Fathi Osman, Scholar of Islam, Dies at 82

Fathi Osman, Scholar of Islam, Dies at 82

Fathi Osman, an influential scholar who articulated a liberal version of Islam and published an authoritative guide to the Koran for non-Arabic readers, died on Sept. 11 at his home in Montrose, Calif. He was 82.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Ghada Osman.

Dr. Osman, an Egyptian, took on the scholarly task of explaining Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners, publishing some 40 books in Arabic and English that took pains to counter the distorted versions of Islam propagated by ill-informed Westerners and radical Islamists.

His most important work in English was the monumental “Concepts of the Quran: A Topical Reading” (1997), a work of nearly 1,000 pages intended to acquaint non-Muslim readers with key concepts in the Koran, arranged according to subject.

“He had two major projects,” said Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College and a senior fellow of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. “The first was to make the case to non-Muslims that Islam is a complex civilization and should not be seen as a flat ‘other.’ The second, directed to Muslims, was to demonstrate through his scholarship that Islam is flexible and can accommodate modernity and still remain authentic to Islamic values and practices.”

Dr. Osman wrote and lectured widely, offering an expansive, liberal interpretation of Koranic teaching on topics like the rights of women; democratic pluralism; the competing claims of Islamic, or Shariah, law and civil law; and the obligation of Muslims in the West to embrace Western civic values.

“We have to realize that God’s law is not an alternative to the human mind, nor is it supposed to put it out of action,” Dr. Osman wrote in an essay on Islam and human rights. “Openness is life, while being closed off and isolated is suicidal.”

Mohamed Fathi Osman was born on March 17, 1928, in Minya, Egypt. He 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 from Cairo University in 1962.

In the 1940s, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an anticolonialist and Islamist group, and helped edit its weekly newspaper. He was a friend and colleague of Sayyid Qutb, the newspaper’s editor in chief and one of the founding fathers of radical Islam, but broke with Mr. Qutb and the Brotherhood in the 1950s. In 1960, he published “Islamic Thought and Change,” setting forth his more moderate version of Islam.

Dr. Osman published several books in Arabic that explored Islamic thought as it pertains to human rights and legal systems, notably “The Individual in Muslim Society: Mutual Rights and Obligations” (1963) and “Human Rights in Western Thought and Islamic Law” (1981).

In the 1960s, he held several posts at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he worked on overhauling the Islamic curriculum at Egyptian universities.

After teaching at universities in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, he enrolled at Princeton, where he earned a doctorate in Near Eastern studies in 1976, writing a dissertation on Islamic land ownership and taxation. He then took a post in the history department at Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In addition to his daughter, Ghada, of San Diego, he is survived by his wife, Aida Abdel-Rahman Osman.

In 1987, he became a scholar in residence at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was the founder of the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, part of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and a senior scholar at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California.

His other works in English include “Muslim Women in the Family and the Society” (1990), “Islamic Law in the Contemporary Society: Shari’a Dynamics of Change” (1995) and “Children of Adam: An Islamic Perspective on Pluralism” (1995).