Grand Mufti Muhammad Abduh [1849-1905]

Biographies, works and thoughts of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars throughout the ages.
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Arnold Yasin Mol

Grand Mufti Muhammad Abduh [1849-1905]

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Muhammad Abduh [1849-1905]

Muhammad Abduh

Egyptian reformer and pioneer of Islamic modernism and nationalism. Of peasant stock from Lower Egypt, Abduh (1849-1905) studied at the village Qur'an school, the Ahmadi mosque in Tanta, and the great mosque-university of al-Azhar in Cairo. Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and his apprenticeship with the Iranian pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) strongly influenced his outlook. When Afghani was expelled from Egypt in 1879, his disciple Abduh was dismissed from teaching duties at al-Azhar and returned to his village.

Abduh came back to Cairo in 1880 as editor of the government's Official Journal. Because he supported a revolt against Egypt's domination by Europeans and the Turkish-speaking elite in the army and palace, the British (after occupying Egypt in 1882) exiled Abduh to Beirut in what is now Lebanon.

In 1884 Abduh joined Afghani in Paris to publish a short-lived journal, The Indissoluble Bond, which preached Muslim unity against Western imperialism. In 1888 he returned to Egypt and became a judge on the National Courts; eleven years later he became grand mufti, Egypt's highest official interpreter of the shari'a (Islamic law). From his seat on al-Azhar's administrative council, he tried unsuccessfully to reform the institution. Conservatives blocked his efforts, and shortly before his death in 1905 he resigned in frustration.

Abduh and Afghani believed that Muslims everywhere must cooperate to reverse internal decline and counter European imperialism. They called for a return to the spirit of early Islam and a reinterpretation of the Quran and the sunna (precedent) of the prophet Muhammad in light of modern times. They believed that limited borrowing from Western ideas was permissible and that properly used reason could not conflict with religious revelation.

Traditional Islam, Mohammad Abduh argued, faced serious challenge by the modern, rational and scientific thought. But he did not believe that the faith of Islam in its pure and permanent core of norms clashed with science. Instead he asserted that the faith and scientific reason operate at different levels. The real Islam, he maintained: "had simple doctrinal structure: it consisted of certain beliefs about the greatest questions of human life, and certain general principles of human conduct. To enable us to reach these beliefs and embody them in our lives both reason and revelation are essential. They neither possess separate spheres nor conflict with each other in the same sphere..."

Abduh's aim was to interpret the Islamic law in such a way as to free it from the traditional interpretations and prove that Islam and modern Western civilization were compatible. Abduh was convinced of the supremacy of human reason. Religion merely supplements and aids reason. Reason sits in judgment on religion. Islam is, above all, the religion of reason and all its doctrines can be logically and rationally demonstrated.

Abduh was thus the chief exponent of what has been termed as the "Two-Book" school of thought which, though it basically holds the unity of God inseparable from the unity of truth, recognizes two open ways to it: the way of revelation and that of natural science. He contended that since God's purpose in marking His revelation was to promote human welfare, a true interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah should essentially be the one which best fulfils this purpose. He himself took the lead in this direction. As the Chief Mufti of Egypt, he issued fatwas ranging from the questions of law to those of social morality and employed the same measure of innovation and rationality in his interpretations, assessments and judgments. In matters of Islamic law, which governed Muslim family relationships, tirual duties, and personal conduct, Abduh tried to break through the rigidities of scholastic interpretation and to promote considerations of equity, welfare, and common sense, even if this occasionally meant disregarding the literal texts of the Quran.

Abduh's, rationalism is directed against inert traditional thinking and blind observance of the medieval interpretation of Islam. Also. It is designed to vindicate and defend religion, to adapt it to the new times, and to reconcile it with science. It would be a mistake to think, however, that Abduh and other Muslim reformers confine themselves exclusively to justifying and modernizing religion. Despite the narrowness of their concepts they are sincerely interested in eliminating the obstacles to the development of science and technology essential for the revival of the Muslim peoples and for economic and cultural progress. What they want, however, is to use scientific achievements without heed of the world outlook implicit in science.

Abduh deplored the blind acceptance of traditional doctrines and customs and asserted that a return to the pristine faith of the earliest age of Islam not only would restore the Muslims' spiritual vitality but would provide an enlightened criterion for the assimilation of modern scientific culture.

In his Tafseer of the Quran he says:

“ 1. The primary purpose of the Qur’an is to affirm the Tawhid, the unicity of God, and all other subsequent doctrines that affirm God’s action of revelation, the sending of prophets, and the reality of resurrection and human recompense.

2. The Qur’an is a complete and comprehensive revelation; believers cannot be selective in what portions they choose to adhere to.

3. The Qur’an is the primary source for legislation for a righteous society. (While Abduh endorsed the use of reason and science in understanding the text he insisted that social life is to be organized according to the teachings of the Qur’an.)

4. Muslims should not imitate their forebears in interpreting the Qur’an, but must be authentic and true to their own understanding.

5. Reason and reflection should be utilized in interpreting the Qur’an. (Abduh saw the Qur’an as urging people to search and think about the revelation as well as to know the laws and principles that govern the universe in order to understand.)

“The Qur’an is worthy of being called the book of freedom of thought, of respect for reason and for the shaping of the individual through research, knowledge and the use of reason and reflection.”

[Tafseer Al-Fatiha, Muhammed Abduh, Rashid Rida (ed.). Cairo]

His Works:
Risalat at-Tawhid -1898 (Arabic)
The Theology of Unity ('Risalat at-Tawhid')
Tafsir al-Manar v1, v2, v3, v4, v5, v6, v7, v8, v9, v10, v11, v12 (Arabic)
Tafsir ul Quran ul Kareem - Tafsir juz Amma -1904 (Arabic)
Al Islam Wal Nasraniyat (Arabic)
Al Islam Aur Nasraniyat (Urdu)

See for the above books:

They are free for download.
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