This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
With a grain of salt A reformer who died too soon! Once upon a time, when Muslims were restive, worried about having been left very far behind the West in terms of scientific, political, economic and educational levels, when the west was overpoweringly overwhelming the Muslim world politically, a polyglot man arose who talked, wrote, taught and convinced a generation with a new way of looking at Islam. Muhammad Abduh, who died about a hundred years ago (1905), can be said to have influenced a generation of Muslim students and thinkers about how to take Islam forward to face the modern age. And now, a century later, we are again in almost the same situation.
Who was Muhammad Abduh? I previously (link) wrote about reformers (link), especially about those who are in the eye of the beholder (link), like Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahhab, who in his own way was trying to affect a reform and ended up being labelled the father of terror and fundamentalism. Wahhab was the originator of the removal of bida' (innovation) and advocated going back to the basics and the practice of the salaf (forefathers), but Muhammad Abduh was someone else who used the same approach, but with very different results and inputs. Sadly he was tragically taken away from us when he was only 59 years of age.
Sometimes, when you are lying on your back outside and observing the sky, you see a shooting star which dies away too soon. This is what he was. His early death robbed the world of an amazing genius who could have reached great heights which we can scarcely imagine. And in the world of Islam, Mohammad Abduh's comparatively early death robbed us of a brilliant personage. His work and ideas were dazzling, but he died just when he had started to spread his work and word around the world.
This is really worse, so close but still so far. Another decade or two of Abduh's work and Islam as we know it today could have been very different. He lived in a time of great change. Abduh, born of a Middle Class family in the Nile Delta, which ended up being poor but very proud and yet humble, was marked out for great educational achievements from the beginning. It was not surprising that he ended up in Al Azhar University in Cairo to study logic, philosophy and mysticism.
He became a disciple of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, another reformer who advocated Pan Islamism as a way to fight European imperialism and colonisation. After graduation, Abduh's talents flowered and he got heavily involved in politics, as a journalist and also as a very honoured and respected teacher. At this time, English and European colonization was in full swing. The British Empire, on which the sun never set, was in its greatest power and flow and the Ottoman Empire was in its last breaths and decline. The Ottomans were sick, rotten and decaying to the core, while the European powers were squabbling over the carcass of the Empire.
Egypt was ruled by a Khedive nominally reporting to the Ottoman Caliph, but also reporting and catering to the European business and political interests. Egypt at that time was a cesspool of corruption, incompetence, imperialism, back breaking taxes, huge revolutionary ideas and the Urabi revolt took place around the time of 1879-1882, during Khedive Abbas Helmy II's rule. Abduh was a huge influence in this revolt and knowing this, the English exiled him. As an aside, this revolutionary thought is still impacting Egypt, the Arab countries, the Middle East and the world. Just shows the long life of ideas.
This was actually good, because he then went to Lebanon to establish a path breaking Islamic educational system, then afterwards he went to Paris where he founded a journal, "The Firmest Bond", which is still cited and referred to. Brilliant Islamic and anti-colonial intellectual thinking can be seen in that journal, which he published in conjunction with Afghani, but which unfortunately did not last very long, only till 1884. His work was so well received that the new Khedive pressed the British to let him back into Egypt. He came back and then set the legal world afire as a judge and was later appointed as the Grand Mufti by the Khedive, a position he held till his untimely death in 1905. But that's just the barebones of this remarkable man and the real power and brilliance of the man comes forth in his thought and arguments.
I was shocked to read that Abduh was a Salafist. Surely not, I thought, how can a liberal reformer of his ilk be the same and think in the same way as the obscurantist Saudi Salafists? And then the penny dropped. While he did think that following the forefathers was good, he believed that it should be taken forward under the ijtihad (innovation) framework. It is not surprising that the later Salafists did not agree with him and in turn accused him of being a modernist.
As I have regretfully seen, way too many Muslim intellectuals seem to spend an inordinate amount of time debating with each other and accusing each other of wrongful thinking rather than actually thinking about their faith and the faithful. But I digress. He was a true Salafist, because he is indeed following his forefathers, who took what was given in the Qur'an, the Sunna and Hadith and then reinterpreted them as well as the application of Islam wonderfully. This required firm faith and a determined desire for rational analysis and application of the religion on the basis of new and varied requirements.
Life does not stop and it certainly does not stand still at all. Islam, even though it was said to be the last revelation, has to continuously evolve and adapt to cater for new challenges and issues. That is what the forefathers did when faced with an expanding community with a whole host of new problems and issues from an ever increasing mix of ethnically different and geographically diverse believers and that is what Abduh recommended as well. It is this evolutionary aspect which seems to get the traditionalists' goat and get their knickers in a twist. But all credit to the man, he stood up proud and defended his opinion.
Compare that with the current Salafists who seem to get hold of the wrong end of the stick on both ends. They do want to go back to basics, but not in terms of religion, but rather in terms of time and stay there rotting away in ancient history like a lump. Such things as insistence on beards, length of their pyjamas and other outward manifestations of religion rather than the inner issues show this kind of thought.
They do not think that life and the world will evolve and move on. So they not only want to go back to that time, but also remove all new thoughts and ideas since then and go back to the time when they would sit around eating dates and poking camels. Remember Charles Darwin's quote? "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." That requires thinking, rationality, innovation, modification and much more, all which seem to be in rather short supply for these chaps and were found in abundance inside of Muhammad Abduh.
But to go back to Abduh, it was this stern and unyielding insistence on reason, rationality, combined with firm liberalism and wrapped in almost Sufi like mystical thinking which made this man such a wonderful person. But don't think he is a traditionalist or a literalist. Here's what he said about modern science and what he said way back then still applies (which is a shame). "There is no religion without a state and no state without authority and no authority without strength and no strength without wealth.
The state does not possess trade or industry. Its wealth is the wealth of the people and the people's wealth is not possible without the spread of these sciences amongst them so that they may know the ways for acquiring wealth."
What is tragic is that if you look at Egypt now or even look across the various OIC, Arab League or MENA countries, they have not moved as much as an inch forward since the day that Abduh exhorted them to read and study, following the injunction of the Qur'an "Iqra". I had a debate with somebody about how one should not take the Qur'an literally, especially if one looks at the sura's around Jinns. If you are a modern man living in the twenty-first century, you will obviously look askance at such formulations.
But Abduh had a wonderful way of explaining these suras. For him, jinn's were not much different from microbes. Once you put the concept of jinn's in the framework of microbiology, creatures too small to be seen, then it is almost like an Archimedes bath time event. You do go, Ah! Ha!, I understand sura 7.179 it is not meant literally but figuratively.
Can you imagine the sheer imagination of that man? To say something like this? Joining unrelated ideas together, and pushing it forward as the head of Al Azhar and Grand Mufti? Absolutely amazing. But I have gone on way too long. I will simply close with two quotes, a man who could say this (clear as spring water, scintillating as pure mathematics and as direct as a missile) in his Risalat al-Tawhid (Theology of Unity) (link), "The Qur'an directs us, enjoining rational procedure and intellectual enquiry into the manifestations of the universe, and, as far as may be, into its particulars, so as to come by certainty in respect of the things to which it guides", can also say this about worship (deep, mystical, Sufi like, almost like it has been taken from Rumi, touching the heart and making you go into a trance about God): "It refers to complete surrender springing from a deep consciousness of the Worshipped One, without knowing the origin of its form or essence. The only thing one knows of, is being surrounded by it." [From Tafsir al-Fatiha] What a man!
It is indeed tragic that he was taken away from us too soon. When you look around the Muslim world today, his words and his ideals are still as valid as they were then. The conditions which catalysed his ideas are still the same and the likes of him and his reform concepts are more than needed. Awake you lot and read what your gurus have said before and what you seem to have forgotten and start kicking in the move towards reform again! All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!