Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s Notion of Political Adab

Ethics as a Virtue of Modern Citizenship in Late 19th Century Khedival Egypt


  • William Ryle-Hodges University of Cambridge



This paper extends the emphasis on contingency and context in Islamic ethical traditions into the distinctly modern context of late 19th century Khedival Egypt. I draw attention to the way Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s engagement with Islamic ethical traditions was shaped by his practice in addressing the broad social and political questions of his context to do with nation-building and political journalism. As a bureaucrat and state publicist, he took pre-modern Islamic ethical concepts into the emerging discursive field of the modern state and the public sphere in Egypt. Looking at a series of newspaper articles for the state newspaper, al-Waqāʾiʿ al-miṣriyya, I show how he articulated an ethics of citizenship by defining a modern civic notion of adab that he called “political adab.” He conceived of this adab as the answer to the problem of how a unified nation emerges from the condition of “freedom” by which journalists and the reading public at the time were conceptualizing the politics of the ʿUrābī revolution in late 1881. This was a “freedom” of the public sphere that allowed for free speech and the power of public opinion to shape governance. ‘Political adab’ would be the virtue or situational skill, internalized in each participant in the public sphere, that would regulate this freedom, ensuring that it produces unity rather than anarchy. I argue that adab here enshrined ʿAbduh’s holistic approach to nation-building; Egypt with political rights would be a nation in which the very idea of the nation is comprehensively embedded—through adab—in people’s lives, animating their “souls”. This was a politics conceived not as a self-standing domain, but as growing out of society, becoming thereby an authentic unity and self-regulating “life”. In developing this vision, ʿAbduh was amplifying pre-modern meanings of adab implying wide breadth of knowledge, good taste, and the virtues, labelled in the paper as ‘comprehensivness,’ ‘consensus’ and ‘habitus.’

Keywords: Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Adab, Freedom, Nation, Politics, Egypt




How to Cite

Ryle-Hodges, W. (2021). Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s Notion of Political Adab: Ethics as a Virtue of Modern Citizenship in Late 19th Century Khedival Egypt. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 21(2), 339–364.