The Egyptian theologian and nationalist Muhammad Abduh ibn Hasan Khayr Allah (1849-1905) was a founder of modernist reform in Islamic religion, of the Arabic literary renaissance of the last hundred years, and of Egyptian nationalism.
Muhammad Abduh, born to peasant stock, was brought up in the village of Mahallat Nasr in the Nile Delta. His first education consisted of the traditional memorization of the Koran. In 1862 he studied at the Ahmadi mosque-academy in the provincial city of Tanta. In 1866 Abduh left Tanta for Cairo, where he completed the course of study at the Azhar mosque-university. In contrast to many of his fellows, Abduh pursued secular subjects such as history and natural science.
One of the turning points in Abduh's life was the arrival in Cairo in 1872 of the enigmatic political activist Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani, who, over three continents, clamored for the regeneration of the Moslem world. The two men became fast friends, and under Jamal's influence Abduh began to extend the range of his vision from Egypt to the whole Moslem world.
Having finished his studies in 1877, Abduh became a teacher at both the Azhar and the new Dar al-Ulum (seat of learning). In 1880 he was asked to edit Al-Waqai al-Misriyah (Egyptian Events), the official gazette. Under his editorship it became the model for a new standard of modern, straightforward prose as well as a vehicle for liberal opinion.
But Abduh's life was not yet to become tranquil. When the revolt of Col. Urabi took place in 1882, Abduh was implicated and was exiled. He took up residence in Beirut and then went to Paris, where Jamal ud-Din had established himself. Together they edited the short-lived but highly influential journal Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Strongest Bond), which called for reform at home and lashed out against colonialism in the Moslem world.
Abduh spent 1884 and 1885 traveling before taking up residence again in Beirut, where he began to teach from his home and to lecture in mosques. He was soon invited to teach in an official school. In 1888 Abduh returned to his native land, where he had become a national figure. He shortly entered the judiciary of the "native courts," serving first in the provinces and then, in 1890, in Cairo.
In 1899 the khedive appointed Abduh chief mufti (jurisconsult) of Egypt, and in the same year he was also appointed to the advisory legislative council. His tenure as mufti was marked by his liberalism in interpretation of the law and by reform of the religious courts.
Abduh's career also attained great distinction in his advocacy of educational reforms. In 1895 Khedive Abbas II appointed him to a newly formed commission charged with reforming the venerable Azhar, and Abduh was thus able to implement at least in part many of his liberal ideas.
Abduh tried to mediate between the teachings of Islam and Western culture. To this end he ceaselessly prodded the hidebound traditionalists at home while fending off Western writers who he felt misunderstood Islam. After his return to Egypt, he advocated the efficacy of education over that of revolution in national regeneration.
Abduh's writings were considerable. Among his religious books special mention should be made of Risalat al-Tawhid (1897; Epistle on the Unity [of God], a work summarizing his theological views); Al-Islam wa-al-Nasraniyah maal-Ilm wa-al-Madaniyah (1902; Islam and Christianity in Relation to Science and Civilization); and Al-Islam wa-al-Radd ala Muntaqidih (1909; Islam and a Rebuttal to Its Critics).
In the area of language and literature Abduh wrote extensive commentaries on several classical Arabic literary works and coedited a 17-volume work on Arabic philology; in the mundane field his Taqrir fi Islah al-Mahakim al-Shariyah (1900; Report on the Reform of the Shariyah Courts) should be noted.
Most ambitious of all Abduh's works was his Tafsir al-Quran al-Hakim (1927-1935; Commentary on the Koran). The huge project was never completed, but the 12 volumes that appeared are the most important expression of modernist views of the scripture of Islam.
The principal studies on Abduh in English are in C. C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (1933); Uthman Amin, Muhammad Abduh (trans. 1953); and Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (1966). Relevant but more general are J. M. Ahmed, The Intellectual Origins of Egyptian Nationalism (1960); Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community (1961); and Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962). A serious study which includes a discussion of Abduh, is Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (1970). □