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Major Themes of the Qur’an
Book Review
Mohammad Mosa Barlass


Author: Fazlur Rahman

Publisher: Bibliotheca Islamica, Minneapolis

Year: 1980


Major Themes of the Qur’an by Fazlur Rahman takes a comprehensive look at many of the thematic concerns of the Holy Qur’an.  The last revealed Word of God. The Qur’an is more than just a religious text; it is a Book emphasizing on the social and moral conduct of man. Fazlur Rahman’s book provides a useful insight into the principal notions and beliefs discussed in the Qur’an. Unlike other religious texts, for example the Torah or the Bible, the Qur’an does not merely talk of sanctimonious experiences, it also, according to Fazlur Rahman, discusses the order of the world and the systemic scheme of things.  It is not a profound Book discussing only crime and punishment but it is a Book that talks of God, His relationship with man, man’s relationship with other men and man’s relationship with nature. Thus, the Qur’an aspires to show that the existence of God requires no theological proof and that it is very much obvious. Secondly it deals with man in two contexts; man as an individual and man as a member of a society. According to Fazlur Rahman, the Qur’an must be read with a spirit of wholeness and a sincere attempt to seek guidance. It is a complete code of life.

The Qur’an’s teachings are not for one particular nation but for a global community. Fazlur Rahman elaborates on this by explaining that the Qur’an provides guidance for men in their daily, mundane lives. It accentuates the importance of relationships between men – the relationships based on trade and commercial activities or the relationship between husband and wife. Not only that, it can be read as a comprehensive piece of legislation. This is because it includes legal as well as moral principles and the creed to which Muslims must subscribe. These are revolutionary ideas discussed in the Qur’an, not having been surfaced before in previous texts such as the Bible. The Qur’an is a very progressive book, it also takes within its parameters the concept of Eschatology and Satan and evil. The fact that it deals with every aspect of human life and after-life is proof of its totality and unity. Therein lies the finality of the Qur’an because within its pages rests the perfect code of life prescribed for man by God. Fazlur Rahman, in his book ‘Major Themes of the Qur’an’ seeks to illustrate all this and more by explaining what the Word of God is saying to man.

Chapter 1 – God

Fazlur Rahman begins his book by discussing the necessity of God, His Unity and its implications. This chapter talks of the concept of tawhid i.e. monotheism as discussed in the Qur’an. The necessity of God’s existence is one of the main thematic discussions. The Qur’an calls the belief in God, ‘belief in and awareness of the unseen.’1 (2:3). It is this concrete belief that makes the ‘unseen’ ‘seen’. This belief is not irrational and unreasonable; instead it is a Master-Truth. Everything is dependant upon God, who is All-Powerful yet Most Merciful and this entails a relationship between God and man, and amount men themselves. Therein lies the centrality of God’s existence. The aim of the Qur’an is to speak to the hearts of men, not provide man with proofs as to the existence of God.

It is because of His Mercy that He ordained nature for man. Thus His Power and Mercy are both intrinsically linked qualities. He is with His creation, not detached. Man’s purpose is to serve God, to use his superior knowledge to differentiate between good and evil. To help man, God inundates the doors of His Mercy by sending Messengers and revealing Books. Thus, a causal chain of mercy is constructed – Creation-providence-guidance and judgement. Laws of nature express the commands of God and these commands are not disobeyed. Man on the other hand is given free choice and is therefore provided with a unique responsibility, which can only be faced through taqwa. The path to God is thus only one.

Chapter Two – Man As Individual   

The second chapter of Fazlur Rahman’s book deals with man as an individual. The Qur’an does not accept Greek, Christian and Hindu philosophies of body-mind dualism; it considers them somewhat fused entities. The soul being a mental state not entirely separate from the mind. The Qur’an shows Satan to be more of an anti-man force rather than anti-God. Man is naturally born for a ceaseless moral struggle. Man has been endowed with the bounty of free choice, which creates a moral social order, as man recognizes his mission on Earth as God’s vicegerent – therein lies the purpose of man’s existence. One who realizes this and acts upon this realization can be said to be exercising taqwa. The only one who can fight Satan’s attack effectively is a truly virtuous man for the obvious reason he realizes their true primordial nature. The complication that arises is that most men refuse to acknowledge and realize their long-term moral goals. God does not seal up the hearts of men capriciously but only because of their actions. Men and women are individually responsible for their deeds. The Qur’an does not believe in absolute determinism of human conduct. The rationale behind this is that it is easier to fall, but difficult to attain the heights of purity. God’s presence gives meaning to an individual’s life both collective and personal. His absence means removal of all meaning from human life. God creates a being and puts in it certain potentialities. Whereas the cosmos surrenders to the Will of God by following its ingrained laws, man is the only exception to this universal law because of him being endowed with free choice. This is a command of God written upon man’s heart, which cannot be disobeyed. His refusal to look beyond his actions demonstrates his mental make-up described by the Qur’an. Man is hasty and petty, he only remembers God when he is in suffering. These extremities in his character show that there exist within him certain moral tensions. There is to remain a balance within this God-given framework for human action to function with stability. Thus, these contradictory extremities are not the problem here, as is keeping the balance. Remembrance of God and this framework of moral tensions work together. Thus Qur’an advocates a more positive, integral human being. This inimitable balance once achieved is what the Qur’an calls taqwa. Action rests with man but real and effective judgement rests with God. When a man is fully conscious of this he has achieved taqwa.

Chapter Three – Man in Society

The Qur’an talks of man as part of a community. In pre-Islamic Arabia two principal aspects of the Makkan society are criticized heavily in the Qur’an; polytheism and the despairing socio-economic conditions. The Qur’an talks of the expenditure of wealth and how it is to be circulated not only amongst the rich but also the poor and the needy. Two very important steps, thus, taken to counteract the ceaseless and purposeless collection of wealth by the Makkans, were the banning of usury and imposition of the zakah tax. Usury was severely prohibited by God in the Qur’an and creditors were asked to recover only their capital sums, which proved to be vital for public welfare. Secondly, the imposition of the zakah tax was with regard to distributive justice. The circulation of wealth should not remain in a few hands only. This laid down the basis for social justice.

The Qur’an aims to strengthen the basic family unit. By laying down the principles of a just family system where the parents are to be respected and obeyed. This obedience, though, is not blind obedience and if the parents say anything contrary to the Word of God they are not to be obeyed. Justice is a prerequisite in every action of man. Man is to be just to all members of society, even his enemies as this brings him closer to taqwa. The Muslim community is constituted by its ideology, Islam. Thus, the Qur’an describes the ideal political system, which, commands good and forbids evil. This represents the social dimensions of taqwa. The Qur’an prescribes, for a model state system, to have a shura (committee) of learned men from amongst the people. The Qur’an requires collective leadership and responsibility. The Qur’an also advocates equality of the entire human race, distinction arising due to the quality of man’s deeds. Freedom of life, religion, earning and owning property and personal honour and dignity are rights that the state is duty bound to protect. Man is ordered by the Qur’an to treat women with respect. Where polygamy is concerned, the Qur’an emphasizes on the man’s responsibility to treat his wives justly. If he fails to do so, the wife has the right to seek divorce. Thus the Qur’an urges the society to move towards a moral ideal. Sins of omission are as bad as sins of commission. This is why Muhammad (sws) came to warn his people; his message, once delivered, became universal. Awakening of consciences particularly the collective conscience is extremely important. Here again rises the theme of unity. Man and society are one, working towards a higher goal.

Chapter Four – Nature

The cosmogony as discussed in the Qur’an is at a very minimum level (i.e. God simply gave the command ‘Be’ and it was done). Nature cannot disobey God’s commands; it is therefore Muslim. Time for the Qur’an is relative subject to the type of experience and status of being. Nature is depicted in Qur’an in two ways. To illustrate God’s Ultimate Power and His Infinite Mercy. Nature and all things else are finite. Even if they realize these potentialities ingrained in them by God, they can end up into finitude but not infinity. Where a creature claims complete self-sufficiency, it claims infinitude and a share in divinity (shirk). Nature is a miracle of God. The entire cosmos is a sign (ayah) of God. Due to man’s short-sightedness, he refuses to acknowledge this. Man’s obstinacy is so clear that he rebels because he views nature as autonomous. He ironically takes the suppression of nature as a miracle of God. There are four kinds of signs described in this chapter. Bayyinah (supra-natural miracles) are those that go against the course of nature. They support the truth of the Messenger’s teaching. They can either be perceived or misperceived. They are different from magic. In order to realize their meaning, one must have the capacity for faith (mental-cum-spiritual). The verses of Qur’an are ayat or signs because they come from the same God who created the universe. A stronger term is that of burhan (a compellingly rational demonstrative proof). The strongest type of ayah is sultan. It might cause those who were fairly determined in their rejection of the truth to accept it anyway.

   God’s great sign is the nature and the universe. Man has to discover this himself. Nature exists for man to exploit for his own ends. That is its purpose. Man’s purpose is to serve the Creator, therein lies the difference between physical and moral law.

Chapter Five – Prophethood and Revelation

This chapter discusses the indivisibility and universality of Prophethood and the nature and mode of Muhammad’s (sws) revelatory experience. The message of the prophets is universal and is to be followed by the entire humanity. It is the prophet’s responsibility to get the message across under all circumstances. Muhammad (sws) is the ‘Seal of the Prophets’2 (33:40) and through him the evolutionary process of religion has come to an end in the form of Islam – the most perfect and adequate religion. Man’s moral condition is dependant upon Divine Guidance. The essential teachings of all the prophets are the same i.e. tawhid (monotheism). Taking his cue from the earlier prophets, Muhammad (sws) is a messenger in desperate hurry, for he sees the despairing condition of his people. The miracle of mi‘raj (i.e. the Holy Ascension) is also talked of in this chapter. This experience was one of a spiritual nature. The intensity of it was so great that came to be of a quasi-concrete value. The Qur’an speaks of the Spirit of Revelation for which the term angel is not accurate. Revelation came upon the Prophet’s heart through a Spirit on the Night of Power (al-qadr). It is vital to bear in mind that God does not speak to men but through a Spirit infused in the mind of the Prophet (sws). The miraculous nature of the Qur’an is linked with its linguistic style and expression. Within its simplicity lies its beauty.

Chapter Six – Eschatology

The concept of Life after death is a recurrent theme in the Qur’an. The Qur’an speaks of the Day of Judgement as al-akhirah, the end. It is the moment of truth, when all preoccupations of man will be lifted and he will be so acutely aware of himself as he never was. He will become totally transparent. He will stand alone before God and what he did in the previous life would be in the journal in his hand. No one will intercede on his behalf except by the permission of God. This is why the Qur’an constantly speaks of considering the consequences of one’s acts. Undoubtedly the verdict to be passed in the Hereafter hinges upon the long-term endeavours of man’s life. The Qur’an speaks of how the deed-records and even his bodily organs will speak, as witnesses of that particular man’s conduct on earth. This is what the Qur’an wants man to realize and accordingly decide a course of action on earth. The Qur’an describes the Last Day in great vivid detail. The Qur’an is not talking of annihilation of the present order of the universe. Instead, it talks of the transformation or rearrangement of the present order, demonstrating God’s absolute power.

In the Qur’an the Day of Judgment holds imperative thematic significance. Reality is made up of moral and just conduct and so it is obvious that the quality of this conduct be judged. All disputes and conflicts of human beliefs and other orientations are to be resolved and man’s blurry vision, thus, cleared – therein lies the purpose of the Last Day.

Chapter Seven – Satan and Evil

The Qur’an speaks of the principle of evil, personified by Satan or Iblis. Satan is described as being of the jinn and he disobeyed the command of his Lord. The Jinn are considered as being creations parallel to man, but more prone to do evil. Satan is an anti-man force rather than anti-God. He is man’s rival and is constantly trying to deceive man into disobeying God. His activities rest in the human sphere, which is why the Qur’an, time and again warns man to stay on his guard. Taqwa acts as a fortress against Satan’s attempts to beguile man. The Devil’s attacks are more of covert missions. Man’s weakness and lack of moral courage play a vital role in allowing Satan to succeed. Satan is symbolic for hopelessness. The Qur’an, therefore, condemns hopelessness and utter despair. Another aspect of the principle of evil is that the wicked draw their strength from Satan. Except that this strength is not based upon anything concrete is both false and beatable.

Chapter Eight – Emergence of the Muslim Community

This chapter begins with an illustration of the classic formulation of the emergence of the Muslim community at the hands of Western writers. They lay down the theory that Muhammad (sws), when in Madinah, claimed Abraham (sws) exclusively for Islam, thus linking the Muslim community directly with Abraham (sws) and that his message with what earlier prophets had taught to their communities. The facts upon which this theory rests are not false. The Qur’an does not accept or claim some prophets while denying others. It implies more that some Arabs were desirous of a new religion of the Judeo-Christian type. Therein lies the link; the Qur’an envelops all the prophets. Also the change of qiblah does not represent a rupture in the Prophet’s religious thinking, nor is it symbolic for its nationalization. Muhammad’s (sws) message was guidance to those who would believe, irrespective of whether they are Arabs or not. Stories of the previous prophets such as Jesus (sws) and Moses (sws) had been floating around the Arab community. Once they came to the Prophet (sws) in the form of revelations, they became more than just stories. Through this began the cultivation of a direct, spiritual community and a direct witness of the older prophets. Thus God is one, His Message is one and hence surely mankind too must be one. Here arose the Qur’anic concept of a Muslim ummah. A collective existence of mankind with guidance from the Qur’an. Diversity in religion was to be avoided at all costs. Those who divide religion and construct sects are called Ahzab in the Qur’an. The Qur’an talks of Islam as being a religion of pure monotheism. The earlier monotheistic religions (the “People of the Book”) were unable to keep this line straight and deviated from this. In Madinah a very important development takes place. There emerges in the Qur’an the concept of the collective ummah or the collective term for the ‘People of the Book’3, including the Jews and the Christians along with the Muslims. Nonetheless the Muslim community remains the ideal. The position of the ka‘bah is that of a sanctimonious place, the importance of which the Prophet never forgot. The rites of pilgrimage to ka‘bah were altered from the pagan rituals preceding Islam. The break with the Jews is not attributed to the change in the direction of the qiblah; there is no specific event that marks this break. The Qur’an continues to criticize them on religious grounds. Jews were disowned because they were not the true representatives of their religion.

Gist of a Review by a Scholar

According to Mr. Iftikhar there are two core ideas stressed in ‘Major Themes of the Qur’an’, which are methodology and Qur’anic worldview. Mr. Iftikhar talks about the concept of double movement described in the book, he critiques this by saying that instead of looking at historical instances you should in its place take the text of Qur’an and Hadith as more authentic. In some places, Fazlur Rahman does impose his views. Contradicting this Mr. Iftikhar says that the Qur’an is the final word of God and hence we can not change what it says, instead we can use instances from the Qur’an as analogies to infer certain things, like for example the issue of polygamy4


Fazlur Rahman’s book, ‘Major Themes of the Qur’an’ discusses that the Qur’an is a unique book with a supreme author, an eternal message of universal relevance. It talks about a central idea and about coherence in the Qur’an. Focus is on the idea of nazm. In my opinion, Fazlur Rahman’s book displays the underlying theme of the Qur’an – a unitary perspective in all aspects of life. All degrees of celestial manifestations too are governed by a single principle and are unified by a common centre, the absoluteness of God. Thus religion becomes the revelation sent by God to man to guide him towards unity and to help him become that which he always was, but has forgotten. I feel that Fazlur Rahman discusses the Qur’an as an archetypal account of the true reality.  Understanding the Qur’an means going beyond just informing oneself of the five pillars or for that matter the laws of inheritance, for example. It involves going beyond the surface. It is important to realize that the source of the Qur’an is the Divine Intellect. One must go beyond the book and realize its Author. Fazlur Rahman’s book talks of the thematic concerns of the Qur’an along with literary connectives. It therefore attempts to discern a deeper meaning of the Word of God. After reading his book I feel that it is safe to draw the conclusion that God has assigned to man the moral social order of this world as a Trust. Man is the trustee as well as the beneficiary, for it is he who will reap the rewards for faithfully discharging his responsibilities as a trustee. The method in which to fulfil or discharge this responsibility is clearly stated in the Qur’an. There exists a logic in all that is in the milieu of existence. He illustrates a continuous chain of unity not only in nature but also in every aspect of human life and after-life. Each chapter in the book seems to reiterate the fact that God is one, His message is one, His Book is one and hence communal life should be one also. I feel that after a thorough reading of Fazlur Rahman’s book the theory of pantheism can be dismissed fairly easily. God does not exist in everything. In fact everything’s existence points towards the existence of God Himself. The Qur’an is aimed directly at man. Fazlur Rahman’s book not only emphasizes this but also proves it beyond any shadow of doubt.

Fazlur Rahman takes a functional look at the Qur’an; he seems to sometimes have less regard or is likely to forget its meditative and worshipful modes. I feel that Fazlur Rahman’s attitude towards the Qur’an may be summed up by his own apt words. He feels that it ‘inspires [an] irreducible attitude of the mind called faith, which is both captivating and demanding.’ This approach is illustrated throughout the book. Fazlur Rahman’s interpretations are seen as following Modernist Muslim exegesis. He is implying that the Qur’an is to be studied as a whole not in bits or parts. His thought process shows a holistic learning, as he discusses the theme of the Qur’an keeping in mind its general nature i.e. the word of god. It is only this that will help Muslims in reaching moral maturity. The key human response to the Qur’an must be a sense of deep consciousness of God.




1. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), 2.

2. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), 81.

3. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980),145.

4. Asif Iftikhar, personal interview, November 3, 2004

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