Muhammad Abduh (or Mohammed ‘Abduh) (Arabic: محمد عبده) (Nile Delta, 1849 – Alexandria, July 11, 1905) was an Egyptian jurist, religious scholar and liberal reformer, regarded as the founder of Islamic Modernism. A recent book titled “Islam and Liberty” regarded Muhammad Abduh as the founder of the so-called Neo-Mutazilism.
Muhammad Abduh was born in 1849 into a family of peasants in Lower Egypt. He was educated by a private tutor and a reciter of the Quran. When he turned thirteen he was sent to the Aḥmadī mosque which was one of the largest educational institutions in Egypt. A while later Abduh ran away from school and got married. He enrolled at al-Azhar in 1866. Abduh studied logic, philosophy and mysticism at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was a student of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a philosopher and religious reformer who advocated Pan-Islamism to resist European colonialism. Under al-Afghani’s influence, Abduh combined journalism, politics, and his own fascination in mystic spirituality. Al-Afghani taught Abduh about the problems of Egypt and the Islamic world and about the technological achievements of the west.
In 1877, Abduh was granted the degree of Alim and he started to teach logic, theology and ethics at al-Azhar. He was appointed professor of history at Cairo’s teachers’ training college Dār al-ʿUlūm in 1878. He was also appointed to teach Arabic at the Khedivial School of Languages Abduh was appointed editor and chief of al-Waqāʾiʿ al-Miṣriyya, the official newspaper of the state. He was dedicated to reforming all aspects of Egyptian society. He believed that education was the best way to achieve this goal. He was in favor of a good religious education which would strengthen a child’s morals and a scientific education which would nurture a child’s ability to reason. In his articles he criticized corruption, superstition, and the luxurious lives of the rich.
He was exiled from Egypt in 1882 for six years, for supporting the Urabi Revolt. He had stated that every society should be allowed to choose a suitable form of government based on its history and its present circumstances. Abduh spent several years in Lebanon where he helped establish an Islamic educational system. In 1884 he moved to Paris, France where he joined al-Afghani in publishing The Firmest Bond (al-Urwah al-Wuthqa), an Islamic revolutionary journal that promoted anti-British views. Abduh also visited Britain and discussed the state of Egypt and Sudan with high-ranking officials. In 1885, he returned to Beirut and was surrounded by scholars from different religious backgrounds. During his stay there he dedicated his efforts toward furthering respect and friendship between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
When he returned to Egypt in 1888, Abduh began his legal career. He was appointed judge in the Courts of First Instance of the Native Tribunals and in 1890, he became a consultative member of the Court of Appeal. In 1899, he was appointed Mufti of Egypt and he held this position until he died. While he was in Egypt, Abduh founded a religious society, became president of a society for the revival of Arab sciences and worked towards reforming al-Azhar by putting forth proposals to improve examinations, the curriculum and the working conditions for both professors and students. He travelled a great deal and met with European scholars in Cambridge and Oxford. He studied French law and read a great many European and Arab works in the libraries of Vienna and Berlin. The conclusions he drew from his travels were that Muslims suffer from ignorance about their own religion and the despotism of unjust rulers
Muhammad Abduh died on 11 July 1905. People from all around the world sent their condolences.
“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”
— Muhammad Abduh
Muhammad Abduh argued that Muslims could not simply rely on the interpretations of texts provided by medieval clerics, they needed to use reason to keep up with changing times. He said that in Islam man was not created to be led by a bridle, man was given intelligence so that he could be guided by knowledge. According to Abduh, a teacher’s role was to direct men towards study. He believed that Islam encouraged men to detach from the world of their ancestors and that Islam reproved the slavish imitation of tradition. He said that the two greatest possessions relating to religion that man was graced with were independence of will and independence of thought and opinion. It was with the help of these tools that he could attain happiness. He believed that the growth of western civilization in Europe was based on these two principles. He thought that Europeans were roused to act after a large number of them were able to exercise their choice and to seek out facts with their minds. His Muslim opponents refer to him as an infidel; however, his followers called him a sage, a reviver of religion and a reforming leader. He is conventionally graced with the epithets “al-Ustādh al-Imām” and “al-Shaykh al-Muftī”. In his works, he portrays God as educating humanity from its childhood through its youth and then on to adulthood. According to him, Islam is the only religion whose dogmas can be proven by reasoning. Abduh does not advocate returning to the early stages of Islam. He was against polygamy and thought that it was an archaic custom. He believed in a form of Islam that would liberate men from enslavement, provide equal rights for all human beings, abolish the religious scholar’s monopoly on exegesis and abolish racial discrimination and religious compulsion.
Mohammad Abduh made great efforts to preach harmony between Sunnis and Shias. Broadly speaking, he preached brotherhood between all schools of thought in Islam. However, he criticized errors such as superstitions coming from popular Sufism.
Abduh regularly called for better friendship between religious communities. As Christianity was the second biggest religion in Egypt, he devoted special efforts toward friendship between Muslims and Christians. He had many Christian friends and many a time he stood up to defend Copts. During the Urabi revolt, some Muslim mobs had misguidedly attacked a number of Copts resulting from their anger against European colonialists.
Peak of Eloquence with comments
Other works by Muhammad `Abduh
(1897), Risālat al-tawḥīd (“Theology of unity;” first edition)
(1903), Tafsir Surat al-`Asr, Cairo.
(1904), Tafsir juz’ `Amma, al-Matb. al-Amiriyya, Cairo.
(1927), Tafsir Manar, 12 volumes
(1944), Muhammad Abduh. Essai sur ses idées philosophiques et religieuses, Cairo
(1954–1961), Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim al-Mustahir bi Tafsir al-Manar, 12 vols. with indices, Cairo.
(1962 or 1963) (Islamic year 1382), Fatihat al-Kitab, Tafsir al-Ustadh al-Imam…, Kitab al-Tahrir, Cairo.
(no date), Durus min al-Qur’an al-Karim, ed. by Tahir al-Tanakhi, Dar al-Hilal, Cairo.
(1966), The Theology of Unity, trans. by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg. London.
Imam Muhammad Abdu was a pioneering innovator of the intellectual revival movement in Egypt and the Arab East in the 19th century enlightenment. He was also one of the Islamic enlightened intellectuals who rejected conventionalism, believed in openness to other cultures and the innovation of thoughts and social, political and religious reform.
Muhammad Abdu Khairallah was born in 1849 in Behera Governorate. In 1877, Muhammad Abdu obtained his graduate degree “Alamiya” (equivalent to BA) from Al Azhar, despite the opposition of some of his professors on account of his “so called” progressive ideas. When he became a professor at Al Azhar, he was mainly interested in teaching those topics which enlighten the mind and cultivate reasoning such as philosophy, logic and monotheism. He selected some reference books such as “Ethics” by Montesquieu, and “The History of Cities in Europe and France” by Francols Geseun to be the subject matter of his lectures. In history, he selected Ibn Khaldun and his theory of sociology and urbanization.
Thanks to his association with Gamal Eddin Al Afghani, he became involved in press writing. Al Afghani had been encouraging a number of Egyptian writers and intellectuals to make inroads into the Egyptian press. Soon he gained grounds on the political and intellectual scene. Since the foundation of the prestigious Al Ahram Newspaper in 1876, Abdu contributed articles urging religious, political and social reforms. He also called for the translation of foreign masterpieces in all fields of knowledge.
In October, 1880, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Egyptian Government official gazette “AI Waqa’le AI Masriyya”. Through his improvements, the gazette came to play a prominent, social, literary and intellectual role.
His call for reform was one of the reasons that motivated the Orabi Revolution of 1881. He was, therefore, sentenced for three months’ imprisonment and exiled from Egypt for three years.
Once again, he returned to Beirut in 1885. There, he made a deliberate appraisal of the whole situation. He managed to create an enlightened Islamic intellectual current. His house in Beirut was a meeting place for all political, intellectual and religious currents. In view of broad-minded and tolerant attitude and tactfulness, his meetings were frequented by Christians as well as Muslims.
He was then concerned with educational, social and religious reforms. He thought he should concentrate on the education and training of generations to combat ignorance and stand against foreign occupation. He believed that political, social and religious reforms were an arduous and protracted process, requiring reasoning, good judgment and rational action. In the context of his policy of reform, Muhammad Abdu developed an overall reform plan for Al Azhar, the endowments and Sharia (Islamic) courts. In spite of the open support by the British occupation, they deliberately encouraged his opponents to undermine his plan.
Muhammad Abdu’s call for reform was based on three main precepts:
-1- Religious reform aiming at liberating thought from the shackles of conventionalism.
-2- Language reform, in terms of styles and usages, aiming at evolving a modern, powerful medium of expression and an element for unifying and integrating the nation.
-3- Political reform, where he believed that a democratic line should be struck between the state’s right to obedience by the people and the letter’s right to justice by the state. This principle is the basis of social life and Islam was a democratic religion, he believed.
Imam Muhammad Abdu rejected the call for theocracy. He believed that ruling theocracy is known to Islam. It is rather the authority enforced through peaceful call for the good and prohibition of evil.
Imam Muhammad Abdu left behind a rich intellectual legacy. In addition to his rich contributions to the press, he made several researches in education. He introduced a new approach in verifying and translating classical heritage books. He co-authored with Qassem Amin in his book “The Emancipation of Women”. He also translated Herbert Spenser’s book on education.
Imam Abdu was the founder of a special school of reform. He had several disciples who adopted his call in many Arab and Islamic countries, including Shakeeb Arslan, Gamal Eddin Al Qasmi, Rashid Redha and others in Syria, Muhammad Sharaf Eddin and Muhammad Akef in Turkey and Muhammad Ibn Al Khoja in North Africa. The party of Reform Ulema in Algeria and the New Enterprise of Moroccan Reforms in Morocco were established on the basis of his call. In Iran, India and Indonesia, reformists were interested in the Imam’s call. His thoughts will remain a source of inspiration for all reforms in the Arab and Islamic worlds.