The Egyptian jurist and intellectual Qasim Amin (d. 1908) has long been venerated – especially by western scholars – for his two seminal works on Egyptian women’s rights, The Liberation of Women (1899) and The New Woman (1900). While the focus has been on Amin’s advocacy for women’s rights, his methodology is also revealing, especially in light of his detractors’ responses. Twice in the second work Amin pointed to the “venerable scholar” at al-Azhar who had published a scathing response to the first. This was Shaykh Muhammad al-Bulaqi’s The Cordial Companion – A Warning Regarding the Liberation of Women from Clothing (1899), a diatribe attacking Amin’s methods and conclusions and dismissing him as a puppet of European thought unschooled in Islamic jurisprudence.
I step back from the common celebration of Amin and examine his and al-Bulaqi’s texts side by side in order to understand the dynamics of the controversy in classic jurisprudential terms, which reveals a telling disconnect in the scholarly discourse over adherence to the late Sunni legal tradition at the dawn of the 20th century. I examine Amin’s embrace of the same methodological approach as Islamic modernists and Salafis such as Muhammad ʿAbduh and Rashid Rida, setting aside taqlīd – adherence to the late Sunni tradition which emerged in the 13th century – and instead engaging in ijtihād (independent interpretation). By giving voice to Amin’s antagonist, I show that while al-Bulaqi excoriated his arguments and belittled his reasoning, he did not engage with Amin’s accusation that the late Sunni tradition reflected not merely sound jurisprudence, but also the cultural and social attitudes of the individual scholars who established it as orthodoxy. Rather, al-Bulaqi relied on the very sources Amin had assailed as evidence that the latter’s conclusions regarding women in Egyptian society were erroneous.
It is important to note that al-Bulaqi’s perspective represented the overwhelming majority of ʿulamaʾ and likely also of Egyptian society at large at the time. These scholars’ ideological sparring represents an early ripple in the eventual turning of the doctrinal tide across the Muslim scholarly world as calls for ijtihād increasingly challenged taqlīd. Furthermore, much is revealed about the crosscurrents of early Salafism and Islamic modernism and their relationship to later and more literalist iterations of Salafism by evaluating their detractors. Shaykh al-Bulaqi’s work, in particular, highlights the dogged refusal among traditionalist ʿulamaʾ to engage with reasoned challenges to the late Sunni tradition.