Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Abdou and religious discourse

The nineteenth-century religious thinker Mohamed Abdou was chosen as an emblematic figure at this year’s Cairo International Book Fair. There could not have been a better choice, writes Hazem Mahfouz

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent call for the renewal of religious discourse in Egypt coincided with the selection of Imam Mohamed Abdou as the person of the year at the 46th Cairo International Book Fair.

The call for renewal is essential in light of the challenges facing Egypt and the Arab world, and because of this, the choice of Mohamed Abdou by this year’s International Book Fair could not have been more appropriate.

Abdou was an Islamic jurist who sought to promote political and social reform. He was the most influential theorist and writer of his age. He is particularly noted for spearheading the drive to promote self-affirmation and the rational intellect.

 After holding various judicial posts, Abdou was appointed grand mufti of Egypt on 3 June 1899. At the time, was at a crossroads: the winds of modernism and Western influence were accelerating, and Egyptians were perplexed by the many changes, including modern banks, insurance companies and a plethora of scientific innovations and new technologies.

 Were these phenomena religiously permissible or prohibited? Endowed with an open mind and firm in his belief that Islam was revealed to ease the burdens of humankind and lead to happiness, Abdou issued fatwas, or religious rulings, intended to bring comfort to Egyptians and to set Egypt on the course to progress and development.

 The evolution of his thought can be divided into two phases. The first was shaped by the struggle against European colonialism, while the second was dominated by a drive for social reform by improving the educational system and promoting cultural and religious reform.

As European encroachment loomed, Abdou campaigned against the colonial threat and joined the civilian wing of the Egyptian Officers movement, led by Ahmed Orabi, in the late 19th century. The movement sought to forge a popular resistance movement against foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs.

He drew attention to the wave of Westernisation that looked, for a time, as if it might sweep aside Egyptian heritage and submerge Egyptian identity. Later, it became evident that this policy was not consistent with the political developments that followed the defeat of the Orabi Revolution.

Abdou turned towards religious, social and moral reform, relying on the energies and capacities of the Muslim peoples. He sought to broaden education and enhance political awareness in order to generate enlightened public opinion in the Islamic world.

Abdou’s thought proceeded from the question of how to trigger a renaissance in a society that had fallen into degeneration and decay. He held that society had decayed for two reasons: the encroachment into Islam of elements alien to the faith and the overzealous clinging to superficial aspects of the faith, leading to the prevalence of blind imitation of ritual and dogma.

This, he held, was remote from the spirit of freedom and the notion of free will inherent in Islam. He believed that society would have to address these fundamental problems in order to reform itself and govern itself effectively.

 There were three general currents of thought in Egypt at the time. One rejected local identity and heritage and the Ottoman concept of Islam. It maintained that the key to addressing the Western challenge was for Egyptians to become Westerners.

The second was embodied in the traditional institutions that were horrified by the encroaching Westernisation and cultural invasion. The exponents of this trend turned inwards, shutting their minds to the outside world and remaining ensconced in the ideas of the Middle Ages.

In between these two poles was a third trend. It advocated a vision for religious renewal that struck a balance between safeguarding both cultural identity and remaining open to the West.

Abdou believed that in order to reform religious discourse, it was necessary to address the institutions that controlled religious instruction. His attempts to reform Al-Azhar were informed by his profound awareness of the threat to the character of the nation posed by the dichotomy in the educational system that had begun to emerge under Mohamed Ali.

 The rise of the secular schools established by the founder of modern Egypt, combined with his failure to reform Al-Azhar and lift it out of the Middle Ages, had produced two different forms of education. These had begun to create a rift in Egyptian identity.

Abdou wrote that “people have only two directions in which to turn for educational instruction: the government schools and the Al-Azhar religious schools. Neither of these directions can guide the people to becoming good and useful citizens.”

 The two modes of education were totally separate and neither was appropriate to Egypt’s needs. The religious schools were too rigid. They focussed on the exegeses of ancient texts, lacked a contemporary vision for the instruction of theology and did not teach the sciences, which had become essential for life in the modern world.

The secular schools, which were not necessarily government schools, followed foreign curricula and gave instruction in a foreign language. The result was that students emulated the native speakers of that language and grew estranged from their own society.

 The two educational systems generated two mentalities and two classes of intellectuals, each with its own outlook: one traditional and resistant to change, and the other, increasingly prevalent among the younger generations, open to change and ideas hailing from Europe.

 Abdou hoped to reconcile the two systems. As the famous Syrian novelist, journalist and historian Jurji Zaydan observed, “Sheikh Mohamed Abdou was a perspicacious, independent-minded man who was raised in Islam, was educated in its scholastic disciplines, and grew to cherish and seek to defend it. He explored the advanced sciences with the aid of people from that civilisation and studied the history of sociology and the laws of civilisational evolution, leading him to the realisation that Islam was in need of a renaissance to elevate its stature and recuperate its force.

“He made it his mission to raise the banner of Islam and to enhance the influence of the Muslim peoples through education and cultural refinement. His efforts in this regard sought to accomplish two major aims. The first was to cleanse the Islamic faith of the aberrations that had intruded into it. The second was to bring Muslims closer to the sources of modern civilisation so that they could benefit from the fruits of that civilisation, scientifically, industrially, commercially and politically.”

 While Abdou’s thinking was not inconsistent with the principle that laws should change with changing times, he also held that laws that were not planted in the appropriate soil would not bear fruit and, indeed, might rot. He believed that in the Islamic world modern laws could only flourish with the help of religious Sharia law, rather than independently of it.

 He therefore held that Sharia should be changed, but not to the extent of risking its loss and society’s conversion to the laws of other peoples. At the same time he believed in equal partnership, not separation, between the country’s executive authorities and the guardians of Sharia. He was also a staunch advocate of full legal and social equality for non-Muslims in Muslim societies.

 In is little wonder that this famous 19th-century scholar championed the autonomous development and advancement of the nation state. In an article entitled “Political Life” he defined the state as the basis of political life. Citing a range of political philosophers, he maintained that the state was the best framework to prevent discord within its bounds.

He defined the state as “the place to which you are affiliated, that protects your rights, that teaches your duties to it, and in which your safety and that of your family and property can be ascertained.”

 He maintained that happiness, prosperity and dignity can only be obtained by reforming the state of the nation, and that both patriotism and personal honour should compel people to work for the advancement of their nation.

Another influential Islamic reformer who was deeply influenced by Abdou, Rashid Rida, later wrote that to Abdou nationalism was a spirit of cooperation among all the citizens of a nation, regardless of their diverse religious affiliations, with a view to comprehensive development and the reform of government.

 On the relationship between politics and religion, Abdou observed that there is no religious authority in Islam apart from the authority of good spiritual counsel and the call to promote good and deter evil. “This authority has been granted by God to the humblest of Muslims to censure their superiors and to the most superior of Muslims to treat their inferiors,” he said.

He also wrote that one of the fundamental aspects of Islam was that it “overturned religious authority and uprooted it from its basis.” Islam eliminates all traces of a clergy or clerical hierarchy, and it “confers authority on no one but God and his Prophet on matters to do with the creed and the faith.” The Prophet Mohamed was “a messenger and a reminder, not a dominator or controller,” he said.

Abdou was an Egyptian rooted in the traditions of his country, and he always felt that the common interests shared by all the inhabitants of a country created a profound bond, regardless of their religious affiliations. This sense of the importance of unity influenced his views on Islamic reform and his concept of the nation.

He believed that social cohesion was essential to political life. He held that the national affiliation of non-Muslims was no less authentic than that of Muslims, and that good relations had to be maintained between different religious communities.

 “It is one of the duties of a Muslim to accept the assistance of non-Muslims in affairs pertaining to the advancement of the public good,” he wrote.

A keen advocate of social unity and harmony, both political and religious, he called for the reconciliation of diverse interests. His concept of the Egyptian state gave no weight to ethnic affiliations, which indeed is the authentic Islamic view.

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