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Over its many centuries of existence, Islam has had many philosophers and thinkers who have contributed to the development of Islamic religious thought. Some of these scholars have put forward reformist ideas that were meant to meet the current time needs of Muslims. One of the renowned thinkers and champion of Islamic reform is Muhammad Rashid Rida. His religious and political thoughts and ideas made him stand out as the most influential Islamic scholar of his time.
Rida was concerned about the weakness of Islamic societies compared to the Western colonial masters. According to him, Islam needed to take advantage of modernization in order to become strong. Rida highlighted his reformist ideas in his journal and disseminated reformist ideas across Muslim lands. This paper will provide a descriptive analysis of Muhammad Rashid Rida with focus on his contribution to religious thought and his most important works and ideas.
Rashid Rida was born in 1865 in a small village near Tripoli to a family reputed for its religious knowledge. Soage documents that Rida’s family claimed to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad and his father acted as a local imam (1). During his childhood, Rida received a traditional education at the local kuttab (Islamic school).
When he was older, he moved on to Tripoli where he continued in his training under the renowned scholar Sheik Husayn al-Jisr (Soage 1). In Tripoli, Rida attended the National Islamic School where he benefited from a modernized form of schooling that combined an Islamic religious education with modern studies, especially of mathematics, science, and French (Sirriyeh 184).
Following the completion of his training in, Rida returned to his local village where he used his knowledge to serve his community and started preaching at the mosque. In addition to this Rida often frequented parlors where men gathered to talk about religion and he established himself as a persuasive scholar. One of Rida’s old teachers commented that Rida had solid arguments that his enemies would find hard to rebut (Sirriyeh 188).
A turning point in Rida’s life occurred in 1884 when he happened to accidentally discover in his father’s papers copies of al-‘Urwa; a periodical edited by Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh. In this periodical, Sayyid highlighted his concerns about the stagnation of Islamic culture and religion.
He asserted that the Islamic community needed to break free from conservative traditionalism and adapt to meet modern needs. Rida was very captivated by the thoughts expressed by Sayyid and he desired to become his disciple. However, Rida never got the chance to meet with Sayyid who remained in Istanbul until his death in 1897.
Early Religious Thoughts
Due to his family’s history and his personal educational background, he had gained remarkable spiritual qualities. Rida had been initiated into the brotherhoods of the Shadhiliyya at a young age and he engaged in religious fasting, retreat, and study of holy texts (Sirriyeh 186).
As a young man, Rida went through training on the Sufi Path. By definition, Sufism is “mystical traditions in Islam” (Agoston and Masters 619). Sufism promoted saint-worship and encouraged superstition among Muslims. Early exposure to this sect led Rida to become a firm believer in the movement and even gain membership in the brotherhood. In spite of this background, Rida did not interpret his life experiences in terms of popular superstition and expressed skepticism with regard to saintly miracles.
Rida’s believe in the traditional spirituality of the brotherhoods began to wane as he grew older. In his later years, Rida was not only skeptical of the tradition but expressed his rejection of this traditional spirituality. He is recorded to have publicly denounced some of the Sufi practices as “un-Islamic and reprehensible, something which no Muslim should look upon or condone” (Sirriyeh 189).
In the 1890s, Rida engaged in extensive writing on topics of religious and social consequence for Islamic reform in his works, he attacked the traditionalist ulama and Sufi leaders whom he held responsible for the corruption of Sufism.
Historians attribute Rida’s critical attitude to his exposure to modern European thought and the works of al-Afghani. From these sources, Rida learnt of the risk that Christian European posed to the world of Islam and the need for a stronger Islam to counter this threat.
This stronger Islam could only be achieved by doing away with superstitions and fatalistic attitudes that the traditional unreformed ulama encouraged. In 1897, Rida had to immigrate to Egypt since his attack on what he perceived to be false superstitions of the Sufi made it impossible for him to operate in Syria. Sirriyeh states that this emigration was necessary for Rida to play apart in the Islamic reform that he was passionate about (189).
In Egypt, Rida was able to establish a relationship with the great Imam Muhammad ‘Abduh who was already famous for his work in the al-‘Urwa periodical. It was ‘Abduh’s work with Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani that had drawn Rida to reformist thoughts. While in Cairo, Rida was able to convince ‘Abduh to establish a periodical fashioned after Sayyid’s al-‘Urwa. This periodical was supposed to help spread the reformist ideas that both ‘Abduh and Rida had.
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These two Muslim scholars shared the opinion that the only way that Muslim society could successfully respond to the European Challenge was by adapting itself to it (Dallal 330). They therefore began working on the new periodical, which would expose the public to their reformist thoughts. Following the death of Imam ‘Abduh, Rida went to great lengths to act as the successor. Soage states that Rida even published material that explicitly designated him as ‘Abduh’s successor (2).
Due to the close relationship he enjoyed with his teacher, Rida’s early ideas were heavily influenced by those of Imam ‘Abduh. In this early stage, Rida demonstrated openness to Western ideas and institutions. He argued that Islam was capable of accommodating European institutions and social patterns (335). In line with these thoughts, Rida promoted a loose and liberal understanding of what constituted Islam and Islamic identity.
This liberal understanding allowed the Muslim society to benefit from the cultural achievements of non-Muslims. Rida’s reform project was driven by recognition of the dangers of European political and cultural hegemony. Europeans had already been successful in colonizing much of the Muslim world due to the weakness of traditional Muslim societies. Rida believed that if Muslims were exposed to excessive western influence, they would always be subordinate to the Western powers.
With time, Rida’s initial openness to Western ideas underwent a change. Dallal states that this change was brought about by the successive defeats inflicted on Muslims by the European colonial powers (342).
With the defeat, Muslim societies lost their political independence and the once united community began to disintegrate. The cultural and religious integrity of traditional Muslim societies faced a serious threat of survival. Because of these realities, Rida’s religious ideas reverted to a traditionalism that emphasized cultural and religious purity.
Like the renowned 19th century Islamic ideologist Sayyid al-Afghani, Rida wished to see a unified Muslim response to the western encroachment on the Muslim world and the actual occupation of many of its countries such as Egypt, Syria, India, and Afghanistan.
For Rida, unity around the Islamic faith was necessary if the Muslims hoped to ever challenge Christian European military, economic, and cultural aggression. Rida’s teacher ‘Abduh tried to convince him to refrain from engaging in politics but Rida believed that the problems facing the Muslim community needed a religious as well as political solution.
Rida became a strong supporter of the Ottoman Empire, which he regarded as a symbol of Muslim strength. He proposed the creation of an Islamic Society under the leadership of the caliph who was the traditional supreme religious and political leader. Rida envisioned an Islamic State that would bring together the various Islamic sects and produce a common doctrine and modern code of law for the entire Muslim population to follow.
Rida was a strong critic of the ulama who were the Muslim legal scholars well versed with sharia law. This group of scholars and religious teachers advocated for the unquestioning imitation of medieval Islamic practices. They also encouraged followers to blindly follow a particular school of Islamic religious thought (Soage 2). As Rida was growing up, the conservative religious forces of ulama had become the new political orthodoxy; campaigning for an Islamic state structured like the old-style Ottoman Empire.
The ulama advocated for an extension of the sultan’s spiritual authority and the society was encouraged to revert to traditional Sufi practices. Sirriyeh observes that under the ulama’s influence, the Ottoman State carried out strict censorship that only allowed publications that were favorable to the traditional Sunni piety (184). People were discouraged from engaging into rational enquiry into religious concerns.
Instead of the traditionalist rigidity advocated by the ulama, Rida supported the right of the religious scholar to provide a personal interpretation of the sacred texts. This interpretation would assist in adapting Islam to new circumstances and take into account the public welfare of the community. According to Rida, blind imitation of the past had led to stagnation and the inability of scholars to make use of personal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna was detrimental to the progress of the society (Soage 4).
Rida contended that the holy texts did not provide a direct ruling on all the issues that the present society faced. It was therefore necessary for religious scholars to use personal judgment and interpretations to deal with circumstances for which the holy texts did not provide a direct ruling. Soage documents that Rida’s advocacy for personal interpretation was responsible for the widespread acceptance of this idea by the Muslim society in the early 20th century (4).
Rida’s criticism of the ulama made many educated elites in his time to believe that progress could only be achieved by abandoning religion. Political structures modeled after the Western ones were therefore established to cope with the modern challenges that traditional Islam appeared to be unable to deal with.
This advancement of secularism greatly alarmed Rida since he strongly believed that Islam was relevant to the organization of the society and the state. He therefore turned his attention to attacking the westernized modernizers who sought to create a secular state. Through the al-Manar, Rida accused the secularists of atheism and immorality. He asserted that these individuals were enemies of Islam whose sole goal was to topple the dominion of Islam and enslave the Muslim community (Soage 6).
Like his teacher ‘Abduh, Rida longed for the unadulterated Islam of the first generation who were fondly referred to as the righteous ancestors. He yearned for the time when the Muslim religion was free from the tainting of illegitimate innovation by religious and political rulers. These ideas were inspired by reading radical reform ideas by the 14th century Muslim theologian, ibn Taymiyya (Agoston and Masters 484). Rida perceived that his generation was experiencing a spiritual decline similar to that of the age of Taymiyya.
Rida’s most influential thoughts were documented in al-Manar which was a Quranic commentary journal that he launched in 1898 and continued to work for until the time of his death.
While al-Manar received contributions from other Islamic scholars, Rida was the main contributor and most of his work was on religious and social issues. The al-Manar had a section that offered opinions on legal matters and fatwas (religious decision made by past Islamic scholars). The readers had an opportunity to ask Rida questions and seek advice on religious matters.
Rida worked on his autobiography, which highlighted his spiritual and philosophical growth over the years. In this work, he expressed his spiritual struggles to emerge from a traditional understanding of his faith and achieve a new perception that was based on ideas from many Islamic scholars and also European thought. Through his autobiography, Rida related how he had believed in Sufi practices at first but then started to have doubts about the validity of Sufi mysticism.
Death and Legacy
Rida died in 1935 while on his journey back to Cairo from the Suez where he had had a meeting with Ibn Saud. Even after his death, his ideas continued to be influential in Muslim land. Rida’s reformist program helped the Muslim society to emerge from a backward-looking culture that could not compete with Western power to a culture that was capable of effectively facing the challenges of the modern world. Dallal asserts that Rida’s ideas formed the foundation of the modern nation-state model of the Islamic state (358).
By opposing overly conservative traditionalism and blind imitation of the West, Rida provided a bridge for the older Islamic reformist thought and new radical Muslim organizations of the 1900s.
This paper set out to provide a descriptive analysis of one of the most renowned Islamic intellectual and reformer of the 20th Century, Mohammad Rashid Rida. The paper has highlighted how Rida went from being a strong believer of traditional spirituality to becoming a great critic of the Sufis.
The European influences that shaped Rida’s religious and political thought have also been highlighted. Rida was able to make a strong argument in support of the modernization of Islam and the adoption of Western institution as the means for ensuring the survival of the Muslim community. His thoughts and ideas served as the foundation of the modern Islamic state. Rida’s contributions to Modern Islamic thought continue to be celebrated many decades after his death.
Agoston, Gabor and Masters Bruce. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. Boston: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Dallal, Ahmad. “Appropriating the Past: Twentieth-Century Reconstruction of Pre-Modern Islamic Thought”. Islamic Law and Society 7.1 (2000): 325-358. Web.
Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. “Rashid Rida’s Autobiography of the Syrian Years, 1865-1897”. Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 3.2 (2000): 179-194. Web.
Soage, Belen. “Rashid Rida’s Legacy”. The Muslim World 98.1 (2008): 1-23. Web.