AFGHANI, JAMAL AD-DIN AL (Western Colonialism)


Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani is one of the best-known political thinkers and agitators of the nineteenth-century Muslim world. He is known for his calls for modernization and pan-Islamic solidarity, which he saw as the means by which the Muslim world could strengthen itself in its struggle against European aggression. Although he usually claimed to be an Afghan, making possible a Sunni identity in the majority Sunni Islamic world, overwhelming primary evidence shows that he was born and raised as a Shi’i in Iran. In adolescence he went to the Shi’i shrine cities of Iraq for further education and then to India, where he was during the 1857 revolt, which probably contributed to his lifelong anti-British stance.

Afghani went to Afghanistan for the only time in 1866; there he tried to convince the emir to fight the British, but in 1868 he was expelled by a new emir. He then went to Istanbul and was again expelled after giving a talk comparing prophets with philosophers. His most fruitful years, 1871 to 1879, were spent in Egypt, where he gathered a group of young disciples, several of whom became important, especially Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). He preached a rationalist and modernist Islam that adapted the teachings of various Greek-influenced medieval Islamic philosophers. After being expelled from Egypt he went to Hyderabad, India, where he wrote several articles and a treatise known as the ”Refutation of the Materialists.” From there he joined Muhammad ‘Abduh in Paris, where they edited the newspaper al-Urwa al Wuthqa, distributed throughout the Muslim world. Afghani also published in French his answer to Ernest Renan’s ”Islam and Science,” in which Afghani was portrayed as an unorthodox rationalist.

From France Afghani went to England and then Iran, where he made two stays in 1886 to 1891, during which he agitated against the state’s granting of numerous concessions to foreigners. Between the two stays in Iran he went to Russia to agitate against the British. Afghani’s activities in Iran brought about his forcible expulsion to Iraq, where he played a part in getting the leading Shi’i cleric to support a major, successful Iranian mass movement against the concession of all tobacco transactions to a British subject. After a trip to London, Afghani accepted Sultan Abdiilhamid’s invitation to Istanbul, where at Abdiilhamid’s behest he wrote Shi’i clerics to urge them to recognize the sultan as the leader of Islam. The sultan kept Afghani in a “gilded cage,” as Afghani was not allowed to publish or leave Istanbul. In 1896 an Iranian disciple, saying he was inspired by a visit to Afghani, assassinated Naser al-Din Shah. Afghani died of cancer in 1897.

Afghani was impressive as a teacher and fiery speaker. He was one of the first to provide popular arguments for modernizing and unifying the Muslim world and against capitulation to foreigners, especially the British. Though he was not especially orthodox, his combination of religious language with activist politics has made him attractive to many in the Muslim world who reject the more gradualist and compromising approach of intellectuals like Abduh. The ambiguity and variety of his record have made him appealing to many different schools of Muslim thought up until the present day. His ideas were often similar to those of the earlier Young Ottomans, but his travels, activities, and writing in Arabic and Persian, not Turkish, made him much better known in the Muslim world.

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