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Mohammed Fathi Osman: A powerful Muslim voice

The Egyptian intellectual who made his home in America from the 1970s, was a powerful voice for modernism within the Muslim faith.

Mohammed Fathi Osman, an Egyptian intellectual who made his home in America from the 1970s, was a powerful voice for modernism within the Muslim faith. The author of more than 25 books in Arabic and English - including the expansive Concepts of the Quran (1996), an English-language commentary - he called for his fellow Muslims to rethink how they, and their faith, were both represented and perceived in the modern world, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks. His books, which found a wide readership, were directed not only to a Muslim, but also non-Muslim audiences. He sought to convince the former that Islam itself, and the sacred text of the Quran, were as open to new interpretations as the works of Shakespeare, and that questioning and reassessing both faith and book in the modern world need not threaten traditional values and practices. To his non-Muslim readership, he demonstrated that Islam was a complex civilisation and should not be perceived simply as a monolithic "Other".

A careful distinction between the tenets of the faith as compared to the behaviour of its practitioners was the premise on which much of his academic research was based. His perspective was not always popular, especially when he identified a need for greater self-examination against apportioning blame to others. "We are not remaking Islam," he argued. "We are not prophets. But something went wrong with the Muslims. This is something we need to ask: What went wrong?" As a young man, he had been familiar with more radical elements within the faith. In the 1940s, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and edited its newspaper under the direction of his friend and colleague, Sayyid Qutb. By the following decade, however, Osman had come to find the Brotherhood's brand of Islam unpalatable. In his 1960 publication, Islamic Thought and Change, he espoused a more moderate version of the faith, to which he adhered for the remainder of his life. In the meantime, he had earned a degree in history from Cairo University in 1948, a law degree from Alexandria University in 1960 and a master's degree in Islamic-Byzantine relations in 1962, again from Cairo University.

For most of the 1960s, he was based at Cairo's Al Azhar University, Sunni Islam's illustrious centre of learning. An engine of change, he was involved in a programme of reform that aimed to integrate religious and public education by admitting students from secular and public schools to the university, while permitting equally the acceptance of students from religious institutions into Cairo University. He encountered staunch opposition from Al Azhar's professors, but his scheme benefitted from intervention by President Nasser who was keen to shake up the old order. In time, a medical school and a science and agriculture faculty were established at the university. In 1976, after gaining a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, he moved to Riyadh to teach history at Ibn Saud University.

Eleven years later, he founded the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation in Los Angeles. There, he led his students in the task of "rethinking the Muslim individual, state and society in modern times". Of his many books, several published in the 1990s reflect his abiding preoccupations. They included Muslim Women in the Family and Society (1990), and Islamic Law in the Contemporary Society: Shariah Dynamics of Change (1995). He is survived by his wife, Aida Abdel-Rahman Osman, and his daughter, Ghada Osman, a professor of Arabic studies at San Diego State University. Born March 17, 1928. Died September 11, 2010.

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