‘Abduh, Muhammad

‘Abduh, Muhammad
   An Egyptian jurist, philosopher, religious scholar and liberal reformer, ‘Abduh played a pivotal role in the nineteenth-century Renaissance (nahda) of Islam. Along with his teacher al- Afghani, he is responsible for founding the Salafi reform movement, which strove to recover Islam from its decadent state by returning it to the spirit of its pious forefathers (salaf ). However, like al-Afghani and unlike the later salafiyya, his sympathies were ultimately more rationalist than traditionalist. ‘Abduh saw Islam as an essentially reasonable and pragmatic religion, one that was not necessarily at odds with the modern scientific worldview. Indeed, despite his reservations about the West, he embraced science and technology as crucial to the revivifi- cation and autonomy of Islam. In his attempt to recover the true spirit of Islam, ‘Abduh inveighed against the uncritical acceptance of dogma based purely on religious authority (taqlid, lit. ‘imitation’ or obedience) and defended the irreducible importance of independent judgement in religious and legal matters. He recuperated elements of Mu‘tazilite rationalism as well (e.g. figurative interpretation of ambiguous Qur’anic passages, emphasis on God’s transcendence, affirmation of human free will) and attempted to purge Islam of Ash‘arite predestinarianism and occasionalism, which he saw as hostile to the principle of causality, and thus to modern science in general. ‘Abduh’s main philosophical work, the Theology of Unity (Risalat al-tawhid), proceeds in this vein, but is primarily known for its rationalist ethics. According to ‘Abduh, revealed law does not make things good or evil, but rather reveals to us what is naturally good or evil. Siding with the Mu‘tazilites and the falasifa, he argued that human reason is in principle capable of perceiving good and evil without the aid of revelation. However, revelation is still necessary because (1) not all people have the same intellectual capacity to differentiate between good and evil (or to grasp the existence and nature of God, the afterlife, etc.) and (2) for most people, reason alone will not provide the specific practical knowledge necessary to realize a happy life. At the heart of ‘Abduh’s life and thought was the desire for reform, whether religious, legal, moral or educational. For this reason, he eventually parted ways with the more radical al-Afghani and distanced himself from his erstwhile teacher’s pan-Islamist project. He had a great impact on subsequent religious, social and philosophical reformers (e.g. Rashid Rida, Qasim Amin and Mustafa ‘Abd al- Raziq), as well as influential twentieth-century nationalist and revivalist movements that did not always share his commitment to reason and gradual reform.
   Further reading: ‘Abduh 1966/2004; Adams 1933; Amin 1953; Hourani 1983

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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