Muhammad Abduh and his thought on Islamic modernism

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Muhammad Abduh

Muhammed Abduh, a prominent figure in Islamic history who was born in 1848 in Delta, Egypt. Unlike most Islamic figures back then, Abduh was an exception since he was the first to call for what’s known as “Islamic modernism”. Despite his normal childhood as being a son of poor farmers, he succeeded in challenging the obstacles of the weak Islamic teaching in his city Tanta. He did it through traveling, ranging from Beirut and Damascus to Paris and Tunis. This remarkable individual had several contributions, such as Cairo University, Shariah court Judges, Islamic feminism, education for both genders, and many more. He left in 1905 with lots of political and religious thoughts that evolved Islamic history for decades.

His upbringing and childhood

Born in the Delta area, specifically in Mahalat Nasr, Abduh enrolled in the Mosque school at the age of 12. However, he fled from it several times due to its inefficient teaching methods. As it depended mainly on memorization and, questions were not allowed in classes. Right after he did graduation from school, he intended Al- Azhar Mosque which counts as one of the most prominent institutions for Islamic teachings. That was a major turn for Abduh since he met the Persian Jamal el-Din el-Afghani. Afghani was a significant Pan-Islamic figure that was tutoring there at that time. He introduced Muhammad Abduh to both western and Islamic sciences. By the age of 28, he graduated and started to teach for two years. In the aftermath of his exile during the British control in 1882 due to his support for the Egyptian revolution, Abduh’s journey expanded.

Journey of Muhammad Abduh

Following his exile in Paris, Abduh’ joined Afghani and spent time in Damascus and England. He stayed in Beirut for two years where he taught History and theology in a school called Sultanyyia. He returned to Egypt only when Lord Cromer, the British occupier, permitted him. Within six years, Abduh was appointed as an Egyptian mufti by the khedive Tawfiq. After spending time acquiring knowledge from the Islamic and Western perspectives, Abduh learned some Western ideals. He felt that concepts as Human rights, freedom, and justice are crucial for humanity and not essentially threatening the Islamic teachings.

“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” – Muhammad Abduh

Muhammad Abduh and Islamic feminism

Among his main principles, Islamic feminism and the concept of Ijtihad were significant to contemporary Islamic teachings. First, Islamic feminism in the Islamic framework is different from western feminism. Abduh saw that equal opportunities of education for both women and the preservation of women’s rights were crucial. He was assertive in bringing the importance of the Muslim women’s dignity. Meaning that women should be treated with respect and love, and be provided with education and equal opportunities like men.

On the other hand, Abduh was keen on developing the concept of Ijtihad, which means making a final decision out of interpretations from both the Quran and Sunnah. Before his contribution, Muslim leaders used to never question anything related to the Islamic religion, rather, independent interpretations were not permissible. Since laws and customs are subjected to be changed over time, Abduh saw that individual judgments were important when it came to Islamic reforms.

There is no doubt that Muhammed Abduh was one of a kind at his time. A mixture of being a religious figure, critical thinker, journalist, and teacher, Abduh made himself an exceptional individual in the history of Islamic modernism.


(Written by freelancer Yara Lotfy)

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