Muhammad Abduh: Religion and Rationality

– Fides Et Ratio –

This first post is a peek in to the life of a man not particularly well known outside of the academic circle. A fascinating character (to me at least) who left a small mark on the Muslim landscape and then just faded in to obscurity. Muhammad Abduh (no, not the Gulf musician), I believe, was ahead of his time. Unfortunately his ‘time’ was not particularly accepting of new ideas or even open to change for that matter. This glimpse in to his life is in no way meant to sanctify, beatify, glorify or even praise the man, but rather, understand him. Furthermore, I do not agree with all of his views, but that does not mean they do not have merit. People make mistakes, and no one is above reproach, no one. That is not to say he was a bad person, on the contrary, I think he was quite the revolutionary if perhaps a little misunderstood, and at times quite conflicted, but nevertheless an advocate for change. In this post, we will hopefully learn more about the man, his ideas, and some of the influences and events that shaped his outlook on certain issues such as rationality in religion and his views on a secular state. I have also posted at the end of the post a bibliography for most of the references i have done here (although i am not sure that i will always do this, it is a blog after all… and quite time consuming… i do have a job after all)

With that being said…

Secularism has for the most part been used to describe a system whereby there is a separation of public and governmental matters from those of the religious. Most countries in the world today function with this system although there are some exceptions. It would seem however, on the surface at least, that some regions/societies struggle with this structure because of certain ideological, cultural, and or traditional beliefs. None seemingly more so than the Muslim community.

If this is the case then the question becomes ‘is secularist thought a bad thing for Muslims or should it be encouraged’? Is it something that goes against their every belief or can Islam and secularism be reconciled so that they work together hand in hand? If certain historical periods have anything to say about it, then yes, the two can work together in favour of a positive output such as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ between the 8th C and 14th C where there was a flourishing of ideas and medical and scientific innovations (yes, built off of ideas that came before, but taken to new heights and past certain boundaries).

This post is not about that ‘Golden Age’ but about something (someone, rather) much closer to us in time. I came across the character of Muhammad Abduh some time ago and found the man to be quite fascinating (also a pretty controversial character, but i’ll leave that for another day). Fascinating because he did not fit with the traditional image of the Imams and sheikhs that we see all the time on our television sets, and more so because he was alive during a period where the society he was living in was quite stagnant when it came to new ideas of religion, science and education.

Looking in to certain key points in his life may help us to see what underpinned his views in certain ways, particularly his early encounters with education, his fated meeting with the mysterious Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani, and his interactions with the Western world, we should be able to piece together a clearer, if not perfect, picture of why Abduh’s works and his mode of thought were radically different to those of his fellow scholars. What will also become apparent, is that Abduh, who was more of an Islamic Humanist, was not particularly in favour of an ‘either or’ secular Egypt or Muslim world per say, but that his approach and methods could be seen as encouraging both the secular and the religious as seen in the radically opposing stances his students have taken; one group in favour of his liberal side, and the other in his more traditional stance. Abduh walked a line that tried to bridge the chasm between the old world and the new, traditionalism and modernity. By challenging the established views of the ulama (scholars) of his generation and their predecessors, Abduh sought to bring Islam in to a state that was more compatible with the modern world; and what could be argued as being a secular education, would be his weapon of choice, but always with the temperament of faith, Islam, and above all, God.

On Muhammad Abduh

Muhammad Abduh (Egypt, 1849 – 1905) was educated at home and by the time he was twelve years old he had learned the Qur’an off by heart (Haddad, 2008). One of his biographers (Osman Amin, 1953), as noted by Yvonne Haddad, sheds light on the fact that Abduh was lucky enough not to have gone to an Islamic Qur’an school as he would have been simply learning things off by heart without any real understanding of what he was memorising (Haddad, 2008). Abduh’s first experience of learning by rote came at the age of thirteen when he was enrolled in to a Qur’an school. Because he was not given the necessary skills to understand what he was learning he eventually ran away, clearly not enjoying the situation and believing that he was ‘incompetent to pursue such studies’ (Scharbrodt, 2007). However this period of his life would become a cornerstone to his eventual attempt to reform Egypt’s educational system (Haddad, 2008). Abduh had written articles that were critical of the ‘taqlid mentality’ (Falk, 2010) believing that it was an intellectual laziness and that it was a cause of a lack of respect between the students and the teachers who would teach, but not explain. As a result, Abduh would be a great advocate and champion of ijtihad (in this case meaning independent reasoning) believing it to be of great importance to the modern Muslim. He would even go on to influence such scholars as Fadhl ar-Rahman who also argued for it (Rahman, 1980) as well as Muhammad Arkoun, Amina Wadud, Muhammad shahrur and others.

It was not until Abduh’s uncle, sheikh Darwish Khadr, who was a sufi of the Shadhil order (although he was a member of this order he did not insist on his affiliation to it but rather revealed a Pan Islamic Sufism’ (Scharbrodt, 2007) ), who reintroduced him to religion and rekindled his passion for learning by teaching Abduh the doctrines of his sufi brotherhood. During this time Abduh would embrace a more esoteric/spiritual type of Islam given voice in his ‘Risalat Al Waridat’ (Treatise on Mystical inspirations) (Scharbrodt, 2007). However, later on, he would become critical of the order’s practices, eventually abandoning his aesthetic lifestyle; due in particular to the influence of his eventual teacher and friend Jamal Ad-Din Al Afghani.

On Jamal ad – Din Al – Afghani and a new type of education

Jamal Ad-Din Al Afghani was a political activist (Scharbrodt, 2007) (under the guise of a spiritual teacher) who had many disciples that embraced his teaching style and ideas. He would urge his students towards building a pan-Islamic world and to shun the European influence in Egypt as he felt they were meddling in the life of their country. Afghani’s ethnic origin is not entirely clear and some do not view him as the faith based scholar and reformer that he seems to have been portrayed as. Kedourie (Afghani And Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam) quotes Sylvia G. Haim (Arab Nationalism: An authority) as saying that Afghani believed that all religions, Islam included, were bad. The text goes on to say that Afghani had an esoteric way about him and was also “utilitarian”, “sceptical” and “activist” (Ibid), almost anathema to being spiritual; it later becomes clear that ‘both men ( Abduh and Afghani) agreed on aims but disagreed upon the means to achieve them’ (P. J. Vatikiotis, 1957). It was this difference that ultimately led to the split between the two who went their separate ways since ‘Abduh’s basically pacifist – Sufi temperament permitted him to prefer the wiser, albeit slower, process of education over political eruption’ (Ibid).

It was Al Afghani who introduced Abduh to different modes of study. By placing his feet on different academic paths, Al Afghani opened Abduh’s eyes to philosophy and the social sciences and taught him a deeper expanded understanding of Sufism; possibly influenced by neoplatonic ideas and philosophical ones that had influence from Iran. Some of Abduh’s main interests were in the fields of ‘social science, ethics, history, philosophy, and education’. Kedourie says of Abduh that his Islam is not necessarily one about the faith but rather one that becomes a system or mode of conduct/ethics to govern one’s life in this world (i would agree except for the fact that i personally believe that the manifestation of faith and spirituality are in fact what Kedourie proposes of Abduh). For Abduh, Islam ‘ceases to be properly a religion’. What is meant by this, in my estimation, is that once religion becomes institutionalised it moves quite far from what it was originally intended to be. Abduh’s Ideas of Islam are also questioned elsewhere, if somewhat in a more jovial manner, by Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer,  In his two volume ‘Modern Egypt’. Baring writes that he believes Abduh to be in reality an agnostic and that his peers would rather look at him as a “filo souf” (philosopher). During Abduh’s visits to some of Afghani’s more secret meetings, he would mingle with people of a variety consisting of government officials… as well as Christian and Jewish intellectuals… These meetings would be in sharp contrast with the way things were taught at Al Azhar, that is to say, rigid and traditional as oppose to free thinking. Abduh’s travels and his life in Paris, where he learned French, had exposed him to an even broader world of thought. He even attended seminars in Geneva and mingled with intellectual minds that most certainly expanded on his own.

Social change, reason and reform

Abduh was of the opinion that non belief was a ‘social disease’ (P. J. Vatikiotis, 1957) that needed a social awareness in order to change, thus he referred to the Qur’anic verse “verily, God will not change the state of a people until they change their own state” – Qur’an, Ar Ra’ad 13:11 (although a more accurate translation would be “until/unless they change themselves/what is in themselves”. Abduh’s view of this is in keeping with his idea of the ‘welfare of man in this world and in the hereafter’ are in fact intertwined. In order to achieve this kind of change and awareness of the ‘social disease’ and the road to change for the better ‘it becomes necessary to A) free thought from the shackles of taqlid, or blind imitation of patristic tradition, and depend on the authority of ‘historical proof’, and B) consider religion as being compatible (“friend of”) with scientific knowledge (ilm)’ (Ibid). Abduh’s main insistence was the spread of education, in all its forms, and the ‘elevation of the public character to a standard of social responsibility’. This was perhaps a feat perhaps only attainable by the separation of the state and religion, thus opening the door for each to tackle the issues that needed to be tackled much more efficiently. This is an avenue that Abduh would not completely have been at odds with since he believed that ‘Islam is enjoined to overthrow religious authority because the only true relationship is that between man and God’ (Ibid); essentially saying that religious authority as an established ruler-ship is not absolutely necessary; God gave us minds and reason for a ‘reason’, thus having a Humanist government with a Muslim population and with an Islamic infusion is not at all out of the question, albeit controversial in that some may view it as a secular state. The fact that Abduh was more interested in the realities of the human condition and not necessarily in the more theological issues (Haddad, 2008) would speak volumes as to how he would approach things.  However it would still be worth pointing out that Abduh was striving not just for reform in the Egyptian people and Islam, but for the Muslims and Egyptians to take part in that change and make those changes with him. Whatever may be said of Abduh, he was most certainly a catalyst in the modern reform movement which encompassed most of the religion including the commentaries of the Qur’an. Abduh’s influence would not be most felt in the fields of education, but rather in the phenomena of a ‘religious awakening’ (Charles C. Adams, 1933).

Reason, education and reform

Abduh’s insistence on the use of reason to explain coherently Islamic principles had garnered the attention of the ‘conservative jurists’ (Haddad, 2008) who accused Abduh ‘with some justification, of being a kind of neo-mu’tazilite’ (Ibid). In regards to his acknowledgement of the power of human reason and human choice, this accusation seems to have some merit, although in the end he accepted the tensions between human free will and divine foreknowledge/predestination, acknowledging that some things are known to God and to him alone (Ibid). Even though Abduh eventually acknowledged this it was his belief in notions such as ‘humans by the use of reason are capable of knowing and choosing between right and wrong’ (Ibid) and his position on the idea that the Qur’an is a created thing as oppose to uncreated that earned him such a negatively seeming attribution. An example of Abduh’s approach to the Qur’an can be seen in his exegetical works of ‘Tafsir al Manar’ where he relates the jinn, unseen beings, to microbes or germs. Etymologically the word jinn essentially translates in to something/being that is hidden. As such, it would not have been an illogical assumption to state that germs/microbes, ‘unseen’ as they are, could be referred to as jinn, especially given that the jinn are creatures given to causing mischief and affliction in or around the human body. Although this idea is a radical departure from the traditionally accepted view of these unseen beings, both the traditionalist and Abduh’s views hold water depending on context.

Although Abduh’s religious attitude is described as ‘rationalist’ (J. J. G. Jansen, 1974) he lived at a time when Egypt and Islam were in a ‘lustreless age’ (Haddad, 2008) with scholars having moved from the study of the Qur’an to focus on the commentaries, effectively, leaving the source material behind. The approaches they adopted were in opposition to rational interpretation in favour of a more voluntarist perspective. At the very least this is how Islamic learning was at Al Azhar. Exegetical writing had been written by scholars for other scholars and was only an academic subject for the educated. It was this stagnation of learning and interpretation, that was bolstered by tradition and the writings of traditional scholars that Abduh sought to change by taking up the ideology of ‘“back to the Koran”’ (Samuel Graham Wilson, 1916) which was an urgency to move away from  the traditional and in to the modern. Abduh also believed that the education Al Azhar was providing their students would eventually hurt Muslim growth and thought it would eventually become completely superseded by Western minds and power (Indira Gesink,2010). Combined with a desire to separate from the Western influence that had been on the rise with British occupation, the emergence of a need to create a pan Islamic Arab/Muslim world took seed in the minds of those who wanted change.

During Abduh’s time in Paris (due to his exile from Egypt) he had formulated a policy for Egypt’s educational reform that he had intended to implement should he return. This reform included a critique of Egyptian schools in that their methods were to learn ‘words without meaning’ (Ibid) imparting no real benefit to the students. It also highlighted the fact that Al Azhar ‘lacked an organised curriculum, the contemporary relevance of subjects was not made clear, the scholars provided no moral instruction or supervision of the students, and the scholars themselves were “ignorant fanatics”’ (Ibid). Abduh intended to introduce a more Europeanised system that implemented a more inclusive, understanding, and academic mode of operation.

Although the name ‘Muhammad Abduh’ has become synonymous with change, reform, and progression, his approaches are nevertheless contested by others such as Muhammad Iqbal who ‘sought to guard against the tyranny of reason’ (Robert D. Lee, 1997) i.e. we are not here to understand Gods ways, simply to obey. This line of thought did not sit well with Abduh who sought to bridge the gap between reason and faith.

By synthesising Islam with the Western perception of how religion should be approached, that is to say, in harmony with rational science and a more secular society (Ibid) Abduh hypothesised that a renaissance of Islam embracing the ‘“positive” features of the West were not at all incompatible’ (Ibrahim M. Abu Rabi, 1996), so long as the Muslims/Arabs still retained their cultural heritage and did not fall in to the trap of taqlid since he viewed it as an ‘impediment to progress’ (Haddad, 2008). To add further, the fact that the Western colonialists were of a different religion, Abduh felt that it would be inappropriate to offer them any form of submission or emulation, regardless of the fact that they may or may not establish a just system in their wake (Ibid), But to learn from them and adapt Western ideas to fit in to Islamic ideals was more acceptable like Abduh’s emphasis on Shura (consultation) since Western democracy had left a positive impression on him.

Ultimately, Abduh’s issue with Islam/Muslims was how the religion was being practised and understood. ‘He suggested that Islam and reason both reflected God’s truth. They could not conflict’ (Robert D. Lee, 1997). However, Abduh’s influence and adherence to the principle of always employing reason ‘inadvertently exposed revelation to the onslaught of reason and legitimated the wholesale infatuation with liberalism and the West that pervaded Egypt in the 1920s’ (Ibid).

One of his main goals was to be an authentic polar reflection of those Egyptians who took in stride the ‘success of secular Europe and its attacks against Islam, were persuaded that religion was a prime element in the retardation of Muslim societies’ (Haddad, 2008). His main objective here was the reversal of the ‘decline of the Muslim ummah, and the enormous temptation to reverse the decline by trying to emulate the West’ (Ibid).

Abduh’s legacy and conclusion

The premise that Muhammad Abduh’s work encouraged secular thought is only partially true and just a little clearer than vague at best since his works and teachings were in the middle ground between the traditional schools and rationalist, albeit with a heavy lean towards the rational. It would be through the students of his works that distinctions would arise in two different camps since ‘his writings are open to liberals as well as to conservative interpretation without demanding from the interpreter much skill in exercising his art’ (Detlev Khalid, 1970).

Of the two camps, ‘Ali Abd al Raziq and Khalid Muhammad personify, among others, the radical wing of Abduh’s succession’ (Ibid) interpreting the Qur’an and Hadith in a much more liberal sense. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Rashid Rida and Muhammad Ghazali who would be the champions of the ‘conservative wing’ who would preach a more salafi/Wahabi view in contrast to Abduh’s ‘purely intellectual…teachings’ (Ibid).

Abduh’s efforts then, ultimately, were divided amongst his own students with each influenced in a very different way. Not as a unified theory or practise, but as polar opposites, as Haddad puts it ‘Some saw in his vision of a revitalised Islam the only answer for the salvation of Egyptian society. Others advocated separation between religion and state, and began to press for the secularisation of society’ (Haddad, 2008).

Abduh’s main objective was the revival of religious consciousness and educational reform. The Spirit of his revival was to restore the true spirit of Islam and its intellectual truth. He intended to challenge the assumption of Islam as not being able to complement the modern condition, and proving its compatibility with science and the present day. As a result, Abduh had helped pave the way for a more rational Islam, albeit one still trying to find its feet placed firmly on the ground in the modern world.

Abduh’s position then was that Islam, if practised as God intended it to be, is a system that is more than capable of governing Muslim life on a personal level that would in turn change society as a whole for the better. Therefore, a secular government or country, while not necessary, could help to bring the ‘spiritual’ in to the modern world. In the West, as advanced and improved as it was, it pushed religion to the background; in the eyes of Abduh this was surely an unfortunate expense, as the loss of spirituality would be a major hindrance, not to the progression of society, but to the human condition.

The Eccentric Seeker.


The Interpretation of the Koran in modern Egypt’, J. J. G. Jansen, Leiden E. J. Brill, 1974

Pioneers of Islamic revival’, Edited by Ali Raheena, Zed books LTD – 2008

(Essay by Yvonne Haddad ‘Muhammad Abdu: Pioneer of Islamic reform).

Modern movements among Moslems’, Samuel Graham Wilson, DD, Fleming H. Revell company – 1916.

Islamic Reform and conservativism: Al Azhar and the evolution of modern Sunni Islam, Indira Falk Gesink, Tauris Academic Studies, 2010

Major Themes of the Qur’an, Fazlur Rahman, university of Chicago Press, 1980

Overcoming Tradition And Modernity: the search for Islamic authenticity. Robert D. Lee. Westview Press. 1997

Islam and Modernism in Egypt, Charles C. Adams, Oxford University press, 1933

Intellectual Origins Of Islamic Resurgence In The Modern Arab World. Ibrahim M. Abu Rabi. University of New York press. 1996

Muhammad ‘Abduh and the quest for a Muslim humanism. P. J. Vatikiotis. Source:Arabica, T.4, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp.55-72. Published by Brill. Stable URL: 17/12/10:59.

The Salafiyya and Sufism: Muhammad Abduh and his Risalat al-Waridat (treatise on Mystical Inspirations). Author: Oliver Scharbrodt. Source Bulletin of the School Of Oriental And African Studies, Lon, Vol. 70, No1. 1 (2007), pp.89 – 115. Published By Cambridge university press. Stable URL: Accessed: 20/12/2013.

Islam and Modernism in Egypt, Charles C. Adams, Oxford University press, 1933

Source: Islamic Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (MARCH 1970), pp. 1-31
Published by: Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad Stable URL: .Accessed: 31/12/2013 09:39

Abduh, ‘Laws should change in accordance with the condition of nations’ and ‘The theology of unity’ in Kurzman (ed.) Modernist Islam 1840 – 1940, a sourcebook. Oxfrod: OUP (2002)

Tafsir al-Manar, vol. 1, Muhammad Rashid Rida, DKL Beirut publishers, Arabic language.

Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, Edited by Suha Taji – Farouki and Basheer M. Nafi, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008.

Risalat al-tawhid, Muhammad Abduh, ed. Muhammad Amara, Cairo, 1906 – 31

Did you like this?
Tip The Eccentric Seeker with Cryptocurrency
Powered by BitMate Author Donations

Donate Bitcoin to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate Bitcoin to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send some bitcoin:

Donate Bitcoin Cash to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate Bitcoin Cash to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send bitcoin:

Donate Ethereum to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate Ethereum to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send some Ether:

Donate Litecoin to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate Litecoin to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send some Litecoin:

Donate Monero to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate Monero to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send some Monero:

Donate ZCash to The Eccentric Seeker

Scan to Donate ZCash to The Eccentric Seeker
Scan the QR code or copy the address below into your wallet to send some ZCash:

Leave a Reply