Theological Responses to Modernity in 19th Century Middle East:
The Examples of Bahá'u'llah and Muhammad 'Abduh

By Oliver Scharbrodt

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #36
London School of Economics: London, England
July 13–15, 2001
(see list of papers from #36)

published in Lights of Irfan, volume 3, pages 139-154
© 2002, ‘Irfán Colloquia

    This paper discusses two theological responses to Western modernity in 19th century Middle East. It presents the responses that are given by Bahá'u'llah (1817-1892) and Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905). 'Abduh is undoubtedly one of the most influential thinkers of modern Islam. Being the disciple of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the teacher of Rashid Rida, 'Abduh stands in the line of eminent personalities in the Islamic world of the last two centuries. Afghani's fame is based on his Pan-Islamic political activism, while Rida's significance lies in his ideological impact on modern Muslim political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Both secular liberal-minded Muslim intellectuals and fundamentalist ideologues refer to 'Abduh as their predecessor in reforming Islam. 'Abduh received a traditional education at Azhar where he came in contact with Afghani and became one of his closest disciples. Because of his support for the nationalist movement that emerged in Egypt in the 1870's, 'Abduh was exiled to Beirut after the defeat of 'Urab's nationalist revolt in 1882. Later he went to Paris and allied with Afghani, publishing with his teacher the anti-British journal al-'Urwat al-Wuthq'. In 1888, the permission was given to him to settle again in Egypt, where he started working as a judge and became chief mufti of Egypt in 1899. Until his death in 1905, he was much involved in publishing activities and tried to implement administrative and educational reforms at Azhar.

    This paper is an attempt to place the emergence of the Bahá'i Faith in the context of 19th century Middle Eastern gedankenwelt. So far only little research has been made to investigate the relationship of the Bahá'i Faith towards Middle Eastern reform thinkers and to compare their ideas. One has to observe that its role in relationship to those reform movements has been overlooked so far, although there were partly intense contacts between `Abdu'l-Bahá' and those reform thinkers. 'Abduh met at least once, but probably several times 'Abdul-Bahá' during his exile in Beirut. The nature of 'Abduh' s relationship to `Abdu'l-Bahá and to the Bahá'i Faith certainly requires further research. Bahá'u'llah's and Abduh's ideas on theology, prophetology and salvation history are expounded and compared. The comparison does not only aim at showing differences and parallels, but also at finding reasons for them in relation to the objectives of their respective reform programmes. It demonstrates how both thinkers try to bridge tradition with modernity and to find a theological response to the tension between both forces by appropriating, stressing, dismissing and modifying elements of the traditions they come from and enriching them with modern ideas. With their theologies, Bahá'u'llah and Muhammad 'Abduh attempt to explain the decline of Middle Eastern societies and to justify the necessity of reforms. The comparison shows that despite the similarities in the modernist outlook of their theologies, both find two different responses to modernity. Whereas 'Abduh remains on the grounds of the Islamic tradition and seeks to make it relevant to the modern world, Bahá'u'llah introduces himself as a new source of divine authority and founds a new religion.

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