Mecca in the late 1920s saw foreign Islamic reformers balancing political realities with modernization efforts.  Photo: Corbis Mecca in the late 1920s saw foreign Islamic reformers balancing political realities with modernization efforts. Photo: Corbis

Chapter 6 – Walking a tightrope

Egyptian reformers in Mecca, 1928 – 29

When it comes to the development of modern Islamic reform in the 20th century, there is something of a blind spot in historical scholarship. While few would deny the rise in influence of Saudi emirs and their religious scholars within reformist circles from the 1920s onward, little is known about the details of the relationship between leading Islamic activists, especially Egyptians, and the newly created Saudi state. Historians have noted how Egypt-based reformers put their skills, reputations and even their printing presses at the service of the Saudis, thereby appearing to be more or less in line with the understanding of Islam that prevailed in Najd.

The best example is that of Rashīd Riḍā (1865 – 1935), whose repeated efforts to rehabilitate the Wahhabis and elevate their status are well-known.

But beyond these general remarks, at least two fundamental questions remain unanswered.

First, how and to what extent did the nascent Saudi state and the transnational movement of Islamic reform, whose intellectual center of gravity was in Egypt, influence each other? Second, why did a number of Egyptian activists such as Riḍā and his associates (who were in a relatively strong position to direct the course of Islamic reform) embrace the religious ideas emanating from the Saudi state, to the point of compromising on some of the liberal principles upon which their movement had been based since the time of al-Afghānī and `Abduh in the late 19th century?

Given the dearth of historical analysis on these issues, scholars have sometimes had to resort to wild guesses and generalities to explain these apparent discontinuities.

In the case of Riḍā, some have speculated that a younger and more rigorist confidant – possibly Muḥammad Naṣīf in Jeddah – may have persuaded him to change his religious views and drawn him closer to Wahhabism. 1 Historian Albert Hourani, who seems to have felt strangely at a loss for an explanation, intimated that Riḍā’s Syrian origins must have made him sympathetic to Hanbalism, which in turn must have made him sympathetic to Wahhabism. 2 Another argument, which is common but nonetheless verges on historical determinism, is that liberal tendencies in Egypt and other Arab countries had grown to such an extent that they elicited a natural counter-reaction, thus making the triumph of Wahhabi ideas almost inevitable. 3 But while there is no doubt that the colonial context of the 1920s made it easier for certain Islamic activists to adopt a more conservative outlook, contextualization alone does not make for a satisfying historical explanation.

The aforementioned questions thus deserve closer examination than they have received, not only because they have not yet been properly answered, but also because they matter in the grand scheme of the history of Islamic activism. In a way, the epicenter of Riḍā’s Islamic reform movement slowly started to shift from Egypt to the Saudi state in the 1920s – hence the need for a more substantial interpretation of how and why this change occurred. Likewise, understanding the intellectual origins of contemporary Egyptian Salafism requires us to examine Saudi-Egyptian connections, which began well before the 1970s. It is one thing to acknowledge that many of today’s Egyptian Salafis are the products of Saudi institutions or that they received their training from Saudi-based scholars.

But it is another thing to attempt to explain the part that early-20th-century Egyptian activists played in turning the Saudi state into an influential center of religious learning. To be sure, Mecca and Medina had always attracted students of Islamic sciences from various regions, if only because of the pilgrimage; but in the early 20th century, the intellectual reputation of these two cities did not match that of Cairo by any means. So how do we go about finding empirically grounded answers to these questions? One way is to direct our attention to the Islamic reformers who chose to support the nascent Saudi state in situ – a fact that is not widely known. In the mid-1920s, a few Egyptians activists did indeed relocate to the Hijaz on purpose. There were others who came from Morocco, Algeria, India and, later, Mali, to name a few countries, but extant evidence suggests that the Egyptians formed the most significant contingent of foreign reformers in the Saudi state.

Their contributions from the late 1920s to the 1940s go well beyond that which I can acknowledge in this paper. For example, they proved instrumental as founders of, and teachers in, new educational centers such as the Saudi Scientific Institute and Dār al-Ḥadīth in Mecca, as well as Dār al-Tawḥīd in Ta’if. But one of their achievements is particularly noteworthy because it yielded what is arguably the richest primary source on the activities of foreign reformers in the newly created Saudi state, namely, the periodical al-Iṣlāḥ (The Reform) that was published in Mecca in 1928 – 29. Its founder and editor was the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad Ḥāmid al-Fiqī (1892 – 1959), a graduate of al-Azhar who had previously founded the pietistic organization Anṣār al-Sunna al-Muḥammadiyya in Cairo in 1926, which has since become a pillar of Salafism in Egypt. No other documentary evidence offers a comparable window into the goals and discourse of foreign Islamic reformers in what was then called the Kingdom of Hijaz, Najd and its Dependencies (Mamlakat al-Ḥijāz wa Najd wa Mulḥaqātihā).

It is not clear how Muḥammad Ḥāmid al-Fiqī found employment in the Hijaz. But if the stories of his five closest colleagues are any indication, Rashīd Riḍā probably recommended him to King `Abd al-`Azīz ibn Sa`ūd. In any case, we know that al-Fiqī left Cairo for Mecca in 1928 and stayed there until 1930 or 1931.

Named president of the newly created Meccan Department of Printing and Publication (ra’īs shu`bat al-ṭab`wa-l-nashr bi-Makka), he also worked as a teacher, in addition to taking the initiative of establishing the first modern Islamic periodical in the Saudi state. Al-Iṣlāḥ was modeled after Rashīd Riḍā’s seminal reformist journal al-Manār (The Lighthouse), and in fact Riḍā himself confided that he met with al-Fiqī in 1928 to give him advice about his editorship. 4 Al-Fiqī was not only close and, by his own avowal, intellectually indebted to Riḍā; he was also, to some extent, an agent of the Manār school of Islamic reform in the Saudi Hijaz, as were other Egyptian disciples of Riḍā who collaborated to al-Iṣlāḥ, such as the Egyptians `Abd al-Ẓāhir Abū al-Samḥ and Muḥammad `Abd al-Razzāq Ḥamza.

That foreign Islamic reformers sought to influence the development of the Saudi state from within is not mere speculation. In 1926, Riḍā had already asked his readers worldwide to help the fragile new polity with their modern skills and knowledge. 5 With the support of his mentor in Cairo and the assistance of other Muslim activists who had moved to the Hijaz at the recommendation of Riḍā, this is exactly what al-Fiqī set out to do. But to understand the rationale behind this devotion to the Saudi state, one must look beyond the surface narrative.

Although Riḍā and his associates did become apologists for the Wahhabis, a closer look at their writings reveals that they actually had mixed feelings about the religious scholars from Najd. In Riḍā’s case, two things in particular still worried him in the mid-1920s. One was the Wahhabis’ lack of modern knowledge and scientific inclination. How was the new Saudi state going to flourish without these? The other was the Wahhabis’ 
self-defeating religious rigidity. Riḍā trusted King `Abd al-`Azīz to be open-minded and pragmatic in order to consolidate the new state, but he was not so optimistic concerning the religious scholars. If many of them remained narrow-minded, and if they refused to sanction the development of the Saudi state along modern lines, then how could King `Abd al-`Azīz succeed?

These concerns go a long way toward explaining the presence of foreign Islamic reformers in the Hijaz. In public, Riḍā and his associates supported the Wahhabis wholeheartedly in order to assuage the anxieties of other Muslims following the Saudi conquest of the two holy cities. But in private, these same activists attempted to reorient the Wahhabis away from their counterproductive opposition to modernist Islamic reform. For the most part, political reasons account for these attitudes.

Riḍā’s ultimate objective, for example, was clearly to ensure the triumph of a strong, modern, independent and still religious Muslim state in the post-Ottoman era.

(An openly Islamic version of Mustafa Kemal’s Turkey, so to speak.) His best hope was the Saudi state: It could symbolize the reemergence of Muslim greatness and political power in a colonial world, provided that Wahhabi scholars and their followers did not sabotage the efforts of the Saudi king. Hence the need to render these Wahhabis more amenable to the modernist kind of Islamic reform that prevailed in Cairo.

In the first issue of al-Iṣlāḥ, Muḥammad Ḥāmid al-Fiqī made it clear that the journal was to be the voice of Islamic reformers, and that its primary purpose was to help the Saudi state to progress as much as possible. This goal was to be achieved by providing written advice (presumably to both religious and political authorities) on religious, social and moral issues, and also by linking the Hijaz to the rest of the Muslim community worldwide. In other words, al-Iṣlāḥ was to facilitate the integration of the Saudi state into the transnational movement of Islamic reform and, hopefully, bring the former in tune with the ideals of the latter. But at the same time, al-Fiqī and his collaborators had to walk a tightrope.

They were in the Hijaz to push for modernist reforms, but could not risk either discrediting or antagonizing the local `ulamā’ and umarā’ for fear of doing a disservice to the Saudi state itself – thus undermining their own agenda. One telling example is the fundamental compromise to which al-Fiqī consented in 1928. When he broached the idea of creating al-Iṣlāḥ to King `Abd al-`Azīz, the latter gave his assent, but reportedly demanded that the journal avoid dealing with political issues altogether. 6 In the Saudi Hijaz, therefore, modern Islamic reform could not be as multifaceted, independent or liberal as it was in Cairo. There were clear taboos.

But, in fact, al-Iṣlāḥ did tackle topics that were inherently political, such as the importance of independence and freedom, as well as the need for national industries (al-ṣinā`āt al-waṭaniyya) as a means to end economic dependency and prevent foreign domination. Evidently, what the king did not want al-Fiqī and his collaborators to do was meddle with Saudi politics and express any kind of criticism, constructive or not, toward the Saudi state. Criticizing other Muslim states, however, posed no problem. In November 1928, al-Iṣlāḥ published an anonymous article that offered a scathing critique of Egypt’s government and its public servants. Based on speculations and anecdotal evidence taken from Egyptian newspapers, the article posited that Egypt had an absurdly high crime rate, given that more than half a million students graduated from al-Azhar and other religious schools each year, and that “perhaps” most of these students became judges and police officers. How could criminality be so widespread in the very Muslim country that was supposed to have reached the highest level of progress (al-raqqī) and modern civilization (al-`umrān al-`aṣrī)?

The answer, according to the article, was that Egypt was not really a “civilized country,” regardless of its actual development. However, the Saudi state was depicted as the opposite. Despite the size of Najd and the Hijaz, and despite the fact that most of their inhabitants were poor Bedouins with few resources, crime was virtually unknown in these parts. Whereas Egypt had thousands of murderers and tens of thousands of thieves (one wonders how the author arrived at these figures), the number of criminals imprisoned in the Hijaz apparently did not exceed thirty.

Without any hard data, and without considering basic sociological factors such as demography or the possible link between urbanization and crime, the article drove the point home that the young Saudi state was a success story because 1) it had a religious constitution, 2) its inhabitants understood that constitution, and 3) sincere and capable men implemented that constitution. In sum, the article depicted the Saudi polity as the ideal Islamic state and the mirror image of Egypt: united, safe, virtuous and amazingly efficient, against all odds.To be sure, praising the Saudi state in such terms was not uncommon at the time. Riḍā and other pro-Saudi reformers such as Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb (1886 – 1969) similarly proclaimed the merits, real or imagined, of the new Arabian kingdom. But the ambivalent language of al-Iṣlāḥ stood out as truly unusual.

On the one hand, the article conveyed ideas that blatantly contradicted the reformist message of al-Manār, as can be gauged from the comment – directed at Egypt and its Middle Eastern neighbors – criticizing “the prevailing sources of evil in today’s greatest kingdoms with regard to civilization and scientific progress [uṣūl al-sharr al-muntashira fī a`ẓām al-mamālik al-ān ḥaḍāratan wa taqadduman fī-l-`ulūm].” 7 In Cairo, the leading reformist periodicals never went that far. But on the other hand, al-Iṣlāḥ described the antidote to these evils in a distinctly modernist idiom.

The emphasis on constitutionalism is noteworthy: The article argued that the Qur’an was the best possible constitution (dustūr) for guaranteeing the common good, hence the success of the Saudi state. It also presented God’s revelation as a form of sociology avant la lettre; that is, as a source of knowledge (`ilm) about the moral ills and social diseases that lead to crime and indecency – a knowledge that any government must possess if it wishes to ensure social peace. Here again, al-Fiqī and his collaborators seemed to walk a tightrope between the promotion of a modernist understanding of Islam and the need to win over the Wahhabis without arousing their ire. There is indeed something ironic about the fact that the article pretends to condemn modern ways and ideas, while in fact promoting them. Other articles throughout al-Iṣlāḥ exhibit the same kind of ambiguity.

Additional evidence supports the interpretation that Egyptian reformers attempted, sometimes clumsily, to influence the Wahhabis. There is no denying, for instance, that al-Fiqī used al-Iṣlāḥ to promote the compatibility between technological innovations and Islam – a basic modernist principle that many Wahhabis still opposed in the late 1920s. We know that Riḍā himself had faced this problem earlier in 1928, when the Najdi scholar `Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Nāṣir al-Sa`dī (1889 – 1956) wrote him to complain about the proliferation of Egyptian modernist publications that invited Muslims to learn and respect modern sciences.

Al-Sa`dī had even accused al-Manār of being guilty of this sin. In his response, which he made public, Riḍā insisted that natural sciences were, on the contrary, an absolute necessity. Because no Muslim state could achieve power without them, modern sciences could not possibly be considered incompatible with Islam. In an effort to counter this false notion, Riḍā wrote that he intended to mail King `Abd al-`Azīz ten copies of his own Qur’anic exegesis so that the Wahhabis could learn from it. 8

In Mecca, al-Fiqī tried to pursue his mentor’s objective. It is no coincidence that many of al-Iṣlāḥ’s articles focused on the necessity and acceptability of modern science and technology, thus contradicting the aforementioned idea that scientific progress was a source of evil. Al-Fiqī argued that modern sciences, from astronomy to engineering, were of Middle Eastern origins and, therefore, could not be deemed Western innovations. In that sense, planes, tanks and submarines, as well as mechanical and electrical devices – including the telegraph – were all perfectly Islamic, for medieval Muslim scholars had previously developed the science behind them. 9 Moreover, al-Iṣlāḥ made sure to discuss and praise Riḍā’s modernist exegesis, Tafsīr al-Manār, especially its sections on science and civilizational progress. 10

But some Wahhabis continued to complain. In December 1928, al-Fiqī was forced to apologize for a previous article written for al-Iṣlāḥ by the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad `Abd al-`Azīz al-Khūlī (1892-1931), who was in Cairo. Among other things, al-Khūlī argued that the details of Islamic law had to be laid out according to the needs of the time. 11 While it is likely that this line of reasoning disturbed some religious scholars in the Saudi state, al-Fiqī did not refute it. Yet he apologized for having failed to properly review the article before publishing it, and corrected some doctrinal mistakes. 12 Thereafter, strict orthodoxy and orthopraxy became the leitmotiv of the journal until its final issue in July 1929.

Articles about Marconi and the Wright brothers gave way to articles about Hanbali and Wahhabi figures. The contents and the tone of al-Iṣlāḥ changed so much that in 1929 one prominent Damascene scholar pressured the great Shakīb Arslān (1869 – 1946) to ask al-Fiqī to moderate the language of his journal for the sake of Muslim unity.13

All this suggests that as much as al-Fiqī and his team tried to promote Islamic modernist ideas while appearing religiously credible in the eyes of the Wahhabis, this balancing act often proved unsustainable. In reality, Egyptian reformers ended up subordinating some of the ideals of the Manār school to political expediency (ideals such as modernist political reform, rationalist reinterpretation of the religious tradition and tolerance of intra-Islamic diversity) and, by the same token, allowed themselves to be influenced by the religious ethos of the Wahhabis.

On the whole, Riḍā and his associates then considered the strengthening of Saudi state power and independence to be more crucial for the good of the umma than the promotion of certain liberal reformist principles.


1 Bernard Haykel mentions the existence of such theories in his “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 46 – 47.

2 Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798 – 1939, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 231.

3 `Abd al-Rahman Abdulrahman `Abd al-Rahim, “The Effect of Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab’s Salafiyya Da`wa on Religious and Social Reform in Egypt,” in A History of the Arabian Peninsula, ed. Fahd al-Semmari (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 138 – 139.

4 al-Manār 29 (1928), 480.

5 al-Manār 27 (1926), 18.

6 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1928), 5.

7 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1928), 163.

8 al-Manār 29 (1928), 147.

9 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1928), 203, 221 – 223.

10 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1929), 294 – 296, 381 – 382.

11 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1928), 157.

12 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1928), 235.

13 al-Iṣlāḥ 1 (1929), 442, 444. Riḍā’s disciples did not reveal the name of this
Damascene scholar.