Muhammad ‘Abduh and Egyptian Islamic Reform

Note: I was offered the opportunity to present a paper at the Middle Eastern and North African Studies Undergraduate Conference at the University of Arizona, but have had numerous cases of the flu since December and the worst case yet hit the day before the conference. As such, I cancelled my presentation, to my immense regret and disappointment, but have decided to post a much briefer version here. Thank you for reading.

Contemporary western discourse on Islam often impose a liberal-conservative, moderate-extremist dichotomy on the Muslim world, ignoring local, idiosyncratic contexts. For instance, such discourse labels the Muslim Brotherhood as a conservative organization, and the Egyptian theologian Muhammad ‘Abduh as a liberal counterexample. The measuring stick western media use, however, is how willing Muslims are to accommodate western influence. ‘Abduh is often seen as sympathetic to western influence, but his political and religious goals were effectively those of the Muslim Brotherhood–to bring the community of believers back to a more authentic practice of Islam because the community has strayed and allowed unlawful innovation.


Muhammad ‘Abduh

The youngest child of a rural farmer, ‘Abduh was born in 1849 in a village called Mahallat Nasr, on the Egyptian Nile Delta, into a middle-class family. Egypt was under a series of economic reforms first initiated by Muhammad Ali, a military leader who wanted to industrialize Egypt like Europe. His economic reforms benefited peasants, including ‘Abduh’s father, and those benefits allowed ‘Abduh to leave his rural home to become an Islamic scholar, or ‘alim. ‘Abduh showed much potential; he reportedly memorized the Qur’an at the age of ten. At thirteen, he went to study at the Ahmadi Mosque at Tanta, and later the University of al-Azhar in Cairo. However, ‘Abduh’s experience with the traditional education system was disappointing. The outdated practice of having students memorize centuries-old commentaries on the Qur’an and Hadith frustrated him to the point that he ran away from school multiple times, returning only when his father forced him back.

In addition to his formal education, ‘Abduh received an informal education with his uncle Shaykh Darwish, whom he visited when he was not in school. Darwish had a profound influence on ‘Abduh. He was a Sufi mystic familiar with several North African Sufi Brotherhoods, such as the Sanusiyya and the Tajiniyya, which emphasized an important concept in Islamic discourse, ijtihad, or independent reasoning. Ijtihad allows scholars to rely upon their own reasoning to answer questions. It departs from the method employed at al-Azhar at the time, called taqlid, or reliance upon set precedence, which requires scholars to defer to previously established commentaries, most of which came from the medieval period. While not opposites, ijtihad and taqlid differ greatly from one another, but ‘Abduh learned both simultaneously.

‘Abduh’s two educations coincided. While he continued to tolerate the outdated methods at al-Azhar, he learned from his Sufi uncle who taught mysticism, asceticism, and individual reasoning. These two educations showed ‘Abduh two extremes, the dilapidated structure of Islamic learning in a weakened Egypt trying to imitate Europe, and the informal, thoughtful, and intimate education of Sufi Brotherhoods.

Suez Canal

Painting of the Suez Canal

Meanwhile, Egypt fell into an economic crisis. The Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, turned to European investors to help with the expensive construction of the Suez Canal. These investors, mostly British and French, took an increasingly demanding role in all of Egypt’s economic affairs after the Canal’s 1869 opening. The British exerted more and more control over the Egyptian state, at a time when European powers imposed colonial administration over much of the Islamic world. Many Muslim scholars turned their attention to the threat of Europeanization (taghrib). These scholars traveled, wrote, and publicly spoke about religious reform against colonial authority. One well-established scholar, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, met ‘Abduh while he was still a student at al-Azhar. In their meeting, they discussed Qur’anic exegesis and theology, and ‘Abduh became one of al-Afghani’s most devoted students.

As the political situation in Egypt worsened, ‘Abduh turned to the press and became politically active. Eventually becoming the chief editor of the Egyptian Official Gazette (Al-Waqai al-Misriya), ‘Abduh published numerous articles critical of what he saw as the most damaging facet of Egypt and the Islamic world: unchecked deference to authority. Taqlid and Europeanization were equally dangerous; ‘Abduh criticized the local ‘ulema for their “obsolete and rambling” denouncements of rubbing alcohol while the British exerted control over Egypt’s finances. Both parties, he argued, were responsible for Egypt’s problems.

Battle of Tel El Kebir 1882

The Battle of Tel-El-Kebir, 1882, leading to the British defeat of the Urabis

‘Abduh and al-Afghani were part of a nationalist movement in Egypt in the 1870s, which culminated in a militant revolt against the British authorities in 1879. Led by Ahmed Urabi, the revolt briefly established a new government in Egypt. ‘Abduh criticized the revolt but nevertheless offered his support through the press in the hopes that all Egyptians would unite under a movement to throw off British control. The Urabi Government, however, ended in 1882 when the British invaded, installed a colonial regime, and exiled of the revolt’s supporters, including ‘Abduh.


Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

While in exile, ‘Abduh and al-Afghani worked together, mostly in Paris, publishing articles on Islamic reform and European rhetoric that painted Islam as backwards by the standards of post-Enlightenment liberalism. Their writing emphasized criticism, but not blind dismissal, of European influence. He applied ijtihad to European as well as Islamic ideas. For example, a broad-based European education was useful, but the British authority on the grounds of racial and historical superiority was useless and inaccurate.

After his return to Egypt, ‘Abduh was named Grand Mufti of Egypt by the colonial administrators, and he used the opportunity to reform al-Azhar. He expanded the curriculum, adding western subjects such as political science, history, geography, and mathematics. At the same time, he overturned the outdated, taqlid-based system and instead required students to pass tests on their knowledge of both religious and secular subjects. Not only did ‘Abduh hope to produce morally upstanding students, but he also wanted intellectually sophisticated students with an understanding of economics, politics, military science, math, and natural sciences.

If previous generations would have had such education, Egypt might not have fallen into debt. A moral nation-state would not have felt the need to compete with Europe or would not have wanted such an expensive opening of the Suez Canal. An educated Egypt would have had a sufficient background to combat European rhetoric and influence.

‘Abduh once wrote that “life takes precedence over religion in Islam,” meaning that Islam is meant to improve the quality of life for all its subjects. An Islamic Egypt did not entail imitating the precedence of medieval societies, nor did it mean modernizing Islam to fit contemporary standards. Instead, it meant meeting contemporary challenges and constructing a modern nation-state as devoted, thoughtful, well-reasoned Muslims who continually developed along with the ebb and flow of a globalized world while retaining their identity, faith, and authenticity.

Cairo Book Fair

2015 Cairo International Book Fair

‘Abduh was named person of the year at the 2015 Cairo International Book Fair for his reformist discourse. His conceptualization of orthodoxy was a counterexample to numerous forces in his time, the outdated methods of his fellow ‘ulema, khedives trying to compete with the West, and European powers carving the Muslim world into colonies and protectorates. That the Cairo Book Fair would name ‘Abduh their person of the year shows a belief in the continued relevance of his theology. He defied the imperialist rhetoric imposed upon the Muslim world; he still defies the liberal-conservative dichotomy western forces use today to justify forced assimilation of Islamic societies with the West.  ‘Abduh was instead one voice in the diverse scholarly discourse of Islam, a diversity that western media ignore and powerful forces like the Saudi regime and terrorist organizations want to crush.

As such, allowing ‘Abduh to exist in his own context, a reformer trying to implement a more authentic Islam, is an exercise in understanding the intellectual diversity of the Muslim world as a whole, an understanding that over one billion people cannot be reduced to a largely fictional duality.

2 thoughts on “Muhammad ‘Abduh and Egyptian Islamic Reform

  1. Pingback: After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine | Pens and Pencils

  2. Pingback: American Discourse and Islamic States | Pens and Pencils

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