ʿAbduh, Muḥammad

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ʿABDUH, MUAMMAD (ah 12661322/18491905 ce), Egyptian intellectual regarded as the architect of Islamic modernism and one of the most prominent Islamic reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was born into a well-to-do family in a village of the Nile Delta. At the age of thirteen he went to study at the Amadī Mosque in ana and continued his education at al-Azhar, the renowned university in Cairo, where he studied logic, philosophy, and mysticism. For a time he came under the influence of the pan-Islamic reformer Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and became involved in the ʿUrābī revolt against the British (18811882). Exiled for six years after the revolt was put down, he worked in Lebanon to establish an Islamic school system and collaborated with al-Afghānī in Paris on a number of activities, including the publication of a popular journal, Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā (The firmest bond). The tone of the paper was radical and agitational, reflecting the revolutionary spirit of Afghānī rather than the reformist one of ʿAbduh. Although it was naturally banned in Islamic countries under British occupation, its eighteen issues were smuggled in and widely followed by Muslim intellectuals. The two men also established an association under the same name working for Muslim unity and social reform. In the course of these activities, ʿAbduh traveled to Britain and Tunis and reportedly entered Egypt in disguise.

During his career ʿAbduh held a number of important positions. In 1880, he became the editor of Al-waqāʾī al-misrīyah, the official gazette. In 1889 he was appointed judge and ten years later, he became the mufti of Egypt, the highest authority on the interpretation of Muslim law. As mufti he initiated reform of the religious courts and the administration of awqāf (religious endowments).

ʿAbduh's writings include Risālat al-wāridāt (Treatise consisting of mystical inspirations), Risālat al-tawīd (translated in English as The Theology of Unity ), and the interpretation of Qurʾān known as Tafsīr al-manār. In these writings, one finds traces of different Islamic influences: mysticism, Muʿtazilī theology, activism, and orthodoxy. Risālat al-tawīd was intended to be a brief and simple statement on theological issues. Distinguishing between the essentials and inessentials of religion, ʿAbduh argued that major source of the Muslim decline was their inability to make this distinction. Revelation and reason are complementary ways to reach truth, since reason is the power that enables the Muslim to distinguish truth from falsehood. Freedom of will also depends on human knowledge or reason.

ʿAbduh considered Islam the cornerstone of private and public life. Yet he was struck by the decay of Islamic societies, which he saw as the main problem that all Muslim thinkers had to face. He sought to regenerate the religion and purify it of what he believed were alien accretions from the past. The aim of his life, as he defined it, was to free the minds of Muslims from the shackles of taqlīd (blind acceptance of tradition) and to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam with modernity. For him, the cure for the ills of Muslim societies lay in a return to true Islam through the recovery of its essentials in the Qurʾān and sunnah (traditions of the Prophet) and the interpretation of these texts in the light of modern times.

The best method to achieve these goals, ʿAbduh believed, was through ijtihād (the exercise of individual judgment) and the establishment of links between certain traditional concepts and the ideas of the modern age. Thus, malaah, the public interest, became utility, and shūrā, the coliph's council, became a consultative assembly. He maintained that there was no incompatibility between Islam and reason or between revelation and science. Islam encouraged reason, condemned blind imitation, attacked fatalism, and affirmed the exercise of free will. The influence of Muʿtazilī ideas upon his thought is most evident at this point. He argued that Islam was in harmony with and tolerant of all rational inquiry and science. Thus, the scientific achievements of the West, to which the Muslims had contributed in their classical age, should be adopted without fear or hesitation. Failure to do so would lead either to stagnation and further underdevelopment or to the indiscriminate importation of Western ideas, resulting in a loss of Islamic values.

Concrete reform and social change were ʿAbduh's primary concerns. Like other reformers of his time, he addressed himself primarily to political issues rather than the rethinking of basic religious positions. He believed that the legal system was a crucial factor in the prosperity of countries and that laws should change according to circumstances. The reform of Islamic law requires that the principle of malaah be upheld and that jurists exercise talfīq ("piecing together") to synthesize judgments from the four Sunnī legal schools. Stressing the need for social and political reform, he underlined the importance of education and attacked despotic rulers; for him the true Muslim leader was once bound by law and obliged to consult with the people.

The essence of ʿAbduh's legacy, then, is his attempt to conduct a dialogue between Islam and the modern world; by so doing, he, perhaps more than any other Muslim thinker, contributed to the development of modernist and reformist trends in Islam, especially in the Arab countries and Indonesia. Ultimately ʿAbduh owes his prominence to his search for an indigenous Islamic philosophy for modern times. He developed criteria by which the impact of Western civilization could be differentiated and controlled and elaborated a synthesis of Islam and modernity with which Muslims could remain committed to their religion while actively engaged in modern society. His synthesis was subject to criticism, but the approach has left a marked impact on modern Islamic thought and society.


The classic work on Muammad ʿAbduh is Charles C. Adams's Islam and Modernism in Egypt (1933, reprint, New York, 1968), which includes a detailed analysis of his career and views. Another important early contribution by an Egyptian professor of philosophy is Osman Amin's Muhammad Abduh, translated by Charles Wendell (Washington, D.C., 1953). A lengthy analysis of his political views appears in Malcolm Kerr's Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley, 1966). Important analyses and evaluations of his view and influence are found in Albert Hourani's Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939, 2d ed. (Cambridge U.K., 1983); Kenneth Cragg's Counsels in Contemporary Islam (Edinburgh, 1965); and particularly, Zaki Badawi's The Reformers of Egypt: A Critique of Al-Afghani, Abduh and Ridha (London, 1978). For critical evaluation, see Elie Kedourie's Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam (London, 1966).

Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (1987)

Muhammad Abduh ibn Hasan Khayr Allah

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Muhammad Abduh ibn Hasan Khayr Allah

The Egyptian theologian and nationalist Muhammad Abduh ibn Hasan Khayr Allah (1849-1905) was a founder of modernist reform in Islamic religion, of the Arabic literary renaissance of the last hundred years, and of Egyptian nationalism.

Muhammad Abduh, born to peasant stock, was brought up in the village of Mahallat Nasr in the Nile Delta. His first education consisted of the traditional memorization of the Koran. In 1862 he studied at the Ahmadi mosque-academy in the provincial city of Tanta. In 1866 Abduh left Tanta for Cairo, where he completed the course of study at the Azhar mosque-university. In contrast to many of his fellows, Abduh pursued secular subjects such as history and natural science.

One of the turning points in Abduh's life was the arrival in Cairo in 1872 of the enigmatic political activist Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani, who, over three continents, clamored for the regeneration of the Moslem world. The two men became fast friends, and under Jamal's influence Abduh began to extend the range of his vision from Egypt to the whole Moslem world.

Teacher and Journalist

Having finished his studies in 1877, Abduh became a teacher at both the Azhar and the new Dar al-Ulum (seat of learning). In 1880 he was asked to edit Al-Waqai al-Misriyah (Egyptian Events), the official gazette. Under his editorship it became the model for a new standard of modern, straightforward prose as well as a vehicle for liberal opinion.

But Abduh's life was not yet to become tranquil. When the revolt of Col. Urabi took place in 1882, Abduh was implicated and was exiled. He took up residence in Beirut and then went to Paris, where Jamal ud-Din had established himself. Together they edited the short-lived but highly influential journal Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Strongest Bond), which called for reform at home and lashed out against colonialism in the Moslem world.

Abduh spent 1884 and 1885 traveling before taking up residence again in Beirut, where he began to teach from his home and to lecture in mosques. He was soon invited to teach in an official school. In 1888 Abduh returned to his native land, where he had become a national figure. He shortly entered the judiciary of the "native courts," serving first in the provinces and then, in 1890, in Cairo.

Official Career

In 1899 the khedive appointed Abduh chief mufti (jurisconsult) of Egypt, and in the same year he was also appointed to the advisory legislative council. His tenure as mufti was marked by his liberalism in interpretation of the law and by reform of the religious courts.

Abduh's career also attained great distinction in his advocacy of educational reforms. In 1895 Khedive Abbas II appointed him to a newly formed commission charged with reforming the venerable Azhar, and Abduh was thus able to implement at least in part many of his liberal ideas.

Abduh tried to mediate between the teachings of Islam and Western culture. To this end he ceaselessly prodded the hidebound traditionalists at home while fending off Western writers who he felt misunderstood Islam. After his return to Egypt, he advocated the efficacy of education over that of revolution in national regeneration.

Literary Output

Abduh's writings were considerable. Among his religious books special mention should be made of Risalat al-Tawhid (1897; Epistle on the Unity [of God], a work summarizing his theological views); Al-Islam wa-al-Nasraniyah maal-Ilm wa-al-Madaniyah (1902; Islam and Christianity in Relation to Science and Civilization); and Al-Islam wa-al-Radd ala Muntaqidih (1909; Islam and a Rebuttal to Its Critics).

In the area of language and literature Abduh wrote extensive commentaries on several classical Arabic literary works and coedited a 17-volume work on Arabic philology; in the mundane field his Taqrir fi Islah al-Mahakim al-Shariyah (1900; Report on the Reform of the Shariyah Courts) should be noted.

Most ambitious of all Abduh's works was his Tafsir al-Quran al-Hakim (1927-1935; Commentary on the Koran). The huge project was never completed, but the 12 volumes that appeared are the most important expression of modernist views of the scripture of Islam.

Further Reading

The principal studies on Abduh in English are in C. C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (1933); Uthman Amin, Muhammad Abduh (trans. 1953); and Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (1966). Relevant but more general are J. M. Ahmed, The Intellectual Origins of Egyptian Nationalism (1960); Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community (1961); and Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962). A serious study which includes a discussion of Abduh, is Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (1970). □

ʿAbduh, Muḥammad

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ʿAbduh, Muḥammad (1849–1905 (AH 1266–1322)). Egyptian Muslim theologian, known as al-ustad al-iman (master and guide). He was the founder of the Egyptian Muslim modernist school. He was from a peasant family in lower Egypt, and studied at al-Azhar University, and in Paris, where he met al-Afghānī and became his closest disciple (founding with him the Salafiyya). ʿAbduh emphasized the important function of reason in Islam, that although faith and reason operate in different spheres, they must not conflict but must positively co-operate in human advancement. By restating Islam in such a way, ʿAbduh attempted to open the door, by way of ijtihād, to new influences and the acquisition of modern knowledge.

ʿAbduh's major work, Risālat-al-Tawhid (1897), and the journal al-Manār (1897), were widely read and supported by many Muslims, but also provoked bitter hostility from orthodox circles. In 1899, ʿAbduh obtained the highest religious position in Egypt, that of state muftī, which he held till his death. ʿAbduh used this powerful position to push through many reforms.

He regarded his commentary (tafsīr) on the Qurʾān as his most important work, but it was unfinished at his death, and was completed (and revised) later, by Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā.

Muḥammad ʿAbduh

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Muḥammad ʿAbduh: see ʿABDUH, MUḤAMMAD.

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