Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905)

Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905)
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Remembering the Legacy of a Pioneering Egyptian Reformist Thinker


Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

During the 19th century, half of the Islamic world passed under the formal colonial rule of European states—which were militarily and economically mighty countries and thus ruled and controlled vast Muslims lands. The reaction of the Islamic intelligentsia to this overpowering control from without was one of reform and revival from within, headed by socio-political reformers. Among these reformers/ pioneering figures, in the Arab world, one of the outstanding figures was Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)—the chief disciple of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97: the propagator of the theory of ‘Pan-Islamism’)—who is often seen as “the founder/ founder of Egyptian modernism”, and is best known as “one of the chief founders of the rationalist and modernist movement (Salafism)”; and a multi-dimensional personality whose name became “synonymous with Islamic reform”.
There is no doubt that much has been written on the life, legacy, thought, contribution, etc. of these pioneering reformist thinkers, individually and collectively, whether of the Arab world or of South Asia. On Arab thinkers in general, and on Abduh’s legacy, some of the significant books (in English) are: Charles Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (1933); Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962); Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (1966); and Mark Sedgwick, Muhammad Abduh (2010). However, there is no such comprehensive and research-oriented work in Urdu language on the life and legacy of Abduh. To meet this need, and fill this gap, Dr Ab Hamid Lone (Associate Professor of Arabic, Higher Education Department, J&K; and presently posted at GDC Pulwama) has authored a book on the life and legacy of Muhammad Abduh, in Urdu language. This work is actually a modified version of his PhD Thesis, carried out at University of Kashmir. The full title of the book is “Imam Muhammad Abduh: Hayat-o-Khidmat” (Muhammad Abduh: Life & Legacy)—one of the founders/ pioneers of ‘Modern Reform Movement of Islamic World’, published from Srinagar by Takbeer Publications, in 2014. The book consists of five (5) main chapters and is preceded by ‘Publisher’s Note’ by renowned prominent Urdu scholar-academician, Dr Jauhar Qudussi (p. 6), ‘Foreword’ by Dr M. Muzaffar Hussain Nadwi—a renowned scholar-academician of Arabic (pp. 9-12), ‘Preface’ (pp. 13-28) and ‘Acknowledgements’ (pp. 27-29) by the author, and is followed by the Bibliography (pp. 353-368)—which is categorized into Arabic, Urdu, English Books, and Magazines & Journals (Arabic, Urdu & English), and manifests the author’s research aptitude. The five (5) chapters discuss: The Renaissance Era (pp. 29-76); Reformation (and Reformative activities) during the 19th Century (pp. 77-112); Imam Muhammad Abduh: Early Life and Activities (pp. 113-172); Abduh’s Contribution in the field of Arabic Literature (pp. 173-268); and Abduh’s Religious Thought and Legacy (pp. 269- 352). Below is provided an assessment of this work.
It is apt to begin by the views of Dr(s) Qudussi and Nadwi about the contribution of Dr Lone—as both summarize the contribution of this book very aptly and pertinently. Dr Qudussi writes that in this book, the author “has presented the history of Egypt, before the emergence of Abduh and after his death as well—from social, cultural, historical and religious perspectives. … Discussions revolving around the intellectual, cultural, as well as social transformations that took place in Egypt during Abduh’s era also form inevitable part of this book. The book discusses the life, education, teachers, different phases of Abduh’s formation of thought and activities. Furthermore, an examination and investigation of Abduh’s intellectual, literary, and religious thought and contribution vis-à-vis his impact on modern Arabic language, is highlighted in detailed manner” (p.6). While as, Dr Nadwi highlights, and summarizes, the contribution of Dr Lone, in these words: “Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, a multi-dimensional personality, who, in his life-span of 56 years, was able to achieve such great achievements which otherwise are not achieved even by an organization in a century”. He lays emphases on the fact that “Muhammad Abduh’s tafsir al-Manar, his prose and poetry, and his writings in the (journal) al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, are the mirror/ reflection of his reformative (Tajaduddi) thought; and to (re) understand them is the dire need of the hour”. Dr Nadwi also mentions that it was he who insisted the author to publish his PhD thesis in book form, keeping in view the importance and significance of the topic, so that the student community in general, and the lovers of Arabic literature and history in particular will be benefited from such a marvelous contribution (pp. 9, 12). Here is presented a brief assessment of each chapter:
In the Preface, the author highlights the social and intellectual scenario prevalent at the time of birth and growth of Abduh, and the factors that made Abduh what he was: ‘an Egyptian religious scholar, jurist, and leader of a major social reform movement in the Muslim world who advocated a modernist reinterpretation of Islam’; ‘one of the most influential Muslim reformers and jurists of the nineteenth century’; ‘the founder of Egyptian modernism’; ‘one of the chief founders of the rationalist and modernist movement (Salafism)’; a multi-dimensional personality whose name became ‘synonymous with Islamic reform’, and above all grand mufti of Egypt, and thus was very aptly titled as ‘Al-Ustadh al-Imam’, ‘Al-Shaykh’, and ‘Al-Rayid’, etc.—which gives an impression of his great personality and his contribution. A quick look into the different phases of his life, one becomes aware of the transformations that took place in the thought and activities of Abduh. And his life and legacy has had a great impact on his contemporaries, whether in the different countries of the Arab world, or in South Asia, and on the generations to come. Keeping in view this very aspect, and on this very rationale, the author took an initiative (in Urdu language) to highlight the contribution of Abduh in various aspects—literary, cultural, journalistic, intellectual, religious, ethical, political, and educational—and to present them in such a way so that it provides us guidelines for dealing with the issues confronting to the Muslim world at present.
Thus, it becomes evident that the author has initiated (in chapter 1) by dealing, and highlighting, the political, religious, as well social and intellectual conditions of Egypt (p. 30-54), as it were these conditions that contributed in the (trans) formation of Abduh’s personality and thought. He has given due attention to French Invasion on Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 and its impact—which was a ‘turning point in the history of modern Egypt’, emergence of Press, and the establishment of Al-Majma al-Ilmi al-Misiri: Importance and Contribution.
In chapter 2 the author has highlighted these issues in a detailed manner: Muhammad Ali Pasha’s contribution in the Social, Cultural, and Intellectual life of Egypt (who is regarded as the ‘founder of modern Egypt’); Emergence and Development of Journalism and Journalistic Activities, Rifah Tahtawi and his literary contribution, and ‘Madrasatul Al-Alsan’.
The focus of chapter 3 is Abduh’s birth (1849), family background, growth, education, involvement with Al-Azhar, and his joining with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Abduh’s role as teacher and journalist, his role in the ‘Urabi Movement’, his exile, and the times up to his death in July 1905.
In the next two chapters—which can be described as the hub and heart of this work—Abduh’s literary activities, his contribution in the field of Arabic Literature (pp. 173-268), and Abduh’s Religious Thought and Legacy (pp. 269- 352) are discussed in a detailed way. In 4th chapter, Abduh’s journalistic activities, his writings, and an overview of his major works is provided; some of them include: Risalah al-Tawhid (1897; it has been translated as ‘The Theology of Unity’ by Ishaq Musa and Kenneth Cragg, and published from London in 1966), which is considered a masterpiece in Arabic language due to its didactic language and style, and is regarded ‘a classic on the conception of God’; Taqreer fi Islah al-Muhakkim al-Shariah (1900), which is on the reforms regarding Shari’ah courts; ‘al-Islam wa al-Nasraniyyah’ (Islam and Christianity; 1901); and his works on tafsir like Tafsir Surah al-Asr (1903), Tafsir Para-‘Am (1904), and Tafsir Surah al-Fatiha (1905), and most importantly his Tafsir al-Quran al-Hakim, which is more famous as ‘Tafsir al-Manar’, compiled (and completed) by his student Rashid Rida, and published in 1931. Also, some light is thrown on the poetry of Abduh, which is followed by a detailed discussion on the prose works of Abduh and their literary style and significance. Regarding these works, for example Albert Hourani is of the opinion that “Abduh’s purpose in all the acts of his life as well as writings was to bridge the gulf within Islamic society and in so doing to strengthen its moral roots”.
In the 5th chapter Abduh’s religious thought and legacy is highlighted, under these headings: Abduh’s religio-political thought; his views on Ijtihad; Abduh and Afghani; Abduh and his stay and reforms at al-Azhar; a detailed survey of Tafsir al-Manar; and is followed by a section on Rashid Rida as a great disciple of Abduh. It is pertinent to mention here that Abduh was always in favor of, and propagated the compatibility between revelation and reason (Islam and science), and on studying both traditional and modern sciences. On this, H.A. R. Gibb has rightly said that Abduh bridged the “widening gap between the traditional learning, and the new traditionalism introduced from the west”. Abduh, and “his writings formed”, Gibb continues, “and still form, a shield, a support, and a weapon for the social and political reformers”. The author has discussed—by using and utilizing the sources available in Arabic, English, and some in Urdu—very minutely the different aspects of multi-dimensional personality of Abduh, who has contributed in different aspects of society: Arabic language and literature, socio-political issues, religious or educational aspects, and to the theology and tafsir, and above to the process of revival, reform, and Ijtihad.
Having highlighted all these aspects of multi-dimensional personality of Abduh, and his contribution in various aspects—literary, cultural, journalistic, intellectual, religious, ethical, political, and educational—Dr Lone’s work is a substantial addition to the scholarship on reform and reformist thought in general and on the contribution of Abduh in particular, and being in Urdu is its uniqueness. However, the only shortcoming and deficiency of this work is that the author has not taken any pains to translate the quotations (excerpts and statements) from Arabic and English into Urdu. Hope in the next addition the learned writer will take this issue into serious consideration, and will make efforts to translate these Arabic and English quotations—which appear in all chapters, and very frequently throughout the book—in Urdu so that to have a smooth reading and understating of Abduh’s thought, vision, and legacy. Thus, in sum, Dr Lone’s book is a significant contribution on the life and legacy of Egyptian reformer in Urdu language, and will prove helpful to all the scholars of Arabic history and literature and to students and researchers of Islamic studies as well.

—Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. Feedback at 7298582821 or

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