Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 7: The calm radical reformer
No thinker in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had a more lasting influence on modern Egyptian culture than Mohammad Abdou.
Unlike the subjects of the previous two articles in this series (al-Afghani and al-Kawakwby), Mohamed Abdou was Egyptian, fully immersed in the country’s heritage and to a large extent, the product of its traditions.
His Egyptianness drove him to focus - in his first writings on public affairs which appeared in the then nascent newspaper, al-Ahram - on the characteristics of, what he called, the Egyptian kingdom. This was an interesting terminology, for in the last quarter of the nineteenth century Egypt was officially a part of the Ottoman Empire, and practically a colony of the British. Abdou’s invoking of Egypt as an independent kingdom with a unique history, traditions, and socio-political nature was a clear message about the country’s aspirations for independence from the Turkish overlords and the Western occupiers.
Abdou’s writings drew around him different circles from the country’s nationalist movement at the time – from army officers to groups of Azharite scholars and students.
However it was al-Afghani’s fame that catapulted Mohammad Abdou to the top echelons of Egypt’s intellectual life in the late nineteenth century. As described earlier in this series, al-Afghani was an exceptional thinker with ideas that many wanted to listen to and understand, and that Abdou was al-Afghani’s closest disciple and collaborator gave Abdou a unique standing in Egypt and beyond. And because al-Afghani was a semi-permanent traveller, Mohammad Abdou, in a prolonged stay in Beirut and later after he had settled back in Egypt, became a sort of populariser and a channel of al-Afghani’s thought.
Abdou’s work with al-Afghani introduced him to knowledge that was rarely found in Egypt, the Levant, or Turkey at that time, particularly about interesting strands of Sufism, of Hellenic philosophy and the Islamic derivations that had sprung out from it, and about Shii groups that had infused the sect’s theology with Persian esoteric concepts.
A lucid storyteller, Mohammad Abdou popularised many of the ideas he had absorbed. It was thanks to Abdou that many of the most interesting philosophical debates that al-Afghani had stirred in his many travels and scattered writings, found their way to Cairene salons and publications.
However, Abdou’s main contribution to modern Egyptian culture was not what he carried through from his mentor’s learning and thought, but what he rejected.
Mohammad Abdou refuted the scoping of the most fundamental question of his time: how to reconcile modernity with Islam. For Abdou, the advancement of modernity was a forgone conclusion. The real question was how to reconcile Islam with modernity. This reversal of the question acutely antagonised senior al-Azhar scholars.
Abdou not only ignored the vast majority of his opponents, he attacked some of the most revered authorities in Islamic philosophy. He dissected what he considered flaws in the intellectual premises of renowned thinkers of the Islamic civilisation such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). For Abdou, these were towering figures in humanity’s search for wisdom and truths. But their philosophy - largely conceptions of the Divine, Nature, and humanity - offer little to Muslim-majority societies trying to situate Islam in the modern age.
Abdou was not an intellectual nihilist, merely refuting and rejecting. He wrote extensively on what he deemed the basic tenets of Islam, as a faith, as a socio-political system, and as a cultural frame of reference. He made the distinctions between these concepts clear and he went about explaining and relating each to the realities of life in modern societies. Although he never claimed it, Abdou was effectively trying to redefine and rescope Islam.
His work was polarising. But he soldiered on, delving deeper into what his views meant practically, in terms of regulations and legislations. Abdou’s success was paramount for he became Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the ultimate authority on Islamic legal interpretations.
And when he got a chance to steer the education at al-Azhar, he decisively went after transformative changes in the educational curricula. He shifted the focus away from theological debates to the practicalities of preparing the institution’s graduates to the challenges faced by Muslim-majority societies experiencing rapid modernisation. Neither old towering figures such as Ibn Arabi nor new philosophers such as his own mentor, al-Afghani, were officially published by al-Azhar during Abdou’s tenure. Rather, the curricula he curated exposed al-Azhar’s students to modern Western thought. And even in that, pragmatist Abdou diluted the teaching of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophy, and strongly focused on nineteenth century political and socio-economic affairs.
For many, Mohammad Abdou had stepped far beyond his Islamic background. Senior sheikhs at al-Azhar could not tolerate his casual dismissal of leading authorities in Islamic history and dominant ideas in theology and philosophy. For others - including Western writers who had interacted with him over several years - Abdou had stepped beyond the Islamic faith.
Calm and confident, Mohammad Abdou ignored what others said about him. He had a bigger concern. He believed that the Ottomans, and to some extent the Mohammad Ali dynasty, were obstacles to his grand project of situating Islam in modernity. This is because, in his view, the Ottomans and the Mohammad Ali dynasty were foreign rulers, without roots in the region. He was particularly hostile to the Ottomans’ historical disregard towards the Arabic language. For Abdou, this effected an unbridgeable gap between their culture and those of the societies they ruled. In Abdou’s view, this separation plagued how Islam was perceived, understood, and practiced – at least in the Sunni world - in the previous four centuries since the Ottomans had established their rule over the entire region.
Mohammad Abdou foresaw that the Ottoman Empire was destined to collapse. He also understood that the fall of the Ottomans would unleash acute social confrontations in the lands that had been under their rule, because the disappearance of the Ottomans’ Islamic caliphate would bring to the fore difficult questions about the role of Islam – and of religions in general – in Eastern societies.
Many of Mohammad Abdou’s opponents accused him of wanting to eliminate religion from Eastern societies. Abdou understood that this was a feature of the Western experience with modernity. In repeated debates with his closest Western interlocutors - including the famous British colonial administrator, Lord Cromer – Abdou argued that the only reason that the West had advanced the way it did, was because it had abandoned Christianity. But Abdou did not want Egypt or the East to abandon their religions.
Abdou’s project, as mentioned above, was to found a new conceptualisation of Islam, and to scope it to suit Muslim-majority societies that were compelled to embrace modernity. For him, without a serious adoption of modernity, these societies would fall further behind. And without a serious new understanding and rescoping of the religion and its role in modern society, paralysis and potentially polarising problems would take hold.
Abdou’s project was never completed. Parts of the intellectual structure he had built collapsed in the hundred and twenty years since he died. Yet, his project remains the most courageous, informed, and serious attempt to address the enduring difficult question about religion and modernity in Egypt and the entire East.