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ʿAbduh, Muḥammad

Kenneth Cragg
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

ʿAbduh, Muḥammad

Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) was an Egyptianscholar and reformer and a leading architect of Islamic modernism. Muḥammad ʿAbduh was born the year Muḥammad ʿAlī, the Albanian adventurer and creator of modern Egypt, died. ʿAlī's regime, in political terms, generated the issues of modern change associated in intellectual terms with ʿAbduh's pioneer leadership as a journalist, theologian, jurist, and, in the last six years of his life, grand muftī of Egypt. The initial factors in his career were his traditional studies at al-Azhar University and an early commitment to Sufism with the Shādhilī order of mystical discipline and the practice of dhikr (the ritual repetition of God's name) and taʿwīdh (incantation). His university studies grounded him in the skills of an ʿālim and made him aware of the inhibitions of taqlīd (adherence to tradition), against which his reforming energies were later directed. Although he renounced his Ṣūfī background intellectually, it continued to endue with piety his academic concerns for liberation from the harmful effects of taqlīd.

Formative Period.

The crucial influence in his development was that of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1839–1897), a strenuous advocate of a unitary Islam who emphasized the concept of ummah (community) against the regionalism that in the next century was to break up allegiance to the Ottoman empire into nationalism and the nation-state. Pan-Islam was al-Afghānī 's response to British rule in Egypt and to European domination in general. ʿAbduh was drawn into the cause and became editor of the journal Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā (The Firm Handhold), which took its title from a Qurʿānic phrase (surahs 2:256 and 31:22); despite its short life in the 1880s, the journal kindled the enthusiasm of a generation of writers, including Rashīd Riḍā, eventually ʿAbduh's biographer and his chief literary legatee.

During his exile from Egypt between 1882 and 1888 and a short sojourn in France, he made wide contact with kindred minds in Syria and North Africa. After his return to Cairo, his thoughts and efforts were drawn increasingly toward education and a renewal of Islamic theology. Given the ambiguities implicit in Arab Ottomanism and the realities of British power in Egypt,  he sensed that political activism had to be accompanied, if not overtaken, by the invigoration of the Muslim mind. Western influences had taken hold since Napoleonʾs intrusion into the Arab East, but largely in practical forms—arms, trade, travel, and finance. A response to modernity had to be made in the way Islam perceived itself. ʿAbduh's training in the familiar scholastic patterns of tafsīr (Qurʿānic exegesis or commentary) and fiqh (jurisprudence) had made him aware of the impediment to critical self-awareness in those habits and attitudes.

The zest he had acquired from al-Afghānī he now harnessed to intellectual ends. The attitude and training of the ʿulamāʿ, as he saw them, had entrenched them in the citation of authority, the appeal to sacrosanct exegesis, and a supine satisfaction with static norms. This taqlīd, or “hideboundness,” had its origins in the bases of Islam's concept of waḥy (revelation) in the Qurʿān and in the assumptions of isnād (reliance on a chain of attribution) on which its handling of tradition had long relied. Once an instinct of loyalty to the past and thus characteristic of Muslim scholarship, taqlīd had come to undermine the articulation of Islam's meaning and quality. (See TAQLīD.)

Intellectual System.

To achieve emancipation from the mentality of taqlīd and yet retain Islamic authenticity was therefore a formidable task. ʿAbduh shouldered it with admirable tenacity, patience, and resilience, confirming his scholarly credentials by earning increasing personal stature, despite the toll on his health and resources caused by pressure from reactionary forces. The idea that the sharīʿah could be subject to wise discretion and that even theology could be flexible (within limits) served to enliven theological education, to increase student initiative, and to give scope to existing ideas of equity through appeal to well-being and good sense by applying istiḥsān (use of discretion in a legal decision) and istislāḥ (determination of what is best for the community).

The main basis of ʿAbduh's “liberal-loyal” equation was the conviction that revelation and reason, each rightly perceived, were inherently harmonious. Was not reason identical with that fiṭrah (creation) by which, as the Qurʿān affirms (30:30), God had made human nature fit religion, the two being combined in the very word Islam? In Risālat al-tawḥīd (The Theology of Unity), his most popular work, he expounded his conviction that “every sound speculation led to a belief in God as He is described in the Qurʿān” (p. 10). ʿAbduh held that the premise on which this belief rested was sufficient to make proof unnecessary: despite the word “described,” the being of God was incomprehensible. There were things about which it was not permissible to inquire, where curiosity could lead only to “confusion of belief.” Nevertheless, what was given in revelation should be rationally possessed—a task incumbent on every generation. There was no need to raise questions of theodicy, but sound exegesis should avoid a crude reading into the Qurʿān of anticipations of new discoveries and inventions. The purpose of revelation was essentially religious; what reason as science could achieve on its own, God had left it to do, and faith must respect its methods. ʿAbduh sustained the traditional case for the ʿijāz (matchlessness) of the Qurʿān as conclusive evidence of its divine origin. He identified as a form of shirk (the sacrilegious association of partners with God, not letting God be God) any reluctance to apply rationality to issues of society or to refuse its scientific fruits. Such reluctance would be a disavowal of divine creation. Sharīʿah law was to be interpreted by the same principle of divinely created status and human custody in harmony.

Intellectual Legacy.

At the time of his death ʿAbduh was in his middle fifties. The bitter opposition he suffered from academic and legal foes was proof of the measure of his influence and the range of his vision for a renewed Islam. His ideas found some continuing expression through the pages of the influential journal Al-manār (The Beacon), but his disciples lacked his stature, and there was an adverse reaction to his legacy soon after his death. From a longer perspective, however, he came to epitomize an incipient modernism, opening up a fresh viewpoint while leaving many issues unresolved. See also MODERNISM.


  • Abduh, Muḥammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated from the Arabic by Isḥāq Musaʿad and Kenneth Cragg. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966. Translation of Risālat al-tawḥīd. Find it in your Library
  • Adams, Charles C.Islam and Modernism in Egypt. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Pioneering study focusing on ʿAbduh. Find it in your Library
  • Amin, Uthman. Muhammad ʿAbduh. Translated by Charles Wendell. Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned Societies, 1953. Find it in your Library
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Find it in your Library
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Latif, Abdul Wahab. “Muhamad Abduh's Conception of Reformation.”Hamdard Islamicus20, no. 4, O-D (1997) 69–76. Find it in your Library
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Find it in your Library
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