By Nadeem F. Paracha
May 20, 2018
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 D.C. 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 Dr 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 has rarely been
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.
One Islamic scholar not only had a striking
influence on Gen Ayub but also advised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto later
“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 then prime
minister Z.A. Bhutto.
This is all rather interesting, because
Rahman was extremely close to the Ayub regime, which Bhutto’s 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 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 the 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
Many of these papers were converted into
the book Islam by Rahman in 1966. According to Diaries of Field Marshal
Mohammad Ayub (published January 2008 by Oxford University Press, USA), 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 Ala 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
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.g