A Debate on the Backwardness of the Islamic World: The Polemics of Muhammad Abduh and Farah Anton from the Perspective of Mustafa Sabri

This article deals with Mustafa Sabri Efendi’s (d. 1954) views about the debate on the relationship of religion, science and politics in Egypt. One of the favorite topics of the Islamic thought in the nineteenth century was the Muslims’ loss of power before the western world—the backwardness of the Islamic world, in the popular parlance. The westernist and Islamist thinkers of the time intensively discussed this topic. One example is the debate between Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) and Farah Antun (d. 1922). While Antun ascribes the backwardness of Muslim societies to the Islamic understanding of reason and politics, ‘Abduh criticizes this vehemently and sees the real reason for this situation in the deficiency of the scholars and likewise in the conception and teaching of the Islamic sciences. According to ‘Abduh, all Islamic sciences and especially the field of rational theology (kalam) need to be reformed by using contemporary knowledge and methods. Sabri criticizes both views from different perspectives. Two topics mark the centre of the discussion: The compatibility of religion with reason and science and the relation between religion and politics. While Sabri analyzes the arguments on both sides very precisely, he tries to present the relation between reason and religion in both Islam and Christianity. In its last part, the article shows that most of Sabri’s and ‘Abduh’s opinions are similar. Both thinkers assumed that Islam is a religion of reason and that politics cannot be unrelated to religion. However, Sabri does not accept that the reason is limited to the boundaries of the physical world which is the view of positivist materialism. Therefore he argues in favor of the “pure reason”. Sabri also critisizes ‘Abduh for refusing the approach and methods of traditional scholars without any convincing reason. According to Sabri the methods of kalam are still validly applicable.

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