Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa

views updated


Revivalist movements and reformist thinkers have arisen throughout Islamic history. Since the early nineteenth century, two intellectual strands have evolved among the Arabic-speaking populations of Southwest Asia and North Africa, each in its own way calling for Islamic renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) against the status-quo traditionalists among the ulema on the one hand and Western-style secularists on the other. One of these strands is variously dubbed conservative, fundamentalist, and more recently Islamist; the other is generally known as modernist or liberal. Neither strand, it should be emphasized, advocates reform of Islamic dogma itself, which would obviously open it to charges of illicit innovation (bid˓a). Rather, Islamic reformism is limited to correcting the interpretations and practices of Muslims, allegedly in order to better reflect the true Islam. A number of different understandings of the means and ends of reform could be accommodated within such a broad aspiration.

The Wahhabi movement that began in late eighteenth-century Arabia was the last significant reformist effort in the era before European imperialism. It erupted out of the potent mixture of the fiery religious appeal of Muhammad Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) and the political and military acumen of the Sa˓ud family. Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab called for a return to the strict monotheism (tawhid) that he claimed underlay the mission of the prophet Muhammad. In his view, the society around him had departed in many regards from this pure Islam, neglecting, for example, the enforcement of Islamic punishments for such things as adultery and theft and absorbing such un-Islamic practices as the building of tombs for the dead and saint worship. When the Wahhabiyya succeeded in conquering most of Arabia in the early nineteenth century, the first Saudi state set about implementing Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's vision of an ideal Islamic society, grounded in a strict, literal interpretation of the Qur˒an and the Prophetic hadith that he considered to be authentic. Although this state was crushed by an Egyptian army in 1818, the conservative reformist message of Wahhabism spread to other Muslim areas, and its influence upon other reform movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is incontrovertible.

Wahhabi forces were checked by the army of Muhammad ˓Ali (c. 1769–1849), the founder of a new dynasty in Egypt and the initiator of modernization in the Arab world. Having seen the technological superiority of Napoleon's army when it invaded and occupied Egypt from 1798 to 1801, Muhammad ˓Ali launched a program to reform the Egyptian military and civil administration, after becoming the Ottoman governor of the province in 1805. Educational missions were dispatched to Europe, mainly France, for scientific and technological training, beginning as early as 1809. The students returned with ideas of how to reform Egyptian politics, culture, and education as well.

The origins of modernist Muslim thought in the Arab world are often traced to Rifa˓a al-Tahtawi (1801–1873). As the religious advisor traveling with an Egyptian student delegation to Paris in 1826, Tahtawi immersed himself in European history, geography, politics, literature, and science, learning French in order to do so. Upon returning to Cairo in 1831, he became Muhammad ˓Ali's chief supporter among the ulema for the modernizing reforms the pasha had initiated. In his writings, Tahtawi expounded a theme that would engross later modernist thinkers: reform of Islamic law based on the needs of the modern age. To begin such legal reform, he argued, the education of the law's interpreters, the ulema, had to be overhauled. Tahtawi's most important contribution to educational reform, and his greatest influence upon later generations of reformers, was exerted through the School of Languages, of which he was appointed director in 1837. The school educated Egyptian students in European languages and translated key European texts into Arabic.

Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (c. 1822–1890), prime minister first to the bey of Tunis and later to the Ottoman sultan, called much more directly than Tahtawi for political reforms to accompany legal and educational changes. Khayr al-Din argued that Europe's military prowess was an outgrowth of the development of effective and accountable governments. For Muslims to borrow constitutional principles from Europeans would not be innovation at all, he wrote, but merely a return to the true principles of government established by the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs.

Despite the modernization efforts in states such as Egypt and Tunisia—limited mainly to small-scale educational and bureaucratic reforms, with no serious legal or political changes—Muslim power relative to that of Europe steadily declined during the first half of the nineteenth century, and by the century's end, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt had passed under direct French and British rule. The beginning of formal European imperialism produced among Arabs a more profound intellectual search for the causes of Muslim decline and the means for its reversal.

The broad term designating the movement for Islamic reform that emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century is Salafiyya. Exactly when the Salafiyya movement began and who should be included among its adherents remain controversial issues. The name is derived from the phrase salaf al-salihin, which refers to the first three generations of Muslims and various pious figures in subsequent generations who best understood and applied the "true" Islam. Its proponents argue for a return by Muslims to the practice of these, Islam's forebears. As such, the Wahhabiyya could be and sometimes are considered a Salafi movement.

The figure most widely considered as the architect of Salafi principles, however, is Muhammad ˓Abduh (1849–1905). Three basic principles underlie ˓Abduh's reformism. First, he rejected predestination and the fatalism and intellectual torpor that he believed resulted from it. Second, he emphasized the compatibility of revelation with reason. In other words, he argued that religion does not impose unduly on what reason demands as scientific or moral truths and, conversely, that human rational faculties are capable of confirming most, if not all, the spiritual truths illuminated by religion. Finally, ˓Abduh asserted a claim to renewed interpretation (ijtihad) of Islamic law based on the requirements of social justice (maslaha) of his own era.

˓Abduh did not directly advocate a political program, implying only that Islamic principles of accountable and limited government supported the idea of liberal parliamentary democracy. Later reformers appealed, explicitly or implicitly, to his writings to justify their own, sometimes opposite views. The most bitter controversy erupted when ˓Ali ˓Abd al-Raziq (1888–1966) published a treatise arguing that the mixture of religion and politics in the institution of the caliphate was a perversion of the Prophet's teachings and practice. Rashid Rida (1865–1935) denounced ˓Abd al-Raziq's arguments, which opened secular possibilities within Islamic political thought, as a perversion of Islamic teachings and history. Another disciple of Abduh's, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (c. 1849–1902), had earlier written on the need to revive the Arab caliphate as a precursor to Islamic revival worldwide.

˓Abduh expressed his views prolifically in the pages of the journal al-Manar. He also tried to implement his reform program by issuing progressive fatwas in his capacity as Grand Mufti of Egypt, and through his efforts at reorganizing the education of Egyptian religious scholars at al-Azhar University and other institutions. Many Arab nationalists would attempt to incorporate his progressive, moderate, and flexible interpretations of Islam into their political ideologies, but generally failed to produce a true synthesis of theory and practice once independence was achieved.

˓Abduh's reform agenda was carried on by Rashid Rida, but Rida brought to it a greater conservatism in philosophical outlook and methodology, relying primarily on Hanbali jurisprudence, whereas his mentor had advocated free borrowing from all Sunni schools of law. He was also much more politically oriented than ˓Abduh, seeing the institution of an Islamic state as the precursor to the application of Islamic law and the promotion of Islamic social mores. Rida thus laid the intellectual foundations for a more conservative strand of Salafi reformism, one that is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The reformism of Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949) and Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the principal ideologues of the Brotherhood, reflects Rida's influence in its advocacy of a holistic conception of Islamic state and society, where shari˓a regulates all spheres of life. In this regard, the Brotherhood's Salafism is similar in approach to that of the Wahhabiyya, although their views on specific points of Qur˒anic interpretation and Islamic law may vary.

By the early years of the twenty-first century, Islamic reform in the Arab world remained a highly contested discourse. In terms of political mobilization, the conservative Islamist agenda seemed to have triumphed over the liberal modernist project. Conservative reformers such as Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917–1996) in Egypt and Hasan al-Turabi (b. 1932) in Sudan had attracted much larger public followings than their modernist counterparts. Arab modernists had thus far failed to form a mass-based organization to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and its many, more radical offshoots. Still, the work of such modernist intellectuals as Tariq al-Bishri and Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) in Egypt and Muhammad Shahrur in Syria, and the political activism of Rachid al-Ghannoushi (b. 1941) in Tunisia have demonstrated the continuing relevance and development of modernism.

See also˓Abd al-Rahman Kawakibi ; ˓Abd al-Wahhab, Muhammad Ibn ; ˓Abduh, Muhammad ; Banna, Hasan al- ; Ghazali, Muhammad al- ; Ikhwan al-Muslimin ; Qutb, Sayyid ; Rida, Rashid ; Salafiyya ; Tajdid ; Turabi, Hasan al- ; Wahhabiyya .


Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of DevelopmentStrategies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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.

Safran, Nadav. Egypt in Search of Political Community. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Sohail H. Hashmi

About this article

Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa

Updated About content Print Article