?Abduh, Muhammad (1849–1905)

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˓ABDUH, MUHAMMAD (1849–1905)

Muhammad ˓Abduh was one of the most influential Muslim reformers and jurists of the nineteenth century. ˓Abduh was born in the Nile River delta in northern Egypt and received a traditional Islamic education in Tanta. He graduated from al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1877, where he taught for the next two years. It was during this period that he met Jamal al-Din Afghani, whose influence upon ˓Abduh's thought over the next decade would be profound. When Afghani was expelled from Egypt in 1879, ˓Abduh was also briefly exiled from Cairo to his native village. He returned to Cairo the following year to become editor of the official government gazette, al-Waqa˒i˓ al-Misriyya (Egyptian events), and began publishing articles on the need for reform in the country. When the British occupied Egypt following the ˓Urabi revolt of 1882, ˓Abduh was sentenced to three years's exile for assisting the nationalists. He lived briefly in Beirut before joining Afghani in Paris, where the two would publish the short-lived but highly influential journal al-˓Urwa al-wuthqa ("The firmest grip," based on the Qur˒anic references 2:256 and 31:22). ˓Abduh returned to Beirut following the journal's demise in 1884, and it was during this sojourn that he first met Rashid Rida, who would become his chief biographer and most distinguished disciple.

In 1888, following his increasing estrangement from Afghani and a consequent rethinking of his earlier revolutionary ideas, ˓Abduh was allowed to return to Cairo. He soon began a rapid ascent in Egyptian judicial and political circles. Beginning as a judge in the new "native courts" created by the Egyptian government, ˓Abduh became a member of the newly created administrative board for al-Azhar University in 1895. In 1899, he was appointed a member of the Legislative Council, an advisory body serving at the behest of the khedive, the ruler of Egypt, and more importantly became in the same year the grand mufti, or the chief Islamic jurist, of Egypt. As the head of Egypt's religious law courts, ˓Abduh championed reforms that he saw as necessary to make shari˓a relevant to modern problems. He argued that the early generations of Muslims (the salaf al-salihin, hence the name Salafiyya, which is given to ˓Abduh and his disciples) had produced a vibrant civilization because they had creatively interpreted the Qur˒an and hadith to answer the needs of their times. Such creative jurisprudence (ijtihad) was needed in the present, ˓Abduh urged. In particular, modern jurists must consider public welfare (maslaha) over dogma when rendering judgments. The legal opinions (fatwas) he wrote for the government and private individuals on such issues as polygamy, divorce, and the status of non-Muslims bore the imprint of his reformist attitudes.

During the last years of his life, ˓Abduh collaborated with Rashid Rida in publishing the journal al-Manar, founded by Rida in 1898. The journal became a forum for not only ˓Abduh's legal rulings and reformist essays, but also a Qur˒anic commentary that had reached the middle of the fourth sura (chapter) when ˓Abduh died in 1905. Rida would continue publishing the journal until his death in 1935.

The most systematic presentation of ˓Abduh's approach to Islamic reform is found in his essay Risalat al-tawhid (The theology of unity). In opposition to European positivist philosophers, he argues that reason and revelation are separate but inextricably linked sources for ethics: "The ground of moral character is in beliefs and traditions and these can be built only on religion. The religious factor is, therefore, the most powerful of all, in respect both of public and of private ethics. It exercises an authority over men's souls superior to that of reason, despite man's uniquely rational powers" (p. 106).

See alsoAfghani, Jamal al-Din ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Rida, Rashid ; Salafiyya .


˓Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musa˓ad and Kenneth Cragg. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798–1939. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Kerr, Malcolm H. Islamic Reform: The Political and LegalTheories of Muhammad ˓Abduh and Rashid Rida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Sohail H. Hashmi