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AFGHANI, JAMALAL-DIN AL-(1838/391897), writer and Pan-Islamist political activist. Controversial during his lifetime, al-Afghani has become since his death one of the most influential figures in the Muslim world, even though his written output was rather small. His influence, especially in the twentieth century,may be seen as owing primarily to three factors: he reflected ideas that have become increasingly popular in the Muslim world since the late nineteenth century, including nationalism, Pan-Islamism, and the identification of many new ideas with Islam; he was a charismatic speaker and teacher; and he traveled so widely in the Muslim world that he was able to have a direct impact in several countries.

Life and Activities. Despite his claim to Afghan origin-whence his name-overwhelming evidence shows that al-Afghani was born and raised inIranof a Shi’i family. Among this evidence are several documents in the papers he left inTehranwhen expelled fromIranin 1891, of which a catalog was published in 1963. Here and elsewhere there are letters to his Iranian nephews, but no such early documentation is found for Afghanistan, where the first published reference to him dates from World War I and consists of a paraphrase of an Egyptian biography. His passport also identified him as Iranian. Primary documents from Afghanistanin the 1860s, when he was there, speak of him as a foreigner, previously unknown in Afghanistanand speaking Persian like an Iranian.

Sunni Muslims are often reluctant to admit that alAfghani was raised in Shi’i Iran and did not tell the truth about it. In fact, however, he was operating in a Shi’l tradition of self-protection and apparently feared repercussions from an Iranian identification. Moreover, he knew he would have less influence in the Sunni world if he were thought to be from Shi`i Iran. There is no evidence that he internally identified himself as a Shi’i, and his Pan-Islamic thinking involved the reduction or removal of Shi`i-Sunni conflicts.

Documents indicate that after his education in his home town of Asadabad in northwestIran, and in Qazvin and Tehran, he went for higher education in the 1850s to the Shi`i shrine cities in Ottoman Iraq. In these cities there was considerable intellectual ferment, with some religious figures following the Shaykhi school of Islam and a few its heretical Babi offshoot. The earliest treatises found among al-Afghani’s papers and dated from this period are Shaykhi treatises; he annotated them in a way that makes it clear that he followed, at least for a time, this innovative and philosophically oriented school of thought. [See Shaykhiyah.] Al-Afghani’s books and papers also confirm the influence of the rationalist Islamic philosophers, especially such Iranian thinkers as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Nasir al-Din Tusi.

In his late teens al-Afghani traveled to India and was almost surely there at or near the time of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It seems likely that his lifelong hatred of the British, and especially of their power in colonized countries, dates from his contact with them inIndia. It is also possible, as one later account says, that he was in Iranian Bushire at the time of the British-Persian War of 1857.

Al-Afghani then seems to have embarked on a slow journey that probably included Mecca, and certainly a trip across Iran into Afghanistan in the early 1860s. According to the Indian who was the British newswriter fromAfghanistanat this time, al-Afghani came to Afghanistan with secret papers (which the newswriter thought were from the Russians) that gained him rapid access to the amir. He was reported as speaking Persian like an Iranian, and also Turkish (widely spoken in northwest Iran), and he was believed to be from Anatolia(he was therefore called Rumi). His conversations of this period, the earliest ones documented, already have the fiercely anti-British ring that characterizes his whole life. A change in amirs brought a pro-British ruler to the throne, and al-Afghani’s attempts to keep his position failed; he was expelled in late 1868.

In 1869 he went briefly toCairoand then to the Ottoman capitalIstanbul. His intelligence and personality quickly brought him into high circles-those of the Tanzimat reformers then in power. He was involved in the council of education and the new university, where he gave one of a series of public lectures. What he said has been distorted by his followers; a text with quotations from his talk indicates that the main charge against him-that he compared philosophy with prophecy and referred to prophecy as a craft-is true. This is a theme close to those in Iranian philosophy, which was still taught inIranbut considered heretical in Muslim countries to the west ofIran. This speech gave conservative `ulama’ an excuse to attack the new university, which they disliked, and the head of the university was compelled to resign, while al-Afghani was expelled from the country.

From 1871 to 1879 al-Afghani lived in Cairo, supported by a grant from government funds paid by the statesman Riyad Pasha. He spent most of this time teaching, introducing an interpretation of Islamic philosophy that included restricting rational inquiry to the elite while encouraging orthodoxy among the masses. As Egypt entered a political and financial crisis in the late 1870s, al-Afghani encouraged his disciples to publish political newspapers; he himself gave speeches and carried out political activities as head of a secret society. His followers included several young men who later became the leaders of Egyptian political and intellectual life, notably his closest disciple, the young Muhammad `Abduh, as well as `Abd Allah Nadim, Sa’d Zaghlul, and Ya’qub Sannu`. Al-Afghani blamedEgypt’s plight on both the British and Khedive Isma’il, whom he talked of assassinating. When Isma’il was replaced by Tawfiq in 1879, however, it was the work of the British and French, and Tawfiq responded to al-Afghani’s continued fiery anti-British speeches by expelling him fromEgypt. There is no evidence for the common view that the British instigated this expulsion.

Al-Afghani returned toIndia, going to the Muslim state ofHyderabad. Here he did much of his important writing, an activity he generally disliked; many of his writings are actually transcriptions of talks. He wrote a series of articles and his most famous treatise, known in English under the title The Refutation of the Materialists. It was intended mainly to refute the work of the proBritish (though liberal) Sayyid Ahmad Khan. The writings from this and the Egyptian period include a great deal on nationalism (both local Egyptian and Indian, Hindu-Muslim nationalisms), and nothing of the PanIslamism with which his name is now associated. That entered his published writings only later. [See the biography of Ahmad Khan. ]

At the time of the `Urabi revolt inEgypt(18811882), al-Afghani took steps to leaveIndia. Muhammad `Abduh joined him inParis, where they edited an Arabic newspaper, Al-`urwah al-wuthqa (“The Strongest Link,” i.e., the Qur’an). This was sent free throughout the Muslim world; it seems to have been subsidized, evidently partly by the English Arabophile Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. The paper lasted only a year but was very influential; its main themes were Pan-Islamist and antiBritish, and it also included theoretical articles. While inParisal-Afghani published in the Journal des dibats a famous “Answer to Renan,” in which he appeared at least as skeptical about religion as did Ernest Renan, with whom he disagreed only in saying that Islam and Arabs were no worse than others.

In 1884 al-Afghani went to Britain, where Blunt presented him to high governmental figures. He became involved in an abortive plan to accompany Sir Henry Drummond Wolff to Istanbul with the aim of inducing Britain to end its occupation of Egypt. Ironically, Blunt’s writings on these events persuaded some Muslims to consider al-Afghani a British spy.

In 1886 al-Afghani went to Iran, where he gathered liberal disciples, and thence to Russia, where he tried but failed to arouse Russian leaders to go to war against Britain. Returning to Iranin 1890-1891, he encouraged growing activity against the shah’s economic concessions to foreigners. A pamphlet against these concessions probably inspired by al-Afghani brought his expulsion to Iraqin early 1891. Here he wrote a famous anticoncession letter to the leader of the Iranian `ulama’, Shirazi, who later entered the nationwide movement against a tobacco concession to the British. From Iraqal-Afghani went to Britain, where he joined another reformer, Malkom Khan, in written and spoken attacks on the Iranian government.

The Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II invited alAfghani to Istanbul but became increasingly suspicious of him; he was kept in comfort but prevented from publishing or giving speeches. In 1895 he encouraged an Iranian disciple, Mirza Riza, to kill Nasir al-Din Shah. This Mirza Riza did near Tehran in May 1896. The assassin and three innocent Iranian progressives were executed, but the Iranian government failed in its efforts to extradite al-Afghani; the Ottomans claimed, though they knew better, that he was an Afghan. In 1897 alAfghani died of cancer of the jaw. The illness is well attested, and no evidence exists for the story that he was poisoned by the sultan.

Al-Afghani’s unusual life was the source of much mythmaking, some of it based on stories that he himself told. Most biographies of al-Afghani written before his papers became available in 1963 (and many since) derive from biographies by his disciples based on what alAfghani wanted people to believe-especially `Abduh’s biography prefaced to his version of The Refutation of the Materialists. Only recently have scholars sought and found independent early documentation.

Contributions to Modern Islam. Whatever the facts of his biography, one cannot deny the importance of alAfghani or his contributions to modern Islamic thought and events. It is true that he was not the kind of intellectual who did extensive writing or tried to work out a complex theoretical system. He was rather one who picked up, combined, and developed a number of existing themes to create a novel whole. The following important points may be identified.

From traditional Islamic philosophy al-Afghani drew a belief in reason and natural law, and a deity who did not contradict these. His background in Muslim philosophy, well documented in texts marked for his teaching inEgypt, allowed al-Afghani to give his modernizing teaching an Islamic base. He taught what Muslim philosophers advocated: preaching orthodox religion to the masses and a kind of rationalist, natural-law deism to the elite.

His political thought was impelled by hostility to British rule in foreign, especially Muslim lands. Although al-Afghani expressed himself in friendlier terms toward the French and Russians, his anti-British speeches and writings could be, and were, extended to a more general anti-imperialism that has increased in the Muslim world since his time.

Al-Afghani is strongly associated with two movements that he did not originate, but that he expressed lucidly and propagated widely. One is nationalism, supported in Egypt with references to the glories of ancient Egypt and in India with praise of the ancient Hindus. The other is Pan-Islamism, which started with the nineteenth-century Ottoman sultans and was then voiced in more progressive, anti-imperialist forms by the Young Ottomans, especially Namik Kemal. As alAfghani’s works on this subject were written in Arabic, he had more influence internationally than did the Young Ottomans. Nationalism and Pan-Islamism were seen as different but not necessarily contradictory strategies for communal unity and anti-imperialism. [See Arab Nationalism; Young Ottomans; and the biography of Kemal.]

In keeping with his stress on anti-imperialism and his desire to maintain the independence of Muslim countries, al-Afghani stressed pragmatic aspects of internal reform and self-improvement, including technical and scientific education. Although some admirers point to al-Afghani’s rare proconstitutional remarks, these were largely limited to Egyptin the late 1870s, when a constitution was a practical issue. He frequently worked with autocratic rulers, and only near the end of his life did he express regret and speak rather of the need to awaken the people.

Al-Afghani was one of the first modern Muslim figures to be involved in a wide variety of activist political undertakings, accounting for much of his lasting influence. In Egypthe made public speeches, encouraged and wrote in newspapers, and used a masonic lodge for political purposes. InIranhe encouraged opposition to foreign concessions, as well as the formation of secret opposition organizations and the publication of leaflets, and even the assassination of the shah.

It is clear that al-Afghani’s reputation has continued to grow since his death. His chief disciple Muhammad `Abduh, even though he renounced al-Afghani’s political activism, carried on one aspect of al-Afghani’s work when he tried to elaborate modern and pragmatic interpretations of Islam. `Abduh’s pupil Muhammad Rashid Rida specifically stressed al-Afghani’s influence, even though Rida’s more conservative emphasis on Islam was rather different. Together `Abduh, Rida, and others, chiefly in North Africa, are often characterized as the Salafiyah, those who wanted to go back to the ways of Muhammad’s early followers. Although al-Afghani occasionally spoke in this way, his ideas did not have a specific Salafi emphasis. He was, however, probably congenial to the Salafiyah because he identified himself as a reforming and activist Muslim. [See Salafiyah and the biographies of `Abduh and Rashid Ridd.]

Pan-Islam, in the sense of either a political or a more general unity of Muslim countries as a barrier to further European conquest of Muslim territory, became especially strong after the British conquest of Egypt in 1882, the French protectorate of Tunisia in 1881, and the European taking of Muslim territories in the Russo Turkish war and the Congress of Berlin in 18’7’7-1878. In the more general sense of Muslim solidarity against the Christian and imperial West, Pan-Islam has continued to be popular to the present. This, combined with his anti-British activities, is one reason al-Afghani has remained popular in the Muslim world at a time when reformers associated with Westerners, such as `Abduh, have lost much popularity.

More generally, al-Afghani may be said to have had his finger on the pulse of modern Muslim thought, especially that concerned with politics. His status keeps him popular with a variety of sometimes contradictory groups and individuals. Those who stress political reform can cite his few articles on this subject from Egypt; those who stress Islamic principles and values can cite his 1880s articles on Pan-Islamism. Although he was not at all what would now be called an Islamist or fundamentalist, his belief in using certain aspects of Islam to promote a primarily political program shows a temper of thought shared by many Islamists. Nationalists can similarly find support in his program. Thus he is one of the few Muslim thinkers who have retained considerable popularity both in the liberal age of the interwar and immediate postwar years and in the current age of Islamism. He is popular and much discussed, for example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Naturally, Islamists do not cite the evidence that he was less than a true believer and that his use of Islamic themes was not only philosophical and rationalist but also largely instrumental.

Al-Afghani’s deliberate use of different arguments in different conditions encourages a variety of interpretations. His legacy of reinterpretation of Islam in a modernist, pragmatic, anti-imperialist direction and his political activism have been of great importance to the modern Muslim world.

[See also Modernism; Pan-Islam.]


`Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translation of Risalat al-tawhid by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg.London, 1966. Treatise of modern Islam that reflects the influence of al-Afghani’s philosophical rationalism.

Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-. Refutation des materialistes. Translated by Amelie-Marie Goichon.Paris, 1942. French translation, with an intelligent introduction, of al-Afghani’s most important book-length treatise.

Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism inTurkey.Montreal, 1964. The first work to use primary material to demythologize alAfghani’s first stay inIstanbul.

Browne, Edward G. The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909.Cambridge, 1910. Contains important primary documents in translation, although this account contributed to the exaggerated al-Afghani myth. Cole, Juan R. I. Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East: Social and Cultural Origins ofEgypt’s Urabi Movement. Princeton, 1993 The only work to make good use of the Arabic material in alAfghani’s papers and other early primary sources inEgypt.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939.London, 1962. The most intelligent presentation of al-Afghani before the publication of his papers.

Keddie, Nikki R. Sayyid j amal al-Din “al-Afghani”: A Political Biography.Berkeley, 1972. Biography of al-Afghani making extensive use of his papers and other primary sources.

Keddie, Nikki R. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din “al-Afghani.” 2d ed.Berkeley, 1983. English translation of the “Refutation” and of alAfghani’s most important articles, preceded by an analysis of his life and influence.

Kedourie, Elie. Afghani and `Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam.London, 1966. Perhaps overly skeptical, but deserves to be read for its use of new material. Kudsi-Zadeh, A. Albert. Sayyid,jamal al-Din al-Afghani: An Annotated Bibliography.Leiden, 1970. Thorough bibliography; needs updating.

Mahdavi, Asghar, and Iraj Afshar, eds. Documents inedits concernant Seyyed Jamal al-Din Afghani.Tehran, 1963. Excellent catalog of the papers and books left by al-Afghani inTehranwhen he was expelled in 1891, covering his adult life to the beginning of exile. In Persian, Arabic, and French.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Islam in Modern History.Princeton, 1957 Classic and still useful analysis.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/afghani-jamal-al-din/

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