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Jamal al Din al Afghani

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Sayyid Jamal Al Din al AfghaniJamal al Din al Afghani Sayyid Jamal-al-din al-Afghani, or Jamal-al-din Asadabadi (also Seyyed Jamaluddin Asadabadi, Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Jamal al-din Afgani) (1838-1896 or 1837-1897) was is the father of the modern Islamic revival. He is sometimes named as the father of Islamism because some of his students and their students were radical Islamists, including  Hassan Al-Banna, Abul ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb as well perhaps, as the radical Shi'ite Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini. However, in contradiction to radical Islamists, Afghani was more a philosopher than a religious Imam. His ideas were apparently based on the old but still surviving tradition of Islamic rationalism evident in the philosophy of Averroes, Avicenna and Ibn Khaldoun.

Life of Sayyid Jamal Al Din Al Afghani

Al-Afghani's life is not well documented, giving rise to conflicting accounts. According to some, Jamal Al Din Al Afghani was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but most agree that he was born in Asadabad, an Iranian village near Hamadabad in 1837 or 1838, into a learned family. It is thought that he styled himself "al-Afghani" in order to conceal his Shia origin. In Afghanistan, he reportedly called himself "Istanbouli" or "Rumi.

Al-Afghani was initially home schooled, then studied in Qazvin, in Teheran, and then in the Iraqi educated first at home, then taken by his father for further education to Qazvīn, to Tehran, and finally, to Iraqi Shia shrine cities. He was apparently much influenced by the Shaikhist school, which emphasized personal leadership and the need for the world to have a "perfect man."   Afghani was also influenced by the ideas of Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and others, and rational Muslim philosophy. 

India - Al Afghani apparently quarreled with some of the Iraqi Ulema and about 1856 he went to India, where he witnessed the Sepoy mutiny (Indian rebellion) of 1857. This may have influenced his anti-British stance.

Al Afghani's movements after leaving India are not known until about 1865, but he may have been to Mecca and perhaps as far as Istanbul. After India he spent some time in Iraq. He may have gone to Mecca, perhaps Istanbul.

Afghanistan - In 1865-66 Al Afghani traveled through Iran, probably coming from Iraq. He stopped briefly to visit his family in Asadabad. He then traveled to Tehran and on to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, according to government of India sources, he claimed to be from Istanbul, and it was noted that he spoke fluent Persian and appeared to be a stranger to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan he got himself attached, or was invited to, the  entourage of Muhammad A'zam Khan, the military ruler of Qandahar under Dost Muhammad Khan. Upon the death of Dost Muhammad died in 1863, his three sons fought among themselves for the rulership. Amir Shir 'Ali Khan, Dost Muhammad's third son, assumed power in Kabul, pledging to modernize Afghanistan. His however, rebelled and ousted him in 1866. A'zam became king, and al-Afghani became a highly placed adviser. 

According to one account, Al-Afghani reportedly drew up an ambitious national modernization plan for Afghanistan,  including centralized government, an educational network, communications system and a national newspaper. According to other accounts, he was silent on reform. All agree that he favored an alliance with Russia to stymie the British advance. But Shir 'Ali returned in 1868 and deposed Muhammad A'zam. Evidently Afghani tried to influence the pro-British 'Ali against Britain, and was therefore expelled. Afghani was forgotten in Afghanistan until long after his death.   

Turkey -  After a brief trip to India and a short stay in Cairo, Afghani went to Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire and the major center of Muslim power. Perhaps he believed that Abdulaziz, the Ottoman sultan was the hoped for "perfect man."  In 1869-70 the secularist Tanzimat reform movement was still in existence, and al-Afghani was a member.

He became a member of the reformist Council of Education. He used his post as a platform to deliver a series of inspiring and overly controversial university lectures in 1870. He was supposed to talk about science, industries and crafts. Instead he talked about anti-imperialism and modernization and derided prophecy. He drew the anger of the Ulema and these forced the dismissal of the head of the university and the expulsion of Afghani in the same year. 

Egypt - Al-Afghani fled to to Cairo and remained there until 1879 and did some of his most fruitful work. He was given a monthly stipend by the Egyptian government.  He helped  reintroduce the teaching of Muslim philosophy in Egypt and gained an avid following, including disciples who founded political newspapers and engaged in political work and especially Muhammad Abduh, whom he adducted from Sufi mysticism to a philosophical and political outlook. His other disciples became revolutionary leaders and were responsible for political agitation in Egypt for a long time thereafter.

Afghani preached and taught anti-imperialism and other controversial doctrines in Egypt. He founded a Masonic lodge, the Eastern Star. He tried to use it as a platform for overthrowing Khedive Ismail.  He gained a mass following through public speeches and agitation against the British and French interests  in Egypt.

It seems that that al-Afghani spoke at different levels and in different ways to different audiences. He is said to have believed that the masses were unready to follow philosophy and had to be taught through use of fundamentalist religion. Therefore, his popular lectures and writings often made use of an adaptation of the Shia idea of Taqiyah or dissimulation. This makes it more difficult to understand the "real" basis of his philosophy.

Al-Afghani was unfortunately all too clear in his criticism of the Egyptian government. Egypt, it will be remembered, was in a perpetual financial crisis, as the Khedive Isma'il had borrowed heavily to finance development projects. Egypt was therefore forced to allow increasing western influence. Al-Afghani openly condemned Isma'il's incompetence. It is doubtful that he was responsible for the downfall of Isma'il as some claim. The Sultan, pressured by foreign bankers who were worried about the fate of their loans, was forced to dismiss Khedive Isma'il. Afghani continued to rail against England and France, and Tawfiq, apparently on his own initiative, decided he was too risky to have around and expelled Afghani. 

India - Al-Afghani presently made his home in Hyderabad India. He was active in writing articles in Persian there, and was acquainted with the Prime Minister Sir Salar Jang, For two years he gave lectures and wrote his longest work,  "The Refutation of the Materialists" (1881), which was actually intended as a tract against a pro-British political opponent, Sir Sayyed Ahmad Kahn. In it, Al-Afghani described a utopian "Virtuous City," somewhat like Plato's Republic. It was a hierarchically structured society based on the principles of shame, trustworthiness, and truthfulness and aspiring to the ideals of intelligence, pride, and justice. Higher intelligence, al-Afghani  claimed, leads to new capabilities and advancement. Pride generates competition and progress, and justice would bring about global peace and harmony among nations. Naturalists, al-Afghani argued, intended to destroy the solidarity of the Virtuous City through division and sectarianism.

London and Paris - In 1881 Afghani left India for England and Paris. In London, he met William Blunt, an Arabist and anti-imperialist who helped finance his ventures and publicize his work. Blunt tried to convince the British government that Afghani would be useful to them in their dispute with the Sudanese Mahdi, but the British government were not interested.

In London and Paris al-Afghani wrote newspaper articles, mainly against the British occupation of Egypt. He met the French philosopher Ernest Renan, and made a deep impression on Renan. But he published a refutation of Renan's views on Islamic science, Against Renan,  which was not careful of Muslim orthodoxy, and he was careful to prevent its publication in the Arabic language.  Afghani invited Muhammad Abduh   to Paris to edit a short lived, but very influential journal in Arabic, al-'Urwat al-Wuthqa (the firmest bond). It was apparently at this time that Afghani adopted the pan-Islamic doctrines that he may have borrowed from the Turk Namik Kemal.

Iran and Russia - The paper soon folded however, and al-Afghani departed for the Port of Bushehr Iran, intending to go from there to Russia. He had been invited to Russia the Russian chauvinist editor and publicist Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov. In Iran however, he made some good contacts and made his way to Tehran and the temporary favor of Prime Minister Amin-al-sol. He was also interviewed by the Shah Nasir al-Din. The Shah, who had made a number of concessions to British interests, grew alarmed at al-Afghani's anti-British sentiments and saw to it that he was sent on his way to Russia in 1887.  He tried to persuade Russia to drive the British out of India with the aid of the Indian Muslims. But Persians were in bad odor in Russia owing to the concessions made by the Iranian Shah to the British, and in any case, the Russians were not interested in annoying the British too much. They kept him in Russia just long enough to irk the British, and al-Afghani meanwhile managed to get a second invitation to Tehran.

In Iran again - Al-Afghani returned to Iran in 1889. However, Afghani was involved in anti-government agitation, distributing pamphlets against the government concessions. Amin al-Sol was not happy to see him, and denied Afghani's claim that he had been sent to Russia to placate the Russians over the Iranian concessions. In fact, he issued orders for his arrest. Al Afghani fled before he could be arrested and took sanctuary in the shrine of Shah Abdul 'Azim. He set up a secret network and attracted large crowds which he harangued with his attacks on the Shah. He demanded that Iranian tax revenues should be spent on infrastructure and public projects, a railroad,  education, hospitals, and  an army to thwart imperialism, rather than on the Shah's luxuries, and he demanded constitutional rule and freedom of the press. In January 1891, al-Afghani and his network published an especially inflammatory pamphlet attacking the Shah and the tobacco concession that he had granted to the British. The Shah and his Prime Minister had had enough. They violated his sanctuary and deported al Afghani by forced marches to Iraq.  At this point, the Iranian Ulema and the merchants instigated a mass uprising against the Shah's tobacco concession. Al-Afghani wrote a famous letter to the influential holy man Hajj Mirza Hasan Sirazi against the tobacco concession, and Sirazi eventually called for a boycott of tobacco. This forced the Shah to cancel the British concession. Al-Afghani's role was clear, and this did not increase his favor with the Shah.

England and Turkey - Jamal al Din al Afghani presently departed for England around the beginning of 1892, where he teamed up with Malkom Khan, an Iranian modernist and wrote for Khan's newspaper. In 1892 he was invited or cajoled into coming to Turkey, where the Sultan Abdulhammid used him to promote Shia-Sunni unity under the rule of the Sunni Turkish Sultan and Caliph. Al-Afghani continued his anti-Shah activities with the aid of Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Shaikh Ahmad Ruhi. The incensed Iranians protested, and Ruhi, Kermani and another gentleman were exiled to Trebizond.

Another follower of al-Afghani was however freed from Jail in Iran during this period and came to al-Afghani and Istanbul. This was his former servant Mirza Reza. Reza was evidently given a mission by al-Afghani: To kill Nasser al Din, Shah of Iran. Reza returned to Iran and on May 1, 1896, as the the Shah was preparing to celebrate the Jubilee of his rule, Reza assassinated him.

The Iranian government tried in vain to get al-Afghani extradited. Evidently the Sultan was reluctant to allow the Iranians to interrogate al-Afghani and to learn the extent of Ottoman subversion activities in Iran. However, the Ottoman government did extradite the trio of reformers who had been exiled to Trebizond, though they had nothing to do with the assassination of the Shah. They were duly hanged in Tabriz on the order of the Crown Prince Mohammed Ali Mirza.

Very shortly thereafter, sometime in 1897 (March 9 is a probable date), al-Afghani died of cancer of the jaw. The convenience of his death so soon after the assassination of the Shah encouraged rumors that he had been poisoned, but nothing has ever been proven in this respect. At the time of his death, al Afghani had not been writing for several years, as the Ottoman government did not allow him to do so. His popularity was at a nadir, and but for the activities of his pupils, he might have been forgotten. In 1944, at the request of the Afghan government, his remains were transferred to Kabul and a mausoleum was erected there.

Al-Afghani never married. The only hint of a woman in his life comes from the European period. 

Work and ideas of Sayyid Jamal Al Din Al Afghani

Al-Afghani was not primarily a religious preacher and many of his writings and sayings betray contempt for religion. Aside from articles, Al-Afghani wrote only sparingly. He was evidently a brilliant orator, and Muhammad Abduh and other disciples pieced together his utterances and published many of them as "articles."

Al Afghani predicted the conquest of the Middle East by the British and sought ways to resist it, by rekindling both nationalistic and pan-Islamic movements.

His evolved ideology focused on:

  • Belief in ittihad i Islam - Unification of Islam and pan-Islamism, but not a single Islamic state or rule of Sharia law.
  • Need to combat the influence of the West and particularly Britain.
  • Modernization and democratization of society.
  • Interpreting Islam to fit the the modern world and allow scientific progress.

Al Afghani's philosophy was based on religion through reason, and a utilitarian and functional view of the role of religion in society.

Afghani's two published books are the History of Afghanistan and the Refutation of Materialism. The ideological content of the History of Afghanistan is intended to glorify Afghan nationalism and resistance to British colonialism. It was published in Egypt during the second Afghan war and seems to be aimed at Egyptian nationalists as well. The ideas advocated are not religious or pan-Islamic. In his writings in that period, Al-Afghani attacked fanaticism and despotism and tried to strengthen modern education and parliamentary rule. He called for leaders and journalists to spread new ideas and awaken patriotism and zeal for the national Egyptian interest.

Likewise in the Refutation of Materialism, there is little that could be called "Islamic" advocacy, but rather there is general spiritual advocacy.  Al-Afghani attacks pro-British views, but not the desire for progress. Al Afghani notes that religion has the practical values of tying together the community and keeping men from evil. He advocates a reform program based on selective reading of the Quran and Islamic traditions. He uses pride in Islam to counter British claims to cultural superiority.

Al-Afghani's main complaint against Darwin and others was their denial or alleged denial of the existence of God and their denigration of religion.  Al-Afghani asserted that religion has taught humanity three fundamental beliefs: man has a spiritual nature,  every religion believes it is superior to others and belief in afterlife in a better world.  Belief in man's spiritual nature motivates people to rise above egotistical and "bestial" impulses and try to  live in peace with others. Competition among religious groups cause each to try to pursue knowledge and further progress. Belief in afterlife based on rewards motivates ethical behavior and causes people to want to live a a life of love, peace and justice.

Al-Afghani claimed that religion encourages honesty, modesty and truthfulness. He believed these traits were responsible for the greatness of the Greeks and others others. When the Greeks turned to materialism and hedonism, they degenerated and fell prey to the Romans. Similarly the Persians, according to Al-Afghani, turned to  Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism and eventually were subject to the Arabs, and the Arabs were likewise weakened by moral erosion. He further maintains that the greatness of the major nations of the world has always been entailed by their cultivation of these traits. Through these virtues the Greeks were able to confront and destroy the Persian empire. However, when the Greeks adopted the materialism and hedonism of Epicurus, the result was decay and subjection by the Romans. Likewise the ancient Persians, a very noble people, began with the rise of Mazdaism the same downward journey as the Greeks, which resulted in their moral erosion. It follows that Muslims must return to the original values that made them great, but not necessarily a return to archaic ways of life that are opposed to progress. Religion in Afghani's view, was a fundamental ally and force in human progress. Al-Afghani had great faith in the capacity of humanity to innovate based on increased knowledge, and insisted that there are no areas that are immune to human inquiry. He even predicted that men would one day reach the moon.

An article published in India, “The Benefits of Philosophy,” praised philosophy rather than religion and characterized Islamic revelation as a step toward the higher truth of philosophy. Islam was commendable for encouraging philosophy and the meanings of the Quran can encompass all potential knowledge, according to Al Afghani. 

Thus, Al-Afghani's ideas cannot be viewed as as program for fundamentalist reaction, but rather a program to update Muslim philosophical traditions and merge them with the ebullient optimism and faith in progress characteristic of the nineteenth century.

In politics, numerous articles and speeches by al-Afghani called for just government, opposed fanaticism and tyranny and supported progress, liberty and patriotism. In one speech (reported in Mesr, May 24, 1879) he called for greater rights for women

Al-Afghani’s anti-imperialism and his stress on the virtues of early periods of Islam eventually entered the mainstream of Islamic modernism and the anti-colonialist struggle. Ironically, his quest for rationalism and enthusiasm for philosophy and progress were suppressed by some of his most successful and best known intellectual "offspring" such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid, Qutb, who converted Afghani's doctrines into a call for a fundamentalist Islamic revolution and return to a primitive sort of religious despotism

Ami Isseroff

Brief Bibliography

Keddie, N. (1968) An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (An useful series of essays linking al-Afghani's philosophical and political views.)

Keddie, N. (1972) Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani: A Political Biography, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Keddie N, AFGĀNĪ, JAMĀL-AL-DIN, Encyclopedia Iranica Article.

Kedourie, E. (1966) Afghani and 'Abduh, London: Cass.

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Al-Banna, Hassan Muslim Brotherhood Qutb, Sayyid  History of Islam and the Arabs  Islamism Jihad Maududi, Abul ala  Abduh, Muhammad

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Jamal al Din al Afghani