What did Muhammad Abduh do?

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Author: LISA KAAKI, [email protected]

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) is mostly known as Islam’s leading modernist, yet few are aware of the true nature of his legacy. In this first comprehensive biography to be published by a Western scholar since 1933, Mark Sedgwick tries to explain, what his modernism consisted in, where it came from and what happened to it after his death.

Mark Sedgwick, currently associate professor of Arab history at Aarhus University, previously taught for a number of years at the American University of Cairo. “The 1933 biography of Muhammad Abduh was written by an AUC scholar, so it is appropriate that most of this book was written while I was working at AUC,” writes Sedgwick.
Muhammad Abduh was amongst the first Arabic-speaking Muslims to travel to Europe. He, consequently, developed a deep and extensive knowledge of its social and political thought which played an essential role in his religious career. He was appointed Mufti of the Egyptian Realm in 1899. Yet nothing in Muhammad Abduh’s childhood would foretell such a brilliant future.
He was born to a small family of farmers, in Mahallat Nasr, an Egyptian village located in the vast fertile Delta, that extends from the Mediterranean coast to Cairo. His father was able to hire a private Qur’an teacher, who helped him memorize the Qur’an, at the age of 12. Although, that was not considered a young age at the time, it enabled him to leave for Tanta, where he attended the great mosque school.
He did not enjoy the way the teaching was done as students were not allowed to ask questions neither during the lesson nor after. He eventually ran away after 18 months, but a stepbrother returned him to Tanta. He fled a second time, and returned to his village. At that point, he had decided to become a farmer like his father. He also got married. Although he was only 16, that was considered a normal age at the time. After a 40-day honeymoon, he finally returned to finish his schooling in Tanta.
Muhammed Abduh wrote later that he had not learned anything during the time he spent there and he complained that: “The teachers were accustomed to use technical terms of grammar or jurisprudence which we did not understand, nor did they take any pauses to explain their meaning.”
When he was 17, Muhammad Abduh finally made it to the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, one of the leading centers of scholarship in the Muslim world. It gave a chance to poor students to follow higher studies and become scholars, teachers or judges.
Muhammad Abduh’s stay at Al-Azhar was uneventful until he met the Persian Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani who was tutoring privately a small group of students, including Saad Zaghlul who became one of Egypt’s most successful prime ministers. Both, Muhammad Abduh and Saad Zaghlul were happy with Afghani’s way of teaching. He discussed the texts with his students and encouraged them to ask questions and this was a novelty at the time.
After he graduated at the age of 28, Muhammad Abduh taught at the Azhar for two years but according to the author, “his activities over the years following his graduation, however, had little or nothing to do with Islam. Although he would later become world famous as a religious figure, we catch only occasional glimpses of his own stance on religious questions during this period.”
At about the same time, Muhammad Abduh joined a Masonic lodge, the Kawkab Al-Sharq (Star of the East). Its members included Prince Tawfiq, the Khedive’s son and heir, leading personalities such as Muhammad Sharif Pasha who had been a minister, Sulayman Abaza Pasha and Saad Zaghlul.
Although most Muslims believe today that Freemasonry is un-Islamic, the Muslim elites in the 19th century did not share such views. Alexander Broadley, a Freemason and the lawyer, who defended Muhammad Abduh after the Urabi Revolt failed, wrote that:
“The Egyptian patriots found a strange fascination in the mystic tie which was to unite all men in the common bond of liberty, and believed the same machinery which had helped the Italians in their struggle for freedom and unity would materially assist the Egyptian cause.”
As a direct result of his political activities, notably, his participation in the Urabi revolt, Muhammad Abduh was exiled.
After spending time in Damascus and Beirut, he joined Afghani and other exiled Egyptians, in Paris in 1884. Both published a newspaper, Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa, between March and October 1884. This short lived publication was highly innovative at the time, and it is the first example of what is now referred as radical Islamist journalism, whereby Islam is also used for political ends.
After the last issue of Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa was released, Muhammad Abduh left Paris for Tunis where he wrote his last known letter to Afghani.  He no longer wanted to participate in Afghani’s struggle against European power and any form of despotic rule. He wrote that “the interests of the Muslims have become inextricably interwoven with the interests of the Europeans in every country in the world” and believed that it was wiser to cooperate with Europe.
He then returned to Beirut where he taught history and theology at the Sultaniyya School. The lectures he delivered there were published as Risalat Al-Tawhid which became one of his most celebrated work.
Despite his success in Beirut, Muhammad Abduh was longing to return to Egypt. As a result of the Urabi revolt, the British occupied permanently Egypt and Sir Evelyn Baring, better known as Lord Cromer (after he was ennobled) was effectively, the most powerful man in the country. He made it possible for Muhammad Abduh to come back to Egypt. The Khedive Tawfiq still believed Muhammad Abduh was politically dangerous, and he sent him as a judge in the small rural town of Banha. His fate, however, changed for the best when Abbas Hilmi, the last khedive of Egypt succeeded his father. He chose, Muhammad Abduh, in 1893 as a member of  a commission, whose aim was to propose a curricula reform for the Azhar, a task Muhammad had in mind since the time, he spent there as a student.
Six years later, the Khedive appointed Muhammad Abduh, Mufti of the Egyptian Realm. From the beginning, the Azhar was hostile to him. He was also attacked in the press. Himarat Munyati, a publication, although short lived, blamed the Mufti for preferring to visit Europe rather than going to Makkah for the Haj.
Moreover, Muhammad Abduh also had personal problems with the Khedive when he sided several times with the British. On one occasion, he accepted the British proposal to ban Egyptian participation in the annual Haj as a medical precaution because a cholera epidemic had spread in the Philippines. This was opposed by the Khedive, the rector of the Azhar and the prime minister. In the end, Egyptians participated in the Haj and brought cholera back to Egypt which caused 34,600 deaths. After the Khedive criticized publicly Muhammad Abduh, the mufti lost the little support he was receiving from students at the Azhar. Lord Cromer refused to accept the removal of Muhammad Abduh but the latter had already made up his mind to resign from all his duties and obligations.
He died four months later on July 11, 1905 and was given a state funeral. Soon after his death, two of his dearest projects were implemented: The school for Shariah Court judges and the Egyptian University, later known as Cairo University.
Muhammad Abduh was an exceptional ulema for his time. Unlike most religious figures of his time, he had travelled extensively. He was also an intellectual with a deep knowledge of the most prominent political and social thinkers of his time.
Mark Sedgwick is right to point out that Muhammad Abduh did not revive true Islam but “he attempted to address the problems of Egypt through Islam, creating in the process a certain synthesis of Islam and modern thought, thought that was modern in terms of the 19th century, not of the 20th or 21st.”
This biography is remarkable by its clarity. The chronological approach gives a direct view into the amazing life of a remarkable individual who became one of the most powerful Muslims of his time.
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