From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 537.

Muhammad Abduh

Egyptian reformer and pioneer of Islamic modernism and nationalism. Of peasant stock from Lower Egypt, Abduh (1849-1905) studied at the village Qur'an school, the Ahmadi mosque in Tanta, and the great mosque-university of al-Azhar in Cairo. Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and his apprenticeship with the Iranian pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) strongly influenced his outlook. When Afghani was expelled from Egypt in 1879, his disciple Abduh was dismissed from teaching duties at al-Azhar and returned to his village.

Abduh came back to Cairo in 1880 as editor of the government's Official Journal. Because he supported a revolt against Egypt's domination by Europeans and the Turkish-speaking elite in the army and palace, the British (after occupying Egypt in 1882) exiled Abduh to Beirut in what is now Lebanon.

In 1884 Abduh joined Afghani in Paris to publish a short-lived journal, The Indissoluble Bond, which preached Muslim unity against Western imperialism. In 1888 he returned to Egypt and became a judge on the National Courts; eleven years later he became grand mufti, Egypt's highest official interpreter of the shari'a (Islamic law). From his seat on al-Azhar's administrative council, he tried unsuccessfully to reform the institution. Conservatives blocked his efforts, and shortly before his death in 1905 he resigned in frustration.

Abduh and Afghani believed that Muslims everywhere must cooperate to reverse internal decline and counter European imperialism. They called for a return to the spirit of early Islam and a reinterpretation of the Qur'an and the sunna (precedent) of the prophet Muhammad in light of modern times. They believed that limited borrowing from Western ideas was permissible and that properly used reason could not conflict with religious revelation.

Although the shock of defeat and exile, and Afghani's spell, had briefly drawn him back into political activism in Paris, Abduh came to believe that political protest was futile without reform from within. This belief led him to limited cooperation in social reform with Lord Cromer, the British consul general and real ruler of Egypt from 1883 to 1907. It also alienated him from the local ruler, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, and Mustafa Kamil's circle of nationalists, all of whom pushed for immediate independence from the British.

After Abduh's death his closest disciple, the Syrian reformer Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), continued to carry his message throughout the Islamic world. Rida's magazine, al-Manar, spoke for the Salafiyya movement, which sought inspiration in the example of virtuous early Muslims (the salaf, or ancestors). Rida grew more anti-Western and intransigent after World War I, deeply influencing Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brethren. Islamist radicals today prefer Afghani, the relentless activist, to Abduh, the patient reformer.

Abduh's legacy also lived on among his secular nationalist and liberal followers. These men--mostly lawyers and teachers rather than ulama, or scholars of Islam--set the tone of Egypt's dominant liberal nationalism until a military coup in 1952 overthrew the government. Thereafter liberal Egyptian nationalism was on the defensive, first against Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalism and socialism and then against the Islamist resurgence that began in the late 1960s.

See also al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din; Banna, Hasan al-; Egypt; Islam; Muslim encounters with the West.

Author: Donald Malcolm Reid


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Ahmed, Jamal Mohammed. The Intellectual Origins of Egyptian Nationalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
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Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Kerr, Malcolm H. Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

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