Scholars of Islam: Muhammad Abduh
Muhammad Abduh is a theologian and public figure of the late 19th century from Egypt, one of the founders of the modernist movement in Islam, revered by some Muslims as Mujaddid, i.e. the “renovator of faith” of the 13th century AH who, according to the Prophet, should appear in the Ummah once every hundred years. Muhammad Abduh made a significant contribution to the development of Islamic theology and had a significant impact on the social doctrines of the Muslim world. His ideas have influenced many Islamic figures of our time.
Muhammad Abduh was born in 1849 in the suburbs of Alexandria (Egypt) into a Turkmen family. Until the age of 13, Muhammad studied at home, receiving the beginnings of literacy and the Quran, and at the age of 13, his uncle, the Sufi sheikh Dervish Khudar, assigned him to the Sufi school at the mosque. Teaching at school was boring and boiled down to constantly memorizing texts. After studying for two years, Muhammad dropped out of school and decided to help his father with farming. But his father insisted on continuing his studies. Uncle Dervish eventually managed to persuade the young man to continue his studies. “A true Muslim must be comprehensively educated,” he said.
In 1866, 17 years old, he entered the largest Islamic university of the Muslim world, Al-Azhar in Cairo. Jamaluddin al-Afghani, a prominent ideologue of pan-Islamism, a reformer of Islam and an opponent of European influence, became his teacher. The Sufi and progressive views that Muhammad adopted from his uncle, coupled with the views of his mentor and the ardent nature of the young man himself, shaped him as an ardent fighter for progressive ideas.
After graduation, the young man stayed in Al-Azhar as a teacher. At the same time, his journalistic talent was revealed. He writes articles for various publications in Egypt. From 1882 to 1888 he was in exile in London and Paris. There, he continues writing numerous articles that have served as models of new Arabic journalism and modern Arabic language.
After returning to Egypt, Muhammad held various government posts, and in 1899 was appointed Mufti of Egypt. Until his death in 1905, he took an active part in the work of the Administrative Council of Al-Azhar University and carried out many reforms, in particular, included the secular disciplines of mathematics, history and geography in the curriculum. In addition, Muhammad Abduh founded and headed the Society for the Revival of Arab Sciences.
The main thesis of the theological and social system of Muhammado Abduh was the assertion that “the gates of ijtihad are not closed,” that is, when solving judicial issues of the Islamic cult and law, theologians can not only rely on the decisions and fatwas of the mujtahids of the past, but also independently investigate the sources of law – the Quran and Sunnah – and independently interpret them, deriving new rules and customs from such interpretations. Muhammad Abduh claimed that he sought to purify Islam, to return it to its original purity. In his opinion, literal adherence to the legal decisions of medieval ulema was not suitable for these purposes in the modern world and needed to be brought to the realities of modern life. Many of his fatwas contradicted the fatwas of the traditional ulema, so he was often heavily criticized for his statements.
Muhammad Abduh was critical of the practices of Sufism, denied the worship of saints, justified actions that have always traditionally been considered haram (for example, issued a fatwa justifying the permissibility of receiving interest as an action that is not usury). At the same time, Muhammad Abduh defended the idea of national identity to Egypt, advocated independence from the Ottoman Empire and supported cooperation with the British.
The most famous scholarly work of Muhammad Abduh was the tafsir (interpretation) of the Quran “Risala at-Tawhid” (“Epistle on Monotheism”), set out taking into account all his modern views and enjoying great popularity in our time.