Bookmark and Share

Open the online Arabic language course

Muhammad Abduh
Arabic: muhammad ¢abduh

Muhammad Abduh

(1849-1905) Egyptian Muslim reformer and jurist, effectively one of the founders of the Islamic orientation Salafism, a moderate forerunner to modern Islamism. He was mufti of Egypt 1899-1905.
Abduh's aims were to reform Muslim societies from the dominance of a conservative understanding of the religion. His views changed through his life, from an initial view of opposition to Western influence, into admiration of Western values and the will to allow Western-style changes to the societies. His aim was a syntheses of Western civilization and fundamental Muslim ideas.
Abduh's theory was based upon the concept of the pious forefathers, the salafiyya, the first Muslims. He asserted that they represented a rational and practical understanding of the society. From this, he claimed that Islam was fully capable to adjust to modernity. He claimed that ijtihad, individual judgement based upon case law or past precedent, still could be performed.
Abduh rejected the common idea that the entire Koran was divinely inspired. Rather he ascribed many parts of it to the personal thinking of Muhammad himself. He advocated that the Koran should be understood by reasoning, rather than literally. Still, he claimed that the principles Koran were the only tool by which the human mind truly could understand the difference between right and wrong, indirectly casting doubt on the validity of the hadiths and the sunna of Muhammad.
Central values for Abduh were therefore human reasoning, the centrality of the free will and a society of equity and welfare. Moreover, he advocated cooperation with the British to reform schools and the judicial systems, thereby even casing doubt on the validity of Muslim Law, Sharia.
Abduh's teaching was very much based on the conservative schools of Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qaiyim al-Jawziya and the ethics of al-Ghazzali. He was also influenced by Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, but since the middle of the 1880's their ideas departed.
Abduh was very active introducing reforms during his 6 years as mufti of Egypt. He reformed Muslim institutions, life waqfs, and allowed limited interests on loans. He caused much debate by his permission for Muslims to eat meat slaughtered by Christians or Jews.
In addition to numerous articles, Abduh published two books, the theological "Treatise on the Oneness of God" (1897) and "Islam and Christianity on Science and Civilization" (1902). In the latter he promotes the idea that Islam is superior to Christianity in its ability to adapt to modern science and a modern society. Of his third work, a commentary on the Koran, only fractions were published while he was alive, but the work was completed in his spirit by his disciple and friend Rashid Rida.
His efforts would meet strong opposition by both the khedive Abbas 2 Hilmi and the nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil.
From Abduh's theory of the salafiyya developed the movement known today as salafism. Abduh's theories would be central in the development of Hassan al-Banna Islamist theories.

1849: Born in the village Mahallat Nasr in the Nile Delta area to a Turkomen father and an Egyptian mother.
1862: Starts at the theological school in Tanta, but would leave it discouraged.
1866: Begins studying at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, begins devoting himself to mysticism and leading an ascetic life.
1872: Comes in contact with Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, who introduces him to Western sciences and the importance of contemporary problems in society.
1877: Graduates from al-Azhar with a certificate of a scholar.
1879: Is dismissed from a job as a teacher, probably because of his links to al-Afghani, who is expelled from Egypt.
1880: A new ministry makes Abduh chief editor of the Official Egyptian Gazette, the oldest Arab newspaper. He published his resistance to British and French involvement in Egyptian politics.
1882: Is exiled from Egypt after the British military occupation of Egypt.
1884: Settles briefly in Paris, cooperating with al-Afghani.
1885: Moves to Beirut. This move would effectively also mean a break with al-Afghani.
1888: Is permitted to return to Egypt, and begins a judicial career.
1891: Is appointed judge at the Court of Appeal.
1894: Becomes a member of the supreme council of al-Azhar.
1899: After gradually changing his views on foreign influence on Egypt, Abduh becomes mufti of Egypt as a result of help from the British.
1905 July 11: Dies in Alexandria.

By Tore Kjeilen