Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Confessional Scholar: Fazlur Rahman and the Origins of his “Major Themes of the Qur’an”

Here appears to be the final proofs of Rahman’s Major Themes of the Qur’an. On the front cover, you can read the slanted words “Forthcoming” written in faded cursive. Throughout the proofs, are Rahman’s hand written comments and edits.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the library at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, or to cite its better known acronym,  ISTAC, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.[1] The ISTAC building stands as a “castle-like” structure on top of a hill in one of Kuala Lumpur’s  posh areas, where many diplomats and politicians live.[2] The library and the building as a whole was the brainchild of the famous Malay thinker Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, who designed and oversaw every detail. Al-Attas, one of “the most celebrated Muslim thinkers in the contemporary Malay world” and famously known for his work Islam and Secularism,[3] modeled the building after the Alhambra in Spain and sought to create a world-class library that would rival top-tier research libraries in Europe and the US. He spent lavishly on acquiring manuscript collections of Western scholars with whom he studied or encountered, such as Bertold Spuler[4] and Fazlur Rahman.[5] Through his efforts, al-Attas was able to make the ISTAC library among the most important Islamic collections in all of Southeast Asia.[6]

The Fazlur Rahman Collection at ISTAC

During my stay at the ISTAC Library, I scanned through the Arabic manuscripts but was drawn time and time again to Fazlur Rahman’s collection, which included personal letters that dealt with everything from his salary changes to correspondences with other scholars. The collection seems to be relatively unknown, as a recent book on the scholar The Theological Thought of Fazlur Rahman does not reference it.[7] Rahman, in particular, has had an important influence on Islam in Southeast Asia, so it is no wonder al-Attas would be interested in purchasing his collection. In his comparison of the influence of Isma‘il al-Faruqi, Fazlur Rahman and Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Southeast Asia, Osman Bakar (who is now the Director of ISTAC) states that “Rahman is currently the best known and most influential of the three scholars in Indonesia” even though Nasr’s influence is growing and al-Faruqi’s impact is greater in Malaysia.[8]

ISTAC: A unique Islamic research centre of excellence

Located on a stunning campus in a pleasant green area of Kuala Lumpur, The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) is a leading international centre of Islamic learning and research in the general field of Islamic thought and civilisation and comparative cultural and civilisational studies.

Founded in 1987 by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas one of the Muslim world’s leading Islamic scholars ISTAC aims to produce a new breed of academics and scholars, who are multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary in their expertise, and who possess sound knowledge and understanding of Islamic civilisation and its eternal universal messages, and who dedicate themselves to its advancement not only for the benefits of the Muslim ummah but also for the rest of humanity.

ISTAC’s has ten main areas of interest beginning with Epistemology, Spirituality and Intellectuality in Islamic Civilisation. This grew out of Syed al-Attas’ contention that knowledge sits within a worldview and for most modern knowledge that is a secular Western view.

A key aim of ISTAC is to revision modern knowledge within an Islamic worldview. To further this vision the Al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Civilisation was established in 1992 with Syed Naquib al-Attas as its first holder. The chair is currently held by Professor Osman Bakar, another internationally renowned Islamic scholar and philosopher.

Other areas of study include; Comparative Religion and intercultural Dialogue, Socio-Economic and Political Thought and Institutions in Islamic Civilisation, Science, Technology and the Environment in Islamic Civilisation, Islam and Future Studies and Islam and Gender Equity.

Study of Art and Literature in Islamic civilisation is facilitated by a substantial art, artefact and manuscript collection. This includes the personal libraries and papers of many of the leading Islamic and Orientalist scholars of the 20th century.

These are held on the campus in the Syed Naquib al-Attas Library which also houses a diverse range of relevant books and journals. Students and staff also have access to the significant and substantial holdings of the main campus library of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, (IIUM).

Developing areas of study include: The Ottoman Civilisation and the Modern World via agreements with Turkish universities and the support of the Turkish government.

Malay-Islamic Civilisation is also facilitated by a collection of early Malay Islamic documents and artefacts. An important resource in understanding the history  and nature of Islam in the region. Study also extends beyond Malaysia to include Islam in Southeast Asia and the ASEAN community.

At least three Australian students have completed postgraduate studies at ISTAC and there is a diverse range of potential research of direct relevance to both Australia and Malaysia.

For example there is a centuries old connection between Malay traders and Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia and Malays were involved in the pearling industry in Australia.

There is also a substantial population of Malaysian expatriates in Australia. Both Australia and Malaysia are diverse multicultural societies worthy of comparative study.

Islamophobia is a topic needing a strong response and Malaysian laws protecting religious minorities would also be a useful area of research.

If you already have an undergraduate qualification and want to research how it fits within an Islamic worldview, the opportunity is there.

For more information, including how to apply to study at ISTAC visit its official website at