How to Renew Islam in Seven Days? Three Recent Contributions to Ulema Studies

A recent poetry collection intriguingly titled ʿInd al-thamānīn badaʾt shiʿrī (“At eighty, I Began My Poetry”) by litterateur, senior Azhari Shaykh, theologian, and member of the Supreme Council of Scholars, Ḥasan al-Shāfiʿī (b. 1930), contains the following couplets on the renewer (sing. mujaddid) scholars of Islam. The collection, which is dedicated to the Arab Spring, includes a poem titled Nafḥat al-siḥr fī mujaddidī al-qurūn al-arbaʿat ʿashr (“The Magical Breath on the Renewers of the Fourteen Centuries”). The Nafḥat presents his relationship to this scholarly genealogy. One would be hard-pressed to challenge any of the twelve names in the first part of Ḥasan al-Shafi’i’s golden chain. Each scholar is assigned to an Islamic century, culminating with Imam Aḥmad al-Dardīr (d. 1200/1786) as the renewer of the twelfth/eighteenth century. But then the poem’s account of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries takes an unexpected turn:

Maybe, for the following, the answer is,

In this field, it is a group, not individuals;

Of the elevated ones. The first I relate

Is [Salīm] al-Bishrī, our Master-Jurist.

The one whose [scholarly] dictations are lofty;

Then came Bakhīt, followed by our Shaykh [Muḥammad] al-Ghazālī,

Along with his own Shaykh [Aḥmad] al-Bannāʾ, his excellency, and;

‘The Shāṭibī of the age’ [i.e., al-Ṭāhir b. ʿĀshūr], the exalted,

From Tunisia, he is grand, towering, and erudite.

Allah! join me with them,

For my love for the ones of perfection and virtue.[1]

Short as they are, these few verses raise several questions and offer some unusual answers on the topic of the renewal of Islam. Al-Shāfiʿī offers an adjusted paradigm with the renewers as a collective rather than individual scholars. Such a shift is nothing new. Hasan al-Ṣhāfiʿī is not the first to mention that, according to the text of the ḥadīth, there can be a group of scholars taking on the mission of renewal at once.[2] Additionally, the list includes an eclectic mix: avowed “traditionalists” (e.g., al-Bishrī) and reformists (Muḥammad al-Ghazālī), charismatic figures (Bakhīt, more below), and far more obscure ones (al-Bannāʾ, the father of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), varied geographies (the Tunisian al-Ṭāhir b. ʿĀshūr (1879-1973), referred to as ‘the Shāṭibī of the age,’), and other juristic affiliations within and without the established juristic schools (madhhabs). There is thus an emphasis on the renewers as a uniting collective, bridging multiple schools of jurisprudence and thought.

Here Ḥasan al-Shāfiʿī is following the footsteps of Imām al-Suyūṭī’s (d. 911/1505) poem, in which he cites the names of the renewers until the ninth century and then adds his name to the golden chain therein. He also wrote the seminal piece on the subject, which is a commentary on the same poem.[3] This entire body of work originates from a ḥadīth cited in Sunan Abū Dawūd, “Surely Allāh sends for this nation (umma) at the beginning of every hundred years [someone] who renews its religion for it.”[4] The tradition is deemed rigorously authentic by several ḥadīth specialists, contrary to the revisionist assertion of Ella Landau-Tasseron’s widely circulated article on the issue of tajdīd.[5]

New contributions to the study of ulema (ʿulamāʾ) in modern times offer valuable insights into their roles and attempts at renewal. A few recently published works examine the lives of three influential contemporary ulema who are said by some to be among the mujaddids of Islam; Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1845-1905), Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī (1854-1935), and Shaykh al-Islam Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī (1869-1954)

New contributions to the study of ulema (ʿulamāʾ) in modern times offer valuable insights into their roles and attempts at renewal. A few recently published works examine the lives of three influential contemporary ulema who are said by some to be among the mujaddids of Islam; Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1845-1905), Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī (1854-1935), and Shaykh al-Islam Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī (1869-1954) in Oliver Scharbrodt’s Muhammad ‘Abduh: Modern Islam and the Culture of Ambiguity (I.B. Tauris, 2022), Junaid Quadri’s Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2021), and Andrew Hammond’s Late Ottoman Origins of Modern Islamic Thought Turkish and Egyptian Thinkers on the Disruption of Islamic Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2022), respectively. Put into conversation with one another, the three works unveil overlooked dynamics of reform and itjihād-based renewal as distinct from the standard go-to reformists, delving into these projects’ epistemological and intellectual inner workings from different standpoints. The insights from these works can advance our approaches to ulemology[6] in significant ways and offer new understandings of the forms and inner mechanics of reform in the modern world.

A graph illustrating the lifespans of the contemporaneous scholars: Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, and Muṣṭafa Ṣabrī.

Scharbrodt’s The Talented ʿAbduh

In his book on renewers in Islamic history, ʿAbd al-Mitʿāl al-Ṣaʿīḍī (1894-1966), himself a reformist, considers Muhammad ʿAbduh (1845-1905) – the quintessential Muslim modernist scholar – a renewer who “interprets scripture in a way that conforms to reason.”[7] I will begin with him, the first-born as well as the most controversial and influential figure among the three ulema. Oliver Scharbrodt’s monograph is in this regard an indispensable contribution. It adopts Thomas Bauer’s “culture of ambiguity,” a nominalist theoretical framework that speaks to the layers of diversity innate to Islam and the Islamicate shared by Shahab Ahmed and, more recently, Kevin Reinhart. Such an approach focuses on the local, regional, and contextual diversities of Islam vis-a-vis its normative and universal elements. Unlike Islam’s cosmopolitan, normative culture, which is based on established universal and doctrinal understandings, the culture of ambiguity is prone to accepting grayer areas, complex positions, and unfinished answers. This point of departure proves especially meaningful for ulemaology. In ʿAbduh’s case, this discourse is utilized to make sense of his epistemological and intellectual make-up and any glaring inconsistencies.

Crucial for us is Scharbrodt’s examination of the model of the charismatic scholarly leader. Scharbrodt links renewal in Islam to the prophetic model through the Sufi conception of sainthood (wilāya).

The Sufi model of charismatic authority around sainthood provides a means for the continuous divine guidance of Muslims and the further development of Islam rather than just looking back onto the past and seeking the restoration of some sense of pristine Islam based on a restrictive reading of its scriptural sources. This Sufi model of a charismatic rejuvenation of Islam, that is directed by God, is more flexible, irenic and accommodative to change and innovation. The charismatic Sufi reformers appear to stand in contradiction to the tajdīd model of Sunni reform by the scholarly restorer of the sunna of the Prophet.[8]

Elaborating on the impact of this model, Scharbrodt turns to the influence of a complicated reformist figure, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1839-1897) on ʿAbduh. Growing up in Iran, al-Afghānī was a Twelver Shīʿī and was influenced by the Shaykhī school’s emphasis on philosophy, esotericism, intellectual expansion, innovation, and renewal, its appeal to solidifying charismatic authority, along with taqiyya (pious dissimulation), a fact that he spent the rest of his life concealing. An important lesson ʿAbduh learned from his charismatic mentor is how to tailor his discourse, written or spoken, to different audiences for maximal influence. It is no coincidence that all three scholars this piece studies are apt rhetoricians, and this insight into ʿAbduh’s education unravels some of the puzzling contradictions in his legacy, which his student Rashīd Rida (1865-1935) keenly attempted to bury via selective rewriting of the ambiguities in his teacher’s biography to “Salafize” or reaffirm his Sunni orthodoxy.

Scharbrodt’s work is noteworthy, first, for engaging with a wide range of Arabic scholarship and for his decolonial commitment. A widespread lack of engagement has left the unfortunate impression of a dismissive, arrogant, not to mention self-limiting approach from many Western academic studies that would have significantly benefited from academic works in languages other than English – but this work thankfully breaks that mould. Second, Scharbrodt meticulously combs ʿAbduh’s corpus (the book’s use of endnotes does not show the incisive research), especially his neglected early Sufi and theological works and shows how such origins inform his later positions. Together, these two strategies allow him paint a complex and detailed portrait of an ever-evolving figure. Early on, ʿAbduh’s rebellious trajectory is initiated by his frustration as an Azhari student and a Sufi practitioner with the rigidity of religious education. A rekindling by reformist-Sufi discourses, like that of the Sanūsiyya, Tijāniyya, and Īdrīsiyya orders, which are otherwise largely absent from the study of Islamic reformism, follows that.[9] Later, an eventful meeting with his Sufi-like mentor, al-Afghānī, transforms ʿAbduh into the social and political activist he was destined to be. From there onward, the book depicts him wearing a variety of hats: an influential public intellectual propogating modernism; a prolific journalist and famed editor; an activist advocating against traditional ulema and an education reformist (including advising the Ottomans), and; an official reforming al-Azhar from the outside, along with religious endowments and courts; a utilitarian statesman and pragmatic political activist using any tool at his disposal, including Free-Masonry; a founder of charitable and private educational institutions, and; a proto-nationalist and adamant anti-imperialist activist.

ʿAbduh’s roles were far-reaching in two contradictory and transformative ways: consolidating a statist, nationalized control of the religious sphere (even if sometimes unintentionally) and opening the door for religious activism to exist outside of and in competition with the state.

ʿAbduh’s roles were far-reaching in two contradictory and transformative ways: consolidating a statist, nationalized control of the religious sphere (even if sometimes unintentionally) and opening the door for religious activism to exist outside of and in competition with the state. Surprisingly, his pragmatism took him full circle, with him eventually rejecting al-Afghānī and his anti-imperialist stances, siding instead with the British occupiers, believing they were necessary to modernize and reform. Even al-Ṣiʿīdī criticizes him for this. Though Scharbrodt contextualizes ʿAbduh’s position well, showing how this pragmatic collaboration with the occupier is not simple treason but a necessary and temporary evil, an illuminating theoretical insight can be drawn from Quadri’s work. In his insightful engagement with Shaden Tageldin, Quadri reminds us how colonial modernity lures the colonized to seek power through the colonizer through “a translation into an idiom that affirms Arab-Islamic pasts as equivalent with Western ones,” seamless with a Eurocentric register.[10] It must be noted, however, that ʿAbduh was not a modernist through and through. Nationalism was an important modernist product of the modernist nation-state project, but ʿAbduh favored the intrinsic umma-wide unity over nationalism. A systematic analysis of his fatwas by Fatma Ḥāfiẓ confirms Scharbrodt‘s findings: ʿAbduh’s mostly inconsistent fatwas are generally reason-based and “lack juristic investigation.”[11] They are neither entirely modernist nor reformist, with many tactfully adhering to the doctrines of the Hanafi legal school, i.e., taqlīd.

As Hammond demonstrates in Late Ottoman Origins, Ṣabrī targeted the “tajdīdbased reformism of ʿAbduh. In this context, Ṣabrī used tajdīd cynically as a threat to Islamic authenticity, dedicating a whole book to the subject. He argued that ʿAbduh “allowed himself to become an unwitting accomplice to the ‘falsification of one after the other of Islam’s ideas and beliefs and their replacement with what Europe wants for us.’”[12]

In the final analysis, ʿAbduh saw himself as a modernist-reformist whose main goal was to modernize the traditionally educated and to influence the Western-allied intellectuals. His main legacy would be “creating a space for Islamic discourse in society outside the realm of traditional religious scholarship and independent of, if not in competition with, the state.”[13] Scharbrodt’s main contribution to the broader field of Islamic studies is to show that the culture of ambiguity as epitomized in ʿAbduh and his eclectic, rebellious, non-orthodox approach–has snaked its way intowas embedded in ʿAbduh and his approach to tajdīd. From him, this culture passed on to his numerous followers, both religious and secular – a path quite unlike the “long dead” model proposed by Ahmed, Bauer, and Reinhart.

Quadri’s Harmonizing Polymath: Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī

Shaykh Ali Gomaa, the previous Grand Mufti of Egypt (r. 2003-2013), counts Muhammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī (1854-1935) as a renewer of Islam in his recent TV series Miṣr arḍ al-mujaddidīn (Egypt is the land of the renewers). According to Gomaa, Bakhīt’s genius is in proving an essential coherence shared among Muslim thinkers and demonstrating that any disagreement among them is mainly a matter of semantics. He was also able to establish with this conciliatory, synthesizing approach an “inherent harmony between scripture and physical reality.”[14] Bakhīṭ was an influential scholar in traditional circles, a co-drafter of Egypt’s 1921 constitution, Grand Mufti, and a vehement critic of reformists. Reviewing Bakhīt’s career and legacy, one might ask whether antagonism, rebuttal, and the development of an alternative discourse to the “misguided” modernists, when added to scholarly credentials and charisma, is sufficient cause to deem someone a traditional renewer. The answer is complex. Junaid’s Qudari’s Transformations of Tradition, which I am pleased to have recently translated to Arabic, analyzes al-Muṭīʿī’s intriguing personality and offers insight into the epistemological foundations of his encounters with both tradition and colonial modernity. Starting with a timely juristic debate on eyewitness sighting vs. astronomical calculations, this work is wide-ranging and expansive in its engagement with several interwoven topics, including renewal within the madhhab framework, the intersection of philosophy and science with religious thought, and the role of fiqh in the modern world, especially under the sway of colonialism.

This monograph is a noteworthy contribution because of its careful and expansive tracing of the rival machinations between forward-looking renewal and backward-looking tradition. It is at once a profound and accessible theoretical engagement with the modern tensions between secular and religious worldviews. More specifically, Quadri offers a lens to observe one example of renewal, taqlīd and ijtihād and how these are shaped by the massive pressure of colonial modernity. Such circumstances forced Bakhīt to take an intentional and complex stance on how to renew his juristic tradition, i.e., the Ḥanafī madhhab, and begs a pressing question: did Bakhīt propose a modernist-looking continuity or calculated rupture that can be mistaken for continuity?

The quintessential traditionalist, Shaykh Bakhīt was a polymath and classically educated Mālikī- and later Ḥanafī-jurist and judge, an influential religious and intellectual voice who rose to the prominent position of Grand Mufti of Egypt (r. 1914-1920). He was also Europanized in more ways than one, keeping European dogs and busts in his house, and having daughters and granddaughters not wearing the traditional veiling but instead European hats.[15] Our encyclopedic and eidetic Shaykh was an avid consumer of translated Western literature across several disciplines, including scientific periodicals, al-muqtaṭaf among others. But how exactly did he perform the technical and formalistic process of juristic renewal? It starts with a theoretical transformation of the concept of time, re-historicizing the Ḥanafī juristic tradition, re-reading its sources, and centering and decentering its authorities to allow him to adopt juristic opinions from the periphery. As the investigation into Bakhīt’s fatwa on moon-sighting and its intersection with astronomical calculations unfolds, Quadri arrives at interesting conclusions regarding Bakhīt’s approach to renewal. Examining the long and slow process of subtle conceptual transformation, which took place through reinterpretations and hermeneutic revisions within the madhab-tradition, we find a process of decentering doctrinal and centering peripheral juristic rules alongside an engagement with science and its influence on his juristic thought. Relying on theoretical interventions, including those of Talal Asad, Homi Bhabha, and Shaden Tageldin, we catch a glimpse of a Bakhīt who sees Islam as almost-but-not-fully-equal to the colonizing and materially advanced mimicable West. Quadri’s theoretical and textual investigation gives us a coherent account of Bakhīt’s embrace of science and representational scientism as he, “made ingenious use of the legal tradition, drawing upon scholars like al-Subkī, who were acknowledged masters in the Egyptian milieu, as well as just-deceased contemporaries from the broader Muslim world like al-Marjānī, whose primary connection to Bakhīt was through the network of the Ḥanafī madhhab, a long-standing nexus of connection now strengthened through the increasing ease of intellectual exchange via print and travel that is so characteristic of the modern period. In so doing, however, Bakhīt’s argumentation reveals more profound changes in the structure of Muslim thought, shifts that accompanied, and indeed were inseparable from, the irresistible allure of science and technology.”[16]

The transformative renewal process, Quadri argues, included the emergence of new ways to categorize ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that informed Bakhīt’s renewal of Ḥanafism, particularly through adopting a few juristic moves.

The transformative renewal process, Quadri argues, included the emergence of new ways to categorize ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that informed Bakhīt’s renewal of Ḥanafism, particularly through adopting a few juristic moves. First, he revisited the question of whether (and what) constitutes a religious and binding testimony vs. a mere report of sighting the moon at the beginning of Ramadan. Second, he restructured the juristic hierarchy of tabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ, raising and lowering the status of specific juristic references to reassess commitments to their rulings.[17] The prerequisite of this classification has historically been whether a scholar believes in the divisibility (tajazzuʾ) of ijtihād, i.e., whether a scholar can perform ijtihād on a particular juristic topic or sub-discipline.[18] It must be noted that Bakhīt was not the first to do this. Both al-Marjānī (d. 1889), al-Laknawī (d. 1886) criticized this classification, in addition to al-Kawtharī, who is discussed in Hammond’s work..[19] Third, Bakhīt re-conceptualized what constitutes the mundane, the worldly, and the religious, thus reshaping the rules applying to each of them. Quadri’s juristic investigation goes further in studying Bakhīt’s fatwa-based renewal than previous works, like Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen’s characterization of Bakhīt’s fatwa-producing methodology and Bakhīt’s combing of doctrines from more than one madhhab as a “compromise” and that he chooses “the most liberal solution.”[20] Although Bakhīt’s project is not an all-out secularization project, engaging with Khaled Fahmy and drawing on Talal Asad, Quadri sheds light on a secularizing logic in Bakhīt’s thoughts, one that “emerges on this account not as an instance of Europeanization, but rather as an indigenous configuration of law that predated both the British and Napoleon.”[21]

While Bakhīt creatively sought to adhere to and conserve established madhab limits, other traditionalists stretched these limits even further. For example, Gomaa, an icon of traditional Islam and a rejecter of reformism, proposes an approach to the tradition that exhibits striking similarities with modernists, as shown by Mary Beinecke Elston in her recent seminal study.[22] While Gomaa naming Bakhīt a renewer in his TV program is not shocking, his inclusion of other unlikely figures in the supposed religious category of renewers is exactly that: from outright staunch modernists, non-ulema like the iconic poet and mystic Imam al-Buṣīrī (608-696/1213-1295), or even figures who galvanized public and scholarly condemnation for having shockingly disruptive unorthodox views, like litterateur Ṭāhā Husayn (1889-1973), and controversial scholar ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1888-1966). Such inclusion is surprising and reveals a modernist-leaning tendency within what is considered an unadulterated traditionist camp.

Hammond’s Shaykh al-Islam

Hammond’s exciting and long overdue work offers a valuable contribution to the study of late Ottoman thought. It covers a massive corpus of Turkish and Arabic literature on the lives, intellectual transformations, and legacies of three late Ottoman figures, two ulema, and one intellectual: the Shaykh al-Islam, influential theologian, former politician, and author Muṣtafā Ṣabrī Efendi (1869-1954); the prominent Ḥanafī scholar, editor of numerous critical editions, and author Muḥammad Zāhid Kevseri (al-Kawtharī in the Arabized form) (1879-1952); and poet, editor, translator, and modernist Muslim thinker Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-1936). These figures’ legacy was previously lurking in the darkness enforced by secular nationalists. Hammond also raises savvy methodological and historiographical questions about Ottoman intellectual history and political thought, offering valuable input on several current interests of Islamicists, like the decline thesis, which has a direct link to the cyclicality of tajdīd, its relation to non-religious conditions, and the need for recentering theological (vis-a-viz juristic) reasoning, as well as the genesis and development of the term Salafism. But while the work unearths interesting intersections between traditional ulema and modernist thinkers, some of its conclusions are a product of overstretched connections. Due to limitations of space and applicability, however, this article will only engage with Muṣtfā Ṣabrī, who is regarded as a renewer scholar.

Thanks to Hammond’s inclusion of Turkish and archival material, Ṣabrī’s biography is well evidenced.[23] Born in Anatolia, Ṣabrī was a child prodigy who underwent a traditional religious education that eventually brought him to Istanbul. There he moved up the scholarly career path with such alacrity that he became the Sultan’s librarian and an active parliamentarian, calling for “Islamic democracy” in which the ulema preserve shari’a law and the executive power of the Sultan. His origins informed his later oeuvre, and of special interest in thar regard is his early work was an editor of a journal of traditionalist ulema, Beyanülhak. In his first editorial, he emphasized that “Islam was not against ‘progress and civilization,’” and extolled “freedom practiced in a legitimate manner” and a “love of [Islamic] sciences and modern knowledge,” while eschewing absolutism and injustice.[24] When the influence of radical secular Kemalists grew, he had to flee, and finally settled in Egypt in 1932 after two dramatic forced exiles. There, however, he focused on a ‘detached reflection on the epistemic violence of European ideas on Islamic state and society, but with an increasing Egyptian flavor; in his words, his political jihad had given way to ‘scholarly, religious jihad (jihād ʿilmī dīnī).”[25] Ṣabrī’s intellectual production in Egypt is intriguing, especially his kalām-centered renewal and radical engagement with Western thought, analysis of the Muslim condition, thoughts regarding the modern-day role of ulema, and the rise of the nation-state architecture. They all provide a uniquely fresh, radical, and experienced perspective, as they are informed by his wide-ranging intellectual engagements and colorful political career.

To provide the reader with a taste of the breadth of Ṣabrī’s theological contribution as a proper ʿālim representing Sunnī Orthodoxy, his most important work is Mawqif al-ʿaql wa al-ʿilm wa al-ʿālam min Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn wa ʿibādihi al-mursalīn (the Stance of Reason, Science and the World towards the Lord of the Worlds and His Servant-Messengers). This four-volume work is an encyclopedic collection of theological, philosophical, political, and juristic writings. It contains Ṣabrī’s debates from the 1930s and 1940s with numerous contemporary and historical thinkers. Several influentials scholars and theologians like ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah (1917-1997), Muḥammad Ramaḍān al-Būṭī (1929-2013), and Saʿīd Fūda (1967-) deem ​Mawqif al-ʿaql as the most important Islamic book in the 20th century.[26] Of interest, the latter wrote an abridgment and supplement to Mawqif.[27] At the heart of this wide-ranging work is a modern-day treatment, a renewed application of traditional Islamic theology (kalām) and logic (manṭiq) to modern themes and problems, engaging with contemporary philosophers, arguments, terms, and trends. Its tajdīd-contribution is focused on several themes: the relevance of religion and proving the existence of God, the issue of the temporal origination of the world, prophethood and miracles, and the inseparability of religion and politics.[28] Here he champions rationality and logic, mainly formal logic, over empiricism. First, his epistemological pivots rely on asserting the limitations of sensory and experimental knowledge and arguing that knowledge should not be limited to this mode of thought. Instead, such modes should supplement rational methodology. Second, he attempts to highlight the concordance between religion and reason. Consequently, and based on the rules of formal logic, “he adopts an intermediary theological route between the classical kalām approach and the modern western one… bringing concepts and terms closer for the contemporary reader.”[29] See, for example, his critique of the adoption of European epistemology by Muḥammad Farīd Wajdī (1878-1954), editor-in-chief of al-Azhar journal, and the latter’s call a reduction of knowledge to that which is acquired via empirical science.

It is because, for our scholars, in reality, knowledge is a word that entails a distinction that cannot entail contradiction; its opposite is a rational impossibility. Such a level of knowledge is realized through a rational proof, not an experimental one, and is relied on to prove something per se and negate its opposite; without such contradiction being necessary and impossible to lag forever. The reason is the impossibility of reaching [a final] judgment in future endless experiments. This is a fact acknowledged by Western scientists… In this is the secret behind [proving] the existence of Allah necessitating rational evidence for us, so that what it affirms is not only existent but a Necessary Being (wājib al-wujūd). The ones fond of the West, unaware of our Islamic philosophy, do not find this important point of proving Allah’s existence in their divine philosophy. This is why they fall into inescapable confusion (ḥīṣ bīṣ).[30]

Ṣabrī refashions classical arguments in modern language, like the proof from contingency (dalīl al-ḥudūth or dalīl al-imkān) and the teleological argument from providence (dalīl al-ʿināya). Equally important to his discourse is proving prophecy and miracles. His interlocutors make an impressive list, from secularists and liberal reformists (chief among them is ʿAbduh) to classic and modern European and Muslim thinkers. He does not shy away from contradicting big names like Kant, asserting that rational proofs of God’s existence rather than his a priori moral one is imperative; al-Ghazālī, on his deviation from Ashʿari casualty and giving preference for mystical unveiling over reason; or Ibn ʿArabī, on the harmful effects of the perceived pantheism of his doctrine of the Unity of Being (waḥdat al-wajūd).

Equally impressive is Ṣabrī’s political thought, especially on secular nationalism. Because of his political career, his political views are based on experience. Still, they are also radical. Central to his outlook is the idea that the modern nation-state is the result of “war, militarisation of the state, and suppression of political life and free expression.”[31] Just like ʿAbduh, a complex figure holding conservative views that did not fit his general progressive agenda, Ṣabrī had progressive views on several political issues, especially democratic elections, constitutionalism, and principles of freedom, meaning “freedom of nations to form their governments… not freedom of governments to act independently of the Islamic system.” In a telling example of the intersection of traditionalism and politics in Ṣabrī’s view, which inverts conceptions of progress and regress, he writes:

[T]he idea that removal of the shariʿa structures opens the way to the full power of Foucault’s Panopticon state to mould the modern subject at will… the advantage of shariʿa is the very [stagnation] jumūd that Europeans and reformist intellectuals identified as a backward non-modern characteristic. Divine law stands above man-made law, which is fashioned by men for their interests, and easily so in parliamentary systems in which just one seat is enough to allow majoritarian rule; divine law prevents elites from gaming the system for their own ends.[32]

He argues that Muslims in a secular state risk exiting Islam and that the secular state is the province of tyrannies of administration, surveillance, and coercion. This is precisely where the role of ulema and shariʿa is crucial: as protectors against the tyranny of the rulers. It is especially the case  since, in modern public space, the loss of scholars’ authority is inevitably gained by  the state, not any other religious or political actors. Based on Skovgaard-Petersen and Gregory Starrett’s assertions, the relationship between the ulema and the state remains to be the one most needing of analysis.[33]

Hammond also analyzes Ṣabrī’s thoughts in the light of those of other theorists, like Carl Schmitt and Wael Hallaq. His work forces us to rethink the modern trajectory of Muslim political thought by moving our historiographical gaze to before the standard narrative that starts with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hammond’s coverage of the three authors, including material from the Turkish expat community in Egypt, is valuable. However, while noteworthy, the connections he made between Sabrī and Kawtharī and modernist Muslim thinkers and activists, especially Sayyid Quṭb and the Muslim Brotherhood, are rather flimsy links. Ṣabrī’s discourse and approach to renewal, unlike that of al-Bannā and Quṭb, is a kalām-based program through a revival of the Sunni trilogy of madhab-ism, kalām, and Sufism. Al-Bannā, however, has no interest whatsoever in kalām, and Quṭb denounces it outright.[34] In a critical reflection on an assumed connection between Ṣabrī, on the one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, Muhammad al-Marakeby astutely asserts that it is:

…a reflection of the type of dissatisfaction existing between the two parties, even if it does not reach the level of criticism or conflict, as is the case between the Shaykh [Ṣabrī] and the school of ʿAbduh. When he talks in Mawqif al-ʿaql about the need for an organized group seeking the revival of Islam, Shaykh Muṣtafā Ṣabrī uses others as an example, turning away from the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the book was written after the Muslim Brotherhood reached such fame that makes it known to anyone. If he were satisfied with its methodology [i.e., the Brotherhood], he would have mentioned it as an example, not others.[35]

In his review of the book, Omar Anchassi also argues that the differences in intellectual agendas between Sabrī (and Kawtharī) and the “Islamists,” including al-Bannā, Quṭb, and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, are stark. That there are intersections between the two sides in no way constitutes an “origin,” according to him.[36]

That being said, it would be equally important to build on Ḥammond’s work and analyze how Ṣabrī drew on the political ideas of other early modern scholars, like Hasan al-ʿAṭṭār (1766-1834), Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801-1873), Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnsī (1820-1890).


There is an interesting episode that connects the three abovementioned scholars. When colonial French foreign minister Gabriel Hanotaux (d. 1944) wrote a typical colonial supremacist essay comparing Islam to Christianity and arguing that it is inferior for favoring divine transcendence and has little room for human agency, ʿAbduh felt he had to respond. He penned an anti-deterministic and Muʿtazilī-inspired rebuttal, calling Muslims not to imitate Europe outright but rather to adopt values that are, as Schrabrodt notes, “universal and based on human reason and fixed laws of history and unfold in the interaction between different civilizations.”[37] In a characteristic move that stayed within the frames of the tradition while tactfully drawing opinions from peripheral figures, Bakhīt critiqued ʿAbduh’s response, arguing that Islam furnishes more space for human agency through the Māturīdī doctrine of partial will (irāda juzʾiyya). Islamic theology in itself is not to be blamed, Bakhīt argued, but rather the common misunderstanding of predestination (al-qaḍāʾ wa-l-qadar). Analyzing Bakhīt’s response, Quadri suggests that he, “[o]nce more evinces his propensity to rely on acclaimed senior Ḥanafī authorities who, though they identified as Ḥanafīs, occupied a complex liminal identity, often advancing maverick opinions that coincided with the concerns of revivalists and reformists.”[38] Ṣabrī, in his turn, was provoked by Bakhīt’s response. For him, this was the occasion, as Hammond observes, “[t]o take on the trend he had observed towards reformulating theological understandings on free will as the basis for bringing Muslim societies up to par with Europe in political, economic, and technological strength.”[39] Ṣabrī championed the Sunni orthodoxy by focusing on disentangling semantics. He went as far as arguing that one may say that there is no divine determinism at all by voicing the classical position that “[f]or us, humans do what they do through their will and choice, except that what they ultimately will and choose is what Allāh wills and chooses for them… it is as though they are under the influence of determinism but without there being determinism.”[40] Analyzing their reactionary and mutual influences, Hammond asserts, “Ṣabrī saw ʿAbduh’s influence behind [Bakhīt] al-Muṭīʿī.”[41]

Drawing on new conceptual and theoretical frameworks, following decolonial commitments, benefiting from non-Western scholarship, and contextualizing the inner workings of the contributions of ulema, the above monographs constitute noteworthy developments in ulema studies. Other noteworthy contributions to the broader field of studying contemporary ulema include those of Qasim Zaman, Malika Zeghal, Meir Hatina, and SherAli Tareen. Specific studies on individual scholars, both historical and modern, include Matthew Ingalls’ work on Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī (d. 931/1525), Pieter Coppens on Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866–1914), Sami Ayoub’s work on Ibn Nujaym (d. 969 or 970/1563) and his juristic interactions with power, and Emad Hamdeh on the Salafi ḥadīth specialist Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914-1999) (which would have made a meaningful addition to this essay were it not for constraints of space).

As a religion that claims its message is a continuation of previous monotheistic faiths, integrates calls for social change from its infancy, abrogates some of the rules in its scripture, critically adopts concepts from other cultures, and praises theologically inspired innovations, Islam and its tajdīd is important. Developments in tajdīd are associated with complex interwoven issues, including the individual backgrounds of scholars, their networks and milieu, the epistemological and intellectual approaches undergirding their thought and its scope within and without the frames of Sunni orthodoxy. There is much more to be done in studying tajdīd, and there is no escaping an engagement with new conceptual frameworks.

In Cairo, where our three ulema lived, there are curious developments pertaining to tajdīd.

In Cairo, where our three ulema lived, there are curious developments pertaining to tajdīd. The loudest comes mainly from the state, masked behind the calls for “renewal of religious discourse.” Such statist calls have been demonstrated to have two objectives. First, to enforce a securitized puppeteering of state allies to depoliticize and control public space, preventing any criticism of the state. The primary approach there is to reinvent a custom-designed version of Islam for which staunch statism is a central value and then weaponize it against adversaries, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The second objective is to absolve the state of its economic failure, the astronomical inflation, and the deterioration of living conditions and services. Instead, the current state-led religious discourse ignores bad governance and focuses on themes like the virtue of patience in the face of adversities, nationalism as a supra-religious virtue, while blaming public behavior, like laziness and overpopulation, for the current conditions.[42] Assessing the past nine years’ worth of such calls, researcher Ishaq Ibrahim asserts that no renewal or change was produced except for the monopolization of public religious discourse by the states and its affiliates.[43] Such developments are starkly different from and fall short in comparison to the rich and dynamic public engagements that ʿAbduh, Bakhīt, and Ṣabrī brought about.

Tarek Ghanem is PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Religion and Theology, working on the post-classical Islamic commentary (ḥawāshī) tradition, combining philology and digital humanities in studying the juristic tradition of the Shāfiʿī madhhab, 10th-13th centuries, Cairo.

[1] Ḥasan al-Shāfiʿī, ʿInda al-thamānīn badaʾt shiʿrī, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Duktūr ʿAbd Allāh bin Āl al-Shaykh Mubārak, 2016), 95-97.

[2] Al-Nawawī, al-Minhāj Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, ed. Bashīr Muḥammad ʿUyān (Riyadh: Dār al-Muʾayad, 1998), 13:69; Ibn al-Athīr, Jāmiʿ al-Uṣūl fī ahādīth al-Rasūl, edited by ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Arnaʾūṭ (Riadh: Maktabat al-Ḥalwanī; Damascus: Maṭbaʿat al-Mallāḥ; Kuwait: Maktaba Dār al-Bayān, 1972), 11:320; Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī 13:295:: Tawālī al-taʾsīs, edited by ʿAbd al-Allāh al-Qādī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, n.a), 49.

[3] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, al-Tanbiʾa biman yabʿathuh Allāh ʿalā raʾs kul miʾa, edited by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Shanūḥa, (Mecca: Dār al-Thiqa li-l-Nasr wa al-Tawzīʿ, n.d.).

[4] Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī, Sunan Abū Dāwūd, (Cairo: Dār al-Maknaz al-Islāmī, 2000), 715.

[5] Ella Landau-Tasseron, “The ‘Cyclical Reform’: A Study of the mujaddid Tradition.” Studia Islamica, No. 70. (1989), 79-117. The main point of the article is to argue that the ḥadīth on renewers is a later fabrication by followers of the Shāfiʿī school to cement the standing of their eponymous founder. Opening with a troubling statement, “It is difficult to imagine that Islam, confident as it is in its own integrity and superiority, should display an awareness of its own intrinsic imperfection to such a degree that it should have formulated in a ḥadīth a requirement for constant, regular reform,” (p. 97), the article suffers from several problems. It bases its hermeneutics of suspicion on the following points: first, the fact that the ḥadīth is categorized under an eschatological heading in Abū Dāwūd’s Musnad, and that two of its early disseminating narrators are Shāfiʿīs – al-Rābīʿ b. Sulaymān (d. 270/884) and Ḥarmala b. Yaḥyā (d. 243/857). Second, the claim of one source that one of the narrators suffers weakness. In so doing, the article mainly bases its claim of fabrication on the weakness of the narrator ʿAbd Allah b. Wahb (d. 197/812). However, as shown below, he is not deemed so by rigorous ḥadith critics, including scrupulous critics like Ibn Ma’in (d. 233/847). She also fails to mention that there are corroborating reports. To discuss the debate on the level of authentication of the ḥadīth on renewal, there is a multitude of standard authentication works from different madhhabs that deem the ḥadīth on tajdīd rigorously authentic (ṣahīḥ). These include several non-madhab affiliates of Ahl al-Ḥadīth traditionists, like al-Ḥākim al-Naysabūrī, non-Shāfiʿī ḥadīth-scholars, like the Ḥanafī jurist and ḥadīth specialist Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī (d. 1015/1606), and later Salafī anti-madhhab proponents, like al-Albānī, to name only a few out of numerous other scholars; al-Ḥākim al-Naysabūrī, al-Mustadrak, (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Maʿārif, n.a.) 4:522; Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī, Mirqāt al-maṣābīḥ, ed. Ṣidqī al-ʿAṭṭār, (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1994), 1:508; al-Albānī, al-Silsila al-Ṣaḥīha, (Damascus: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1980), 599. As for the narrator who is claimed to be untrustworthy, Imām Ahmad Ibn Ḥanbal (164/780-241/855) and the famous early traditionist Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn (d. 233/848), among several others, deemed him trustworthy; Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī, al-Jarḥ wa al-taʿdīl, edited by al-Maʿlamī al-Yamānī (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, n.a.), 5:189-190; Jamāl al-Dīn Yūsuf al-Mizzī, Tahdhīb al-Kamāl, ed. Bashshār ʿAwwād (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1993), 16:282-83. In any case, she fails to mention that there are corroborating reports. Even if the tradition is narrated through one problematic (muʿḍil) chain of transmission, it is narrated through another path via a connected (muttaṣil) chain; Sharaf al-Ḥaqq al-Ṣiddīqī, ʿAwn al-maʿbūd ʿalā sharḥ Sunan Abū Dawūd, (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2005), 11:397. Finally, there are other non-literal corroborating (shawāhid) narrations. To mention only one, “This knowledge shall be inherited by the most upright of each successive generation, rejecting the interpretations of the ignorant ones, the usurpation of the fabricators, the distortion of the extremists”; Aḥmad al-Bayhaqī, al-Sunan al-kubrā, edited by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭṭā (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2003), 10: 353. Lastly, contrary to her claim that because Shāfiʿī proponents saw the founder of their madhhab as a renewer, this constitutes a basis for a fabrication, Ibn Kathīr is not the only scholar to state that the ḥadītḥ “includes each individual scholar from these periods, who is attending to communal obligation (farḍ kifāya) in delivering knowledge from the earlier generation they met to the ones they meet from successive generations”: Ibn Kathīr, Shamāʾil al-rasūl wa dalāʾil nubuwatih (Riyadh: Maktabt al-ʿUbaykān, 2002), 406. For a comprehensive treatment of the ḥadīth, its narration, and the general concept of renewal in Islam see also: ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Mukhtār Ibrāhīm, “Ḥadīth ina Allāh yabʿath lhādhih al-umma man yujadid lahā dīnahāriwāya wa dirāya, Majalat al-Sharīʿa wa al-Dirasāt al-Islāmiyya 22, no. 68, pp. 15-105.

[6] As far as I can find, the first scholar to coin the term is Roy P. Mottahedeh in his eloquently written Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society. Mottahedeh, Roy P., Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

[7] Oliver Scharbrodt, Muhammad ‘Abduh: Modern Islam and the Culture of Ambiguity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2022).

[8] Scharbrodt, Muhammad ‘Abduh, 17.

[9] For more on neo-Sufism, see: Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: The Transformation of an. Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Meyer, Verena. “From Taṣawwuf Modern to Neo-Sufism: Nurcholish Madjid, Fazlur Rahman, and the Development of an Idea” in Ewing, Katherine Pratt and Corbett, Rosemary R.. Modern Sufis and the State: The Politics of Islam in South Asia and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[10] Junaid Quadri, Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021),131.

[11] Fatma Ḥāfiẓ, al-Ijtihād wa al-taqlīd ladā Muḥammad ʿAbduh: qirāʾa fī al-naṣṣ al-kāmil li-l-fatāwa, Khutwa for Documentation and Studies, accessed 29 June 2023:

[12] Andrew Hammond, Late Ottoman Origins of Modern Islamic Thought Turkish and Egyptian Thinkers on the Disruption of Islamic Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 91.

[13] Scharbrodt, Muhammad ‘Abduh, 157.

[14] Ali Gomma, Misr Arḍ al-Mujaddidīn, episode 14, accessed 29 June 2023:

[15] Quadri, Transformations, 102.

[16] Ibid., 163-4.

[17] Here Bakhīt relies on the first major criticism of Ibn al-Kamāl’s seven-category function-based classification by al-Marjānī in Nāṭurat al-haqq. Other Ḥanafī jurists that critiqued and suggested modifications of Ibn al-Kamāl’s classification include Shāh Waliullah al-Dahlawī (1703-1762) in ʿAqd al-Jīd, ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Laknawī (d. 1866), especially in ʿMadat al-riʿāya, and al-Kawtharī in Ḥusn al-taqāḍī and al-Ḥāwī fī sirat al-imām Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī, among other works. For a comprehensive introduction to this subject, see Norman Calder, “Al-Nawawī’s Typology of Muftīs and its Significance for a General Theory of Islamic Law.” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996), 137-164.

[18] Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, Adab al-muftī wa al-mustaftī, edited by Muwaffaq b. ʿAbd Allāh (Beirut: ʿĀlam al-Kutub, 1986), 89-90; al-Rāzī, al-Maḥṣūl fī ʿim al-ūṣūl, edited by Ṭāha Jābir al-ʿAlwānī (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1992), 6:25; Ibn al-Humām, al-Taḥrīr maʿa sharḥih al-Taqrīr was al-Taḥbīr (Cairo: Matbaʿat Muṣṭafā al-Ḥalabī, 1933), 459.

[19] Ibid., 163-4.

[20] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Defining Islam for the Egyptian State: Muftis and Fatwas of the Dâr al-Iftāʾ, Social, Economic, and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 138.

[21] Quadri, Transformations, 171.

[22] Elston, Mary Beinecke. Reviving Turāth: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, 2020, accessed 29 June 2023:

[23] The two most circulated intellectual biography in Arabic of Ṣabrī are both by the same author: Mifrīḥ b. Sulaymān al-Qūṣī, Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī al-mufakir al-Islāmī wa al-ʿālim al-ʿālamī wa shaykh al-Islām fī al-dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya sābiqan (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2006):: al-Ṣhaykh Muṣtafā Ṣabrī wa mawqifuh min al-fikr al-wāfid (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 1997).

[24] Hammond, Late Ottoman, 41.

[25] Ibid., 46.

[26] Muḥammad Saʿīd al-Būṭī, Kubrā al-yaqīniyyāt al-kawniyya (Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1997), 85, ft.,1; Saʿīd Fouda, “Al-Shaykh Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī wa Kitāb Mawqif al-ʿIlm,” accessed 29 June 2023:

[27] Saʿīd Fouda, al-Mawqif: al-madkhal qirāʾa naqdiyya li-aham al-uṣūl fī al-fikr al-Islāmī wa al-ʿArabī (Amman: Dār al-Rāzī, 2001).

[28] ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Ḥamzāwī,Maʿālim al-tajdīd al-kalāmī ʿinda Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī, a Master’s thesis, Université Echahid Hamma Lakhdar, Department of Theology, accessed 29 June 2023: 

[29] ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Hazerachi, “Masāʾil al-manṭiq ʿinda shaykh al-Islām Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī fī kitābih Mawqif al-ʿaql wa al-ʿilm wa al-ʿālam min Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn wa ʿibādih al-mursalīn”, Majallat al-ʿUlūm al-Islāmiyya wa al-Ḥaḍāra 08, No.1 (2023), 230.   

[30] Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī, Mawqif al-ʿaql wa al-ʿilm wa al-ʿālam min Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn wa ʿibādihi al-mursalīn (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1981), 2:107.

[31] Hammond, Late Ottoman,  202.

[32] Hammond, Late Ottoman, 206-7.

[33] Skovgaard-Petersen, Defining Islam; Gregory Starrett, Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[34] See for example his complete rejection of kalām and philosophy in Syed Quṭb, Khaṣāʾiṣ al-taṣawwur al-Islāmī (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 2007), 11.

[35] Muhammad al-Marakeby, al-Bidāyāt al-mubakira li-f-fikr al-siyāsī al-muʿāṣir: al-shaykh Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī siyāsiyyan. Namāʾ Center, accessed 29 June 2023:

[36] “Late Ottoman Origins of Modern Islamic Thought” by Andrew Hammond: Islamicate Book Reviews, accessed 29 June 2023:

[37] Scharbrodt, Muhammad ‘Abduh, 193.

[38] Quadri, Transformations, 215.

[39] Hammond, Late Ottoman, 87.

[40] Ṣabrī, Mawqif al-ʿaql, 3:405.

[41] Hammond, Late Ottoman, 87-88.

[42] I wrote an article on the state manipulation of religious discourse to cover up its economic shortcomings: Tarek Ghanem, “Opium or coffee? Islam and its relevance in hard times,” Mada Masr, accessed 29 June 2023:

[43] Ishaq Ibrahim, “Thawra lam taḥduth baʿd: tisʿ sanawāt ʿalā aldaʿwa li-tajdīd al-khiṭāb al-dīnī,” al-Manaṣṣah, 29 June 2023: