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The Islamic reformer: Mohammad Rashid Reda

Mohammad Rashid Reda urged Muslims to introspect and free their minds from the stagnation of scholars and tyranny of rulers

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Feeling the fissures Reda experienced first-hand the disintegration of the Muslim world
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Mohammad Rashid Reda (September 23, 1865-August 22, 1935) was a leading Muslim reformer. He was a student of both Mohammad ‘Abduh and Jamal Al Deen Al Afghani, two men who defined reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, unlike Al Afghani, who called for radical measures, Reda was more subdued and a realist. While he most likely inspired both Hassan Al Banna as well as Sayyid Qutb, the founder and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively, Reda shunned violence.

Moreover, while he rejected what he considered the unIslamic practices of the Mawlawi Sufi order, which thrived in Tripoli, Lebanon, in the late 1800s, he favoured and recommended that believers adopt the dignified simplicity of the religion as practised by village notables. Reda dismissed the elaborate rituals of aristocrats along with the rapturous extremes favoured by working classes. What he wished to see in practice were transformations of all religious rituals, which he could only find among the Naqshabandiyyah Sufi order that, in time, led him to the pan-Islamist thinker Al Afghani.

A politically engagé thinker, Reda stood among peers as one of the first Arabs to become aware of Zionism, and to warn of its dangers. His influence grew in the revivalist movement that was then prevalent. His writings left an undeniable impact on many young men around the turn of the century as he offered many concrete alternatives to established norms.

Early life and times

Shaikh Reda was born in Al Qalamoun, about 5 kilometres from Tripoli, then in the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire, and now in Lebanon. Reda started his education at a Kuttab (traditional Quranic School) in his village where he learnt the holy scriptures, Arabic and elements of arithmetic. He then attended the Rushdiyyah National Primary School, where he studied grammar, mathematics, geography and Turkish. Since the curriculum was taught in Turkish, Reda left the school and enrolled at the National Islamic School (Al Madrasah Al Wataniyyah Al Islamiyyah) in Tripoli, founded by Shaikh Hussain Al Jisr, a man who believed that progress would only reach the Muslim nation when believers combined religious education with modern sciences.

Al Jisr (1845-1909) introduced Reda to traditional religious topics as well as to European languages and what were deemed to be “secular” matters. The young man learnt to speak fluent French and Turkish and dabbled in mathematics and several science courses. He also studied Al Gazzali (died 1111) and Ibn Taymiyyah (died 1328), both of whom inspired him to seek reform ideas as they, like him, witnessed the decline of the Muslim nation.

Determined to reform the religious practices of his time, Reda found expression when he joined the Naqshbandiyyah Sufi order in Egypt, and decided to study under the pan-Islamist thinker Al Afghani. As the latter’s broad reform movement, the Salafiyyah, was under way in Cairo at the end of the 19th century, many Levantine thinkers were drawn to it as it stressed the need for the exercise of reason and the adoption of modern natural sciences. Reda was equally influenced by the Salafiyyah movement’s calls for agitation against tyranny and despotism, and resistance to foreign domination, as well as the promotion of Muslim solidarity. The tenets of the Salafiyyah movement were expounded in “Al ‘Urwah Al Wuthqah” (The Indissoluble Bond), which Al Afghani and ‘Abduh published in Paris in 1884. These solid anti-Western tracts served as valuable documents for many young men, and partly inspired the Arab revolt against foreign occupation.

Cairo and Al Manar

It was upon Al Afghani’s death that Reda decided to go to Cairo, in 1897, to study under the master’s most eminent student, Mohammad ‘Abduh. In Cairo, Reda published his own magazine, Al Manar (The Lighthouse), which first appeared in 1898 as a weekly and, subsequently, as a monthly until his death in 1935. Al Manar aimed high and articulated and disseminated various reform ideas to preserve the unity of the Muslim nation. A prolific writer, Reda produced far more than ‘Abduh and Al Afghani, establishing his own legacy. Like ‘Abduh, Reda believed in the compatibility of Islam and modernity, even if the former emphasised ijtihad (independent judgment) to reinterpret Islamic doctrines and give Islam a new vitality, while the latter insisted on certain criteria for effective reforms. Because Reda witnessed the disintegration of the Islamic caliphate, then professed by the Ottoman Sultan, and because he experienced the weight of the Ottomans in his beloved Al Qalamoun, he appreciated far better the fragmentation of the Muslim world. Thus, it may be safe to state that Reda learnt much from his travels in Europe where he observed Western ascendancy and that it was the combination of these two perceptions which sealed his advocacy to emulate some of Europe’s progress.

The Reda Philosophy

Throughout his intellectual career, Reda was preoccupied with the issue of reform, a fixation that he imparted to his students, since he firmly believed that the decline of the Muslim nation was due to the stagnation of its scholars and the tyranny of its rulers. He perceived the European dominance over Muslims as a result of the latter’s weaknesses, which he attributed to an inability to master the sciences, form organised political institutions, and restrict the power of their governments. His hope was Arabia and ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Bin ‘Abdul Rahman. There could be no political reforms and independence, Reda articulated time and again and expounded in his Al Manar articles, if Muslims failed to acquire the commendable aspects of Western civilisation, such as the sciences, technical skills and wealth. In Rahman, Reda saw a leader who could revitalise the concept of the caliphate and its indispensability to the coherence of the Muslim community, without the excesses he witnessed first-hand in Syria.

On the eve of the break-up of the Ottoman caliphate in 1923, for example, Reda wrote a treatise, “The Caliphate or the Supreme Imamate”, which included an elaborate discussion of the caliphate and a plan for its restoration. Realising the obstacles surrounding the revival of a proper Islamic caliphate of ijtihad, he proposed a caliphate of necessity, a temporary one, to preserve Muslim solidarity. Essential to this caliphate were the issues of Surah (consultation), ahl al-Hall wal-‘Aqd (those who bind and loose), and ijtihad — to ensure the adaptability of Islamic laws.

Reda’s core philosophy, which stood at the transition from the modernist, rational, liberal and reformist tradition represented by Al Afghani and ‘Abduh to the radical, violent, reactionary, racist and supremacist philosophy of Banna and Qutb, consequently revolved around the very idea of moderate reforms. In his extensive biography of ‘Abduh that, for all practical purposes, earned him the reformist’s mantle, Reda distanced himself from ‘Abduh’s extremism, since his chief goal was to reinvigorate Islam and demonstrate its compatibility with modernity. It is critical to underscore that he shunned violence, since he concluded that Arabs could and ought to assume responsibility for their own destinies.

Reda thus became a pan-Arab advocate just as much as he was a pan-Islamist because of his first-hand experience under Ottoman rule. In numerous Al Manar essays, he promoted pan-Arabism, albeit with an Islamist slant. Though few saw it at the time, Reda warned that the impact of a fully fledged break-up of the Ottoman Empire could lead to an end of the caliphate, which, in turn, would usher in Anglo-French imperialism over the region. Still, while he did not favour the Ottoman entity, his call for Muslim unity was similar to Maududi’s caliphate. Remarkably, he considered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk an usurper — since he dissolved the Caliphate — concluding that the Turkish strongman was a Western stooge who conspired with leading powers to weaken Arabs. Reda quoted Lord Cromer that “the unity of Muslims was a challenge and a source of resistance to the forces of the Christian countries and that it had to be watched carefully”, which was revealing to say the least.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Beyond his warning of Western stratagems, Reda was among the first to become aware of Zionism, and wrote an essay in Al Manar in 1898 worth quoting:

“Apathetic people, lift up your heads and see what is happening. Consider what people and nations are doing ... Does it please you that the newspapers around the globe are reporting that the impoverished of the most miserable people [the Jews] whom all governments are expelling from their countries, have so mastered knowledge and civilisation that they can come to your country, colonise it and transform its masters into wage labourers and its affluent men into paupers ... Ponder this problem [Zionism] and make it the subject of your conversations, to ascertain if it is just or unjust, true or false. If it is clear that you have neglected to defend the rights of your fatherland and the interests of your nation and your religious community, ponder and study, debate and examine the matter. It is a worthier subject for consideration than focusing on shortcomings, spreading slander and insulting the innocent. It is more worthy of discussion than ridiculing and accusing your [Muslim?] brothers.”

To remedy such intrusions, Reda proposed that a new caliphate be created around a collection of states, with a supreme Mujtahid to rule as an expert on matters of religion, though he also foresaw the need for consensus among members of a Supreme Surah council. This caliphate advocated Arab supremacy within the Islamic world, which raised various problems with respect to non-Arabs, though he preferred to address them in an ecumenical way. In fact, as it was impossible to translate the Quran, Reda insisted that only Arabic speakers could fully comprehend it — since the text was meant as more than satisfying ritual purposes. He clarified that “the Quran prohibited taqlid [imitative reasoning] in religion and denounced imitators” that, consequently, necessitated a pan-Arab approach. In other words, while Islam mobilised Arabs and, perhaps, empowered them, it fell on the them to harness the nation’s interests by retaining its intrinsic advantages. The rulings of religion could not be found in any translation of the Quran, as that would be an imitation, whereas Arab interests necessitated self-assurance and self-guidance. It may safe to state that Reda’s philosophy — liberal in today’s parlance — inspired many, as he pleaded for ijtihad and reasoning, as well as the adoption of Western norms that valued work ethic.

List of works

The vast majority of Reda’s works are only available in Arabic, with the exception of “The Muhammadan Revelation”, Cairo: Al-Sa‘adawi Publications, 1996.

His more prominent works, all in Arabic, include:

“Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Hakim [Tafsir al-Manar]” (Continuation of the commentary on the Qur’an started by ‘Abduh, which Reda continued up to Surah XII, Verse 100 — Yusuf), Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah lil Tiba‘ wal-Nashr, 1970.

“Al-Tafsir al-Mukhtasar al-Mufid”, 3 vols, Beirut-Damascus, 1984.

Al-Manar Journal [The first volume was published in 1315AH (1898), the second section of the last volume (No 35) was published and distributed after his death].

“Tarikh al-Ustaz al-Imam al-Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh” (A biography of his teacher published in three volumes), Cairo: Dar al-Fadilah, 2003.

“Al-Khilafah wal-Imamah al-‘Uzmah” [The Caliphate or the Supreme Imamate], Cairo, Manar Press, 1998.

“Al-Wahhabiyyun wal-Hijaz” (The Wahhabis and the Hijaz), Madinat Nasr, Egypt: Dar al-Nada, 2000.

Selected readings

Albert Hourani, “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939”, London: Oxford University Press, 1970, Chapter 9.

Nikki Keddie, “Sayyid Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani: A Political Biography”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Nikki R. Keddie, “An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani”, trans Nikki R. Keddie and Hamid Algar, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.

Elie Kedourie, “Afghani and ‘Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam”, London: Frank Cass and Co, Ltd, 1966.

Malcolm H. Kerr, “Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida”, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

Ahmad al-Sharabasi, “Rashid Rida Sahib al-Manar”, Cairo: Matabi‘ al-Ahram al- Tijariyyah, 1970.

This article is the 18th of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of, “Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia”, London: Routledge, 2013.

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