Frederick Mathewson Denny, “Fazlur Rahman: Muslim Intellectual,” The Muslim World, volume 79, number 2, April 1989, pp. 91–101.

Muhammad Shibli Nu‘mani [Islamic reformer, India, died 1914] wrote in his Safarnama [Travelogue] (his own account of his visit to the Middle East, May– October 1892), after talking about the potential benefits of the Dar al-‘Ulum [university] at Cairo, “But those people who have been once as much as touched by traditional education, remain forever irreconcilably estranged from modern learning.” 4 Muhammad Shibli Nu‘mani, Safarnama (Lahore, Pakistan: Ghulam ‘Ali and Sons, 1961), pp. 285–286. In the same work he quotes Muhammad ‘Abduh [Egyptian modernist, 1849–1905] as saying to him, after bemoaning the plight of al-Azhar [University in Cairo], about the Egyptian products of Western education, “These are even more misguided.” 5 Shibli Nu‘mani, p. 349. This dilemma that characterized education in the days of Shibli and ‘Abduh in the “forward” lands of Islam—lands that had a highly developed traditional education as well as a recently adopted modern Western-style education—is, as the preceding pages have demonstrated, still as real today. The reason is that, despite a widespread and sometimes deep consciousness of the dichotomy of education, all efforts at a genuine integration have so far been largely unfruitful.

Let us first analyze more closely the basic features of the attempts at reforming education insofar as Islam is concerned. There are basically two aspects of this reformist orientation. One approach is to accept modern secular education as it has developed generally speaking in the West and to attempt to “Islamize” it—that is, to inform it with certain key concepts of Islam. This approach has had two distinct goals, although they are not always distinguished from one another: first, to mold the character of students with Islamic values for individual and collective life, and, second, to enable the adepts of modern education to imbue their respective fields of learning at higher levels, using an Islamic perspective to transform, where necessary, both the content and the orientation of these fields. The two goals are closely connected in the sense that molding character with Islamic values is naturally undertaken basically at the primary level of education when students are young and impressionable. However, if nothing is done to imbue fields of higher learning with an Islamic orientation, or if attempts to do so are unsuccessful, when young boys and girls reach the higher stages of education their outlook is bound to be secularized, or they are very likely to shed whatever Islamic orientation they have had—which has been happening on a large scale.

“Imbuing higher fields of learning with Islamic values” is a phrase whose meaning must be made more precise. All human knowledge may be divided into what are called “natural” or exact sciences, whose generalizations are called “laws of nature,” and the fields of learning that have been called “humanities” and “social sciences.” Although the content of physical or exact sciences cannot by definition be interfered with—else they will be falsified—their orientation can be given a value character. Sometimes certain mistaken ideological attitudes try to interfere with the content of these sciences as well, as, for example, when Stalin ordered Russian biologists to emphasize the influence of environment at the expense of heredity. Under such influences or pressures, science must become a mockery, but it is possible and highly desirable for a scientist to know the consequences his investigations have for mankind. It is also equally and, indeed, urgently important for scientific knowledge to be a unity and to give an overall picture of the universe in order to answer the all-important questions, “Does it mean anything? Does it point to a higher will and purpose?” Or is it, to use Whitehead's famous words, “a mere hurrying of material endlessly, meaninglessly”? The first is a practical question, the second a “theoretical” one but with obvious practical implications.

Social sciences and humanities are obviously relevant to values, and values are relevant to them. This is of course not to say that they are subjective, although subjectivism often does enter into them, sometimes palpably. But to be value-oriented is certainly not by itself to be subjective, provided values do not remain mere assumptions but are “objectified.” Although metaphysical speculation is the area of human intellectual endeavor that is perhaps the remotest from factual objectivity, yet it need not be, as [F. H.] Bradley [English philosopher, 1846–1924] put it, “the finding of bad reasons for what we already believe on instinct.” If metaphysics enjoys the least freedom from assumed premises, man enjoys the least freedom from metaphysics in that metaphysical beliefs are the most ultimate and pervasively relevant to human attitudes; it is consciously or unconsciously the source of all values and of the meaning we attach to life itself. It is therefore all-important that this very ground of formation of our attitudes be as much informed as possible. Positivism may be negative enough to dismiss it as “meaningless”; yet positivism had rendered great service to a genuine metaphysics by exploding the empty thought shell in which the greatest human minds used to incarcerate themselves. Metaphysics, in my understanding, is the unity of knowledge and the meaning and orientation this unity gives to life. If this unity is the unity of knowledge, how can it be all that subjective? It is a faith grounded in knowledge.

There has not been much by way of an Islamic metaphysics, at least in modern times. In the medieval centuries there were Muslim metaphysicians, some of them brilliant, original, and influential; but the primary basis of their entire Weltanschauung [worldview] was Hellenic thought, not the Qur'an. Some of their doctrines were repugnant to the orthodoxy, which took such fright that down the centuries all metaphysical thought became anathema to it. Among the orthodox there has not been a lack of men of deep insight, but there has been no systematic and coherent body of metaphysical thought fully informed by the Qur'anic Weltanschauung, which is itself remarkably coherent. In modern times, Muhammad Iqbal's Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 6 [A chapter of Iqbal's work is included in this volume. —Editor] is the only systematic attempt. But, despite the fact that Iqbal had certain basic and rare insights into the nature of Islam as an attitude to life, this work cannot be said to be based on Qur'anic teaching: the structural elements of its thought are too contemporary to be an adequate basis for an ongoing Islamic metaphysical endeavor (although I certainly disagree with H. A. R. Gibb's assessment according to which Ash‘arite theology, for example, is more faithful to the Qur'anic matrix of ideas than Iqbal's thought). What is true is that Iqbal's thought, like all modern liberal thought, is essentially a personal effort, while [Abu’l-Hasan] Ash‘ari's [873–935] theology, as a credal system, consisted of certain formal principles that he claimed to have drawn from the Qur'an and on the basis of which he elaborated a full-fledged theological system. But, besides the question whether a modern outlook can have room for hard-and-fast and cut-and-dried formal creeds, this does not mean that Ash‘arite theology represented Islam more faithfully than did Iqbal; on the contrary, that theology represents, in my view, an almost total distortion of Islam and was, in fact, a one-sided and extreme reaction to the Mu‘tazilite rationalist theology.

However, to resume what I was saying about the Muslims’ aim of Islamizing the several fields of learning, this aim cannot be really fulfilled unless Muslims effectively perform the intellectual task of elaborating an Islamic metaphysics on the basis of the Qur'an. An overall worldview of Islam has to be first, if provisionally, attempted if various specific fields of intellectual endeavor are to cohere as informed by Islam. In medieval Islam, even if Ash‘arite theology was Islamically wayward, it certainly tried— sometimes with remarkable efficiency—to permeate the intellectual disciplines of Islam, like law, Sufism, and even the outlook on history. In modern times, however, although many Muslims are conscious of the desirability and even necessity of investing factual knowledge with Islamic values, the result is so far perhaps less than negligible—although there is no dearth of booklets and pamphlets on “Islam and this” and “Islam and that,” which occasionally do contain valuable insights and often a good deal of ingenuity but are essentially marred by an apologetic attitude. More recently, a number of conferences and seminars have been held in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (the former's latter-day spiritual client) on such topics as “Islam and Education,” “Islam and Economics,” or “Islam and Psychology.” I have not seen any publications so far, if any have resulted from this feverish activity. One cannot, of course, expect any spectacular results as yet, but the effort is worth continuing.

I said earlier that the effort to inculcate an Islamic character in young students is not likely to succeed if the higher fields of learning remain completely secular, that is, unpurposeful with regard to their effect on the future of mankind. Indeed, even in the West, attempts at molding young students’ character have failed because when these boys and girls grow up they find all life around them practically secular, and they become disillusioned with their childhood orientation, which comes to seem a kind of “pious fraud.” In fact, they often grow up with a vengeance and, barring other factors to the contrary, become more secular-minded than their parents. The same is very much true of Muslim children, although in Muslim society the social temper still plays a major role in curbing open deviations and utter secularization. But if moral values are to be observed or at least not flouted under social pressure, this hardly goes altogether to the credit of the efficacy of the Islamic spirit. We shall have to come back later to this allimportant issue; in the meantime, we must discuss the problem of what is meant by reforming Islamic education itself since, unless some solution to this is forthcoming, it is futile even to raise the question of the Islamization of knowledge: it is the upholders of Islamic learning who have to bear the primary responsibility of Islamizing secular knowledge by their creative intellectual efforts.

In essence, then, the whole problem of “modernizing” Islamic education, that is, rendering it capable of creative Islamic intellectual productivity in all fields of intellectual endeavor together with the serious commitment to Islam that the madrasa system has generally been able to impart, is the problem of expanding the Muslim's intellectual vision by raising his intellectual standards. For expansion of vision is a function of rising to heights; the lower down you come the less space you can see, and the more you think yourself master of that little space under your narrow vision. And here appears the stark contrast between the actual Muslim attitudes and the demands of the Qur'an. The Qur'an sets a very high value on knowledge, and the Prophet himself is ordered to pray to God: “O Lord! increase my knowledge.” (Sura 20, Verse 114) Indeed, the Qur'an itself is firmly of the view that the more knowledge one has, the more capable of faith and commitment one will be. There is absolutely no other view of the relationship of faith and knowledge that one can legitimately derive from the Qur'an. It is true that the Qur'an is highly critical, for example, of Meccan tradesmen who “know well the externalities of the lower (that is, material) life but are heedless of its ends.” (Sura 30, Verse 7) But this is precisely the point I am making here—that a knowledge that does not expand the horizons of one's vision and action is truncated and injurious knowledge. But how can one have knowledge of the “ends” of life—that is, of higher values—without knowing actual reality? If the Muslim modernist has done nothing else, he has adduced such formidable evidence from the Qur'an for the absolute necessity to faith of a knowledge of the universe, of man, and of history, that all Muslims today at least pay lip service to it.

But, by contrast, the Muslim attitude to knowledge in the later medieval centuries is so negative that if one puts it beside the Qur'an one cannot help being appalled. According to this attitude, higher knowledge and faith are mutually dysfunctional and increase at each other's expense. Knowledge thus appears to be purely secular, as is basically the case with all “modern” positive knowledge—indeed, even modern “religious” knowledge is secular, or else it is considered positively injurious to faith. Sometimes an arbitrary distinction is drawn between “religious” and “nonreligious” sciences; the former have, of course, to be acquired at the expense of the latter. Sometimes a distinction is drawn between the “more urgent” knowledge—that of law and/or theological propositions—and “the less urgent or less important” positive sciences. And often enough, indeed, a distinction is drawn between “good” knowledge and “bad” knowledge, for example, of philosophy or music, while a third category is posited of more or less “useless” knowledge such as mathematics. There are several causes of these pernicious distinctions. One of these I have already pointed out, namely, the fear of philosophy and of intellectualism in general. Another important reason certainly was, as I indicated in chapter 2 [not included in this excerpt], that a knowledge of orthodox disciplines, particularly of law, was an almost sure passport to employment, whereas mathematics or astronomy brought little by way of a livelihood, let alone of fame, and medicine was accepted as a necessary though inferior endeavor. [Abu Hamid Muhammad] Al-Ghazzali [1058–1111], in his criticism of a slogan of medical men—“First [attend to] your body and then [to] your religion [or soul]”—typifies the medieval orthodox attitude to medicine when he says that by such catchy slogans these people want to deceive the simpleminded public as to the real order of priorities.

Whatever the reason, the stark contrast between the Qur'an and the medieval Muslim pursuits of knowledge is obvious. During approximately the past one hundred years . . . Muslims have displayed an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the modern. But this development has been marred by certain important, indeed, fundamental weaknesses that it is essential to elucidate before we can look at the future with greater clarity and a more constructive outlook. The first important block to any reform is the phenomenon I have called neorevivalism or neofundamentalism. Before the advent of classical modernism, there had existed a revivalism or fundamentalism since the 18th century. The “Wahhabi” movement [in Arabia] and other kindred or parallel reform phenomena wanted to reconstruct Islamic spirituality and morality on the basis of a return to the pristine “purity” of Islam. The current postmodernist fundamentalism, in an important way, is novel because its basic élan is anti-Western (and, by implication of course, anti-Westernism). Hence its condemnation of classical modernism as a purely Westernizing force. Classical modernists were, of course, not all of a piece, and it is true that some of these modernists went to extremes in their espousal of Western thought, morality, society, and so on. Such phenomena are neither unexpected nor unnatural when rapid change occurs, particularly when it derives from a living source like the West. But just as the classical modernist had picked upon certain specific issues to be considered and modernist positions to be adopted thereupon—democracy, science, status of women, and such—so now the neofundamentalist, after—as I said before—borrowing certain things from classical modernism, largely rejected its content and, in turn, picked upon certain specific issues as “Islamic” par excellence and accused the classical modernist of having succumbed to the West and having sold Islam cheaply there. The pet issues with the neofundamentalist are the ban on bank interest, the ban on family planning, the status of women (contra the modernist), collection of zakat taxes, and so forth—things that will most distinguish Muslims from the West. Thus, while the modernist was engaged by the West through attraction, the neorevivalist is equally haunted by the West through repulsion. The most important and urgent thing to do from this point of view is to “disengage” mentally from the West and to cultivate an independent but understanding attitude toward it, as toward any other civilization, though more particularly to the West because it is the source of much of the social change occurring throughout the world. So long as Muslims remain mentally locked with the West in one way or the other, they will not be able to act independently and autonomously.

The neorevivalist has undoubtedly served as a corrective not only for several types of excesses in classical modernism but, above all, for secularist trends that would otherwise have spread much faster in Muslim societies. That is to say, neorevivalism has reoriented the modern-educated lay Muslim emotionally toward Islam. But the greatest weakness of neorevivalism, and the greatest disservice it has done to Islam, is an almost total lack of positive effective Islamic thinking and scholarship within its ranks, its intellectual bankruptcy, and its substitution of cliché mongering for serious intellectual endeavor. It has often contended, with a real point, that the learning of the conservative traditional ‘ulama’, instead of turning Muslims toward the Qur'an, has turned them away from it. But its own way of turning to the Qur'an has been no more than, as I said above, picking upon certain selected issues whereby it could crown itself by “distinguishing” Muslims from the rest of the world, particularly from the West. The traditionalist ‘ulama’, if their education has suffered from a disorientation toward the purposes of the Qur'an, have nevertheless built up an imposing edifice of learning that invests their personalities with a certain depth; the neorevivalist is, by contrast, a shallow and superficial person—really rooted neither in the Qur'an nor in traditional intellectual culture, of which he knows practically nothing. Because he has no serious intellectual depth or breadth, his consolation and pride both are to chant ceaselessly the song that Islam is “very simple” and “straightforward,” without knowing what these words mean. In a sense, of course, the Qur'an is simple and uncomplicated, as is all genuine religion—in contradistinction to theology—but in another and more meaningful sense a book like the Qur'an, which gradually appeared over almost twenty-three years, is highly complicated—as complicated as life itself. The essence of the matter is that the neorevivalist has produced no Islamic educational system worthy of the name, and this is primarily because, having become rightly dissatisfied with much of the traditional learning of the ‘ulama’, he himself has been unable to devise any methodology, any structural strategy, for understanding Islam or for interpreting the Qur'an.

Second, the reform efforts that have taken place so far have been in two directions. In one direction, this reform has occurred almost entirely within the framework of traditional education itself. Generated largely by the premodernist reform phenomena whose impetus still continues to some extent, this reform has tended to “simplify” the traditional syllabus, which it finds heavily loaded with “extraneous” materials such as medieval theology, certain branches of philosophy (such as logic), and a plethora of works on Islamic law. This simplification consists in dropping most or all works in these medieval disciplines and accentuating hadith [traditions of the Prophet], occasionally Arabic language and literature, and, in certain cases, principles of Qur'anic interpretation (but not the Qur'an—that is, its text—as such), in consistency with the religious ideology of these premodernist reformist movements that aimed to “purify” Islam from later accretions. This is confirmed by the developments concerning the subcontinent that I sketched out toward the end of chapter 1 [not included in this excerpt].

In the second direction, a variety of developments have occurred that can be summed up by saying that they all represent an effort to combine and integrate the modern branches of learning with the old ones. In such cases, the years of curriculum have been extended and brought in line with the curricular span of modern schools and colleges, or, as I noted for Indonesia, supplemented by afternoon classes held after the modern lay education of the present-day schools—thus lengthening the day rather than increasing the number of curricular years. At the college level, however, even in the Indonesian experiment, the effort is directed at combining modern subjects with the old.

The most important of these experiments are undoubtedly those of al-Azhar of Egypt and the new system of Islamic education introduced in Turkey since the late 1940s. Al-Azhar has behind it a long tradition of medieval Islamic learning, and therefore, understandably, its conservatism in the field of religious studies is still very strong. Consequently, the modern subjects like philosophy, sociology, and psychology do not seem to have a deep impact, since they essentially trail behind the medieval learning. In Turkey, on the other hand, where traditional education had been completely destroyed, it is being reintroduced afresh, while the modern disciplines are almost at the same level as in the lay schools—indeed, all over in the developing countries. Turkey is fortunate in having to make a fresh start because it has the opportunity to interpret the medieval intellectual heritage and give it a new shape—which, as we shall see presently, is a basic desideratum in all current attempts to integrate the modern and the traditional and which has been satisfied only to a limited degree at al-Azhar in the fields of theology and law.

At present, the “integration” I spoke of above is basically absent because of the largely mechanical character of instruction and because of juxtaposition of the old with the new. It is true that all these reforms are confronted with a vicious circle in that, on the one hand, unless adequate teachers are available with minds already integrated and creative, instruction will remain sterile even given goodwill and talent on the part of students, while, on the other, such teachers cannot be produced on a sufficient scale unless, substantively speaking, an integrated curriculum is made available. This vicious circle can be broken only at the first point—if there come into being some first-class minds who can interpret the old in terms of the new as regards substance and turn the new into the service of the old as regards ideals. This, then, must be followed by the writing of new textbooks on theology, ethics, and so forth. Such minds cannot be produced at will, but something can certainly be done in this respect—namely, to recruit from the best talent available and to provide the necessary incentives for a committed intellectual career in this field. Today, most of the students who are attracted to this field are those who have failed to gain entrance to more lucrative careers. This shows how little awareness there is that creating minds is both more difficult and, in the last analysis, more urgent than constructing bridges. There is little doubt that most Eastern societies have been laboring under the false and totally self-deceptive impression that they suffer from an over-plenitude of spirituality and spiritual insights while the West, barren in this respect, has outstripped them in material technology and that now they need only get the latter. That the West has outstripped the East in science and technology is correct; what seems to be a fiction is that the East is replete with spirituality, for, if this were so, why should the East—or the Muslim societies—suffer from the mental and spiritual dichotomy of which I have mainly been speaking here?

Second, an important problem that has plagued Muslim societies since the dawn of democracy in them is the peculiar relationship of religion and politics and the pitiable subjugation of the former to the latter. Indeed, it was this pernicious phenomenon that forced Kemal Atatürk [founder of modern Turkey, 1881–1938] to opt for secularism. Secularism is not the answer—quite the opposite. But the politics being waged most of the time in these countries is hardly less pernicious in its effects than secularism itself. For, instead of setting themselves to genuinely interpret Islamic goals to be realized through political and government channels—which would subjugate politics to interpreted Islamic values (whether these values or goals turn out to be conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or modern for different parties)—what happens most of the time is a ruthless exploitation of Islam for party politics and group interests that subjects Islam not only to politics but to day-to-day politics; Islam thus becomes sheer demagoguery. Unfortunately, the so-called Islamic parties in several countries are the most blatantly guilty of such systematic political manipulation of religion. The slogan “in Islam religion and politics are inseparable” is employed to dupe the common man into accepting that, instead of politics or the state serving the long-range objectives of Islam, Islam should come to serve the immediate and myopic objectives of party politics. Reform and reconstruction of that powerful instrument for the shaping of minds—education—is inconceivable in these circumstances. The secularist, who is in any case already alienated from Islam, becomes all the more confirmed in his cynicism about men of religion, the dislocation between their aims and their claims, even though secularism itself may be a child of incurable cynicism about man's real nature.

And yet the most important single channel of both these latter reforms—the correct envisioning of priorities and the saving of religion from the vagaries of day-to-day politics—is education itself. I must therefore turn to a consideration of the possible solution to the problems I have raised in the field of the reform of Islamic education itself: how it can become meaningful in the modern intellectual and spiritual setting, not so much to save religion from modernity—which is, after all, only a partisan interest—but to save modern man from himself through religion.

Some Considerations toward a Solution

The first essential step to relieve the vicious circle just mentioned is, for the Muslim, to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam. Unless effective and sustained efforts are made in this direction, there is no way visible for the creation of the kind of Islamic mind I have been speaking of just now. No amount of mechanical juxtaposition of old and new subjects and disciplines can produce this kind of mind. If the spark for the modernization of old Islamic learning and for the Islamization of the new is to arise, then the original thrust of Islam—of the Qur'an and Muhammad—must be clearly resurrected so that the conformities and deformities of historical Islam may be clearly judged by it. In the first chapter I indicated by what process this normative Islam had understandably, perhaps inevitably, but often by no means justifiably passed into its historical forms. In that chapter I also indicated how this resurrection may be accomplished—namely, by studying the Qur'an's social pronouncements and legal enactments in the light of its general moral teaching and particularly under the impact of its stated objectives (or principles, if one prefers this expression) on the one hand and against the background of their historical-social milieu on the other. Since this method has been made fairly clear in that chapter and particularly in the Introduction, there is no need to repeat it here, but certain other questions concerning it must be answered.

Is this method not yet another form of fundamentalism that will once again, in a new and more “scientific” way, create another idol to arrest Muslims’ forward progress? After all, all fundamentalists, like the Wahhabis and subsequently their neofundamentalist successors such as the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], have just said this, namely, that Muslims must go back to the original and pristine Islam; yet they have been arrested at a certain point. Again, the Muslim modernist has also explicitly held that Muslims must go back to the original and pristine Islam; yet they have come up with certain doctrines that both the fundamentalist and the conservative have failed to recognize as Islamic—indeed, as anything but Western, that is, un-Islamic! What is, then the guarantee, or at least the likelihood, that the pursuit of the new solution will not be arrested at a certain point, or that the results reached will not be so bewilderingly chaotic and contradictory?

The answer is that neither the fundamentalist nor the modernist had a clear enough method. That fundamentalist movements in Islam have been arrested is not due to their claims, for they claimed ijtihad, that is, new thinking in Islam. How can anyone arrest new thought, particularly when it is claimed that the essence of the Islamic thought process rests on ijtihad? Actually it is even something of a misnomer to call such phenomena in Islam “fundamentalist” except insofar as they emphasize the basis of Islam as being the two original sources: the Qur'an and the sunna [practice] of the Prophet Muhammad. Otherwise they emphasize ijtihad, original thought, which is something forbidden by Western fundamentalists who, while emphasizing the Bible as the “fundament,” reject original or new thought. It is also something of an irony to pit the so-called Muslim fundamentalists against the Muslim modernists, since, so far as their acclaimed procedure goes, the Muslim modernists say exactly the same thing as the so-called Muslim fundamentalists say: that Muslims must go back to the original and definitive sources of Islam and perform ijtihad on that basis.

To resume my answer to this important question: the so-called fundamentalists and modernists have come up with radically different answers to some basic issues according to their respective environments, but neither has had a clear enough method of interpreting the Qur'an and the sunna. As I pointed out in the previous section, the neorevivalist has no method worthy of the name except to react, on certain important social issues, to the classical modernist. I also pointed out earlier that the classical modernist had no method except to treat ad hoc issues that seemed to him to require solution for Muslim society but that were historically of Western inspiration and that he attempted to solve, often with remarkable plausibility, in the light of Qur'anic teaching. As for the premodernist revivalist, he had certainly worked within the traditional perimeters of Islam and had found that Muslim individual and collective life had become permeated with degrading superstitions that, according to the Qur'anic monotheism, were a form of shirk [polytheism] and must therefore be eradicated. This was undoubtedly sound, but for the rest the premodernist revivalist neither had nor bothered to seek a methodology of Qur'anic interpretation that would be sound in scholarship, rationally reliable, and faithful to the Qur'an itself.

Although the method I have advocated here is new in form, nevertheless its elements are all traditional. It is the biographers of the Prophet, the hadith collectors, the historians, and the Qur'an commentators who have preserved for us the general socialhistorical background of the Qur'an and the Prophet's activity and in particular the background (sha’n alnuzul) of the particular passages of the Qur'an—despite the divergence of accounts about the latter in some cases. This would surely not have been done but for their strong belief that this background is necessary for our understanding of the Qur'an. It is strange, however, that no systematic attempt has ever been made to understand the Qur'an in the order in which it was revealed, that is, by setting the specific cases of the shu’un al-nuzul, or “occasions of revelation,” in some order in the general background that is no other than the activity of the Prophet (the sunna in the proper sense) and its social environment. If this method is pursued, most arbitrary and fanciful interpretations will at once be ruled out, since a definite enough anchoring point will be available. It is only because the Qur'an was not treated as a coherent whole by many Muslim thinkers that the metaphysical part, which should form the necessary backdrop to a coherent elaboration of the moral, social, and legal message of the Qur'an, in particular received the wildest interpretations at the hands of the socalled esoteric school, be they Sufis, Batinis, philosophers, or even some mutakallimun (theologians), while the majority of the orthodox became dusty-dry literalists far removed from any genuine insight into the depths of the Qur'an. The Qur'an, despite its distinction within its own body of “firm” and “ambiguous” verses (Sura 3, Verse 7)—which has been made so much of by several speculative minds, but which seems to refer to verses of specific and general import—categorically states in numerous places that it is coherent and that it is free from inconsistencies—a claim that is well attested by any closer study of it, which is not vitiated by extravagant preconceived notions (for example, Sura 11, Verse 11; Sura 22, Verse 52; Sura 4, Verse 82; and all such verses where the Qur'an speaks of itself as tafsil, that is, a “firm exposition”). Indeed, Sura 3, Verse 7 itself strongly suggests—and it has very often been so interpreted—that the “ambiguous” verses are to be taken in the light of, although in turn as being matricial to, the “firm” ones.

Yet none of this means that any significant interpretation of the Qur'an can be absolutely monolithic. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, we know from numerous reports that the Prophet's Companions themselves sometimes understood certain Qur'anic verses differently, and this was within his knowledge. Further, the Qur'an, as I have often reiterated, is a document that grew within a background, from the flesh and blood of actual history; it is therefore both as “straightforward” and as organically coherent as life itself. Any attempt to take it with a literalist, partialist superficiality and lifeless rigidity will, to use A. J. Arberry's phrase, “crush its gossamer wings to powder.” For example, on the question of murder, the Qur'an essentially confirms the pre-Islamic Arab forms of settlement either by blood money or by “life for life,” adding that forgiveness is better. From this, all our lawyers deduced the principle that murder is a private crime against the bereaved family, which has therefore to decide whether the murderer will be forgiven, whether he should pay for the murder in money, or whether he should be killed in revenge. However, the Qur'an also enunciates a more general principle stating that “whosoever kills a person unrightfully or without a mischief (that is, a war) on the earth, it is as though he has killed all humanity; while he who saves one person, it is as though he has saved all humanity” (Sura 5, Verse 32), which obviously makes murder a crime against society rather than a private crime against a family. But our lawyers never brought this verse to bear on the issue of murder.

To insist on absolute uniformity of interpretation is therefore neither possible nor desirable. What is important is first of all to use the kind of method I am advocating to eliminate vagrant interpretations. For the rest, every interpreter must explicitly state his general assumptions with regard to Qur'anic interpretation in general and specific assumptions and premises with regard to specific issues or passages. Once his assumptions are made explicit, then discussion among differing interpreters is possible and subjectivity is further reduced. But the kinds of differences about the conception of God—whether he is the ground of the being that manifests itself through every existent and is therefore to be contemplated, or whether he is the ultimate and transcendent principle that has simply to be established and “proved” like a mathematical formula, or whether he is the creator-commander who has to be worshipped and obeyed, and so forth—should surely be capable of being sorted out for public and collective life at least, leaving scope for private idiosyncrasies, which in any case cannot cease.

Such interpretive attempts can be made by individual scholars, but they can obviously be made by teamwork as well. What is certain is that there have to be several attempts so that, through discussion and debate, the community at large can accept some interpretations and discard others. It is obviously not necessary that a certain interpretation once accepted must continue to be accepted; there is always both room and necessity for new interpretations, for this is, in truth, an ongoing process. But such bona fide attempts by competent scholars are, as I said before, the only way to break the vicious circle of “where to start” the process of reform in Islamic education. For the first logical step now is the creation of new intellectual materials, since the mechanical part of the process of reform in terms of combining old and new subjects in new reformed schools or setting up afternoon Islamic schools to supplement the morning “regular schools” is by now well underway in virtually all Muslim lands.

Nor is this first step impossible to achieve. The greatest difficulty that will be experienced is not the new step itself but extricating one's feet from the stagnant waters of the old Qur'anic exegesis, which may contain many pearls but which, on the whole, impedes rather than promotes a real understanding of the Qur'an. Qur'an commentaries are, of course, not all of the same value, some being purely subjective distortions, others of real importance in providing both insight and historical information; but the approach being advocated herein is new—although, as I said before, its elements are all in the tradition itself. The new step simply consists in studying the Qur'an in its total and specific background (and doing this study systematically in a historical order), not just studying it verse by verse or passage by passage with an isolated “occasion of revelation” (sha’n al-nuzul).

Reconstruction of the Islamic Sciences

The proposition that the shari‘a [Islamic] law and institutions have to be derived methodically and systematically from the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet (i.e., his total performance) in the manner described above does not mean that Islamic sciences, as they have originated and developed historically, have to be ignored or discarded. Indeed, they cannot be ignored or discarded for certain basic reasons. First of all, it is historic Islam that gives continuity to the intellectual and spiritual being of the community. No community can annul its past and hope to create a future being for itself—as that community. A basic fallacy of an Atatürkish kind of “reform” consists precisely in an effort to shed the historical being of the community and to seek a future without it. It is important, however, to understand precisely the meaning of what I am saying, which is not that we should necessarily go slow with reform through gradual steps by a process of partial and ad hoc adjustments. My argument has been, in fact, against an ad hoc policy, because, whatever its practical wisdom (which is dubious), it necessarily distorts vision by making it myopic. And it is, in any case, a policy Muslims can ill afford at the present juncture, since the gap between what is and what ought to be is much too great. It must also constantly be borne in mind that the Muslim community has developed over the centuries (say, since the tenth/eleventh) a temper whereby it can swallow small changes without perceptibly moving forward. The factor that has produced this tremendous digestive power can be called conservatism or the spirit of ijma‘ (consensus), depending upon the point of view one chooses to adopt, but the fact remains that it is extremely difficult to move the community as a whole. If one studies the vast and rich juristic and speculative literature of Islam (even leaving out the protean Sufism), one finds startling, indeed, revolutionary ideas in the writings of men who were high “orthodox” authorities, but none of these have left any trace on the being of the community. Changes in the community have always occurred when the cumulative process has reached a stage of outburst that literally re-forms orthodoxy. For this reason also, I am against a partialist, patchy, slow adjustment approach.

The meaning of my proposition that historic formulations of Islam—juristic, theological, spiritual— can be neither ignored nor discarded consists of two parts. The first, as I just hinted above, is that if we took the Qur'an at this point of history, as though it had been revealed just now—for that is what discarding historical Islam would mean (from this perspective, the sunna or the performance of the Prophet himself serves, in part, as historical Islam for an understanding of the Qur'an)—we would not be able even to understand it. Religiously speaking, no doubt, the Qur'an has to be taken as though it were revealed to the conscience of every believer—and Sufis have sometimes taken this to an extreme—but it can be so revealed to the conscience of a believer only after it has been properly understood, which requires putting its legal and social enunciations in their historical setting. Besides, within historical Islam differences in religious attitude can be discerned, for, as I pointed out early in chapter 1, the Companions of the Prophet—his immediate audience—understood the Qur'an and the Prophet's own performance more pragmatically than did the later generations, who increasingly became prisoners of their own principles, on the basis of which they elaborated the Qur'anic teaching. Such early history is also involved in our understanding of Islam, not in terms of accepting all of its content but as a general pragmatic guide.

The second part of the meaning of this proposition is that we must make a thorough study, a historically systematic study, of the development of Islamic disciplines. This has to be primarily a critical study that will show us on the screen, as it were, the career of Islam at the hands of Muslims. But in religious terms it will be finally judged by the criterion of the Qur'an itself—the Qur'an as we will have understood it by the procedure described above. The need for a critical study of our intellectual Islamic past is ever more urgent because, owing to a peculiar psychological complex we have developed visà- vis the West, we have come to defend that past as though it were our God. Our sensitivities to the various parts or aspects of this past, of course, differ, although almost all of it has become generally sacred to us. The greatest sensitivity surrounds the hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur'an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam. Further, if a certain hadith is shown to be historically unsound, it need not be discarded, for it may contain a good principle, and a good principle, no matter where it comes from, should be adopted. This is not the place to go into details, which I have elaborated in chapter 2 of my Islamic Methodology in History (Karachi, 1965). . . .

Theology. A historical critique of theological developments in Islam is the first step toward a reconstruction of Islamic theology. This critique, as I said before, should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the worldview of the Qur'an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way toward a new theology. Leaving aside the various extravagant speculative theological doctrines of the Batinis (Muslim esotericists) and many Sufis, the opposing schools of “rational” (Mu‘tazilite) and “traditionalist” (the Ash‘arite) theology teach a student an effective lesson on this highly sensitive issue. While admitting that all theological formulations necessarily carry on their brows the dust of time, one still must demand that such formulations be faithful at least to the basic structure of ideas of the religion they claim to represent. But who would claim that the Mu‘tazilite doctrines of the negation of attributes of God, of the necessity of excluding God's power from the sphere of human actions and limiting it to the realm of nature, of denial of God's forgiveness of sins, are faithful to the teaching of the Qur'an? And, even more so, who can claim that the Ash‘arite reaction in terms of the doctrines of the omnipotence of God at the expense of all human power and will, of the purposelessness of divine commands and prohibitions, of making works essentially irrelevant to faith, of the denial of cause and effect, and, consequently, the elevation of atomism to the position of a cardinal principle of the Islamic creed was representative of the Qur'anic teaching on God, man, or nature? A system of theology may be logically coherent yet totally false to the religion it claims to formulate, for what can one say of a theological system that reigned supreme in the greater part of the Islamic world for the best part of a millennium and whose votaries—some of them august names in the history of Islamic thought like al-Ghazzali and [Fakhr al-Din] al-Razi [1149–1209]—vied with one another in producing ever fresh arguments to prove that man can be said “to act” only metaphysically, not really, since the only real “actor” is God?

It is to the credit of premodernist revivalism and modernism that they tried to undermine this thousand- year-old sacred folly and to invite Muslims back to the refreshing fountain of the Qur'an. But whereas premodernist fundamentalism was good at demolishing the choking prison and letting in fresh air, it refused to build any new edifice. Rather, it believed that all edifices are really prisons, or inevitably become so, and that religion is better off without a theology, which in its eyes amounted to a crime against religion. As for modernism, it has, for the most part, dealt with matters social and political issue by issue, not as a social or political philosophy. Democracy is Islamic, but concepts like human rights and social justice (which are certainly declared to be Islamic) are not much discussed; egalitarianism is emphasized, but its nature and limits, if any, do not come up as problems; Islam has given women rights, but why and what kinds of rights and by what rationale are not clear. Most modernists are very reticent about a theology, a philosophy, a worldview. In Muhammad ‘Abduh's work theology is minimal, although he did much to resurrect Mu‘tazila-type rationalism; Sayyid Ahmad Khan [Indian modernist, 1817–1898] called desperately for a new kalam (theology) consonant with the requirements of the age and felt sure that, unless theology was reformulated afresh, Islam would be in real and grave danger—like all other religions. At his instance, Muhammad Shibli wrote two books in Urdu—a history of theology in Islam called ‘Ilm al-Kalam and a systematic theology called Kalam—wherein he attempted to restate arguments for God's existence, prophethood, revelation, and such, relying heavily, like Sayyid Ahmad Khan himself, upon medieval Muslim philosophers like [Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn] Ibn Sina [1908–1037].

It was the philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal who essayed a new approach to Islamic theology in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Iqbal was a keen student of modern Western philosophy as well as of Islamic mysticism (essentially in Persian), but he was not a scholar of the Islamic theological tradition or of the Qur'an (which, however, he read a great deal for inspiration). Iqbal appears to me to have very rightly perceived that the basic impulse of the Qur'an was dynamic and action oriented—seeking to direct history on a spiritual value pattern and attempting to create a world order. As I said earlier, I do not accept the judgment of the late H. A. R. Gibb that one cannot consider Iqbal's work even as a point of departure for building a new Islamic theology; it seems to me that Gibb was probably thinking in terms of a new system of Islamic credal formulae. It is, however, correct to say that Iqbal's attempt is very much dated, since he took seriously his contemporary scientists who tried to prove a dynamic free will in man on the basis of the new subatomic scientific data, which they interpreted as meaning that the physical world was “free” of the chain of cause and effect! It is true too that Iqbal did not carry out any systematic inquiry into the teaching of the Qur'an but picked and chose from its verses—as he did with other traditional material— to prove certain theses at least some of which were the result of his general insight into the Qur'an but which, above all, seemed to him to suit most the contemporary needs of a stagnant Muslim society. He then expressed these theses in terms of such contemporary evolutionary theories as those of [Henri] Bergson [1859–1941] and [Alfred North] Whitehead [1861–1947]. My disagreement with Iqbal is therefore not over his concept of God—as the ultimate source of creative energy that can be appropriated by individuals and societies in certain ways—but with his formulation of this concept and the method by which he attempts to deduce it from the Qur'an.

This account further demonstrates the necessity of the procedure I have advocated for a systematic interpretation of the Qur'an. For the theological or metaphysical statements of the Qur'an, the specific revelational background is not necessary, as it is for its social-legal pronouncements, nor do the commentators usually give it, but certainly without a systematic study the Qur'anic worldview cannot emerge. It cannot be denied that any such interpretation will necessarily be influenced by contemporary modes of thought; this is also required in the sense that only in this way can the message of the Qur'an become relevant to the contemporary situation. But it is quite another thing to couch the Qur'anic message in terms of a particular theory, no matter how attractive, sensational, or popular it may seem—in fact, the more topical a theory is, the less suitable it is as a vehicle of expression of an eternal message. It is also possible that this is what Gibb meant by his critique of Iqbal, but then it is possible to separate Iqbal's basic insights into the nature of Islam from the doctrines in terms of which he has formulated them.

Law and ethics. Muslim scholars have never attempted an ethics of the Qur'an, systematically or otherwise. Yet no one who has done any careful study of the Qur'an can fail to be impressed by its ethical fervor. Its ethics, indeed, is its essence, and it is also the necessary link between theology and law. It is true that the Qur'an tends to concretize the ethical, to clothe the general in a particular paradigm, and to translate the ethical into legal or quasi-legal commands. But it is precisely a sign of its moral fervor that it is not content only with generalizable ethical propositions but is keen on translating them into actual paradigms. However, as I have repeatedly pointed out, the Qur'an always explicates the objectives or principles that are the essence of its laws.

The Muslims’ failure to make a clear distinction between Qur'anic ethics and law has resulted in a confusion between the two. Neither ethics nor law ever became a discipline in itself. Islamic law, in fact, is not law in a modern sense; it is a treasure of legal materials thrown up during long centuries of endless discussions, upon which modern Islamic legal systems can certainly be built, but only a part of which could ever be enforced in court. No doubt the mixing together of law and morality gave a certain character to Islamic law that is uniquely precious—namely, it kept the moral motivation, without which any law must become a plaything of legal tricksters and manipulators, alive within the law. However, to keep law permeated with a living moral sense it is not necessary to ignore the distinction between the two, only to keep law organically related to morality, that is, to keep law Islamic and prevent its secularization.

The Qur'an calls itself “guidance for mankind” (hudan li’l-nas) and by the same term designates earlier revealed documents. Its central moral concept for man is taqwa, which is usually translated as “piety” or “God-fearingness” but which in the various Qur'anic contexts may be defined as “a mental state of responsibility from which an agent's actions proceed but which recognizes that the criterion of judgment upon them lies outside him.” The whole business of the Qur'an appears to be centered on the attempt to induce such a state in man. The idea of a secular law, insofar as it makes this state indifferent to its obedience, which is consequently conceived in mechanical terms, is the very abnegation of taqwa. The increasingly chaotic state of affairs in Western societies and the gradual erosion of an inner sense of responsibility represent a complex situation, but this situation is undoubtedly linked with a process through which law ceased to maintain any organic relation to morality.

Nor is Islamic theology, for that matter, a case of pure intellectualism, unaffective and ineffective, a pure artificial construct that tries to vie with philosophy, which at least claims to start from assumptions of natural reason rather than from given dogmatic beliefs that it claims “to prove.” Islamic theology is certainly an intellectual endeavor, but it is so in the sense that it gives a coherent and faithful account of what is there in the Qur'an so that a believing person or a person prone to believe can give consent both from the mind and from the heart and make this world view his or her mental and spiritual home. Insofar as it provides that intellectual home for the mind, it can be taught; insofar as it provides a spiritual haven for the heart, it can be preached. A theology that can perform neither of these two functions is the stark bone of religion. Al-Ghazzali had long ago condemned the official “science of theology” because it was neither spiritually satisfying nor intellectually satisfactory—he called it the game of intellectual children! Yet this seems to be the fate of most historical theologies.

Just as preaching is an expression of theology for the heart, even so must it give rise to morality or an ethical value system to guide man and to instill in him the sense of moral responsibility that the Qur'an calls taqwa. A God that speaks neither to the intellect of man nor to his heart, nor yet can generate a system of values for man, is considerably worse than nothing and is better off dead. The moral values are the crucial pivot of the entire overall system, and from them flows the law. The law is therefore the last part in this chain and governs all the “religious,” social, political, and economic institutions of the society. Because law is to be formulated on the basis of the moral values, it will necessarily be organically related to the latter. But because it governs the dayto- day life of the society, with necessary social change it has to be reinterpreted. Should the process of reinterpretation stop, obviously the society must either stagnate or else rebel and take the road of secularism. In either case the whole structure of theology, morality, and law will eventually collapse.

The question of who should interpret law has been acute in Islamic societies because of the historical accident that the so-called law (fiqh) has been the result of the work of private lawyers, while in the later medieval centuries governments—particularly the Ottoman government—had to promulgate laws on issues not covered by the shari‘a law. Although the state-made law was basically sanctioned by certain general principles in the shari‘a law itself, nevertheless a dichotomy of the sources of law was unavoidable, and this process paved the way for the secularization of law in several Muslim countries—most systematically in Turkey. With the introduction of parliamentary institutions, law-making has become the business of lay parliamentarians, but there are large-scale protests from the ‘ulama’ and their supporters that law-making must be vested in the ‘ulama’ institutions. For centuries, however, law-making in the ‘ulama’ institutions has been stagnant, and it is no longer feasible to reverse the new arrangements. The only way to produce genuine Islamic law is to enlighten public conscience, particularly that of the educated classes, with Islamic values. This, in fact, underlines the necessity of working out Islamic ethics systematically from the Qur'an and making such works accessible to the general reader. There is no shortcut to this process for the production of Islamic law. There is no doubt that a wider study of earlier works of Islamic jurisprudence and law will help. If first-rate works on the history of Islamic law and jurisprudence are written—as I have argued must be done—these should be made required reading in the schools of law as part of the normal curriculum. In this way, key Islamic legal and moral concepts would gradually come to inform the legal profession. In many Muslim countries the lawyers themselves are keen to learn more about Islamic law. Perhaps an international committee of Muslim jurists could be organized with first-rate traditionalist scholars of law and jurisprudence of various medieval schools to undertake major works in the field. At present, al-Azhar happens to be the most hopeful center for such a development.

Philosophy. In medieval Islam, a series of brilliant and original men had built, on the basis of Greek philosophical thought, a comprehensive and systematic view of the universe and of man, which they were able to synthesize with certain key concepts and doctrines of Islam to the satisfaction of themselves and many of the sophisticated Muslim intelligentsia. As I said earlier, this body of thought, called philosophy (falsafa), gave violent affront to the orthodoxy on several issues, and since then philosophy has been a discipline non grata in the Muslim educational system throughout a large part of the Muslim world. As I pointed out earlier, this was only one type of philosophy, with which nevertheless the fate of all philosophy was bound up in the eyes of the orthodox, and this circumstance caused a great deal of harm both to the orthodoxy (which suffered from a lack of ideas and their challenge) and to philosophy. Philosophy did continue to be cultivated at a high level in Iran, but this was done away from the orthodox fold—and even the Shi‘i orthodox fold—and therefore the two hardly ever met. Philosophy is, however, a perennial intellectual need and has to be allowed to flourish both for its own sake and for the sake of other disciplines, since it inculcates a muchneeded analytical-critical spirit and generates new ideas that become important intellectual tools for other sciences, not least for religion and theology. Therefore a people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas—in fact, it commits intellectual suicide.

The generation of ideas by philosophy is basically a function of its critical-analytical activity. This activity has to be free. Most probably, philosophy as such cannot create any beliefs about reality and its nature, since its function is to analyze data of experience—sense experience, aesthetic experience, or religious experience. Philosophy, therefore, is not a rival of theology but should be helpful to it, for the object of the latter is to build a worldview on the basis of the Qur'an with the help of the intellectual tools provided, in part, by philosophy. Certain philosophical views may create tensions with certain theological doctrines; in this case either that particular philosophical view may be Islamically questionable or it may be that a particular theological doctrine is questionable. In any case, possible or actual tensions are not an excuse for banning philosophy in the name of a self-righteous theology, or vice versa: I have said already, and my argument has assumed all along in this work, that difference of opinion, provided it is meaningful, has to be assigned a high positive value, for it is only through confrontation of different and opposing views that truth gradually emerges. In fact, there is no privileged point in the process of human thought where the Truth can be said to have dawned.

Because medieval Muslim philosophy was a particular type of philosophical system, one must ask whether it is correct or wise to ban all philosophy (falsafa) as such. There can be any number of philosophies depending on point of view, the assumptions a particular philosopher makes, and the problems he starts out to solve, namely, those that seem to him to be most important, whether in the field of metaphysics, or ethics, or epistemology, or logic, or whatever. To say that all philosophy must of necessity contradict theology or its suppositions is to play not only a naive game but a dangerous one. I can say without fear of contradiction that, for the Qur'an, knowledge—that is, the creation of ideas—is an activity of the highest possible value. Otherwise why did it ask the Prophet to continue to pray for “increase in knowledge”? Why did it untiringly emphasize delving into the universe, into history, and into man's own inner life? Is the banning or discouragement of pure thought compatible with this kind of demand? What does Islam have to fear from human thought and why? These are questions that must be answered by those “friends of religion” who want to keep their religion in a hothouse, secluded from the open air.

The social sciences. Social sciences, as systematized bodies of knowledge, that is, as disciplines, are a modern phenomenon. They are undoubtedly a very important development, since, the object of their study being man in society, they can they tell us so much about how collectivities actually behave in various fields of human belief and action. At the beginning of this chapter I said something about Muslims’ desire to Islamize these sciences or bodies of knowledge. There is no doubt that here again the vicious circle I have repeatedly spoken of can be broken only at the level of an intellectual activity where works are produced not only to inform how societies actually behave but to show how they can be imbued with Islamic values conducive to the establishment of an ethical social order in the world.

As a system of values, Islam naturally cannot favor a laissez-faire society. On the other hand, Islam knows well that coercion does not pay or even work. As for indoctrination in the sense of brainwashing, I have already pointed out that this technique of creating future generations of the faithful in fact ultimately backfires. If in the past social pressures helped indoctrination in the sense that people rarely rebelled openly, this situation is increasingly changing, since social pressures are weakening and, owing to a number of apparently irreversible factors, are bound to continue to weaken. In fact, an intense and irrational faith in a subjective humanism among several present-day “liberated” circles has led many to “leave our children alone when they are young so that they can choose their own way of life when they are adults” and the like. Such statements, often made in good faith (although at least as often they are merely a cheap cover for disowning parental responsibility), in fact betray a lack of concern for the future of humanity. For, if humans could grow by themselves, highly sophisticated religious and educational systems would not have developed in the first place. And what we are seeing develop in societies whose liberals think they are the first secular liberals in human history is that, instead of growing into humans, many of the new generation are in fact growing into animals. To remedy the crudity and even cruelty of a self-righteous traditional system is one thing. To throw out the baby with the bath water is quite another.

Indoctrination, however, necessarily occurs only where dogmas come in: the greater the dogma content, the greater the need for indoctrination; the greater the ethical content, the less the need for indoctrination. It is a pity of pities that the ethical content of societies is being washed out because of a general rebellion against dogmas. Dogmas, again, are not all of the same level, for there are relatively “rational” dogmas, that is, such as are tied to the ethical content of a system. In any case, universal ethical values are the crux of the being of a society: the debate about the relativity of moral values in societies is born of a liberalism that in the process of liberalization has become so perverted as to destroy those very moral values it set out to liberate from the constraints of dogma. From my point of view, which is confessedly and necessarily normative, therefore, the best of social sciences is history—if done well and objectively. This is because history, being long range, contains lessons in a way that a study of the contemporary aborigines of Australia, for example, does not. Macrohistory, if done really well, is the best service a social scientist can do for mankind. This is the reason the Qur'an invites us again and again “to travel on the earth and see the end of nations.” Microhistory—for example, a study of the postal service in the United States in the 1850s—is of use only insofar as it contributes to our knowledge of the behavior of man and its consequences; otherwise it is pure curiosity or a means to securing an academic post in a modern institution of learning.

Modern societies have acquired far more complexity than ancient and medieval societies. Particularly in the fields of economics, politics, communication, and education, modern societies have evolved thought, institutions, and structures incomparably more complex and sophisticated than those of any society within human experience. Yet we must not be deluded into thinking that because of their sophistication and complexity modern societies are any less subject to the basic laws of right and wrong. Part of modern sophistication, in fact, means that these societies have become more aware, or at least have the means to become more aware, of the possible sources of such social dislocations as might threaten to derange it. All such dislocations are finally rooted in the sense of right and wrong that is the conscience of the social mind. But it is always touch and go whether the conscience of a given social mind does in fact manage to reflect right and wrong with adequate objectivity. Since modern societies are, then, subject to the laws of rights and wrong just as were earlier, and in many ways simpler, societies, the lessons of history are as relevant to them as they were to the earlier ones. But, despite the increasingly sophisticated warning systems of today, the ethical impulse in certain important respects seems to have become, if anything, weaker. It is true that earlier societies were much more dogmatic in certain respects and therefore exposed themselves to dangers, while modern sophistication means less dogmatism, overtly at least. But this competence of modern societies to adjust to necessary change is often like a doctor who treats symptoms rather than the disease. No matter how much a doctor gains competence in treating symptoms while ignoring or being ignorant of the underlying disease, the life of his patient cannot be much prolonged. It is to be feared that modern civilization, while sophisticating means and methods to almost no end, has developed cardinal deficiencies in basic insights into human nature.

It is therefore essential that social scientists who study contemporary societies be exposed to the sobering lessons of history, for the history of mankind, whether earlier societies were aware of this or not, is indivisible in the sense that the basic human forces—and it is the human forces that are basic to history—are the same all over the globe. This is certainly the view of the Qur'an, which is singularly free of genetics and genes. If Muslim social scientists are to be involved in social engineering, this is all the more necessary. There is a considerable body of what may be called social thought in the Qur'an, which talks incessantly about the rise and fall of societies and civilizations, of the moral decrepitude of nations, of the succession of civilizations or “the inheritance of the earth,” of the function of leadership, of prosperity and peace and their opposites, and especially of “those who sow corruption on the earth but think they are reformers.” This body of thought should be organized next to the pure moral thought of the Qur'an and the lessons from history upon which the Qur'an is so insistent. Unless the material of the Qur'an is well systematized, it can be dangerously misleading to apply individual and isolated verses to situations, as most Muslim preachers and even many intellectuals tend to do.

The views of the Qur'an will also remain at the level of pure abstraction unless a thorough factual survey is made of the relevant social data. It is of the greatest importance to determine exactly where society is at present before deciding where it can go. To talk about reforming society without scientifically determining where the society is, is certainly like a doctor treating a patient without taking his case history or examining him. In fact, there is a sense in which even a meaningful formulation of Qur'anic thought will be dependent upon such a factual study and a proper method for interpreting facts; the converse, as I underlined in the Introduction, is also true. In other words, as with other fields discussed above, the study of the social sciences is a process, not something that is established once and for all. In fact, it is more so than any other field, for its subject matter—social behavior—is constantly in the process of creation.

Bibliography references:

1. Tamara Sonn, “Rahman, Fazlur,” in John L. Esposito, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), volume 3, p. 408. Find it in your Library

2. Tamara Sonn, “Fazlur Rahman's Islamic Methodology,” The Muslim World, volume 81, numbers 3–4, July–October 1991, pp. 212–230. Find it in your Library

3. Frederick Mathewson Denny, “Fazlur Rahman: Muslim Intellectual,” The Muslim World, volume 79, number 2, April 1989, pp. 91–101. Find it in your Library

4. Muhammad Shibli Nu‘mani, Safarnama (Lahore, Pakistan: Ghulam ‘Ali and Sons, 1961), pp. 285–286. Find it in your Library


5. Shibli Nu‘mani, p. 349. Find it in your Library

6. [A chapter of Iqbal's work is included in this volume. —Editor]

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