Two Muslim Pioneers who paid a Great Price

Yesterdays sacrifice, Today’s Renewal.

There are a number of Muslims in the 20th Century who were Pioneers in bringing a new way of thinking.  It would not be an exaggeration that two of these, Abu Zayd and Fazlur Rahman, have left a legacy that has influenced tens of thousands of people throughout the Islamic world.

For many people, in hearing their message, they may wonder what difference it is to that of some modern Muslim’s today. However their message was during an era and region when it was so foreign, causing them to eventually be forced to live in exile from their home countries, Fazlur Rahman leaving Pakistan to the USA, and Abu Zayd from Egypt relocating to the Netherlands.  Before his departure, Abu Zayd was required by Islamic legal clerics to divorce his wife.

The reason for their exiles partly goes back to the 9th Century, when Islamic scholars, after decades of evolving theological debate and conflict, concluded that the Qur’an is not only the word of God, but is eternal and uncreated1. By the 12th Century, for someone who said that the Qur’an is created, “He should be flogged and painfully beaten and imprisoned until he repents2,”  with this being the standard Sunni doctrine to this day.

In contrast to the above, Fazlur Rahman believed that, “The Qur’an is God’s response, through Muhammad’s mind, to the moral and social needs of Arabia at the time of Muhammad.” In other words, instead of the traditional belief that the eternal Qur’an coming down through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad in a cave for the world to follow, for Fazlur Rahman the instructions came in stages to Muhammad in contexts where it was needed. For him, the Qur’an is practical instruction to Arab tribes, previously in conflict with each other, now struggling to find a common way of life. In this, Fazlur Rahman was departing from over 1,000 years of tradition that every Sunni Muslim was locked in to.

With this background, throughout the West after their exiles, Fazlur Rahman and Abu Zayd were responsible for the establishing of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Faculties in various prominent western Universities, including the University of Chicago in the 1950’s. Thousands of young Muslim scholars and teachers, particularly from Indonesia, as well as many of the authors of material on this website, have been directly or indirectly influenced by these and other similar Pioneers. Those Muslims benefiting from this, are no longer staunchly holding to tradition, but are openly re-interpreting their past. This is the “Other side of Islam” that gains little exposure in Media.

Both Fazlur Rahman and Abu Zayd have recently passed away, but their influence hasn’t ceased. The sacrifices they have made have resulted in great positive change.

We may not contribute academically like them; however in other ways, maybe through the building bridges of trust, the sacrifices we make today can bring great change tomorrow!

1 See Asharites.

2 (Qadi ‘Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, Muhammad Messenger of Allah) Bewley Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K. 1991, p. 419



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