The Manchester United defender has a chance to revive his international career aged 34 after enjoying an excellent season at club level.
Manager Roy Hodgson hinted strongly that Ferdinand will start, saying he would not have picked the veteran to be a squad player or back-up.
Ferdinand, capped 81 times, has not featured for England since June 2011, and was snubbed for the Euro 2012 finals in what Hodgson described as a "footballing decision".
John Terry's retirement from international football has left England short of pedigree in the central defensive areas, leading to his recall.
Critics suggested the original reason Ferdinand was omitted from the Euro 2012 squad was because of tensions with Terry, who was involved in a racism row with Ferdinand's brother Anton.
However, Hodgson said the veteran's form was the reason he is now restored to the squad.
"I've been following him for quite a while now and must have seen United play four or five times in the last five weeks," Hodgson told reporters at Wembley.
"He's playing well, his team are doing extremely well and this is the moment to select him because he deserves it on current form and hopefully he can help us win the next two matches because that's the most important thing.
"In the past I've chosen other players but at the moment I think Rio is the right man.
"If Rio Ferdinand is still playing in 2014 like he is now he is going to be major candidate for the squad."
Tottenham Hotspur's central defender Michael Dawson has also been included in the squad while there is a return for former Manchester United keeper Ben Foster after his recent decision to make himself available for his country again.
England are without Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere who is ruled out with an ankle injury.
Tottenham's Scott Parker comes in for the first time since last year's Euro 2012 finals.
"It's a blow, no question," Hodgson said of Wilshere, man-of-the-match in the recent friendly against Brazil.
"It's disappointing for Jack as well. He'd enjoyed a good spell of playing regularly after a long lay-off. Not to be able to use him is a major blow but these things happen."
Hodgson's side, who are second in Group H, host minnows San Marino on March 22 before a potential decider against Montenegro on March 26.
Goalkeepers: Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Celtic).
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Michael Dawson (Tottenham Hotspur), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur).
Midfielders: Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Tom Cleverley (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), James Milner (Manchester City), Leon Osman (Everton), Scott Parker (Tottenham Hotspur), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Ashley Young (Manchester United).
Forwards: Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Daniel Welbeck (Manchester United).