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Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Rashid Rida (1865-1935) are widely regarded as the founders of Islamic modernism, the religio-political movement (1840-1940) that first attempted to reconcile Islam in the modern period with European values of the Enlightenment. Scholars locate the development of their ideas primarily in relation to one another. Although it is no doubt the case that Al-Afghani was an important teacher for Abduh and Abduh the mentor of Rida, this mentor/mentee frame cannot account for ideas and developments outside an intellectual lineage model. This paper examines the place of esotericism—in particular Bahai thought—in Abduh’s writings which Rida, his biographer, vehemently opposed. More broadly, I wish to address how esoteric thinking has been either explicitly denounced or implicitly written out by modernists themselves as well as later historical accounts of Islamic modernism.


Teena Purohit is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. She is the author of The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India (Harvard University Press, 2012). She is currently completing her second book, Making Islam Modern (forthcoming, Harvard University Press).