The return of Fazlur Rahman
Islamic scholar and author, Rahman not only had a striking influence on Gen Ayub Khan but also advised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto later
Recently, I was invited by Ayesha Jalal, the renowned scholar, author and historian, to talk about political satire in Pakistan to some of the faculty members and students at Boston's prestigious Tuft University, where Jalal is a professor of history.
Happy with the way the talk went, I prepared to fly back to Washington, DC, where I am stationed these days as a research scholar at the International Forum for Democratic Studies (IFDS). Just hours before my flight, I took the opportunity to visit one of the finest academic bookstores in Boston, the Harvard Bookstore.
While going through the South Asian section, I came across a book by the late Islamic scholar and author Fazlur Rahman Malik. Simply titled Islam, the book was first published in 1967 and republished at least twice in 1979 and in 2016. Yet, it is rarely available in Pakistan.
I read it in the late 1990s when I managed to get a copy of the book's 1979 edition but I misplaced that copy years ago. So, I
decided to get myself the one I discovered at the bookstore. As I was picking it up, I heard a voice from behind me: “That's a good pick.” I turned around and found a man who seemed to be well in his 60s. He introduced himself as Fred Hurst and said he was a “retired anthropologist.”
Not only had he read Rahman, he said he had attended numerous lectures by the scholar in the early 1970s when Rahman taught Islamic thought at the University of Chicago. “He wasn't all that popular in Pakistan, was he?”, Hurst asked with a smile.
Actually he was. Rahman was a towering figure in the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). In the 1960s, Rahman was the antithesis of the more conservative Islamic scholars, until he was hounded out of the country in 1968, never to return again.
“Oh, but he did,” Hurst corrected me. “Rahman, I remember, visited Pakistan sometime in the 1970s,” he said. I wasn't sure about that until, thanks to the excellent research material offered by the IFDS in DC, I stumbled upon a document titled, ‘Report of Professor Fazlur Rahman's Visit to Pakistan in Summer 1975’, according to which, Rahman, after leaving Pakistan in 1968, returned in 1975 on the invitation of the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
This is all rather interesting because Rahman was extremely close to the Ayub regime, which Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had vehemently opposed between 1967 and 1970. Until 1966, Bhutto too had been a member of the Ayub Government. It seems Bhutto had retained his links with Rahman. But why did the scholar leave Pakistan?
After getting a degree in Arabic from Lahore's Punjab University and then studying Islamic history at the UK's Oxford University, Rahman established himself as a lecturer of Islamic philosophy at Canada's McGill University. In 1961, he was invited by the Ayub regime to work in Pakistan. At that time, Ayub was attempting to institutionalise the idea of Islamic Modernism — first pioneered in South Asia by people such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the 19th century and then further evolved by poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.
Islamic modernism advocated a rational interpretation of the Quran and the faith's other sacred texts. It also claimed that the Quran encouraged scientific and rational thinking in Muslims and that modern economic and political ideas championed by the West were already inherent in Islam.
Rahman assisted Ayub in forming the Islamic Research Institute (IRI), Islamabad. Headed by Rahman, the IRI, between 1961 and 1967, produced numerous scholarly papers which rationalised the Ayub regime's various economic and social reforms through a modernist reading of Islam's sacred texts.
The papers also went on to restrengthen Islamic Modernism's long-held criticism of traditionalist ulema and the clergy, accusing them of trying to impose a theocracy by using the sacred texts out of context.
Many of these papers were converted into the book Islam by Rahman in 1966. According to Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub (Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, 1966-1972) (published January 2008 by Oxford University Press, the US), Rahman had shared with Ayub some chapters of the book before its publication. Ayub writes that he encouraged Rahman to use simpler language so that the book could be understood by a large number of people.
During one of his first addresses to the nation in 1959, Ayub had declared Islam to be a “progressive religion”. He had admonished the ulema of reducing the faith into a set of dogmatic beliefs and for “presenting it as an enemy of progress.” In Rahman's book, Ayub found much of what was to his liking.
But in 1968, when the Ayub regime was greatly cornered by a protest movement led mainly by Left-wing outfits, the Right-wing religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) began to agitate against Rahman's book. Prolific Islamic scholar, Abul A'la Maududi accused Rahman of undermining established Islamic beliefs and of belittling the role of the ulema. Ayub was livid. “It is quite clear that any form of research on Islam, which inevitably leads to new interpretations, has no chance of acceptance in this priest-ridden and ignorant society,” he had apparently thundered.
But Ayub's own precarious position at the time meant that he could not shelter Rahman anymore. Rahman resigned from IRI and left Pakistan to join the University of Chicago as a professor of Islamic thought. Ayub's regime fell in March 1969.
In December 1971, Bhutto's PPP formed the new Government which came in with its own version of Islamic Modernism. Believing Ayub's Islamic Modernism to be too intellectually distant and elitist, the PPP formulated a more populist version of it in the shape of “Islamic Socialism.”
Nevertheless, due to various local and international events and a clear shift to the right in the polities of the Muslim world, Bhutto was haunted by his own shift to the right as well as by the pressure he began to face from the emboldened religious parties.
It was under such conditions that Bhutto invited Rahman for a meeting in 1975. According to the aforementioned report on Rahman's visit, Rahman advised a concerned Bhutto to “present Islam in socio-moral terms and link these socio-moral principles positively with the broad ideals of rational, liberal and humanitarian progress.” Rahman then added, “There is a vast emotional fund in the country that must be turned towards positive moral and social virtues of nation-building.” Rahman also warned that, “If this is not done, this emotionalism will become riotous and end up as a negative and destructive force.”
This is exactly what happened. The “emotional fund” was first tapped into by the religious parties against the Bhutto regime during a 1977 protest movement and then fully exploited by the reactionary Gen Zia dictatorship, until it did mutate into a destructive force.
As for Rahman, he returned to Chicago, and passed away there in 1988.
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