Islam on Its Own Terms: The Contribution of Isma’il al-Faruqi

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Ralph Braibanti, Duke University

In his teaching of Islam the late Dr. Isma’il al-Faruqi had little patience with the anthropomorphic approach with which most comparative religion is taught. He believed there must be faith, belief, and commitment if the inner essence of Islam — and indeed of any religion — is to be appreciated. He deplored the fact that Islam in the West is taught predominately by non-Muslims, whereas Christianity and Judaism are taught by adherents to those faiths.

He placed great emphasis on the concept of Tawhid.This Arabic word may be translated many ways in English. Among them are unity, union, fusion, belief in the unity of God – Ed. One of his latest articles, “Tawhid: The Quintessence of Islam” appeared in the Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies VIII (Summer 1985), an issue of which I was guest editor. “Tawhid,” he there asserted, “is the primeval source determining all phenomena of Islamic civilization.”

Its simplest expression was the constantly reiterated conviction of the “unicity” of God, which he believed to be most vividly expressed in Islam and to be obscured by trinitarianism in Christianity and by Judaism’s emphasis on Old Testament prophesy. This deep and abiding emphasis on the central doctrine of Tawhid is evidenced by his translation of Kitab Al Tawhid by Shaykh Muhammad Ibn’ Abd al Wahhab, the influential 18th century Arabian reformer who, as the leading religious teacher of Arabia, joined forces with Muhammad Ibn Saud. This merger of the sacerdotal and the secular made possible the modern state of Saudi Arabia.

Isma’il al-Faruqi’s little-known and sparsely distributed translation of 191 pages was published in 1979 under auspices of the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, produced by the Holy Koran Publishing House in Beirut and Damascus, and printed in Stuttgart, West Germany. In the introduction to this translation, Professor al-Faruqi encapsulated his own views: “The liberated Muslim mind therefore is neither secularist nor does it have to abandon the spirit to achieve advantage in the world of matter. The spirit itself moves it to gain that advantage; Religion itself commands it to be critical, reasonable and empirical, in the highest sense of these terms.”

Tawhid, he believed, is made manifest by the ummah — the commonwealth of Muslims — one billion strong scattered over the surface of the earth. Correlative with these beliefs was his disdain for any comparative approach which focused on the different cultural manifestations of “folk” Islam as it encountered and was modified in practice by competing older faiths such as Hinduism in India and Indonesia, Zoroastrianism in Iran, and the Pharaonic-Coptic tradition in Egypt.

He insisted that this attention to differences detracted from the paramountcy of universal doctrinal unity — especially the pristinity and immutability of the Holy Qur’an. This doctrinal unity was greater than that found in any other religion. It endured in large measure because of the sacred nature of Arabic as the unchanged language of the Holy Qur’an. For this reason, he put great emphasis on Arab civilization and on its preservation as a continuing fountainhead of Islam.

I had many long talks on these subjects while taking vigorous walks with Isma’il when we were together at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Conference Center at Lake Como in August, 1975. His frequent visits and work in such diverse cultural locales did not weaken his views on these issues. His views were those of an “orthodox” Sunni, whose position was respected by Maulana Maudoodi of Pakistan, the Rabitat al-Alam al-Islarni of Mecca, Al-Azhar University of Cairo, the Ministry of Auqaf of Jordan, and leading religious authorities of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In his lectures, these ideas and others on Islam were often expressed with such eloquence and force that listeners construed them as being rigid orthodoxy bordering on militancy. Such an interpretation could only be made by those unaccustomed to hearing a firmly-committed Muslim, learned and articulate, certain of the divine origin of the Holy Qur’an, the rectitude of the Sunnah and the finality (seal) of the Holy Prophet. His expository style was not one of deliberate provocation, confrontation or proselytism. Such techniques were not in his character. Nor did the firmness of his commitment to Islam mean that he was antagonistic to the other two Abrahamic religions. On the contrary, he had formally studied Judaism and Christianity, respected them both and understood the relationships among all three faiths.

Washington Report, August 11, 1986, p. 10



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