Islamic Studies Seeking Knowledge

Muhammad ‘Abdu’s Advice for Educational Reform in the Ottoman Empire


This is an excerpt from a letter written by Imam Muhammad ‘Abdu to the leaders of the Ottoman Empire when he learned of their plans to enact educational reforms. His letter begins with the importance of education, particularly for the development of a strong Islamic nation. He then recommends approaching religious education at three levels, based on the educational level and aspirations of people. For each level, he prescribes a curriculum outlining the minimum requirements for religious literacy. He notes that the combination of required legal knowledge, purification of the soul, strong belief, and knowledge of history will allow people to constantly apply their knowledge and activate belief in their lives.

I’ve only translated his prescriptions for the first two levels because these seemed to be the most relevant. These guidelines can serve as a practical outline for students to follow in their religious studies—even today.

Note: The translation is not word for word, but it does reflect the essence of his message.

Beginner Level

First: They should read a concise text on those aspects of Islamic theology upon which there is no disagreement amongst Ahl al-Sunnah. The content should be supported by convincing, clear arguments, verses from the Qur’an, and authentic traditions of the Prophet ﷺ. It should also introduce the basics of Christian theology so that people can effectively respond to Christian missionaries spreading throughout the land.

Second: A concise text outlining lawful and prohibited actions, distasteful conduct, and pure character. The text should point out some of the innovations that have no basis in the Qur’an and Sunnah, and are harmful to people. It should be supported by proofs from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and the actions of the early generations of Muslims. It is essential that the text emphasize that human beings have been created to worship Allah, and that obedience to Allah and His Messenger takes precedence over everything else.

Third: A concise text in history describing the life of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, focusing on that which is related to noble character, noteworthy actions, and the sacrifice of one’s self and wealth. It should also discuss the reasons for the spread of Islam amongst the nations in a short period of time, even though the Muslims were small in number and their enemies were many. It should establish that the secret of this success was sincerity in battle and unity in struggle.

All of this should be written in an easy and accessible style. The texts, including explanations of references from the Qur’an and Sunnah, should be in the native languages of people.

Intermediate Level

First: They should study an introductory text on the important aspects of logic, the foundations of critical analysis, and the etiquettes of debate.

Second: A book on theology, supported by intellectual proofs and definitive evidence that maintains moderation and clarity. It should avoid differences of opinion amongst the various schools of Islamic theology and expand upon the differences between Islam and Christianity, clarifying in detail the implications of their beliefs. It should also include some of the benefits of Islamic beliefs in strengthening civic life, as well as in achieving happiness in the Hereafter.

Third: A book explaining lawful, prohibited, praiseworthy and disliked conduct. This should be in more detail than the text in the first level. It should also contain a discussion of the sources, causes, and effects of behavior, and be phrased with a style that convinces the intellect and puts the heart at ease. It should also allude to the wisdom behind some religious rulings and their benefits to human life, drawing support from both religious texts and the lives of the early generations. The theme of these texts should ignite the flame of belief in the hearts and raise peoples’ souls to a level at which they seek nothing but the highest of objectives.

Fourth: A book on the history of Islam. This book should contain a detailed explanation of the life of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, and should chart the spread of Islam throughout the centuries from a purely religious perspective. Politics, if mentioned, should be used merely to draw religious lessons. It should also discuss the prosperity that accompanied the spread of Islam, encouraging people to long for that which has passed and protect what still remains. Finally, it should expound the reasons for the advancement of Islam in greater detail than in the previous level.

Students at this level of learning, as in the previous level, should study these books in their native languages. References from the Qur’an and the Sunna can also be translated into their languages. It is not incumbent that they learn Arabic, except for that which has been mandated by acts of worship. However, these must be explained in detail so that they understand what they are saying, thereby allowing  for their remembrance (dhikr) to effect their thought (fikr)—which is one of the objectives of the Law-Giver.

About the author

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan was born and raised in Southern California and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Third World Studies and a minor in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego . He accepted Islam in 2003 and has been married to his wife, Muslema Purmul, since 2004. He has served with the Muslim Student Association (MSA), MSA West, and Muslim American Society (MAS) at varying capacities. He remains an active MAS member and is a scholarship student with the Islamic American University. Jamaal is a graduate of the Faculty of Shariah at al-Azhar University in Cairo and has done some graduate work in Islamic Studies from the Western academic perspective. He recently finished serving as the Resident Scholar at the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI).

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  • Assalamu Alikum,

    This advice is needed nowadays more than ever but unfortunately school systems seem to be getting farther and farther away from such teachings.

    • Mohammed,

      Yes, he was a freemason. This seems to be a strange article because `Abduh was instrumental in attacking the Islamic Orthodoxy. That doesn’t mean he does not have some good points—but he definitely had a different agenda from the Sunni Orthodoxy. One thing is particularly curious is his apparent de-emphasis on the Arabic language. Granted, one can become a pious Muslim without knowing Arabic (beyond the bare minimum for the worships), but the Arabic language has always been one of the key elements for Islamic solidarity throughout the world.

      • as salamu alaikum,

        JAK for your responses.

        Before commenting… the internet has a tendency to not convey tone very well. Don’t read this as an angry response, it’s all in love.

        Technically he was a freemason, but not for long. One of the ‘ulema here in Egypt, Dr. Muhammad ‘Awwa, addressed this issue in a lecture that I heard from him directly. He said that one time he got into a debate with one of the ‘ulema about whether or not Muhammad ‘Abdu was a freemason and after that when he researched it he found an exact quote from him and memorized it. The statement of ‘Abdu was basically along the lines of, “we joined the freemasons because we heard that they were working for the benefit of the country and the people. However, after we joined them we realized that their ideas and beliefs were against Islam so we left them without regretting what we left. But! Had we not joined them then we would not have known what they were really about!” SubhanAllah there’s some wisdom in that. So technically he was, but not for long.

        Muhammad ‘Abdu was a great scholar and after coming to Egypt I realized that he is very misunderstood in the West because of the lack of information that we have and our quickness to label people. Dr. Muhammad ‘Imara did a compilation of all of ‘Abdu’s work and it ended up in 5 large volumes (each around 500 pgs). Let’s not forget also that he was the Mufti of Egypt and that many of the modern scholars of Egypt today look upon him very favorably.

        Regarding his “apparent de-emphasis on the Arabic language.” That’s precisely what it is, apparent… What he’s going for here is functionality in the din. Many times we paralyze people with requiring them to learn Arabic and making them feel inadequate without it. This is not possible for everyone. In the third category he mentioned (the scholars and teachers.. not translated here) there is a strong emphasis on the Arabic language. Not to mention he was actually known for this emphasis throughout his life and he used to teach “nahj al-balagha” in al-Azhar in order to strengthen the Arabic of the students. What he’s attempting to do here is provide a practical curriculum for all the people. I honestly believe that if people followed something along these lines in their development they would find that their Islam is much more functional and practical.

        As for the claim that he was “instrumental in attacking the Islamic orthodoxy.” This is a seems like a big claim, but I wonder what exactly you mean? Would you mind clarifying? It is known that he had some opinions that were questionable but to be an attacker of orthodoxy (which I’m not sure what we mean by it) and to have a different agenda than the Sunni orthodoxy seems big.

        Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

        Your brother,
        Jamaal Diwan

        • As Salaamualaikum,

          Al hamduillah for your efforts my brother. Shaikh Abu has some fine points and I agree with you that if we work on them in this way then we can find a better vision and practicality in our daily lives as Muslims.

          Fi Iman Allah
          Your Sister,

  • One part particularly resonated with me: Intermediate students “should study an introductory text on the important aspects of logic, the foundations of critical analysis, and the etiquettes of debate.”

    I have seen so many people argue without any concept of logic or the etiquettes of debate. Our community needs to train young thinkers in logic.

  • Wa `alaykumus-salaam Jamaal,

    My understanding is that Abduh was a modernist/apologists—i mean someone who attempted to make Islam conform with the trends of 19th (and early 20th) century science and thought. I may be mixing some of the claims ascribed to him with Jamal Afghani, so please pardon me. Among the claims of Abduh was the denial of the jinn and claiming the stones that were dropped by the birds mentioned in Suratul-Feel (The Elephant) were actually viruses that caused the death of the army of Abrahah. Also, i just Wikied him—NOT THAT I TAKE MY KNOWLEDGE FROM WIKI—but it claims that he was against polygyny and thought it was an outdated practices. This seems to be in line with other things i remember being ascribed to him.

    What i meant that Abduh attacked the Sunni orthodoxy is that he did not carry the creed of Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah. Just googling him quickly (along with what i remember about him from my teachers), he was someone who gave priority to sense perception over Revelation (although, usually such people claim that they are using “the intellect”—of course, the Sunni Creed is rationally defensible, but we do not base arguments simply off of our senses while dismissing what Allah revealed). As far as him being the head of Al-Azhar, well, we know at that time there was A LOT of fitnah in Egypt because of the British occupation. Under the tutelage of British colonialism, Egypt, like India, produced apologist leaders/”intellectuals” who claimed to “update” Islam for modern times. These “leaders” often gave tortured explanations to the Qur’an to make them coincide with the social values and scientific theories of the Europeans. I am not saying the Abduh didn’t do anything useful—but the danger of his ideology was far more dangerous than the good he may have done.

    • Aslam Alykom,

      I would like to advice brother Southern Sunni instead of Wiki-ing or Googling, is to get Imam Muhammad Abdu’s (May Allah merci him) books and read them all, study the historical background of that period from authentic sources, and only then you may judge the Imam.
      It is really sad that we constantly fall in the trap that the colonial period established for us many years ago, that is, demonizing people.
      Bro, the objectives of the Freemasonry were not clear for the public at that time. So why do you want to judge that era with the knowledge you have nowadays. Second point, Muslims at that time were in chaos: wide gap between Ulama’ and public; Islamic teaching in educational institutions was paralyzed; the whole Ummah was very behind the development in the rest of the world; finally the vast majority of the public were ignorant. Do you know that Imam Abdu was one of the founders of the faculty of Dar Al-Uluum which was established specially for Arabic Language?! He was the teacher of Sheikh Muhmmad Rashid Reda and the later was the teacher of Imam Hassan Al-Banna May Allah merci them all.

      When you read the biography of Imam Abdu you will see that he was a true “Salafi” that is following the Quran, Sunnah, and the Salaf. He (and his friend Sheikh Jamal ElDin Al Afghani) was like a light walking alone in the dark throughing seeds on the earth without waiting to collect the harvest, though leaving those coming after him to take it.


  • Any books (in English) for the beginner and intermediate level which follow this educational reform?

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