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῾Abd Al‐rāziq, ῾Alī

Eric Davis
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

῾Abd Al‐rāziq, ῾Alī

(1888–1966), Egyptian sharī῾ah (divine law) judge, controversial intellectual, and author of Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm: Ba῾th fī al‐khilāfah wa‐al‐ḥukūmah fī al‐Islām (Islam and the Bases of Political Authority: A Study of the Caliphate and Government in Islam).

Published in Cairo in 1925, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's book challenged the notion that Islam legislated a specific type of political authority or, for that matter, that it legitimated any form of government at all. In addition to creating a constitutional crisis in Egypt, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's ideas generated violent controversy throughout the Muslim world. The Egyptian Higher Council of ῾Ulamā' brought ῾Abd al‐Rāziq to trial and expelled him from both their ranks and his position as a sharī῾ah judge.

῾Alī ῾Abd al‐Rāziq was a member of a famous and powerful landowning family from the village of Abū Girg (Jirj) in al‐Minyā Province. A graduate of al‐Azhar and Oxford universities, he rose to the position of judge in the al‐Mansūra sharī῾ah court. In addition to writing Islam and the Bases of Political Authority, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq edited a study of the life and work of his brother, a rector of al‐Azhar, entitled Min āthār Muṣṭāfā ῾Abd al‐Rāziq (From the Legacy of Muṣṭāfā ῾Abd al‐Rāziq, Cairo, 1957) and Al‐ijmā῾ fī al‐sharī῾ah al‐Islāmīyah (Consensus in Islamic Law, Cairo, 1947).

Along with Ṭāḥā Ḥusayn's 1926 volume, Fī al‐shi῾r al‐jāhilī (On Jāhilīyah Poetry), ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's work was seen by the ῾ulamā' and many Muslims as presenting a fundamental challenge to Islam's legitimacy as a religion. The specific event that precipitated ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's study and gave it such significance was the abolition of the caliphate by the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924. Following World War I, many Muslims felt particularly vulnerable to increased colonial penetration by Western powers, such as Great Britain and France, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In their minds, the abolition of the caliphate was a prominent symbol that underlined their political weakness.

What angered many Muslims was ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's assertion that the prophet Muḥammad was sent by God only to preach a spiritual message and not to exercise political authority. Although Muḥammad did establish al‐ummah al‐islamīyah (an Islamic community), he never mentioned or promulgated a specific form of government. For ῾Abd al‐Rāziq, the unity of the Islamic community did not constitute a unitary Islamic state. “The Prophet's leadership … was religious and came as a result of his Message and nothing else. His Message ended with his death as did his leadership role” (῾Abd al‐Rāziq, 1925, p. 90).

῾Abd al‐Rāziq's thesis that the Islamic ummah is purely spiritual and bears no relation to politics or forms of government effectively separated religion and politics in Islam. Furthermore, it denied that the caliphate was an integral and necessary part of Islam or that it maintained any special religious status. Rather than part of Islamic law, the caliphate was to ῾Abd al‐Rāziq simply a matter of custom.

To many Muslim thinkers, these arguments were anathema, as they seemed to undermine the very essence of Islam. Since such thinkers viewed a key part of Muḥammad's prophetic mission as implementing a system of laws, Islam was political by definition. In denying the Prophet's political role, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq implicitly called for a redefinition of Muḥammad's prophetic mission and, by extension, the very nature of Islam.

From one perspective, Islam and the Bases of Political Authority can be seen as part of the Islamic reform movement that began in Egypt during the nineteenth century. Most strongly influenced by Shaykh Muḥammad ῾Abduh (1849–1905), this movement sought to revitalize Islam by emphasizing the role of human reason and by seeking to reconcile Islamic and Western notions of science and social organization. For many reformers and disciples of ῾Abduh, such as ῾Abd al‐Rāziq, reason, not revelation, determined the form of government that rules a particular community. [See the biography of ῾Abduh.]

The overt dispute over ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's book was cast in theological terms, but political considerations also motivated its publication. As were many other native‐born landowning families, the ῾Abd al‐Rāziq family was closely associated with the Ḥizb Aḥrār al‐Dustūriyīn (Liberal Constitutional Party), which, in turn, was the successor to the secularly oriented and antimonarchical Ḥizb al‐Ummah (People's Party) founded in 1907. With Turkey's abolition of the caliphate, a number of Arab leaders, including King Fu'ād of Egypt, indicated a desire to wrest the title for themselves. Many Liberal Constitutionalists opposed such a move.

A number of factors point to the political dimensions of Islam and the Bases of Political Authority. Certainly ῾Abd al‐Rāziq himself was aware that even many of his supporters believed that he had exaggerated his arguments. This raises the distinct possibility that he purposely overstated his case for political reasons. It also seems highly doubtful that the Misr Printing Company, a Bank Misr company under the tight control of Muḥammad Ṭal῾at Ḥarb, a devout Muslim, would have published a text consciously intended to undermine Islam. Without denying the sincerity of his arguments, it seems highly plausible that ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's treatise was intended less as a major contribution to Islamic thought than as an effort to deny King Fu'ād the ability to appropriate the title of caliph.

Without detracting from its intellectual stature, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's book should also be seen as part of a patchwork of efforts by reformist elements within an increasingly assertive native‐born Egyptian bourgeoisie to bring about significant changes in Egypt's political and cultural identity. This stratum sought to assert its power against the monarchy and its supporters among the ῾ulamā'. ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's treatise, however, did not represent an overt conspiracy among the Liberal Constitutionalists and their wealthy supporters, as many within the party opposed it. Rather, ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's work was one of many thrusts and parries by members of the indigenous bourgeoisie intended to circumscribe the powers of the king. The Egyptian bourgeoisie sought to hasten the transformation of Egypt's cultural identity from one that had been dominated by a Turco‐Egyptian elite and an emphasis on Pan‐Islamism to one that was dominated by an Egyptian‐ and, to a lesser extent, Arab‐centered nationalism.

On yet another level, the fierce opposition to ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's book reflected the pervasive fear among many social strata of further fragmentation of both the Muslim world and Egyptian society. For many Muslims, the book represented another effort by the West (in this instance at the hands of a westernized Muslim) to fragment the Muslim world, so as to facilitate its subjugation to colonialism, by undermining Islam's traditional value structure from within. The fact that Islam and the Bases of Political Authority continues to stimulate debate indicates the extent to which the issues that ῾Alī ῾Abd al‐Rāziq raised in 1925 still dominate Islamic discourse today.

See also Islamic State; Modernism; Secularism.


  • ῾Abd al‐Rāziq, ῾Alī. Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm: Ba῾th fī al‐khilāfah wa‐al‐ḥukūmah fī al‐Islām. Cairo, 1925.
  • ῾Ālim, Maḥmūd Amīn al‐. Thawrah fikrīyah … wa‐lākin: Ḥadīth ma῾a ṣāhib Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm (An Intellectual Revolution … with Qualifications: A Conversation with the Author of Islam and the Bases of Political Authority). Al‐muṣawwar 2191 (7 October 1966): 32–33. Interview with ῾Abd al‐Rāziq shortly before his death that highlights the inspirational effect of his work on the secular Left in Egypt in its struggle against the Islamist movement both within and outside the country.
  • Berque, Jacques. Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution. New York, 1972. Insightful commentary on some of the sociopolitical motivations behind the publication of Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm.
  • Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies. Chicago, 1988. Chapter 4 contains a comprehensive analysis of ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's arguments and the major criticisms of them.
  • Ḥaqqī, Mamdūḥ. Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm: Ba῾th fī al‐khilāfah wa‐al‐ḥukūmah fī al‐Islām: Naqd wa‐ta῾līq. Beirut, 1966. Contemporary critique of ῾Abd al‐Rāziq that argues for his faulty grasp of Islamic doctrine and corruption by the West.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arab Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London, 1962. Offers an excellent summary of the main arguments of Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm and its relationship to ῾Abduh and the Islamic reform movement in Egypt (pp. 183–192). Ḥusayn, Muḥammad al‐Khiḋr. Naqd kitāb al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm. Cairo, n.d. One of the main critiques of ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's work by a contemporary.
  • ῾Imārah, Muḥammad. Al‐Islām wa‐uṣūl al‐ḥukm li‐῾Alī ῾Abd al‐Rāziq. Beirut, 1972. Classic critique of ῾Abd al‐Rāziq's work that faults the author for a lack of understanding of Islamic history and for having fallen under the influence of Western liberalism.
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