By Saima Sofi
It was by the mid nineteenth century that the reform movements in the Maghreb (region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea) were concerned with the same fundamental questions as other Muslims: Why had Muslim countries weakened to the point of becoming colonies of European powers and how could they stop and reverse this decline?
In trying to determine the causes of Muslim decline, Maghrebi thinkers offered two basic explanations: the first being, moving away from the pure Islam and the second being, the loss of rationalist and scientific thinking. The reformist thinkers in the Maghreb, following the example of reformers like Jamal-al-din Afghani(1838-1899), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), sought to restore Islam’s rationalist spirit through ijtihad (the independent interpretation of Islamic scriptural and legal sources); and to eliminate those factors they considered responsible for Muslim decline.
Muhammad Rashid bin Ali Rida being one of them, was a well-known figure of the modernist intellectual Salafiyyah Movement. He was born at Qalamun, a village near Tripoli in Northern Lebanon. His early education consisted of training in traditional Islamic subjects. Rida like Jamal al Afghani was concerned with both Islamic Religious Reform and strengthening the Muslim world in order to ward off western imperialist designs on Muslim lands. His reformist views began to form in 1884-1885 when he first exposed to Jamal-al-din Afghani’s and Muhammad Abduh’s journal Al Urwat-ul-Wuthqa (the firm bond).
Al Urwa-al-Wuthqa and its impression on Rida
It was the first journal calling for the revival of Islam, or that of Islamic Ummah and its civilization, published in Paris during an eight month period in 1884. Though short lived, it had an eminent impact on the Islamic countries. It gave serious warning to the dangers of Western Colonialism and called for a reform of the Ummah and exercise of ijtihad, to face the challenges of the time. Among the younger generation who received the message of this pioneering journal was the young Muhammad Rashid Rida of Syria. It was due the influence of this journal that Rida chose to join Muhammad Abduh (the editor in chief of this journal). Rida after arriving at
Cairo in 1897 joined Muhammad Abduh and emerged as his leading pupil during his lifetime, and since after his death as his biographer. It was the following year that Rida launched Al-Manar.
Launching of Al-Manar
Soon after his arrival in Cairo, Rashid Rida embarked on his venture in journalism. Al-Manar appeared on 22nd of Shawwal A.H 1315(March 17, 1898) as a weekly journal which was a mouthpiece for the propagation of Abduh’s doctrines and the accomplishment of his reforms.
“Manar” in Arabic means a “lighthouse”. The journal tried to be a lighthouse in the turbulent ocean where all Islamic ships were suffering the awful storm of the modern world, (metaphorically speaking).
Rida’s contribution to Islamist political thought
It was the corruption and tyranny of Muslim rulers throughout the history that has been the central theme in Rida’s criticisms. He held that Islam, the religion was not responsible for Muslims’ sorry state of affairs. He blamed instead, the temporal and religious leaders of the Muslims- the umara and the ulama. In a series of articles entitled as Rabbana inna atana sadatana wa kubaraana fa adalluna al sabila (Oh our Lord, our own Masters and Leaders have led us astray) Rida held that the umara had permitted freedom in unbelief and substituted secular laws for the shari‘ah. The corruption of umara, he charged was exceeded by the corruption of the ulama who busied themselves with seeking the favours of the rulers. Rida promoted a restoration or rejuvenation of the Caliphate for Islamic Unity. For this he formulated a theory of Islamic Khilafah (Caliphate), which can be summed up in following eight points:-
The khilafa (Caliphate) is the sole legitimate Islamic polity for the ummah;
It must be reinstituted in such a manner that it can function under contemporary conditions;
Government must be run by the council of Shura(consultation),which is comprised of Ahl al hall wa al ‘aqd (people of authority);
The khalifa(Caliph) will represent the government, and he must be a qualified mujtahid, well- versed in Islamic knowledge and capable of exercising independent reasoning to guarantee rule by al-Sharia;
He must be of Quraysh origin (a descendent of the Quraysh, the tribe of Prophet Muhammad(SAW);
The Muslims must strive to realize Islamic government (or governments, if necessary) under a khalifa;
If circumstances do not permit a khilafa with full conditions, even an imperfect khilafa should be established;
While all Muslims are under this obligation, especially the Arabs and the Turks should
cooperate together for its achievement.
Rida’s views about Ijtihad
Rida was a staunch supporter of ijtihad, which he understood as the reinterpretation of the Islamic law to adapt to changing conditions. He rejected the assertion that the doors of ijtihad had been closed and he associated ijtihad with talfiq (the procedure that allows Muslims of one school to use the rules of other schools to achieve unity in religious, political and juridical matters).
Rida and his awareness about Zionism
Rida must have been among the first to become aware of Zionism and to warn of the dangers of Zionism and he wrote an essay in Al-Manar in 1898, which is worth quoting:-
“Apathetic people lift your heads and see what is happening. Consider what people and nations are doing….does it please you that the newspapers around the globe are reporting that the impoverished of the most miserable people(the Jews) whom all governments are expelling from their countries, have so mastered knowledge and civilization that they can come to your country, colonize it and transform its masters into wage laborers and its affluent men into paupers…Ponder this problem (Zionism) and make it the subject of your conversations, to ascertain if it is just or unjust, true or false. If it is clear that you have neglected to defend the rights of your fatherland and the interests of your nation and your religious community, ponder and study, debate and examine the matter. It is a worthier subject for consideration than focusing on shortcomings, spreading slander and insulting the innocent. It is more worthy of discussion than ridiculing and accusing your (Muslim) brothers.”
Thus it was throughout his career Rida worked for the Islamic Reform and employed most of his resources in publications and other efforts. Ultimately, he died on his way back to Cairo from Suez on 22nd of August 1935.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org