The Muslims of America

By Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad | Go to book overview
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The Legacy of Fazlur Rahman

Frederick Mathewson Denny

Among the major Muslim thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century, Fazlur Rahman was one of the most learned in both classical Islamic and Western philosophical-theological discourse and had the widest scope in viewing and applying fundamental elements of the Islamic belief and action system. This essay is intended as a descriptive appreciation of his legacy through a selective sampling of his scholarly work, focusing on three main aspects: the philosophical-theological, the moral-ethical, and the religious-communal. Although the first aspect is the most purely "intellectual," in terms of following an argument to its logical conclusion (and Rahman was certainly one to do that), Rahman was in fact a Muslim intellectual who applied keen critical and analytical awareness to every serious topic, whether theoretical or practical, individual or communal, textual or contextual.

These three aspects of Rahman's legacy as a Muslim thinker should not be thought to be isolated from one another, whether in his numerous formal publications, in his role as a Muslim activist, or in his formative influences on the considerable community of students, Muslim and non-Muslim, he trained. Just as there was no disjunction between Rahman's thought, life, and works, so there is none among the three aspects of his legacy we examine here. For Fazlur Rahman, the scholarly, the moral-religious, and the legal-communal dimensions were all of a part. He considered religious belief without rational scrutiny both of motives and evidences to be not only foolish but immoral. Intellectualism devoid of spiritual insight and moral awareness he thought to be mere sophistry. And moral appeals and judgments without reasoned regard for their legal and communal ramifications he saw as wayward innovation, whether on the left or right of the religious-political spectrum.

A Biographical Sketch: Three Major Periods of Rahman's Work

Fazlur Rahman was born in 1919 in India's Punjab and educated there through the baccalaureate degree. He later studied at Oxford University under Professors S. Van den Bergh and H. A. R. Gibb, earning the Ph.D. in 1949 for a thesis on the medieval philosopher Ibn Sina. 1 In the 1950s, Rahman taught first at the


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