'Abduh, Muhammad (1849-1905)

The Egyptian reformer and Muslim apologist Muhammad 'Abduh was a pupil and friend of al-Afghani. Although deeply influenced by him, 'Abduh was less inclined to political activism and concentrated on religious, legal and educational reform. His best-known writings are a theological treatise, Risalat al-tawhid (translated into English as The Theology of Unity), and an unfinished Qur'anic commentary, Tafsir al-manar (The Manar Commentary), on which he collaborated with Rashid Rida. One of the key themes of these works is that since modernity is based on reason, Islam must be compatible with it. But 'Abduh's 'modernism' went hand in hand with returning to an idealized past, and his 'rationalism' was tempered by a belief in divine transcendence which limits the scope of intellectual inquiry. In ethics as in theology, he regarded the classical debates as arid and divisive, although on the issues of free will and moral law his position was in fact similar to that of the Mu'tazila.

  1. Faith and reason
  2. Ethics

1. Faith and reason

'Abduh trained as an 'alim (religious scholar) at al-Azhar where, under al-Afghani's influence, he developed an interest in Islamic philosophy and a revulsion for traditional teaching methods which encouraged taqlid, the unquestioning acceptance of received opinion. The rational liberalism which he imbibed from al-Afghani was, however, only one facet of his thought. In his youth he was drawn to Sufism and, despite his subsequent attacks on popular superstition, he seems never to have lost his respect for those who in some conditions 'have access in part to the ultimate mysteries and true insights into the visionary world' (Risalat al-tawhid, in Musa'ad and Cragg 1966: 97) (see Mystical philosophy in Islam). A third influence - the one which is dominant in the Risalat al-tawhid (The Theology of Unity) and the Tafsir al-manar (The Manar Commentary) - is that of the fourteenth-century Hanbalite jurist Ibn Taymiyya, who fuelled his desire to purify Islam of later accretions and return to the essentials of the faith as practised by the first generations of Muslims.

'Abduh believed that Islam was the one true religion based on reason and revelation, but that in the course of time it had become distorted by various extrinsic factors. For instance, whereas the Qur'an fosters the scientific spirit by directing man to inquire rationally into the workings of the universe, the Islamic philosophers had uncritically accepted the theories of matter and physics propounded by Plato and Aristotle, with the result that the Islamic world had come to lag behind Europe in science and technology. His rejection of Greek philosophy in favour of modern science was, however, only partial. He accepted the distinction between necessary being, possible things and impossible things, using it to prove the existence of God. He also accepted the distinction between essences and accidents, arguing that reason gives us knowledge of the latter but not of the former. A corollary of this is that it is pointless for theologians to argue about the divine attributes because we cannot know their nature (see Islamic theology).

2. Ethics

On the issue of free will versus predestination, 'Abduh's starting point is the recognition that the man of sound mind is conscious of acts which stem from his volition:

He weighs them and their consequences in his mind and evaluates them in his will, and then effectuates them by an inward power. To deny any of this would be tantamount to a denial of his existence itself, so opposed would it be to rational evidence.

(Risalat al-tawhid, in Musa'ad and Cragg 1966: 62)

However, 'Abduh is equally insistent that all events in the world are ordered by God in accordance with his knowledge and will. He rejects further inquiry into how human freedom and divine prescience can be reconciled, on the grounds that such speculation is forbidden.

In discussing the moral law, 'Abduh again begins with an appeal to common sense, arguing that we have no difficulty in recognizing our voluntary actions as good or bad in themselves or by reference to their particular or general consequences. If actions are self-evidently good or bad in the absolute way in which 'Abduh alleges, however, it might be thought that religion is unnecessary. On the contrary, in matters of right and wrong, rational proof will not obviate conflict because people differ in intelligence, the vast majority being unable to understand Platonic philosophy or Aristotelian logic. Moreover, because of its stress on God's pleasure and wrath, religion has a greater impact on ordinary folk than the moralist's claim that some acts are beneficial and others harmful. In any case there are some elements of the Qur'anic revelation which could not be known by unaided reason. These include the certainty of the afterlife, and the various ritual prescriptions.

All this is far-removed from the traditional Ash'arite position. It is possible that here 'Abduh was influenced by Mu'tazilism as mediated by al-Afghani's Shi'ism, or less probably that we should detect the influence of Kantian philosophy. There seems little doubt, however, that his ethical thinking was moulded by the needs of apologetics. This is particularly clear in his essay on Islam and Christianity, in which he replied to Hanotaux, a French cabinet minister who had contrasted the Semitic mentality of Islam - with its transcendentalism, predestinarianism and contempt for individuals - with the Aryan humanism of Christianity, which through the Trinity raised human dignity to that of God.

See also: al-Afghani; Islamic philosophy, modern

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

'Abduh, M. (1874) Risalat al-waridat (Treatise of Mystical Inspirations), Cairo.

'Abduh, M. (1876) Hashiyya 'ala sharh al-Dawwani li 'l-'aqa'id al-adudiyya (Gloss on Dawwani's Commentary on the Sentences of Adud al-Din al-Iji), Cairo.

'Abduh, M. (1897) Risalat al-tawhid (The Theology of Unity), Cairo; trans. I. Musa'ad and K. Cragg, The Theology of Unity, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966. (One of 'Abduh's major works on philosophical theology.)

'Abduh, M. (1902) al-Islam wa-'l-nasraniyya ma'a al-'ilm wa 'l-madaniyya (Islam and Christianity in Relation to Science and Civilization), Cairo.

'Abduh, M. and Rida, M.R. (1927-36) Tafsir al-Qur'an al-hakim (Commentary on the Wise Qur'an), Cairo. (Commentary on the Wise Qur'an usually referred to as Tafsir al-manar because it originally appeared in instalments in the journal al-Manar).

References and further reading

Abu Rabi, I. (1996) 'The Arab World', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 64, 1082-1114. (Detailed description of the various ways in which modern Arabic philosophy has responded to the issues of modernity and Westernization.)

Adams, C.C. (1933) Islam and Modernism in Egypt, London: Oxford University Press. (Classic work, unsurpassed despite its early date.)

Amin, O. (1944) Muhammad Abduh essai sur les idées philosophiques et religieuses (Muhammad 'Abduh, Essay on his Philosophical and Religious Ideas), Washington, DC. (English translation of the standard Arabic biography.)

Badawi, M.A.Z. (1978) The Reformers of Egypt, London: Croom Helm. (Critical analysis by an Egyptian scholar of the views of al-Afghani, 'Abduh and Rida.)

Hourani, A. (1983) Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Devotes only thirty pages specifically to 'Abduh, but strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to situate his work in its historical context.)

Jomier, J. (1954) Le commentaire coranique du Manar: tendances modernes de l'exégèse coranique en Égypte (The Manar Commentary on the Qur'an: Modern Trends in Qur'anic Exegesis in Egypt), Paris: Maisonneuve. (Painstaking thematic analysis of the Qur'anic commentary by a French Dominican; particularly valuable because of the way in which it distinguishes between the views of 'Abduh and Rida.)

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