Who Was Muhammad Abduh

Muslim Matters

Who Was Muhammad Abduh

Adapted by TMO from Wikipedia

200px-Muhammad_Abduh Muhammad Abduh (or Muhammad ‘Abduh) (Arabic: محمد عبده‎) (Nile Delta, 1849 – Alexandria, July 11, 1905) was an Egyptian jurist, religious scholar and liberal reformer, regarded as the founder of Islamic Modernism. A recent book titled “Islam and Liberty” regarded Muhammad Abduh as the founder of the so-called Neo-Mutazilism.


Muhammad Abduh was born in 1849 into a family of peasants in Lower Egypt. He was educated by a private tutor and a reciter of the Quran. When he turned thirteen he was sent to the AhmadÄ« mosque which was one of the largest educational institutions in Egypt. A while later Abduh ran away from school and got married. He enrolled at al-Azhar in 1866.  Abduh studied logic, philosophy and mysticism at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was a student of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a philosopher and religious reformer who advocated Pan-Islamism to resist European colonialism. Under al-Afghani’s influence, Abduh combined journalism, politics, and his own fascination in mystic spirituality. Al-Afghani taught Abduh about the problems of Egypt and the Islamic world and about the technological achievements of the west. Under the influence of al-Afghani, Abduh joined the Freemasons and learnt about Muslim classics in the fields of astronomy, logic, metaphysics, theology, and mysticism.  Together, Afghani and Abduh helped to establish Salafism at Al Azhar in the 19th century, based on Abduh’s argument that the early companions had a vibrant political form of Islam.

In 1877, Abduh was granted the degree of Alim and he started to teach logic, theology and ethics at al-Azhar. He was appointed professor of history at Cairo’s teachers’ training college Dār al-UlÅ«m in 1878. He was also appointed to teach Arabic at the Khedivial School of Languages.  Abduh was appointed editor and chief of al-Waqā`i al-Misriyya, the official newspaper of the state. He was dedicated to reforming all aspects of Egyptian society. He believed that education was the best way to achieve this goal. He was in favor of a good religious education which would strengthen a child’s morals and a scientific education which would nurture a child’s ability to reason. In his articles he criticized the luxurious lives of the rich, corruption and superstition.

He was exiled from Egypt in 1882 for six years, for supporting the Urabi Revolt. He had stated that every society should be allowed to choose a suitable form of government based on its history and its present circumstances. Abduh spent several years in Lebanon where he helped establish an Islamic educational system. In 1884 he moved to Paris, France where he joined al-Afghani in publishing The Firmest Bond (al-Urwah al-Wuthqa), an Islamic revolutionary journal that promoted anti-British views. Abduh also visited Britain and discussed the state of Egypt and Sudan with high-ranking officials. In 1885, he returned to Beirut and was surrounded by scholars with different religious backgrounds. In Beirut he taught the biography of the prophet and he delivered a series of lectures on theology. He published many articles in the Beirut paper and also helped form a secret society in Beirut which was dedicated to furthering respect and friendship between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

When he returned to Egypt in 1888, Abduh began his legal career. He was appointed judge in the Courts of First Instance of the Native Tribunals and in 1890, he became a consultative member of the Court of Appeal. In 1899, he was appointed Mufti of Egypt and he held this position until he died. While he was in Egypt, Abduh founded a religious society, became president of a society for the revival of Arab sciences and worked towards reforming al-Azhar by putting forth proposals to improve examinations, the curriculum and the working conditions for both professors and students. He travelled a great deal and met with European scholars in Cambridge and Oxford. He studied French law and read a great many European and Arab works in the libraries of Vienna and Berlin. The conclusions he drew from his travels were that Muslims suffer from ignorance about their own religion and the despotism of unjust rulers.

Muhammad Abduh died on 11 July 1905. People from all around the world sent their condolences.


Mohammad Abduh wanted to make Islam compatible with nineteenth-century rationalism. According to him Muslims could not simply rely on the interpretations of texts provided by medieval clerics, they needed to use reason to keep up with changing times. He said that in Islam man was not created to be led by a bridle, man was given intelligence so that he could be guided by knowledge. According to Abduh, a teacher’s role was to direct men towards study. He believed that Islam encouraged men to detach from the world of their ancestors and that Islam reproved the slavish imitation of tradition. He said that the two greatest possessions relating to religion that man was graced with was independence of will and independence of thought and opinion. It was with the help of these tools that he could attain happiness. He believed that the growth of western civilization in Europe was based on these two principles. He thought that Europeans were roused to act after a large number of them were able to exercise their choice and to seek out facts with their minds.

His Muslim opponents refer to him as an infidel; however, his followers called him a sage, a reviver of religion and a reforming leader. He is conventionally graced with the epithets “al-Ustādh al-Imām” and “al-Shaykh al-Muftī”. In his works, he portrays God as educating humanity from its childhood through its youth and then on to adulthood. According to him, Islam is the only religion whose dogmas can be proven by reasoning. Abduh does not advocate returning to the early stages of Islam. He was against polygamy and thought that it was an archaic custom. He believed in a form of Islam that would liberate men from enslavement, provide equal rights for all human beings, abolish the religious scholar’s monopoly on exegesis and abolish racial discrimination and religious compulsion.


facebook comments