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Muhammad 'Abduh

(1849 in the Nile Delta area - July 11, 1905 near Alexandria)

The Egyptian religious scholar, jurist, and liberal reformer, Muhammad `Abduh led a late 19th-century movement in Egypt and other Muslim countries to “modernize” Muslim institutions.

Muhammad 'Abduh was greatly influenced byJamal-ud-Din Afghani, the founder of the modern pan-Islamic movement which sought to unite the Muslim world under the banner of the faith. When they met in al-Azhar in 1872 'Abduh was roused from his asceticism to activism and sought to bring about a renaissance of Islam and a liberation of Muslims from colonialism. Unlike his mentor,Jamal ud-Din Afghani, 'Abduh tried to separate politics from religious reform. 'Abduh advocated the reform of Islam by bringing it back to its pristine state and casting off what he viewed as its contemporary decadence and division. His views were opposed by the established political and religious order, but were later embraced by Arab nationalism after World War I.

'Abduh spent some years in exile in Paris, where he helped Afghani issue the anti-British Muslim periodicalal-`Urwah al- Wuthqa(The Firmest Bond). `Abduh eventually broke with Afghani. He taught in Beirut. Rejecting the radicalism he had embraced in the 1870’s and 1880’s, he returned to Cairo, after the favorable intervention of the British with the Khedive, to pursue educational and language reforms. This conversion to liberalism paralleled a decline in revolutionary fervor among the rural notables in the late 1880s.

After the British takeover of Egypt in 1882, taxes rose to intolerably high levels under the Khedive Isma'il (r. 1863-1879), and the threat of more revolts forced the new colonial regime of Evelyn Baring (later Earl of Cromer) to keep taxes down. The landholding families which managed to keep their large holdings together transformed themselves into agrarian capitalists and became urbanized absentee landlords; many of them did not actively oppose British rule, and their nationalism was muted by a conviction that it was only through education and gradual reform that the Egyptians could achieve independence. `Abduh became a spokesman for this class. In 1899, he was appointed Grand Mufti (jurisconsult) for all of Egypt through British influence, and he used the office to promulgate liberal reforms in Islamic law, administration and education.

As European influence grew in Egypt, Westernizers in Egypt were adopting Western education, Western sciences, and a Western medium of teaching, specifically in French. 'Abduh distrusted the Westernizers. He called upon parents to refrain from sending their children to schools established by missionaries. But he was in no way opposed to Western science and technology. In an article written in 1877, `Abduh advocated the introduction of modern sciences together with the local sciences into Al Azhar University. He described the strength of prejudice against modern sciences in Al Azhar and related that Ghazali and others considered the study of logic and similar disciplines obligatory for the defense of Islam. He went on to say: “There is no religion without a state and no state without authority and no authority without strength and no strength without wealth. The state does not possess trade or industry. Its wealth is the wealth of the people and the people’s wealth is not possible without the spread of these sciences amongst them so that they may know the ways for acquiring wealth.” [Tarikh, vol.ii, p.37ff.] He said that new and useful sciences are essential to our life in this age and are our defense against aggression and humiliation and further the basis of our happiness, wealth and strength. He said, “These sciences we must acquire and we must strive towards their mastery.”

'Abduh considered that the Persian and Greek elements which were dominant in Islamic tradition were not congruous with modernity, and he worked to substitute Greek philosophy with modern ideas. Because of his own limitations and insufficient knowledge of science, modern philosophy and the West, he often went beyond his simple formula of “modernity is based on reason, Islam must therefore be shown not to contradict reason, thus we may prove that Islam is compatible with modernity” to show agreement between detailed scientific theories or discoveries with the Qur’an. `Abduh interpreted certain things mentioned in the Qur’an, such as the world of jinn or the angels to agree with modern discoveries. The jinns became microbes and stories of astronomy were explained to be addressing simple people at their level of understanding.

He tried to make the theory of evolution compatible to the story of Genesis in the Qur’an and he used evolution to prove that Muhammad was the seal of the Prophets.  He wanted to show that Islam does not reject the principle of causality and was determined to limit the region of the miraculous.
By the end of the nineteenth century, scientific exegesis had established itself as an independent discipline. In 1898, `Abduh’s Syrian student, Rashid Rida, encouraged him to write a tafsir, but he was not interested. So when 'Abduh gave a series of lectures on the Qur’an, Muhammad Rashid Rida took notes, which [Rida] later expanded. The enlarged work was shown to `Abduh who approved and corrected it, as needed. These lectures appeared in the periodicalAl-Manar, vol. iii, 1900 as “Tafsir Manar of `Abduh”. It is somewhat ironic that the earnest and religiously strict young Rida should develop a close relationship with the worldly, broadminded `Abduh. But this, perhaps, is an indication of `Abduh's ability to tailor his conversation to the interests of his audience. After `Abduh’s death in 1905, Rashid Rida continuedTafsir al-Manar, from Q. 4:125 to Q. 12:107, indicating those parts (in  posthumous portions) which were the result of `Abduh’s lectures and his own additions. Eventually,Tafsir al-Manar was published in 12 volumes in 1927; a later edition with indices isTafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim al-Mustahir bi Tafsir al-Manar, 12 vols. Cairo, 1954-1961. In addition, `Abduh had published in his own life time,Tafsir juz’ `Amma,Tafsi Surat al-`Asr, [Tafsir al-Fatiha],Fatihat al-Kitab, Tafsir al-Ustadh al-Imam…, and his lectures on the Qur’an were edited and published asDurus min al-Qur’an al-Karim.

'Abduh's ideas were met with great enthusiasm, but also by tenacious opposition. They are still a subject of contention today, nearly 80 years after his death, as questions of modernism and tradition re-emerge in conflict in the Muslim world. Although he did not achieve his goals, Muhammad 'Abduh remains a continuing influence, and his work,Risalat al-Tauhid(The Theology of Unity), is the most important statement of his thought.

Taken from

the article written byElma Harder:
See also the article ofNEAL ROBINSON (1998, Routledge): http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/H049.htm
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