Muhammad ʿAbduh Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: ʿAbduh 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.

Early Life

Muhammad ʿAbduh was the child of Egyptian peasants of the Nile delta. His family life appears to have been serene and his father highly respected in his village. Although without formal education themselves, ʿAbduh’s parents went to considerable effort, and no doubt sacrificed much, to ensure his receiving educational opportunities. ʿAbduh 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.

ʿAbduh shortly became restless with Koranic memorization and Arabic grammar. Instead, he became enamored of the teachings of a number of Sufi mystics. From them, ʿAbduh first perceived the relationship between the true practice of and devotion to Islam, and the pursuit of morality and ethical conduct. He gravitated toward Cairo and the great theological center of Al Azhar, where he continued his education and increasingly rigorous Sufi practices.

ʿAbduh’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 ʿAbduh 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, ʿAbduh 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, ʿAbduh’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 ʿAbduh to receive passing marks on his examinations and his teaching certificate in 1877.

Life’s Work

Although he held numerous positions throughout his life in addition to his explicitly educational ones, ʿAbduh always regarded himself as a teacher. The essence of his teachings is first a concern for the state of Egypt. He and fellow intellectuals deplored their country’s drift in the 1870’s toward financial chaos and foreign intervention. They understood that only internal reforms could change Egypt’s fortunes. ʿAbduh’s experience at Al Azhar convinced him that the most essential reform must come in education. At a time when European economic and technological forces were closing in on Egypt, its greatest academic institution was still under the control of rigidly conservative theologians who resisted curricular innovation. (ʿAbduh had been obliged to seek instruction in mathematics and natural sciences in the streets, among unofficial, black market classes held outside the walls of Al Azhar.)

Yet it was not merely these additions to curriculum that concerned ʿAbduh. He also argued that the study of religion itself must be subject to the same rigor and philosophical scrutiny that attended the sciences and other secular studies. Further, he believed that leading institutions such as Al Azhar must, in their own reforms, assume leadership in rebuilding and expanding the entire Egyptian educational system. ʿAbduh’s ideas and teaching methods generated much controversy at Al Azhar but also earned for him support from the reform-minded prime minister Riad Pasha, who in 1878 appointed him to the experimental school Dar al-‘Ulum, founded as a pilot institution for educational reform.

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 ʿAbduh, placing him under virtual house arrest. ʿAbduh was rescued from potential oblivion by Riad Pasha, who appointed him to the editorial staff of the official Egyptian government gazette Al-Wakai al-Misriyyah. ʿAbduh quickly turned this rather stodgy publication into a vibrant, reformist organ, with contributions from many Egyptian intellectuals and government critics. In his own editorials, ʿAbduh continually returned to the need for educational reform and his campaign to cast Egyptian national consciousness in a new...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)