Scholars of Islam: Egyptian Reformer Mustafa al-Maraghi

Mustafa al-Maraghi
Mustafa al-Maraghi

Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi (1881-1945) is one of the most famous reformers in Islam at the beginning of the last century, a student of one of the founders of Islamic modernism, Muhammad Abduh. He made a significant contribution to the science of the interpretation of the Quran. For ten years from 1935 until his death, he was rector of one of the world’s most prominent Islamic universities, Al-Azhar (Cairo, Egypt).

From 1908 to 1919, Mustafa al-Maragi was the Supreme Qadi (Muslim Judge) of Sudan (after the conquest of Sudan in 1820 by the Pasha of Egypt (at that time a province of the Ottoman Empire and later independent) by Muhammad Ali Egypt and Sudan were a unified state until the end of the British occupation in 1953). At that time, al-Maraghi actively promoted the idea of creating a Caliphate based on Egypt and sent the British Governor of Sudan a rationale for his project, rejecting the Sunni point of view that the Caliph should belong to the Arab Quraysh tribe. He also hatched a project for Egypt to gain a protectorate over the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Both projects were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the work done by Mustafa al-Maraghi was highly appreciated by the British authorities. In 1918, as the Supreme Qadi of Egypt, he received the status of an Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

In the late 1920s, Mustafa al-Maraghi was appointed President of the Shariah Court of Egypt, and in 1928, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Nahhas Pasha proposed al-Maragi’s candidacy for the post of sheikh (rector) of the Al-Azhar mosque and university. King Fuad I of Egypt was forced to approve al-Maraghi’s candidacy, despite the fact that he himself wanted to appoint a more conservative candidate to this important post. Al-Maragi’s candidacy was supported by another prominent reformer and member of the Al-Azhar Ulema Council, Mahmoud Shaltut, as well as other ulema. Two months after taking up his post, Mustafa al-Maraghi came up with a project of reforms for Al-Azhar, in particular, he proposed reviving the practice of ijtihad (making decisions on legal issues that are recorded in fatwas of a particular madhhab but may need modern interpretations, while such interpretations were considered impossible). As a result, after serving as sheikh and rector of Al-Azhari for six months, Mustafa al-Maraghi was dismissed by King Fuad from the post of rector, which caused a protest from the teaching staff, as a result of which 70 ulama were dismissed along with al-Maraghi.

A public campaign was launched in Egypt demanding the return of al-Maragi to the post of rector. In November 1934, university students sent a petition to the king demanding the return of al-Maraghi. In April 1935, King Fuad yielded to the demands of the public and students and al-Maraghi was again appointed sheikh and rector of Al-Azhar.

In his post, Mustafa al-Maragi made a great contribution to the promotion of the ideas of Islamic modernism in Egypt and around the world. These included the tafsirs written by him (modern commentaries of the Quran), the practice of modern ijtihad based on a reasonable consideration of the issue and independent research of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). As part of this activity, Mustafa al-Maraghi advocated the unification of various madhhabs on a rationalistic basis. He was also the initiator of the recognition of the first official translation of the Holy Quran into English, made in 1930 by the English researcher of Islam Marmaduke Pickthall (after the adoption of Islam by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall).

Mustafa al-Maragi’s ideas turned out to be too revolutionary for their time. For example, he proposed organizing a dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites in order to find ways to unite both directions of Islam. Together with a prominent Shiite leader from Iraq, Sheikh Abdulkarim Zanjani, Mustafa al-Maraghi proposed the creation of a joint Sunni-Shia Supreme Islamic Council to prepare the unification of these Muslim varieties.

This and many other ideas of Mustafa al-Maragha were not realized, but had a great influence on modern theological thought aimed at modernizing Islam.