Heidemarie Winkel | Gender Knowledge Beyond the Western Realm:

Modern Sciences and the Islamic Knowledge System in Muhammad ‘Abduh’s Societal Reform Approach


In the first half of the 19th century, different Islamic modernists elaborated on the relation between European modernity and the principles of Islam. Western sciences were an important reference point for the reconsideration of the forms as well as the objects of social knowledge production in Arab-Islamic societies. This revision did not lead into a copy of the Western model, but it developed its own shape, namely as religious approach to Arab modernity.
This will be discussed by way of the prominent Egyptian Salafiyyan modernist Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and his theological gender approach.  I argue that it was not the emergence of organized feminism around 1900, which brought the gender topic to light; its emergence was rather a consequence of the increasing societal transformations in the Arab world since 1800 - and the way in which the traditional gender knowledge was shaped hereby throughout the 19th century. As a consequence, gender became a relevant topic within the religious knowledge system in general and for religious modernists like ‘Abduh in particular.
In a first step I will sketch out in how far ‘Abduh was convinced that modern civilization and modern sciences are not contrary to the kernel of Islam. Bringing together both approaches, ‘Abduh envisioned a distinct Arab-Islamic notion of political reform, finally leading into the promotion of a social rearrangement of Muslim societies as a whole, including gender relations. The latter will be shown in a second step, namely against the background of the considerable increase of historical change in the 19th century. Based on his societal reform approach, ‘Abduh developed a theological reflection on humanity and as part of this he voiced a critique on gender inequality, which was later revived by ‘Abduh’s companion Qasim Amin.
In ‘Abduh’s religiously based approach to historical change the knowledge about gender became a theologically relevant issue in a new, distinct way. ‘Abduh argued not only for reforms in politics, but also in private life. He advocated for a constitutional limitation of the ruler’s power as well as a reform of religiously based customs and practices in everyday life. This included a considerable critique about the reality of gender relations in Muslim societies, namely from the perspective of a theologically based equality standard. At large, ‘Abduh addressed the social status of women for the first time as integral part of a necessary societal transformation.
In summary, ‘Abduh can be described as an initiator of a modern, theologically bound gender equality script in Islam. His thinking (as well as his life story) is an example for the distinct modernization path of (gender) knowledge in Arab societies.