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Muhammad Abduh

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Muhammad AbduhMuhammad Abduh (or 'Abduh) (Arabic: محمد عبدهý) (1849 -  July 11, 1905) was a Muslim theologian, a Mufti of Egypt, liberal reformer, the founder of Islamic Modernism and an important voice in the theology and philosophy that produced modern Islamism.

Abduh was born in 1849 in the village of Mahallat in the Nile Delta. He was the son of a Turkomen father and an Egyptian mother. He studied in the village schools and from 1862, in the Tanta theological school, which he apparently left in dissatisfaction. He studied at Al Azhar university from 1872 and developed a conservative outlook based in Sufism. This was soon to change however, after he came in contact with Jamal_al-Din Al-Afghani. Al-Afghani weaned him of his Sufism and conservative philosophy and introduced him to politics and science. From Afghani, Abduh developed a distrust of the west and the British.

In 1877 Abduh graduated from Al Azhar with a certificate as a scholar. He took a post as a teacher in al Azhar. However, when Afghani was exiled from Egypt for extreme anti-British sentiments in 1879, Abduh lost his post, probably because of his contacts with Afghani. In 1880 however, he was appointed chief editor of the Official Egyptian Gazette, the oldest Arab newspaper. He used the Gazette as a platform for preaching against  British and French involvement in Egyptian politics.  Along with other disciples of Afghani, he became involved in the Urabi revolt and when that failed in 1882, he was exiled from Egypt to Lebanon by the British occupation. In 1884, al-Afghani invited him to join him in Paris, where they edited the short lived reformist and pan-Islamic anti-British and anticolonialist journal, al-Urwah al-Wuthqa (the firmest fond or the indissoluble bond). Together with al-Afghani, Abduh believed in pan-Islamism in the sense that Muslims must all cooperate to reverse internal decline and counter European imperialism. They both favored a return to the essential simple teachings of early Islam and a reinterpretation of the Quran and the sunna (precedents) of the prophet Muhammad to fit modern times. They separated between essential theology, which was sacred, and political and legal interpretations in Islam, which could be adapted to new needs. Like Afghani, Abduh believed that Islam was better suited to scientific progress than Christianity, and he tried to merge science and religion. The return to the teachings of early Islam, called Salafiyah (or Salafi), was not meant to impose a rigid orthodoxy or fanaticism on Islam, but rather to strip away all the generations of encrusted precedent that had followed the early period, and allow the reconstruction of a reformed and modern religion based on first principles.

Upon his return to Egypt in 1888, Abduh was appointed a judge.  Abduh diverged somewhat from al-Afghani's teachings. He became convinced that internal reform was more urgent than the anti-colonial struggle. Thus, he abandoned political struggle and cooperated with Lord Cromer, who was the real power in Egypt, in attempting to introduce reforms. This invited the enmity the Khedive Abbas Hilmi II and of the politically active nationalists. His cooperation with the British evidently helped advance Abduh's career. In 1891, he was appointed judge at the Court of Appeal. In 1894 he was made a member of the supreme council of al-Azhar. In 1899, with the help of the British, Abduh became  Mufti of Egypt, the supreme Muslim authority.

In 1898, Abduh founded the reformist Muslim political journal al Manar (the beacon) which became a platform both for his ideas and those of his more more extremist disciple, Muhammad Rashid Rida.  

Abduh's theology was innovative. He believed that the gates of Ijtihad (innovation) were not closed, Abduh rejected the divine origin of much of the Quran. He believed part of it reflected the ideas of Muhammad, and he advocated reasoned interpretation of the  Quran. Abduh nonetheless believed that the Quran was the only true ethical and logical guide, implying that the Madh'hab (schools of Jurisprudence) might be wrong.  Still, he claimed that the principles of the Quran were the only tool by which the human mind truly could understand the difference between right and wrong, indirectly casting doubt on the validity of the Madh'hab and the Hadiths. Like Afghani, he believed in human reasoning, social equity and social welfare.

Abduh was an innovative and controversial jurisprudent. He ruled that meat from animals slaughtered by Christians or Jews was Halal, permitted to Muslims. He reformed the provisions of the Waqf law and allowed interest on loans.

Abduh explained that the purpose of his ideology and theology was:

to liberate thought from the shackles of imitation (Taqlid) and understand religion as it was understood by the community before dissension appeared, to return, in the acquisition of religious knowledge, to its first sources, and to weigh them in the scale of human reason, which God has created in order to prevent excess or adulteration in religion, so that God's wisdom may be fulfilled and the order of the human world preserved, and to prove that, seen in this light, religion must be accounted a friend in science, pushing man to investigate the secrets of existence, summoning him to respect established truths and to depend on them in his moral life and conduct. [[Rida, Rashid, Tarikh al ustadh al-imam al-shaykh Muhammad 'Abduh Vol 1 (Cairo 1932) p 11.]

Abduh's thinking distinguished between the principles or doctrines and worship ('ibadat) of Islam, and the teachings concerning social relations, customs and equity laws (mu'amalat). The doctrines of worship, were, according to him, transmitted by the pious ancestors (al Salaf al Salih). These doctrines were few and simple and unchanging: Belief in God, monotheism (Tawhid), risala - revelation through a series of messengers or prophets, moral responsibility and judgment. The laws and customs and social mores, in his view, were not sacred and unchanging, but rather represented application of the principles of Islamic thinking to a given cultural context. They must be subject to reason, which is the basis of everything including religion. They should change and be revised to apply to the modern world, within the confines of Muslim ethics. It would follow from this that almost all of the Fiqh rulings of the Madh'hab schools of jurisprudence regarding social issues might no longer be valid. 

The appeal to the "pure" ancestral form of the religion is categorized as Salafi. However, Abduh's Salafism was meant to allow liberal reform rather than to stifle it, and it should not be confused with Salafi doctrines of his successors and of certain others, which are used to propagate either a very conservative or a radical reactionary doctrine of Islam.  A Salafi group has published a detailed critique of the Muslim Brotherhood: Historical Development of the Methodologies of the Ikhwan al Muslimeen and their effect on contemporary Salaafi Dawah. They maintain that Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna and Muhammad Rashid Rida created an activist movement that was falsely presented as Salafiyyah, making false ascriptions to Salafiyyah.

Works by Muhammad 'Abduh

(1903), Tafsir Surat al-`Asr, Cairo.

(1904) Tafsir juz’ `Amma, al-Matb. al-Amiriyya, Cairo.

(1927) Tafsir Manar, 12 volumes

(1954-1961), Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim al-Mustahir bi Tafsir al-Manar, 12 vols. with indices, Cairo.  

(1962), 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.

Ami Isseroff


Badawi, M. A. Zaki (1976, 1978), The Reformers of Egypt, Croom Helm, London.
Baljon, J. M. S. (1961), Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation, E. J. Brill, Leiden.
Kedourie, Elie (1966), Afghani and `Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. London.
Kerr, Malcolm H. Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

December 26, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: See Muslim Brotherhood Qutb, Sayyid  History of Islam and the Arabs Al-Banna, Hassan Islamism Jihad Islamism Al-Afghani, Jamal_al-Din Muhammad Rashid Rida

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Muhammad Abduh