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]

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