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Muhammad Abduh and His Epistemology of Reform: Its Impact on Rashid Rida – Part II
July 5, 2021
Ahmad Nabil Amir || 5 July 2021
Kitab Tarikh al-Ustadh al-Imam Muhammad Abduh is the foundational work of Rida; it documents Abduh’s compelling intellectual history and delves into the major sources on his life and career in Egypt. It is an extension of Rida’s early brief biography Al-Mulakhkhas fi SIrat al-Ustadh al-Imam that was released in al-Manar’s magazine (vol. viii, 1905). The important intellectual milieu described in this work was emphatically illustrated by Charles C. Adams (Adams. C.C, 1933):
the only biography of considerable length concerning him was that from the pen of Muhammad Rashid Rida which was printed in vol. viii (1905) of al-Manar, the monthly journal of the ‘Abduh’s party.
The Tarikh was published in three volumes that remain the most definitive, undisputed and standardreference concerning Abduh’s life. With its more than one thousand pages, it is the last and fullest sourcebookfor a biography of Muhammad Abduh (Adams. C.C, 1933). The volume contains a wealth of incidents and details concerning events and persons: it casts the most interesting and valuable sidelights on modern Egyptian history; it also reveals inner details of the various intrigues, political or otherwise, in which ‘Abduhwas involved, sometimes as author but more frequently as victim (Adams. C.C, 1933). The publication of thisbiography, unmatched in its detail and comprehensive account of Abduh, surpassed previous works on Abduh by Goldziher, Horten, Hartmann, H.A.R. Gibb, Mustafa ‘Abd al-Raziq and M. Bernard Michel, as described by Charles C. Adams (Adams. C.C, 1933, pp. vi–vii): this long awaited volume by the chief disciple of ‘Abduh, who has carried on his tradition, must remain the principal source of information regarding the life and work of the great Egyptian reformer. Volume I contains full biography, which appeared in the latter months of 1931 (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. vi) and covered about 1134 pages. The second volume consists of Abduh’s major articles and briefer works, collected from various sources, and published in 1908. Volume III features biographical and eulogistic accounts which appeared at the time of his death, letters and telegrams of condolence, published on the fifth anniversary of his death, in 1910. (Michel, 1925) (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. vii)
The Tarikh represents Rida’s groundbreaking contribution in constructing and republishing the bulk of Abduh’s works and worldviews. This was instrumental in spreading Abduh’s classical tradition and rich historical narrative and influence in Egypt, as depicted by Charles C. Adams (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 77): as the leading pupil of Muhammad ‘Abduh during the latter’s lifetime, and since his death, his biographer, editor of his works, and the one who has principally carried on his tradition and interpreted his doctrines, his name cannot be mentioned otherwise than frequently in any study of the movement inaugurated by Muhammad Abduh. Hisinitiative to construct a historical account and modern biography of Abduh and extensively published hisinstrumental works of reform was acclaimed widely, as the man who has been perpetuating Abduh’s influencefor the quarter of a century since his death. (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 177). Rida’s far-reaching contribution to publicize Abduh’s modern views, was deeply appreciated by Abduh himself, who arguably defended him anddenounced the disparaging controversy that undermined him and condemned those who spread slander andassailed negative views of him:
No one of you were able to take over his duties. Bring others like him to me, and I will leave him. Henever told me the way you said. Now I reiterate to you that God has sent him to prolong my life, and extend my age. Many things in my mind that I want to write down and explain to people, but I am not able to do, thanks to various matters that bustle me. Since then, only he can fulfill it precisely as I aspire. If I mentioned a topic to him to write about in al-Manar, he thus wrote it as I want. If I declared something to him in general, he then outlined and explain the way I desired. He whoaccomplished what I started and enunciated what I indicated and affirmed. In my visit to Tunisia and Europe, I could see the result of his labors and influence of the magazine of al-Manar that he ran. This has never been predicted before. In fact, he also managed to assemble a number of cadres of students, and comrades who became my supporters. (Rida, 1931, p. 1018)
Rida’s instrumental role in advocating Abduh’s principle was so crucial and instructive that, were it not for al-Manar, most of Abduh’s thoughts and wisdom would have been lost, and his reform and history unknown (Jundi, 1977, p. 77) (Kosugi, 2006, p. 13). This exceptional effort to bring forth Abduh’s extensive biography and intellectual history in al-Manar was certainly unprecedented, as proclaimed by Mustafa Abdurraziq: say if Abduh was the leader in religion, Rida was his comrade the interpreter of his school and perfecter of his ideal,the editor of al-Manar’s magazine had exerted all his ability and had undertook various studies and discussion on matters of religion and jurisprudence. His work had brought substantive influence for students of religious science and mainstream Islamic studies across the world (Athaillah, 2006, p. 2).
The history of modern Islamic reform has much connection with pan-Islamic ideal propagated by al-Manar’s magazine which was founded in 1898 by Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Al-Manar was initiated as a continuation of al- Afghāni and Abduh’s renowned journal al-Urwa’ al-Wuthqa; published in Paris in 1884, itechoed the same aspiration of pan-Islamic views and anti-British sentiments. According to Kosugi (Kosugi, 2006, p. 8), al-Urwa al-Wuthqa was the first journal calling for the revival of Islam, or that of the Islamic umma and its civilization…it gave a serious warning of the dangers of Western colonialism, and called for a reform of the umma and exercise of ijtihad (independent reasoning to find Islamic legal rules) to face the challenges of the time. Among the younger generation who received the message of this pioneering journal was the youngMuhammad Rashid Rida in Syria.
Rida was inspired by this pioneering journal that published instructive articles calling for radical confrontation against the colonial powers. He discovered the journal from his father’s papers; it had a tremendous impact on his spiritual consciousness and marked the most defining and momentous event in his life, encouraging him to undertake the struggle in the religious cause:
I found a copy of al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa among my father’s papers. When I read its articles calling for pan Islamism, the return of glory, power and prestige of Islam, the recovery of what it used topossess, and the liberation of its people from foreign domination, I was so impressed that I enteredinto a new phase of my life. And I became very fond of the methodology of these articles to making and proving its arguments on topics, with verses of Quran, and of its exegesis (tafsir) which none ofmufassirs (exegetes) have written. The most important point in which al- ‘Urwa al-Wuthqa distinguished itself were: (1) Allah’s rule in His creation and the order of human society, and the reasons for the rise and fall of nations as well as their strength and weakness; (2) clarification thatIslam is a religion of sovereignty and power, combining the happiness of this world and that of the hereafter, while implying that it is a religion both spiritual and social, civil and military, and that its military power is for the sake of protection of the just law, general guidance and prestige of the community, and not for the sake of imposition of the religion by force; and (3) for Muslims thereare no nationalities except their religion, so they are brothers whose bloodline must not separatethem, nor their language nor their governments. (Rida, 1972, p. 11) (Hourani, 1967, p. 226)
In 1897, Rida decided to move to Cairo to collaborate with Muhammad Abduh after his initial plan to meet al-Afghāni did not materialize: Al-Afghāni was under the protection of the Ottoman Caliph, and he was brought to stay in Istanbul until his death in 1897. Rida had initially written to al-Afghāni in 1893, expressing hishope and anticipation to join his circle in Constantinople. He celebrated the heroic spirit of al-Afghāni and revered him as The Awakener of the East (Muqiz al-Sharq). Indeed, he was remembered as Adorer of al-Afghāni by his colleagues. In 1897, he traveled to Cairo with Farah Antun (1874-1922), the founder of thesecularist journal al-Jami‘a, and embarked into a remarkable career in journalism. Relating this momentous journey, he stated: when he [al-Afghāni] passed away, my hope was heightened to get in touch with his viceroy Shaykh Muhammad Abduh to acquire his knowledge and opinions on Islamic reform. I waited until anopportunity appeared in the month of Rajab in 1315  and that was immediately after I completed mystudy in Tripoli, acquiring an ‘alim status, permission to teach independently, from my mentors. Then I immigrated to Egypt, and initiated al- Manar to call for reform and renewal (Rida, 1972, p. 12).
The printing machines were invented in Egypt throughout this period, which highly impacted the artistic andliterary renaissance of the masses. It marked the beginning of a critical milestone in the rise of newspapers, press and magazines in modern Egypt. Following this development, it was timely for al-Manar to surface, propagate, and publicize its ideas. Everywhere the increased use of the printing press for publishing religious texts challenged the ‘ulama’s role as guardians and transmitters of knowledge…the reformers of Islamic lawwere aware of the opportunities that the print media opened up. They skillfully used periodicals and pamphlets to disseminate their opinions to a wide audience (Opwis, 2004, p. 34)
Al-Manar was first released in 1898 as a monthly magazine that researches the philosophy of religion and the affairs of society and civilization (Rida, 1909). It derives its title from the tradition of the Prophet that there exists in Islam landmarks and a lighthouse – to light up the path. The journal was initially published as an eight-page weekly and, from the second year of issue, on a monthly basis. 1500 exemplars were printed in thefirst issue and sent to neighboring provinces in Egypt and Syria. After the Ottoman authorities banned itscirculation in Syria, its copies were reduced to 1000. Nevertheless, few years later, its subscribers escalated to approximately 3000 and by the twelfth year (1909), remaining copies of volume I were selling for four timesthe original price; a second printing was therefore made, in the form which had been followed after the first year. (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 180)
Al-Manar enthusiastically advocated modern idealism inspired by Abduh. It had exerted great influence in the Islamic world and has become the mouthpiece for the propagation of Abduh’s doctrines and the accomplishment of his reforms. (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 178). It has been the organ through which his [Abduh] views have been given the largest publicity (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 205). Al-Manar undertook a crucial role inthe reform movement, working to propose the cures for the illness of the umma in a general form, then with details and proofs (Rida, 1909, p. 8) (Kosugi, 2006, p. 10). It aspired to restore the dynamic and progressiverole of the umma reclaim its important and significance position in world civilization. A new consciousness was asserted, as remarked by Kosugi (Kosugi, 2006, p. 17): the journal of al-Manar was meant to reaffirm thevalidity of Islam as a religion in the contemporary world, of Islam as a civilization in the modern context. It strived to awaken the umma from their deep crisis, authoritarian rule, underdevelopment, and long slumber,as decisively pronounced in the introduction: This is a voice calling in a clear Arabic tongue, and an appeal to the truth reaching the ear of a speaker of the dad letter [an Arab] and the ears of all Easterners, calling from a close place [Egypt, located between the West and the East] which both the Easterner and the Westerner can hear, and it spreads out so that the Turks and the Persians also receive it. It says: “Oh, the sleeping Easternerwho enjoys sweet dreams, wake up, wake up! Your sleep has exceeded the limit of rest (Rida, 1909, p. 9).
Al-Manar continued to publish uninterruptedly for three decades until 1935. With its reputation was broadlydeveloped, it eventually gained a wide circulation from Morocco to Java (Gibb, 1964, p. 178). It brought instrumental light and inspiration for the umma, as alluded by C.C. Berg (Berg, 1973, p. 268): Al- Manar did not shine…for Egyptians alone. It illuminated the Arabs at home and abroad, the Moslems of the Malay Archipelago who studied at al-Azhar University or in Mecca, and the solitary Indonesian who had kept his old relations with the heart of the Moslem world after having returned to his border country of the Dar al-Islam…and all these people now saw Islam in a new light…those who had caught up and preserved the light of the Manar in Egypt, became lesser “manars” for their environments, once back in Indonesia.
Al-Manar’s monumental effort in proclaiming Abduh’s rationalism and reviving his salafis doctrine wasacclaimed by the former rector of al-Azhar and disciple of Abduh, al-Ustadh al-Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi(1881-1945). In his speech on the occasion of commemorating Abduh’s funeral, he declared: al-Sayyid Rashid triumphed and his supporters and disciples became many, while there were once few supporters and disciples, and within academic circles there were found those who carry his principles and follow his path, and among the public those whose eyes were opened to light, and clouds of ignorance and falsehood were wiped out of their hearts. He didn’t have any new principle in Islam, that could be justified as a school of his own, but his principle was the principle of the entire ulama of the salaf, that is, to return in judgment to God and His messenger (saw) by executing [the following Qur’anic order in the verse of] “and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the messenger [Qur’an 4:59], and his principle was also that of the ulama’ of the salaf in choosing rules appropriate for the time and beneficial for nations in issues of ijtihad [where independent judgment should be exercised], and his principle was that of the ulama of the salaf in everything related to Divine attributes and the issues related to the last day, so he was a salafi sunni man who disliked taqlid (uncritical emulation) and propagated ijtihad, seeing it [ijtihad] an obligation upon himself and upon everyone capable. (Kosugi, 2006, p. 11)
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Dr Ahmad Nabil Amir is Head of Abduh Study Group, Islamic Renaissance Front. He has a PhD in Usuluddin from the University of Malaya. This essay was first published in Hermeneutik: Jurnal Ilmu Al-Qur’an dan Tafsir 2021; 15(1):61-92. ISSN 2354-6205.