Thursday, April 19, 2012

Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)

Muhammad Abduh was a great Egyptian thinker in the nineteenth century, who  believed in openness to other cultures and brought social, political and religious reform.1


Born in 1849 in Egypt,  Abduh was raised as part of the creative class, a class based on learning and piety.2  Abduh later went to the al-Azhar university where he got his alamiya (similar to a BA) in 1877.3  While at al-Azhar, his favorite subject was mysticism; his interest in the subject led him to live as a ascetic for a while.
In 1872, while still at Al Azhar, Abduh met Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the founder of the pan-Islam Movement.4 Agreeing with the movement’s goal of uniting all Muslims, Abduh came out from his ascetic lifestyle and started to teach and became an activist for the liberation from British colonialism.5   

The student eventually became the teacher, Abduh teaching at the university he graduated from. Now professor, Abduh taught his students modern philosophy. He periodically referenced European philosophers, such as Montesquieu, in his lectures.6 He also taught a secular school, Dar al-’Ulum.
Once Afghani was exiled, Abduh was forced to leave his teaching job and return to his village by Khedive Tawfiq (similar to an English viceroy7), he viewed as being for anti-government movements. However in 1880, he returned to Cairo where he was given a job as editor in chief of an Egyptian gazette. Abduh had Afghani to thank for this. Afghani got him into press writing, especially that which called for reform. The gazette, "al-Waqa'le al-Masriyya", became a big player in the intellectual, social, and literary scene thanks to Abduh.8  

In 1879, tensions began to rise between British and Egyptians, until a revolt broke out, known as the Urabi Revolution. Abduh was sent to prison in 1881 for his voice in the revolt against the British, placing him in a cell for three months, He was then exiled from Egypt for three year, during which time he went to Beirut, and then to Paris, where he met up with Afghani once again.

While in France, al-Afghani and Abduh started a secret society in 1884 that had branches stretching into the Middle East. They also published a newspaper, “al-Urwa al-wuthqa”. The paper introduced European ideas to the Middle East and explored the weaknesses within the Muslim world and how it could be fixed.

In 1888, Abduh returned to Egypt. Once back in his home country, he wanted to start teaching again, but was not allowed by the khedive, who feared Abduh’s to influence young minds.9 But that didn’t stop the once-exiled Abduh. He was appointed judge in the Eyptian Courts of First Instance of the Native Tribunals and in 1890, became a member of Court of Appeal.10 And in 1899 Abduh was promoted to mufti of Egypt. This allowed him to have control over the system of religious law. He also became an appointed member of the Legislative Council, created in 1883 to advise the government. With his heart still in teaching, he helped found the Benevolent Society that helped in the establishment of schools.

Abduh stayed in contact with Europe. He had some ties with European philosophers. He even wrote a letter to Tolstoy.11 Whenever he could, Abduh would head over to the West to “renew himself”, this giving him hope that one day, the Muslim world would pull through from its present state of discontent.12 On July of 1905, Abduh passed away at the age of fifty-six.


Abduh shared similar beliefs to that of his teacher, Afghani. Both believed that Islam was suffering from inner decay and was in need of reform13 and the East could actually learn something from the West. However, Abduh was much more systematic and had more of a lasting influence than his teacher. And unlike Afghani, Abduh tried to separate politics from religion.

According to Abduh, former Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali tried to place Western beliefs in Egypt’s land by enforcing European laws and schools, this allowing reform to take place. With European schools, two types of educational institutions were created, the traditional Islamic schools that did not teach students necessities of the modern world, and then secular schools that would allow students to be learned in the sciences and thinkers of the West. With the creation of secular schools, Muslims feared that students would lose their faith. So a choice had to be made to have either a modern education or stick to tradition. Abduh felt that  European laws meant nothing to Egyptians, the Egyptian not knowing or respecting such laws as a European would. This would not only cause confusion, but would also make the situation worse. This would result in no law, resulting to a society heading to ruin.14

In order to fix this, Abduh believed that Islam should not look to the past for the answer to stop what Muhammad Ali had created, but to accept that Islam needed to change, and have those changes be linked to Islam itself.15 By doing this would show that the changes happening are permissible by Islam. Abduh believed that Islam could be melded with modern thought. Many traditional clerics disagreed with him, saying his Islam was not pure.

Abduh tried to convey what principals of Islam were essential and those that could be changed. Ijtihad was essential due to the fact the Hadith and Quran did not cover all issues in the world. Both the Quran and Hadith told Muslims how to worship and many other things, and it was up to man apply them to life, this showing that ijtihad is a required part of Islam.

The laws of worship were also to be unchanged. To Abduh, the doctrines of worship were created by pious ancestors. Since these traditions of devotion spoke about the oneness of God (tawhid) and there being so little of these documents and were so simple, they were to be left alone and were considered scared. Laws, customs, and social concerns were considered liable to change because they are not sacred, and are just applications of Islamic thought to cultural customs, each different based on traditions of the location.16


Abduh considered his philosophy to be directly to the Salafiyya (lit. predecessors, early Muslims). This was considered to be the purest form of Islam and for Islam to be reformed, it must revert to this purest form. Therefore, Salafiyya thinkers, like Abduh, tend fundamentalist. Similar to Whabbism or Jihaddist. Abduh considered himself to be a liberal form of Salafist.17 However, some of Abduh’s students went a different route.

One of Abduh’s most important students, Muhammad Rashid Rida, was an early radical Islamist and inspired Hassan al-Banna, the founder and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and al- Banna’s successor, Sayyid Qutb.18  After Abduh died, Rida was Abduh’s leading successor. Rida continued Abduh’s work on Qur’an commentary and wanting ijtihad. Rida also became fearful of Zionism.
Rida’s philosophy and fear of Jews took a hold of Hassan al-Banna, who created the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The Brotherhood originated in Egypt with the goal of changing Islamic states into states ruled by Sha’aria Law, the re-establishment of the Caliphate, and lastly world domination through violent jihad. Their views are grossly anti-Semetic, anti-Western, and anti-democratic (due to the belief that the West and democracy were created by Jews). 19

Some of Abdu’s student’s had a more liberal, secular philosophy.  One such student was Lufti al-Sayyid. He believed that Islam should be honored but was not the guide to life. For life to improve, Egyptian schools had to change as well as there being equal rights for women. The welfare of the people and families was the welfare of the nation according to al-Sayyid.

Another student, Qasim Amin became a sociologist. He took a Darwinist approach to Islam’s downward slope. Islam would not be able to survive in the world because the religion had lost its social integrity.  In order for the Muslim nation to get back to its feet, Amin believed, women must have a voice. The seclusion of women resulted in a lack of respect for women. It did not say to do as such in Sharia Law. Sharia was supposed to create equality between men and women, not the opposite. The freedom of women in the west not due to  tradition but due to rational thinking.

In conclusion, Abdu was a very intelligent man with the hopes of improving the Muslim world by modernizing Islam itself. Though some of his students went down a more radical route, like Rida, many of them took  different approach. Such students like al-Sayyid and Amin supported the rights of women and  secular education. These ideals were considered ways for Islam  to be on the path towards modernization.

End Notes
1.“Prominent Muslims: Muhammad Abduh,” last accessed April 1, 2012, http://islamic-
2.Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1983),130
3. “Prominent Muslims: Muhammad Abduh”
4. “Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905),” last modified 2010,
5. “Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)”
6. “Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)”
7. “Khedive,” last modified February 6, 2012,
8. “Prominent Muslims: Muhammad Abduh”
9. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 134
10. “Muhammad Abduh,” last modified March 18, 2012,
11. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 135
12. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 135
13. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,136
14. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 137
15. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 139
16. “Muhammad Abduhh,” last modified December 26, 2008,
17. “Salafi,” last modified December 19, 2008
18. “Muhammad Rashid Rida,” last accessed April 1, 2012
19. “Muslim Brotherhood,” last modified December 17, 2008


Center of Islam and Science. “Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905).” Last modified 2010.

Encyclopedia of the Middle East. “Muhammad Abduhh.” Last modified December 26, 2008.
“Muslim Brotherhood.” Last modified December 17, 2008.
“Muhammad Rashid Rida.” Last accessed April 1, 2012.
“Salafi.” Last modified December 19, 2008.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Islamic World. Prominent Muslims: Muhammad Abduh.” Last accessed April 1, 2012. http://islamic-

Wikipedia. “Khedive.” Last modified February 6, 2012.


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