No thinker in the last quarter of the 19th century had a more lasting influence on modern Egyptian culture than Mohamed Abdou.
Unlike the subjects of the two previous articles in this series, Jamaluddin Al-Afghani and Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakibi, Mohamed Abdou was Egyptian and fully immersed in the country’s heritage and to a large extent the product of its traditions.
His Egyptian identity drove him to focus in his first writings on public affairs. They appeared in the then nascent newspaper Al-Ahram and concerned the characteristics of what he called the Egyptian Kingdom.
This was an interesting terminology, for in the last quarter of the 19th 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 its Turkish overlords and 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 him to the top echelons of Egypt’s intellectual life in the late 19th century.
As described earlier in this series, Al-Afghani was an exceptional thinker with ideas that many wanted to listen to and understand. The fact that Abdou was Al-Afghani’s closest disciple and collaborator gave him a unique standing in Egypt and beyond. Because Al-Afghani was a semi-permanent traveller, Abdou became a sort of populariser and channel of Al-Afghani’s thought during a prolonged stay in Beirut and later after he had settled back in Egypt.
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 strands of Sufism, of Hellenic philosophy, and of the Islamic derivations that had sprung out of it. He learned about the Shia groups that had infused that sect’s theology with esoteric Persian concepts.
A lucid storyteller, 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 up in his many travels and scattered writings found their way into Cairene salons and publications.
However, Abdou’s main contribution to modern Egyptian culture lay not in what he carried with him from his mentor’s learning and thought, but in what he rejected.
Abdou rejected the most fundamental question of his time: how to reconcile modernity with Islam. For Abdou, modernity was a foregone conclusion. The real question was how to reconcile Islam with modernity and not vice versa. This reversal of the question antagonised senior Al-Azhar scholars at the time.
Abdou not only ignored the vast majority of his opponents, but he also attacked some of the most revered authorities in Islamic philosophy. He dissected what he considered to be flaws in the intellectual premises of renowned thinkers of Islamic civilisation such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
For Abdou, these were towering figures in humanity’s search for wisdom and truth. But he thought that their philosophy, largely made up of conceptions of the Divine, nature, and humanity, offered little to Muslim-majority societies trying to situate Islam in the modern age.
Abdou was not an intellectual nihilist, merely refuting and rejecting the work of others, however. He wrote extensively on what he deemed to be the basic tenets of Islam as a faith, a socio-political system, and a cultural frame of reference. He made the distinctions between these concepts clear, and he went about explaining and relating each to the reality of life in modern societies. Although he never claimed to be doing so, Abdou was effectively trying to redefine Islam.
His work was polarising, but he soldiered on, delving ever deeper into what his views meant in practical terms and in terms of regulations and legislation. Abdou’s success was such that he later became Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the ultimate authority on Islamic legal interpretations in the country.
When he got a chance to steer the education provided at Al-Azhar, he went after transformative changes in the curriculum. He shifted the focus away from theological debates towards the practicalities of preparing the institution’s graduates for the challenges faced by Muslim-majority societies experiencing rapid modernisation.
Neither towering older 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 curriculum he curated exposed Al-Azhar’s students to modern Western thought. The pragmatist Abdou diluted the teaching of 17th and 18th-century philosophy and strongly focused on 19th-century political and socio-economic thought.
For many, Abdou thus 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 also stepped beyond the Islamic faith.
Calm and confident, he ignored what others said about him. He had bigger concerns. He believed that the Ottomans, and to some extent the ruling Mohamed Ali Dynasty in Egypt, were obstacles to his grand project of situating Islam in modernity. This was because in his view the Ottomans and the Mohamed Ali Dynasty were foreign rulers without roots in the region.
He was particularly hostile to the Ottomans’ historical disregard for the Arabic language. For Abdou, this meant there was an unbridgeable gap between Ottoman culture and that of the societies the Ottomans ruled. This separation had plagued how Islam was perceived, understood, and practised, at least in the Sunni world, over the previous four centuries and since the Ottomans had established their rule over the region.
Abdou also foresaw that the Ottoman Empire was destined to collapse. He 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 Ottoman Islamic Caliphate would bring to the fore difficult questions about the role of Islam and of religions in general in Eastern societies.
Many of Abdou’s opponents accused him of wanting to eliminate religion from Eastern societies, and Abdou understood that this was a feature of the Western experience of modernity. In repeated debates with his closest Western interlocutors including the British colonial administrator Lord Cromer, Abdou argued that the only reason that the West had advanced the way it had was because it had abandoned Christianity. But Abdou did not want Egypt or the East to abandon their religions.
Instead, Abdou’s project was to found a new conceptualisation of Islam and to adapt it to suit Muslim-majority societies that were compelled to embrace modernity. For him, without the serious adoption of modernity these societies would fall further behind. Without a serious new understanding of 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 built have collapsed over the 120 years since he died. Yet, his project nevertheless remains the most courageous, informed, and serious attempt to address the difficult question of the role of religion and modernity in Egypt and the East as a whole.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.