Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani

In spite of his name, Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani (al-Ascadabadi) was, in fact, born in Iran into a religious family claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammad. His traditional Shiah religious education included early years of study at the religious shrines in Iraq.

From that time, Al-Afghani was on the move, living in different Muslim countries and, in one way or another, spreading his anti-imperialist ideas. His hatred of European colonialism developed during his sojourn in British-occupied India in the 1850s, a time of Indian rebellion against foreign rule, which was harshly suppressed by the British.

From India and Afghanistan to Egypt and Ottoman Turkey, Al-Afghani tried to influence men of power in favor of his belief in the necessity of Islamic solidarity against European expansion. Sometimes his message carried the additional reforming note that internal change must accompany external watchfulness. 

Although he obtained access to many rulers, Al-Afghani had limited success in organizing unified action against European (especially British) imperialism during his lifetime. Nonetheless, his activism amounted to more than simply lobbying leaders and ideological haranguing.

He was expelled from Egypt in August 1879 by Khedive Tawfiq, (who had just been nudged to power by the British and the French) after agitating against foreign influence. From 1890-1892, he helped to organize successful opposition to Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah’s attempt to grant a Tobacco Concession to British interests and, before his death in Istanbul as a closely guarded “guest” of Sultan Abdulhamid II, he instigated the assassination of Naser al-Din Shah in 1896.

Al-Afghani was the first modern Muslim activist to utilize the power of Islam explicitly in his political appeal. That is, his main goal was political, but he recognized the power of religion and made use of it. Moreover, by recognizing the appeal of Islam, he was able to integrate his calls for internal reform into an Islamic context. Rather than perceiving reform to be a Western imposition, he viewed it as a return to the true Islam.

During Al-Afghani’s lifetime, Muslim countries were increasingly under the influence and control of the West. The Ottoman government had instituted the Tanzimat (reform) liberalizations of the economy and society at Europe’s behest, while the Sultan, the Egyptian Khedive and other Muslim rulers fell increasingly under European financial control. Worse still for the Muslim people who valued their cultural heritage, European material superiority created self-doubt in the minds of the conquered. European customs and governments were corrupt and impotent, while society underwent an internal spiritual crisis. 

His letter to Ernest Renan, and, essay for a periodic provide an interesting juxtaposition of style and content. In one piece, Al-Afghani appears as a righteous champion of his religion; in the other, as a seeker of scientific truth who rejects religion. The result of such disparity has led to much controversy about his true beliefs and intent. 

Ernest Renan had argued that the Arabs were inherently incapable of developing and sustaining science. Al-Afghani responds by admitting that Islam — like all religions — has indeed stifled scientific development, but that the Arab contribution to medieval science was still considerable.  In the second piece, “The Materialists in India,” comes from Al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqa, (The Firm Bond) the journal published in Paris in 1884 by Al-Afghani and his follower, Mohammad ‘Abduh. Only 18 issues of this periodical were published between March and October 1884, but it was circulated (and re-circulated and reprinted) widely throughout the Islamic world.

Nikki R. Keddie via Islamfiche