Muhammad Abduh and His Epistemology of Reform: Its Impact on Rashid Rida – Part I

July 3, 2021

Ahmad Nabil Amir || 3 July 2021



Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) had a monumental influence on Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). In fact, Abduh’s tremendous impact is partly due to the diligent efforts of Rida who promulgated his ideas to all corners of the Muslim world. Rida developed Abduh’s aspirations for reform in his periodical al-Manar(1898-1935) as well as in his encompassing work Tarikh al-Ustadh al-Imam Muhammad Abduh – a comprehensive biography of Abduh in three substantive volumes. This is catalogued by Malcolm Kerr (Kerr, 1966, p. 153) in his definitive work Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduhand Rashid Rida:

Rida devoted most of his career to propagating a revivalist interpretation of Islamic faith and institutions…Hewrote much more voluminously than his master. He elaborated a doctrine of Islamic law and politicsmuch more systematic and specific than anything ‘Abduh had attempted.

The novelty of this study resides in its systematic presentation of the influence of Abduh’s reformative ideas on Rida. Previous studies have devoted the bulk of their analysis on Abduh’s modernism, focusing on hiswork and career, his ideological relation with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his historical engagement and debate with Christian and Western intellectuals. In contrast, the current study concentrates on Abduh’s intellectual impact on his chief disciple Rashid Rida, and how the latter built on Abduh’s legacy.


Abduh’s impact on Tafsir

Abduh’s unfinished commentary, Tafsir al-Manar, was hailed as one of the most influential and definitiveworks of tafsir that showcased his immense influence on Rida. It was compiled by Rida from Abduh’s dictates and lectures on the Qur’an delivered at Jami‘ al-Azhar ((Zimamah, 1997, p. 335) from first Muharram 1317 AH/1899 AD until the mid of Muharram 1323 AH/1905 AD. The lectures later appeared in the Egyptian’sofficial newspaper al-Mu’ayyid in a series of articles penned by Rida entitled “Al-Qur’an”. Abduh commentedb on the text from Sura al-Fatihah (The Opening) until Sura al-Nisa’ (The Women) verse 125; this was substantially expanded with notes that Rida double-checked, revised, compiled and serialised in al-Manar. After Abduh’s death in 1905, Rida continued working on the tafsir. He commenced by commenting from sura al-Nisa’ verse 126 until sura Yusuf verse 101 (My Lord, You have given me [something] of sovereignty andtaught me of the interpretation of dreams) and referred to it as Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim li al-UstadhMuhammad ‘Abduh, indicating its origin from the Imam. Rida began this monumental task spanning 30 or 35 years in Bombay (now Mumbai), India at the beginning of Rabi‘ al-Akhir 1330 AH and continued working on it until his death in 1345/1935. Thereafter, Shaykh Muhammad Bahjat al-Baytar took over and commented on sura Yusuf from verse 102 until 111, publishing it under Rida’s name in a volume entitled Tafsir Sayyid Muhammad Rashid Rida (Al-Dhahabi, 1976, p. 42). In 1984, Qadi Muhammad ibn Ahmad Kan‘an of Lebanonsummarised the Tafsir (al- Mukhtasar) and published it in Beirut in three volumes ((Zimamah, 1997, p. 340).

Rida’s remarkable effort in compiling, summarizing and expanding Abduh’s work is outlined in his explanation of sura al-Nisa’:

Here ended the teaching of al-Ustadh al-Imam and we shall continue with the attempt to accomplish the explanation if God Will based on the method and instruction we acquired from him, though we were unableto interpret all the verses comprising of juristic instruction and lesson. It was a divine gift abundantly vouchsafed on his perceptive mind enabling him to grasp and interpret the verses of the Scripture steadily except the last chapter of 30 which he interprets briefly. ((Rida, 1999, p. 356)

Rida’s commentary closely followed the traditional style of sharh. He went to great lengths to distinguish his own explanation from that of the Imam by using markers such as qala al-ustadh al-imam (the teacher-leader said), qala ma ma‘nahu (he said – concerning its meaning). Moreover, when summarizing Abduh’s views, heclarifies his own work with the statement, aqul (I say), and “written by Muhammad Rashid Rida”. This is depicted by J. Jomier ((Jomier, 1991, p. 361) in his incisive article on ‘al-Manar’:

[Tafsir al-Manar] from the third year onward was the work of Rashid Rida; it included lengthy extracts fromthe commentary expounded by Muhammad Abduh in the evening lectures at al-Azhar, and the respectivecontributions of the two men were clearly distinguished.

Rida consistently followed this method in the tafsir, as illustrated in his commentary of Sura Al-‘Imran [3:110]: (You are the best community that has been raised up for mankind),

The essence of what the teacher-leader [‘Abduh] said is: this description [of the best community] is true aboutthose to whom it was first addressed. They were the Prophet, may Allah bestow blessings and peace upon him, and his Companions, upon them be Divine satisfaction. They were once enemies, but God united their hearts so that, by Divine Grace, they became brothers. And they were those who tied each other by the Divinerope [Islam] and were not disunited in religion to become           partisans of particular sects, and they were those who were ordering the good and forbidding the evil. (Rida, 1947, p. 48)

While Abduh continued to portray the exemplary conduct and excellent merit of the Companions, Rida accentuated this point through an elaborative comment:

I say: this is the summary meaning of what the teacher-leader said, except the phrase “and his Companions who were with him” [which needs an explanation]. This is from his words, but he intended this noble attributeand perfect characteristic for that perfect faith is not for everyone for whom the hadith scholars apply the term of a Companion, such as the Bedouin who just embrace Islam and saw the Prophet only once. (Rida,1947, p. 48).

Rida’s commentaries focused on the function of the Qur’an as the ultimate guidance for mankind. He spearheaded a new understanding of the Qur’an as the principal source of Islamic theology; he meticulously investigated the source of hadith and denounced the Isra’iliyyat tradition (Jewish and Christian narratives), besides exploring new premises of rationality and critically assessing Islamic religious and intellectualheritage.

In formulating and constructing his method of argumentation, Rida aspired to form a modern scientific commentary that would explain the Qur’anic scripture from a progressive-modernist perspective. He emphasized reason as the key to understanding the meaning of the divine text (Chande, 2004, p. 79), subjecting it to a modern scientific analysis in order to show its relevance to the contemporary world. This novel method was broadly acclaimed as one of the greatest works of exegesis in modern times. Abdullah Saeed (Saeed, 2008, p. 209) alludes to its modernist significance in his concise work that investigates theQur’an’s history and key aspects of its influence and development in modern times, The Qur’an: An Introduction:

One of the best-known modernist writings is Muhammad Abduh’s Tafsir al-Manar, which was compiled andcompleted after Abduh’s death by Rashid Rida (d. 1935), a student of Abduh.

 Tafsir al-Manar was hailed as a modern sunni interpretation that represented a rational and moderatecommentary advocating an Islamic rather than a secular ideology. Indeed, it was a bulwark against the onslaught of  western missionary campaigns. This is clearly emphasized by Mahmoud Ayoub (Ayoub, 1984, p. 39) in his influential work The Qur’an and Its Interpreters:

Abduh interpretation is a modern sunni tafsir [which] appeared in the 19th century as a reaction to the challenge of western technology, science and education. It was rational and apologetic; its primary aim was to present Islam to Muslims and defend it against the western secular and missionary onslaught

 The explanation of the text began with a brief discussion about the verse, the meaning of particular words andthe historical context of its revelation, not to mention its legal implications and significant lessons that can bedrawn from it. The work employed the decisive method of al-adabi al-ijtima‘i (ethical and socialinterpretation) (Al-Dhahabi, 1976, 2/547) which emphasizes the sociocultural and rational dimension of the text. Kosugi Yasushi (Kosugi, 2006, p. 17) alluded to this contextual approach in his study of the voluminous work:

Tafsir al-Manar is an attempt to justify the reformulation of Islamic understanding of faith, society, life, and the world in modern days with its readings of the Qur’anic passages.

The commentary was first serialised in al-Manar’s magazine in 1901 (vol. 4) which had a momentous impact on the rationalist tendency developed by the Manarist party. It was crafted on the critical method of the rational and social school of thought (al-madrasa al-‘aqliya al-ijtima‘iyya) (Rumi, 2002, p. 703) that advocated the primacy of reason, a coherent approach (ittijah ‘aqli tawfiqi) (Al-Muhtasib, 1982, p. 101) and a balanced (mu‘tadil) commentary (Kosugi, 2006, p. 28). It marshalled scientific arguments to justify the ethicaland social teachings of the Qur’an (Chande, 2004). The tafsir’s uniqueness is informed in the introduction:

This is an exceptionally one interpretation that combined transmitted tradition (al-ma’thur) of interpretation which is authentic (sahih) with rational interpretation (al-ma‘qul) which is obvious (sarih), explaining the law (shariah) and established order (sunan) of God in man’s life, and the fact that the Qur’an is a guidance for people in every place and time, and weighing between its revealed writ and human condition in this time.That they have discarded it, and the state of the salaf (righteous forebears) those who hold tenaciously to itsrope, with the ease of expression, dispensing away discourse related to terminology of science and artistic, in a way understood by the laymen, and equally imperative for the adept. Such is the course that was followed while delivering his lecture in Jami‘ al-Azhar by Hakim al-Islam (The Sage of Islam) al-Ustadh al-Imam al-Shaykh Muhammad Abduh. (Rida, 1947, p. 1)

There were certain disputes on the origin of this work. Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht attributed its writing to Abduh while others contended that it was prepared by an assembly of scholars. In his critical study of Tafsir al-Manar, M. Quraish Shihab (1994) claimed that the work was initially undertaken by three men: al-Afghāni, Abduh and Rida.  He contended that:

This interpretation of the book is basically a work of three prominent and leading exponents of modern Islam, Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Afghāni, Syaikh Muhammad Abduh, and Sayyid Muhammad Rasyid Ridha. Al-Afghani inspired and articulated the idea of renewal, which is refined and delivered through interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an by Abduh. Rasyid Rida wrote all the ideas articulated by his comrades and teachers in the form of summaries and explanations.

 However, in J. Jomier’s opinion (Jomier, 1954, p. 143), Rida’s contributions form the basis of the work. His position was reinforced by Charles C. Adams (Adams. C.C, 1933, p. 198) in his book on Abduh’s modernism:

… and its preparation [The Manar Commentary] has been due, to so large an extent, to the labours of the editor of Al-Manar. After all it was that Rida who was undisputedly the principle exegete who had extensively commented, almost eight suras or two third (Iftitah, 1998, p. 31) of the whole tafsir.

The same has been pointed out by Jane McAuliffe (1991, p. 79): Tafsir al-Manar is largely Rida’s work.

The work advocated Abduh’s rational principle in understanding the text, focusing on its function as a religious book intended to guide mankind towards happiness in this world and the hereafter (Rida, 1999, p. 552). This underlying aspiration was outlined by Abduh in his introduction:

The tafsir at which we aim to understand the Book as a path which guides people to that which will give them happiness in this life and the next, for this is its highest aim, and all other endeavors are subordinate to this or a means of attaining it (Iftitah, 1998, p. 37).

Rida brought forth the critical framework of Qur’anic exegesis advocating rational method of commentary, and deeply expounded Abduh’s modern principle in explicating the text. However, he differed slightly from the Imam in certain aspects of tafsir. This did not escape the attention of Harun Nasution (Nasution, 1968, p. 8) who pointed out in his analysis of Abduh’s rational system: Rida as various authors have rightly observed, does not always follow ‘Abduh’s views.

This position was also suggested by Abdullah Mahmud Shihata (1984) in his study of al-Manar: Abduh’s contribution was in drawing the general idea of a chapter and the issues with which it deals and the principles and the realities it contains, and that it was carried on by Rida.

In furthering his interpretative argument, Rida consistently emphasized the primacy of reason and conscious intellect to understand the text; this inspired critical and independent investigation that called for the opening of the door of ijtihad – a point Abduh advocated in his lecture: I do not read other books while teaching, but sometimes I refer to exegetical books if there were strange structures and strange sentences (Iftitah, 1998, p. 37).

Abduh’s principal aims was to derive the lesson from the Qur’an and its ethical significance.  J.M.S. Baljon(Baljon, 1968, p. 2) made this point in his Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation: …in my opinion the most distinguishing feature of Abduh’s Koran commentaries is his apparent desire to give moral lessons whenever the text affords an opportunity.

According to Ballon, Rida insisted on the need to simplify the commentary: Modern traditional exegesis offers little more than an elaborate repetition of the various opinions of the classical exegetes, and that these essentially dated interpretations tend to alienate people from the aims of revelation (Rida, 1999).

In the subsequent edition of the Tafsir, Rida provided more background to the work, underlying its essentially discursive commentary and robust discussion on technical issues. He emphasized the espousal of a scientific and independent spirit in the introduction:

This is such an exceptional interpretation that brought forth genuine and authentic report with clear and explicit rational thought, distinguishing which is branch and which is fundamental, solving various problems of religion, denying the arguments of the materialist and atheist, advocating    the legitimate proof of Islam, describing its ideal in realizing the general welfare (maslahah) of mankind and expounding the wisdom in theapplication of legal rule and the divine provision encountered in human life. This interpretation also explicates that the Qur’an is the universal guidance or instructions from God to all mankind in every time and place, as the irrefutable proof of God and conclusive evidence of immense charmed and immortal truth. This book also describes the conformability between instructions of the Qur’an and the need of the Muslim, whether they were living at present in a state of collapse and inferior, since most of      them have thrown these guidance, or they flourish in the past in a state of thriving and prosperous, since they always adhere to it, and that is the path that leads them to happiness in this world and the hereafter. This interpretation conclusivelymaintained that its description can be understood easily, and avoiding the use of words heaped with technicalterms of science and art. As such the interpretation can be used as guidance by the laymen, and equally indispensable for the adept. Such is the way in which the philosopher, al-Ustadh al-Imam al-ShaykhMuhammad ‘Abduh followed in his lecture on this commentary. (Rida, 1947, p. 9)

After Abduh’s death, Rida expanded the work, putting greater emphasis on traditional doctrine with a crucial focus on salafis moderate views. He occasionally referred to many classical, pre-modern and moderncommentaries ranging from al-Tabari’s Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an, to al-Suyūti and al-Mahalli’s Tafsir al-Jalalayn, to al-Alusi’s (1802-1854) Ruhul Ma‘ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an wa Sab‘al-Mathani. His critical aspiration for reform inspired modern outlook and socio-ethical interpretations. Rida maintained that:

…after the teacher’s death, I use different interpretation unlike the methodology used to be employed by teacher – these methods are enlarging explanations with authentic traditions, elucidating the words, sentences, and the problems that have caused disagreement among scholars. By this he tried to elucidate and amplify the evidence and strengthen its arguments through quoting from various passages and sura. In this it helps to reinforce the arguments that deal with problems which need timely solution in contemporary Muslim context based on guidance provided by their religion, and to strengthen their proof and argument in confronting their enemies, both of pagans and heretics, or solving the problem in a way that can be reassuring and soothing to mind. (Rida, 1947, p. 16)

Rida’s commentary avoids the usual detaisl devoted in classical works to examining meticulous aspect of language, art, and literature; this unleashed absolute freedom unbounded from past authorities. According to A. Athaillah (Athaillah, 2006, p. 2):

Rida’s exegetical work not only furnish an interpretation of the verses of Qur’an, but also constitutes a vehicle and channel of reform expounded by Abduh: through his commentary, he associates the teaching of theQur’an with people’s life, affirming the universal and eternal character of the religion of Islam, which is always in conformity with the needs of people in all times and places. He aligned the teaching of the Qur’anwith the development of contemporary science.

Rida’s profound work to set forth, spread and propound Abduh’s modern ideal was instrumental in spreadingthe latter’s dynamic and progressive work of commentary, as alluded by Abdullah Mahmud Shahatah(Syahatah, 1984, p. 209):

If not for Rida’s effort to publish Abduh’s ideal of reform, we shall be deprived and unable to recognize this brilliant ideas, especially in the field of Qur’anic exegesis.



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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.