In our age where the extremism of terrorist groups and police states take whole countries hostage, it is little wonder that many people have been disillusioned about the cleric and politician alike. However, Islamic Tradition is richer than either would like to admit, and the sobriety of its teachings on faith and freedom are only perceivable to those who walk a middle path–i.e. those who are not stricken with the disease of extremism. Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) was one such person, whose simple compassion and ferocious intellect produced works of truly enlightened humanism, the likes of which risk unshackling the minds of societies held hostage by extremism. As I share with you his words written decades ago, let us recall those recently lost in Peshawar, Nairobi, Aleppo and Baghdad.
This unstable character of man, this going from one extreme to the other, arising as it does out of his narrow vision and petty mind, reveals certain basic moral tensions within which human conduct must function if it is to be stable and fruitful. These contradictory extremes are, therefore, not so much a “problem” to be resolved by theological thought as tensions to be “lived with” if man is to be truly “religious,” i.e., a servant of God. Thus, utter powerlessness and “being the measure for all things,” hopelessness and pride, determinism and “freedom,” absolute knowledge and pure ignorance—in sum, an utterly “negative self-feeling” and a “feeling of omnipotence”—are extremes that constitute natural tensions for proper human conduct. It is the “God-given” framework for human action. Since its primary aim is to maximize moral energy, the Qur’ān—which claims to be “guidance for mankind”—regards it as absolutely essential that man not violate the balance of opposing tensions. The most interesting and the most important fact of moral life is that violating this balance in any direction produces a “Satanic condition” which in its moral effects is exactly the same: moral nihilism. Whether one is proud or hopeless, self-righteous or self-negating, in either case the result is deformity and eventual destruction of the moral human personality.
Elsewhere Rahman states,
The essence of all human rights is the equality of the entire human race, which the Qur’ān assumed, affirmed, and confirmed. It obliterated all distinctions among men except goodness and virtue (taqwā): The reason the Qur’ān emphasizes essential human equality is that the kind of vicious superiority which certain members of this species assert over others is unique among all animals. This is where human reason appears in its most perverted forms. — Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of Quran