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How ‘Abduh’s Caftan brought forth today’s Islamic Ideologies

The university-mosque of al-Azhar [© Hosam Elsyad - Wikimedia Commons]

Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî, founder of modern public opinion in Egypt, and his disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh, a critic of al-Azhar’s “filth,” introduced a new approach: looking at Islam as one unitary whole and overcoming sectarian differences by returning to its origins

This article was published in Oasis 21. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-27 10:01:57

Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî, founder of modern public opinion in Egypt, and his disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh, a critic of al-Azhar’s “filth,” introduced a new approach: looking at Islam as one unitary whole and overcoming sectarian differences by returning to its origins. A revolution that paved the way for a variety of interpretations that are now competing to provide the very definition of Islam. The dogma has lost much of its importance, leaving most of the space to the debate about rules.



The religious reform initiated by Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghanî and Muhammad ‘Abduh coincided with the beginning of the Khedival[1] state’s debt crisis and the era of European interference. So it was alongside the first signs of Egyptian nationalism that the principles of the religious reform movement also made their appearance and their effects were to prove just as important in the long run.






Islam’s Modernization



Both Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî’s origins and his denominational affiliation are obscure. What is certain is that he was an intellectual born into a family of religious men and that he resided in Egypt from 1871 to 1879, presenting himself as an Afghan Sunni. It was he who gave birth to modern Egypt’s public cultural space. In the context of the political convulsions of those times, he gathered notables, functionaries and brilliant minds about him. Although the informal “salon” that formed around him treated various different religious, literary and political issues, he changed the way in which all those who frequented it thought. From providing an opportunity to show off curiosities, witticisms and notions of every kind, knowledge and culture became bound to a specific mission: the rebirth of the Islamic umma in the face of European colonialism. A colonialism that, in addition to Algeria, had already assailed the Muslim princely states in India and was about to burst upon the scene in countries throughout the area, Egypt included, naturally. Thus, for the first time in Egypt, al-Afghânî was proposing an ideology or world vision to his audience and entrusting intellectuals with the mission of entering into dialogue with the masses (particularly the educated ones) in order to reform people and the government, and no longer with a view to glorifying those governing. In order to achieve this goal, he encouraged his disciples (and there were also some Christians and Jews among them) to create newspapers. It is for this reason that al-Afghânî was, in the modern sense, the founder of public opinion in Egypt.



Al-Afghânî presented the question of saving the Islamic world from colonialism in terms of peoples resisting despotism, the latter being considered the cause of the disaster and the gateway to colonialism. Salvation was to have come from the most eminent intellectuals participating both in political affairs and in a monitoring of the government. After being exiled from Egypt, al-Afghânî moved to Paris where, in collaboration with the Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, he published the journal Al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqâ (“The Firmest Bond”). Around this journal, an international Islamic party against colonialism and despotism was to have been built.






The Return to the Caliphs



In this journal, Islam was for the first time viewed as one whole i.e. as if it were a unitary entity capable of overcoming sectarian and denominational differences and a long history of Islamic ramification and pluralism by returning to what was considered Islam’s primordial origins. Al-Afghânî did not consider backwardness and weakness according to the logic of the Ottoman state and, therefore, in the perspective of Western Europe’s military and economic superiority and the consequential need to follow the latter along the road of modernization. It is true that both al-Afghânî and Muhammad ‘Abduh were in agreement over the importance of technical modernization, but they traced the backwardness, weakness and despotism to what they considered to be a deviation from Islam’s sources. The solution would therefore have lain in returning to these sources i.e. to the Islam practised in the era of the rightly guided Caliphs. It was the first form of Islamic fundamentalism. It postulated that there existed a forgotten origin of Islam and it identified such forgetting as the cause of all the problems. Conversely, it saw the origin’s recovery as the key to the solution. Both for al-Afghânî and for ‘Abduh, this return required the plurality of the legal schools to be supplanted, perhaps together with a good part of Islam’s tradition and its history, which were considered “errors” that the time had come to “correct.”



In the same way, al-Afghânî’s call to free Islamic countries from tyranny and to stand up to colonialism was the first step towards a para-nationalist conception of Islam that was subsequently to prevail. According to al-Afghânî’s vision, the purpose of recovering the original Islam lay in saving Muslim peoples or inhabitants throughout the world from colonialism and underdevelopment, whilst the supplanting of every form of pluralism from the past was directed at uniting all Muslims. In this way, a form of Islamic preaching was established that, fundamentally, was not directed at non-Muslims but, rather, at the Muslims themselves. It is true that Islamic law has historically distinguished dâr al-islâm from dâr al-harb, which is also dâr al-jihâd and lays down the duty to defend dâr al-islâm. It is also true that Islamic narratives repeatedly refer to the need for religious reform after every instance of deviation but none of this had ever previously been combined with the demand for radical religious and political change.



Al-Afghânî was never that concerned about grounding his thinking in an analytical discussion of the Islamic tradition or a consistent “scholastic” vision of the issue. It was his most important disciple, Muhammad ‘Abduh, who took this task upon himself. Unlike al-Afghânî, ‘Abduh was a legitimate offspring of al-Azhar, where he had obtained his “âlim” degree in religious studies. He knew al-Azhar’s curricular structure and its traditional areas of study and all the defects and the lack of harmony with modernity that that entailed. And unlike al-Afghânî, he was a reformist by nature.



‘Abduh considered that the problem lay in the weakness of the umma itself. It had been left behind and its current condition and level of awareness meant that it was no longer capable of facing the challenges of colonialism and despotism. As a consequence, educating the umma ought to precede demands for freedom. At the directly political level, ‘Abduh hoped that it would be an enlightened despot who might bring the umma to rebirth and govern it for a fifteen-year period. Despotism was only a means, however, not an end and once the necessary reforms had been carried out, the despot was to be succeeded by a system of parliamentary representation, first in the local administrative bodies and then at the level of the country as a whole. Regardless of whether or not the desired despot existed, the reform that ‘Abduh longed for was an Islamic religious reform. He vehemently criticised al-Azhar’s sclerotic teaching, which took the form of sticking to the teaching of the ancient linguistic and legal tradition through commentaries and glosses on the original texts. Al-Azhar had become a world turned in on itself and one that was increasingly removed from reality. Such a shuttered approach had, furthermore, generated a widespread hostility towards the modern sciences; indeed, towards every kind of renewal, even in the means and methods of teaching. ‘Abduh once made the emblematic statement:



If I have some smattering of true knowledge, I have acquired it only after spending ten years clearing al-Azhar’s filth out of my brain. And it is still not as clean as I would like it to be.






Opening the Doors of Interpretative Effort



The solution proposed by ‘Abduh was not emancipation from the study of sharia subjects but a return to their source, the Qur’an, and an opening of the doors of interpretative effort (ijtihâd). Doors that had been closed for the last few centuries. That amounted to putting the whole legal tradition (and also the non-legal one) to one side and laying it open to criticism, discussion, supplantation and dissent. The aim was to seek Islamic solutions to contemporary problems and, consequently, open “Islam” up to modernity and to the West in a constant dialogue. And I have put Islam in inverted commas in order to refer to the conception of a unitary Islam, Islam with a capital “I,” that had to be reformed, brought back to its origins or purified of unlawful innovations.



‘Abduh was, moreover, a staunch supporter of a rational interpretation of Islam’s dogma, where possible. He sought to explain miracles scientifically and asserted the pre-eminence of reason (‘aql) over tradition (naql). Those parts of the sacred texts that were not in agreement with reason were to be accepted as realities that had not been subjected to the reasoning process (which meant sanctifying the latter and then putting it to one side) or interpreted allegorically so as to resolve the conflict with reason.



The sheikh had begun an “objective” commentary on some parts of the Qur’an (the Tafsîr al-Manâr), in which he criticised the erroneousness (from his point of view) of the tradition’s received understanding. He rejected the ancient linguistic expositions, which he considered antiquated, and insisted on reform. Although ‘Abduh died before completing it, it was the first ideological commentary on the Qur’an that sought to bring it up to date.



In this way, Muhammad ‘Abduh inaugurated both the modernist and the fundamentalist visions. Indeed, he called for a return to the Qur’an without forms of mediation and made its interpretation lawful for anyone who possessed the means, thereby rejecting the practice of anathema (takfîr) against whoever might have a different vision of the doctrine. Furthermore, he was opposed to the principle establishing the obligation to belong to a specific school of law (Hanafi, Shafi’i etc), and favoured the freedom to adopt one according to the requirements of the circumstances. All this meant treating the legal tradition as one great container on which to draw according to necessity, without regard for one’s tie with one of the consolidated historical divisions, apart from the fact of being able to criticise or integrate it according to the needs of the moment.



This logic led to the existence of a single Islam and a dynamic jurisprudence that was capable of adapting to the circumstances, assuming forms that were eclectic and had the underlying theme of reason and adaptation to reality. In the same way, the reactivation of the link between Muslims and their origins was connected to an opening up to the historical situation and modernity, as the two sides of one coin. As a consequence, ‘Abduh required Muslims to give up the superiority complex that merely belonging to Islam generated in them. He invited them to show their worth by actually engaging with reality; taking part in civilization, its technological innovations and its quest for power and taking their inspiration from the West just as the West had been inspired by Muslims earlier. In this context, ‘Abduh proposed some interpretations that, for his time, seemed extremely daring. These included the exhortation to limit the number of wives, the protection of the bride’s rights in cases of divorce, the right of women to take part in public life, permission to eat non-Islamic food in non-Muslim countries and many other things that are considered normal or downright out-dated nowadays, even according to the canons of today’s Islamists. Not only this, but he also permitted bank interest rates, in accordance with the principle of public interest (maslaha). Remaining within the perspective of complete unity, ‘Abduh considered the oppression of religious minorities to be a sign of weakness and decadence, not strength and superiority, and for this reason he encouraged harmony between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.






A Prêt-à-porter Tradition



In this sense, Muhammad ‘Abduh’s preaching and his interpretations had a real connection with the reality of the modern state and the world at that time. At a legal level, he tried to make a break with the past that might correspond to that already achieved to a large extent by modernity, at the level of both economic institutions and social and political ones. And as modernity did not destroy what had preceded it but selected certain elements and gave them a new form based on a different model, so ‘Abduh broke the Islamic tradition down into contiguous elementary units that were to be used, together with other ingredients, as a materia prima for the production of general legal and religious concepts that were in harmony with the characteristics of a new world. From this point of view, Muhammad ‘Abduh and his message constituted the meeting point between the nascent nationalist thinking, the idea of the unitary, all-embracing modern state and the idea of creating a correlative single, all-embracing Islam. In actual fact, ‘Abduh’s preaching particularly influenced the élites best disposed towards modernity and not particularly interested in religious reform. He was even supported by Lord Cromer [Consul-General in Egypt at the time, Ed.], who encouraged his disciples as well.



Nevertheless, ‘Abduh was not the inventor of an Islamic apology for modernity, something of which certain fundamentalists are now accusing him. ‘Abduh remained faithful to the idea of religious reform and sought to build a bridge that might justify modernity to the Muslims and vice versa. His call to accompany Muslims towards modernity was not an invitation to an absolute form of modernity but, rather, to a modernity that was specifically Islamic. This is demonstrated by his statement that religion’s authority (in general) is “higher [than that of science] in souls and has precedence in the forming of the human personality.” It was, furthermore, the foundation on which to build society. Science could be mined by the West, but the bedrock of values and education was religious. And since the predominant religion in Egypt was Islam, the reform could only begin with Islam. It is worth listening to his words:



Leading Muslims down roads of civilization and knowledge that have no religious element means forcing them to build a new building without knowing who has designed it. If religion guarantees the refining of customs and the umma’s civil rebirth, why renounce it in order to have recourse to something else?



Following this logic, ‘Abduh invited Egyptians not to enrol in the foreign schools and proposed the founding of a modern Egyptian university, on condition that it had an Islamic nature, rather than a scientific-practical one of European inspiration. As regards the country’s political structure, ‘Abduh argued the need for the modern state to remain faithful to Islam. He also stated, however, that the Islamic government was civil.



From this new space of dialogue with the West, both al-Afghânî and ‘Abduh debated with European critics. They defended Islam with a capital “I”: a fact that consolidated the idea that there did exist a single corpus in Islam. For the orientalists who were observing Islam from the outside, it was natural to consider it as a unitary and consistent phenomenon that could be described. It was the task of the fundamentalist thinking created by Muhammad ‘Abduh to introduce this way of conceiving it [into the Islamic world] and create an internal space for argument about the essence of Islam, as a concept capable of definition.



From this fact, too, one can conclude that the sheikh took the decisive step at both an intellectual and a legal level, not only by presenting Islam as a unitary reality that was capable of gathering together the whole preceding tradition as a materia prima to be sieved, refined and integrated, but also by mixing religion and nationalism. ‘Abduh was not a fervent supporter of the Ottoman state and held that the process of reform ought to be set in motion within each individual Islamic country. But, for him, the most important thing in nationalism was to present Islam as being of key importance for reforming the umma, i.e. for saving a concrete community of people, in the context of Europe’s cultural hegemony. In this ideological approach of his, he was a truly modern intellectual and al-Afghânî’s disciple. Rashîd Ridâ, a scholar of Syrian-Lebanese origin who had settled in Cairo and become one of ‘Abduh’s disciples, continued the process of removing causes of difference between Muslims. For example, he proposed drawing up a book that would contain all the elements on which Muslims of every tendency agreed and abandoning the issues that had caused disputes between the different Islamic denominations, such as the Shi‘ite one. Or again, writing books that might aim at a unification of the laws that was based on the consensus of all the Islamic schools of law and in agreement with the demands of modernity. He himself contributed articles and books to the debate on unprecedented issues such as women’s freedom. However, in his efforts at renewal, Ridâ was certainly more conservative than his master and more concerned with pursuing denominational unity.



In actual fact, the tradition founded by Muhammad ‘Abduh subsequently divided into Rashîd Ridâ’s more fundamentalist and (at the same time) Salafi orientation and the new Muslim thinkers such as Ahmad Lutfî al-Sayyid, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Taha Husayn and others, who adopted a liberal thinking linked to an Islam with far looser ties with the salafiyya and the texts.






Islam’s Conflict Arena



These ideas of Muhammad ‘Abduh’s laid the foundations of modern Islamic thought in a great part of its fundamentalist and renovating manifestations, as well as directly or indirectly influencing protagonists of the “Egyptian enlightenment” such as Sa‘d Zaghlûl and Ahmad Lutfî al-Sayyid. One could say that the modern Egyptian or – more generally – Islamic ideologies all, if you will pardon the expression, came out from Muhammad ‘Abduh’s caftan, just as Russian literature came out from Gogol’s overcoat.



In actual fact, we have seen how the reform was founded on a re-opening of the doors of interpretative effort and that this did not mean a re-opening in the absolute sense, nor the practice of ijtihâd pure and simple but, rather, an opening to modernity. Such fact not only amounted to opening up a space within Islam for modernity’s achievements but also (and, perhaps, above all) meant assimilating modernity in such a way that Islam might continue to constitute the point of reference for society and the state within the project of standing up to colonialism: through political mobilization, as Afghânî saw it, or by giving pre-eminence to reform instead, as advocated by ‘Abduh. This fact led to the creation of an imagined, unitary Islam, the Islam par excellence, as a space for the monopoly of which the various currents began to compete. It is this space that I am calling a conflictual space or conflict arena.



Such an arena is a space where dialogue and conflict occur. At its centre lies the question of what parts of the religious and non-religious tradition should be adopted or dropped. This new space has, as I have said, been created at the expense of the taqlîd, i.e. the Islamic tradition as a whole and the legal tradition, in particular. Not in a radical manner, however, through its denial or wholesale condemnation but, rather, as we have seen, through a targeted preservation, case by case. The Islamic tradition (the taqlîd, to borrow ‘Abduh’s word) was put to one side and seen as a container from which to draw and to which things could be added, with the aim of constructing this Islam with a capital “I” in a harmonious keeping with the times and making it capable of gathering together all Muslims and their allies in a single project to free them from despotism and colonialism.



This space became an arena for ideological conflict between the advocates of authenticity, the advocates of modernity and the advocates of an agreement of the various manifestations of both. Thus there emerged Salafi, fundamentalist, innovatory and secularist forces that were all rooted in Muhammad ‘Abduh’s thinking and all competing with one another for possession of or monopoly over that new space through the imposition of a specific definition of Islam. The general safeguarding of the tradition and the latter’s purification by defending its literal interpretation was the preserve of Salafism. The fundamentalists’ starting point, on the other hand, was an idea of Islam’s unity. This in order to build an authoritarian vision of the religion that was based on the state’s subordination to a global conception of Islam i.e. on the integral Islamization of the same modern state, an orientation that reached its peak in Sayyid Qutb. As for those in favour of renewal, they took their cue from the idea of an allegorical interpretation that could achieve a harmony with modernity: this sometimes within an Islamic framework, in keeping with what ‘Abduh hoped for, and sometimes totally departing from it. For a long time, the dispute concerned how to qualify certain specific cases e.g. whether bank interest was lawful or whether this law or that individual section of a law complied with sharia or not. As far as the principle of modern codification was concerned, it had the assent of almost all the actors, just as everyone rejected the taqlîd by definition.



There are those who say that this conflict is destined to destroy Islam. According to the idea of the conflict arena, on the other hand, Islam feeds itself and breeds precisely through the converging of different currents around it and the resulting battle. The importance of the category at the centre of the conflict – Islam, in this case – is in reality directly proportionate to the forces that are concentrated there and the efforts deployed in the conflict, not vice versa. This means that each one of the conflicting forces is contributing, from the inside, to the existence of the other forces at work. Indeed, it is the conflict over the cornering of the “space” that affirms the latter’s importance. Such fact leads to the removal or marginalization of the issues or visions that are not related to this space.



Furthermore, Islam’s transformation into an object of ideological conflict does not mean that one or more complete visions of the dogma or a jurisprudence founded on new principles will necessarily result. In reality, ‘Abduh and many others after him have proposed piecemeal interpretations regarding the situation of women and minorities, public morality, ways of codifying parts of sharia, legal issues regarding contracts etc. But not one of the great currents involved in the conflict has proposed radically revising the very concept of dogma. Reform has remained essentially legal i.e. linked to the rules (both positive ones and existential ones, such as the ethical ones, for example). As a consequence, it has found its expression in the creation of a general model to follow i.e. in a framework of religious obligations and prohibitions.



It may therefore be said that the reform has greatly contributed to reducing Islam to a brief consideration of dogma, from which the need to follow sharia can be drawn, in order then to arrive at the real debate i.e. the more or less conflictual definition, or redefinition, of the obligations and prohibitions as a whole. Not by chance, all those who have come out from ‘Abduh’s caftan, including the secularists, are in agreement in their condemnation of Sufism and about the need to subject it to the “rules,” in their condemnation of the variegated popular religiosity and in their attempt to discipline the population according to “rational Islamic” principles or juridical rules.






[Text taken from Sherif Younis, Al-Bahth ‘an al-Khalâs. Azmat al-Dawla wa-l-Islâm wa-l-Hadâtha fî Misr (“The Search for Salvation. The Crisis of the state, Islam and Modernity in Egypt”), Al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Âmma li-l-Kitâb, Cairo, 2014, pp. 161-174]



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation




[1] Khedive (or “Viceroy”) is the title by which, during the period 1867 – 1914, the Ottoman Sultans officially recognised the Egyptian governors of the dynasty founded by Mehmet ‘Ali (Ed.).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Sherif Younis, “How ‘Abduh’s Caftan brought forth today’s Islamic Ideologies”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 14-23.

Online version:
Sherif Younis, “How ‘Abduh’s Caftan brought forth today’s Islamic Ideologies”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL:

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