In 1996, Dr. Fathi Osman received an award at the University of London (UK) by prominent Islamic institutions and distinguished scholars worldwide. His voice was a new voice that presented Islam as a religion that gave the world an open-ended system constantly developing and dynamic.
His significant contributions to Islamic thoughts are his legacy. He joined Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s, worked on its weekly journal, but broke away in the 1950s.
Dr. Fathi Osman devoted much of his life to writing. He spent time explaining Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims, arguing its dynamics and applicability in any part of the world, and showing that Islamic law can be easily applied to contemporary life because of its flexibility to adapt to modern times. In addition, he wrote more than 40 books in English and Arabic to make Islamic civilization and culture more understandable.
His writings addressed Muslim scholars. First, he explained Islam and its flexibility in simple terms to those who are very unyielding, conventional. Second: He seems to have exposed tendencies of those who are over-cautious. His overall explanation was to show that Shariah is constantly evolving within the framework of Islam and has relevance to our time. Economic, political, and social development is possible through an interaction between tradition and modernity. To emphasise, he said, it should be scrutinised and put to work by Muslims, forcing Muslims to think more closely, carefully, and rationally and to liberate themselves from each other’s influences by thinking deeply and independently.
Time and again, he emphasised that the divine sources of Islam are permanent and unchangeable. However, the Islamic thinking in dealing with them has been changing because of the interaction between particular and general.
He said intellectual history and Islamic heritage have proved that Islamic dynamism, when put to use to allow the general to interact with the particular for a given time and place, has yielded results in the presence of ever-changing circumstances. He reminded Muslims about the example of Imam al-Shafi’i, who changed his teaching when he changed his residence from Iraq to Egypt. He mentioned that a jurist might have different views on many issues under varying circumstances. According to other possibilities and understandings, a jurist who lived in different countries might have different opinions about the same issue.
Fathi Osman intellectually took it upon himself to explain dynamism within Islam and its divine sources, to make the contemporary mind understand that these sources can cope with changing needs in different times and places, confirming that Islam came for humanity – for the entire world.
Things and events are permanent in this world, irrespective of time and place; others are changeable and variable liable to vary and change. Keeping in mind that Allah Mighty God is the Lord of the world, Dr. Osman emphasised Islamic dynamism and stressed the need to provide the combination of general and particular for the given time and place.
He wrote that we should apply permanent divine principles to tackle the ever-changing human circumstances, especially the law. However, he saw it as a challenge and felt that Muslims and non-Muslims alike will always face difficulty understanding the divine law and changing circumstances.
He added that in this era of globalism, emphasising human rights, rights of children, youth, women, and non-Muslims, Muslim societies should revert to the original guidance to draw their strength. He always felt, and rightly so, that Islam is for the entire humanity and divine laws are applicable everywhere and any time.
Humans have brought about globalism, which made many forces of nature subservient through advances, accomplishments, and achievements in scientific fields. Most of these scientific achievements are in use worldwide and do not allow any country to be left alone to manage its affairs separately from the entire world. Dr. Osman is evoking interest in Muslims and powerfully and irresistibly forcing them to change their thinking about the Qur’ān and God’s revelations, and at the same time indicating that we certainly have a lot to learn. He also drew our attention to the fact that the views held in the past are frustratingly similar. Yet, his message, in a very subtle way, was that we should not give up hope to explore ways to find solutions to issues at an international level for everyone to benefit from it worldwide.
The human mind gets influenced by socioeconomic circumstances in a given society or a country, so much intellectual discourse may lead to different conclusions at different times and places. Using human behaviour and cognition, and intelligence, Muslims must interpret the guidance provided in the Qur’ān for the betterment and welfare of a society at a given place on this planet. It is essential to ensure that it is applicable and available in other parts of the world.
He wants Muslims to think and reflect, use reasoning, intuition, or perception at individual level. Dr. Fathi Osman said, “The divine sources of Islam are permanent and unchangeable. Still, the Islamic thinking in dealing with them has constantly been changing, as Islam’s intellectual history and heritage has strongly proved.” He reminded Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the era of physical miracles has ended with the coming of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ when God in the Qur’ān, through the very first revealed verses, emphasised reading and urging its readers to observe and reflect on God’s signs.
He made an attractive and micro observation and said that the Qur’ān was gradually revealed over the years to respond to the changing circumstances of the message. He says, and rightly so, that nothing happens all at once, things happen over some time, and that’s why he argued his point, saying that the Quran was revealed piecemeal in 23 years.
Dr. Osman explained that Islam as a faith accepted by God, and the Qur’ān in the belief in One God, must be understood at all levels of human thinking. He says this is because the whole universe, its various phenomena, and the laws and systemic orders are continuously put in place in a very coordinated and systematic manner. But for human beings, the use of analogy (qiyas), juristic discretion (istihsan), and intellectual practices (ijtihad) are available to make rules within the framework of Qur’ānic commands.
It is a centuries-old practice for a country or a community to decide contemporary issues and needs when there is no text in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. Edicts of the past are not binding if the message is for all periods of all time. The real essence of Islam, he believes and has shown in his writings, is truth and morality – the moral elements and axiom. The best lesson from his writings is God-consciousness, compassion, and common sense, which could help a human being move toward welfare and the improvement of humanity.
Dr. Osman wrote books, helped Muslims and non-Muslims understand Islam and Muslims. He did this by individually analysing, interpreting, and explaining in detail every concept of Islam in the Qur’ān, including Faith, Worship (ibadat), Shari’ah (mu’amalat), and Moral Values and Manners. In addition, he discussed laws, human dignity, rulers-ruled relations, socioeconomic justice, role and duties of women in society, civil and commercial dealings, and universal relations. He wants us, Muslims, to think, think and think, and put our minds to work.
In his book Concepts of the Qur’ān, he explains that the belief in the finality of divine guidance “does not prevent human efforts to understand, interpret, infer by deduction or induction or any other intellectual method, developed according to the general principles, and implement this text.” (Concepts of the Qur’ān – A Topical Reading by Fathi Osman)
[Mohammad Yacoob is a retired industrial engineer and an engineering proposals analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California]