Mohammed Abdu and the Islamic-secular debate

May 11, 2004 12:00 AM


Mohammed Abdu is one of the most influential figures in the history of the so-called Arab Enlightenment. His importance does not stem from any depth or complexity of thought, for his arguments lacked both; rather, he is important because the two sides of the Islamic-secular debate that has been dominating the Arab cultural and political life for the past 150 years accept his ideas.

Like many things in the Middle East, such a debate started in Egypt. One side of the debate about identity was the idea of an Islamic association to fight the British invasion of Egypt and all other attacks on the land of Islam. Persian-born Jamal-al-din al-Asadabadi, who was known as Jamal-al-din al-Afghani and who came to Egypt in 1871 and left due to British pressures in 1879, promoted this idea. The other trend was that of Egyptian nationalism centered on the Egypt that was created politically in 1840 by the treaty of London - and culturally in the pharoanic discoveries of the French expedition.

Mohammed Abdu had been part of the Urabi movement. This was an attempt by the Egyptian Army to overthrow the ruling elite in Egypt and reduce foreign interference in the country's financial and judicial affairs. The rebellion was crushed by a British invasion of Egypt that lasted for 74 years, and Abdu was deported to Beirut in 1882. Jamal-al-din al-Afghani, who was in Paris, wrote to Abdu in 1883 to join him in his efforts to establish Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, a paper whose name came from a Koranic expression roughly translated as "The Strongest Bond," referring to religion as a the strongest bond among Muslims.

The paper, established after Abdu joined Afghani in 1884, propagated pan-Islamism and called for the cooperation of all Muslims around the world to drive away European invaders. Abdu used the medieval term ifrinj, or Franks, to refer to Europeans. In one of his articles, he made the comparison between modern European colonialism and the Crusades very clear, which in an Islamic context was the strongest condemnation possible: "A Frank might reach the highest ranks, like Gladstone, yet still, every word he utters seems to be coming out of Peter the Hermit!"

At the end of that year, Abdu went to Tunis. In 1885 he went back to Beirut. In 1888 he returned to Cairo to assume the post of a judge and, later on, the post of the grand mufti of Egypt.

Tawfiq, the Khedive, the ruler of Egypt, who facilitated the British invasion, had forgiven Abdu on the advice of the British high commissioner, and his return to Egypt signified a drastic shift in his political alliances. Suddenly he started leaning very much toward the British against the Turkish Khedive. He became all for peaceful rather than violent resistance. His main program was liberation by education. But what kind of education was he calling for? And how did he think education would lead to independence?

In an article titled "The Nature of Egypt and her people," written right after his return to Egypt, Abdu emphasized that the most striking trait of the Egyptians was their ability to learn, and that Egypt's rulers should take advantage of such an asset.

In another essay, one of his most famous, he argues that a just despot would be the answer to the problems of the Orient. According to Abdu, the first task of such a despot would be to educate and train people until they are adequate for parliamentary rule. The similarity between Abdu's call and the British argument that the Egyptians were good imitators only waiting for the English teacher to deliver them from their misery is striking. It is clear that, despite Abdu's insistence that the Muslims should learn the skills of the Europeans, his suggested program of salvation did not focus on the kind of material progress that would allow the Egyptians to develop military and industrial bases able to drive away the British occupation. Rather, he meant some sort of a cultural progress that would render Egyptians deserving of ruling themselves. It logically followed from Abdu's argument that the British should supervise this educational process.

In effect, if not in theory, this meant convincing British officials that the people of Egypt merited ruling their own country. Such a process of convincing was the alternative to physically resisting the occupation. And the British would only think that the Egyptians would merit ruling their own country if they believed the Egyptians would rule it in the manner by which it ought to be ruled - that they would rule it in the "right way," the British way. Any other explanation would mean that the British were ruling in the wrong way, and that the British themselves should not rule Egypt.

It is this progress in the ability to replace rather than to destroy the occupation that Abdu and his students wanted to achieve. It is this potential to replace the occupation that should be developed among the elite of the Egyptians, so that the occupier can accept them as representatives of the Egyptian people and to trust them enough to become Egypt's native occupiers.

Therefore when Abdu died, Lord Cromer, the British high commissioner in Egypt during the first decades of the occupation, and the one charged with redefining Egypt in a manner befitting his Empire's interests, wrote the following: "For many years, I gave Abdu all the encouragement in my power, but it was uphill work, for besides the strong antagonism which he encountered from conservative Mislims, he was unfortunately on very bad terms with the Khedive, and was only able to retain his place as mufti by relying on strong British support. In my annual reports I frequently spoke of him in high terms, and no one regretted his premature death more sincerely than myself."

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