Born: c. 1849; Mahallat Nasr, Gharbiyyah Province, Egypt
Died: July 11, 1905; Alexandria, Egypt
Muhammad ՙAbduh was a major figure in the articulation of modern political, ethical, and social values in an Islamic context. His writings were a major stimulus to the development of Egyptian nationalism and, in a wider sense, to the elaboration of social and political thought throughout Islam.
Muhammad ՙAbduh was the child of Egyptian peasants of the Gharbiyyah Province, in the Nile delta. Although without formal education themselves, ՙAbduh’s parents went to considerable effort, and no doubt sacrificed much, to ensure his receiving educational opportunities. ՙAbduh was trained in basic literary skills and, when ten years of age, went to learn recitation of the Koran with a professional. Few other educational opportunities were available to Egyptian peasants at the time.
ՙAbduh’s mentor at Al Azhar was the famed Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, perhaps the most important Muslim intellectual figure in the nineteenth century. Although equally devoted to Sufism, Jamāl, a dynamic reformer and pan-Islamic advocate, turned ՙAbduh from the internal contemplation that had absorbed nearly all of his energies to more worldly avenues of learning and social involvement. With Jamāl’s encouragement, many of his students, ՙAbduh included, began writing articles for newspapers on a host of subjects related to the state of Egypt at the time and the challenge of modernization.
Despite his outstanding academic work, ՙAbduh’s outspoken opinions on Egyptian society and the suspicion that he meant to revive the skeptical philosophical movements characteristic of earlier periods in Islam drew the wrath of conservative clerics at Al Azhar. It required the intervention of the more liberal rector for ՙAbduh to receive passing marks on his examinations and his teaching certificate in 1877.
In 1879, the Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail, who had been intent on modernizing Egypt but unfortunately went far beyond the country’s limited financial means, under European pressure abdicated in favor of his son, Tawfiq. The new khedive expelled Jamāl from the country and fired ՙAbduh, placing him under virtual house arrest. ՙAbduh was rescued from potential oblivion by Riad Pasha, who appointed him to the editorial staff of the official Egyptian government gazette Al-Waka՚iՙ al-Misriyyah. ՙAbduh quickly turned this rather stodgy publication into a vibrant, reformist organ, with contributions from many Egyptian intellectuals and government critics. In his own editorials, ՙAbduh continually returned to the need for educational reform and his campaign to cast Egyptian national consciousness in a new Islamic mold. Islam, he argued, should return to its basic simplicity and revive the spirit of inquiry and pursuit of knowledge characteristic of its early history.
When Muhammad ՙAbduh died in July, 1905, he received the equivalent of a state funeral. The public demonstration of respect and reverence from all political factions and religious communities was unprecedented in Egypt. The country sensed that it had lost a singular patriot and scholar, and one of the most important figures in Egypt’s transformation. Later generations have borne out this assessment. Because of ՙAbduh’s reforms and the new intellectual environment they created, Al Azhar, and other large Egyptian universities, remain in the forefront of higher education in Islam and are recognized as among the world’s major institutions of higher learning.
In all of his teachings, ՙAbduh struggled to articulate an Egyptian sense of identity that reconciled the inconsistencies and often conflicting perceptions of Islam, the Islamic community, the modern nation and its role in a European-dominated world, and the tensions between modernity and tradition.
ՙAbduh is most fairly regarded, perhaps, as one who, rather than answering the multitude of questions arising from these issues, helped to air the issues and suggest ways in which they could be addressed satisfactorily. ՙAbduh is a symbol, rather than a model, for the contemporary, educated Egyptian. His intellectual journey represents what each Egyptian individually — and the nation as a whole — must consider in the process of finding satisfying and rewarding identity in the modern world.