Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Paul Marx
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most influential figures in the Islamic world in the 19th century. He became famous and infamous in both Islamic and Western circles and spread his teachings from France to India. In his lifetime, he helped spread a mixture of rationalist, nationalist, and Islamic views to intellectuals, political authorities, and his own students all across the Islamic and Western world.  By utilizing the unrest caused by colonialism in the 19th century, Afghani was able to spread his ideology to new students, become the main activist in the places of unrest, and manage to work his way into the established government to exploit their resources.

History and Biography:

His place of birth is highly debated, but most sources and scholars suggest that he was born in Iran in 1838 in the village of Asadabad.[1]  He was taught by his father and continued his education in Qazvin, Tehran, and eventually in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala (‘Atabat) in Southern Iraq. His education in the Atabat was heavily influenced by the Shaykhi school of Shi'ism. His education also included many teachings by famous Iranian philosophers.[2] After he finished his formal schooling, he had his first clash with religious authorities. His ideas challenged the religious establishment in the Atabat and he left Iraq in 1856 for India.[3]
When he arrived in India, he became caught up in the Sepoy Rebellion. Here he saw his first encounter with British imperialism, the exploitation that occurred under the British rule, led Afghani to dislike colonialism for the rest of his life.  He stayed in India until the mid-1860s, when he traveled to Iran and then Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, he claimed to be from Istanbul and was adopted as an adviser to the Amir, A'zam Khan. As an adviser, he told the Afghan Amir to ally with Russia against the British.[4] Unfortunately for Afghani, in 1868, A'zam Khan was deposed by the pro-British Sir Ali. Sir Ali also expelled Afghani from Afghanistan.[5]
After his expulsion from Afghanistan, he traveled to India and Cairo until he took residence in Istanbul. In late 1869 and early 1970 he joined the Tanzimat movement, which focused on secular reform to the Ottoman Empire. As a member of the Tanzimat circles, he was appointed to the Council of Education. In a speech he gave on the importance of scientific industries and crafts, he implicitly stated that prophecy was a craft. This created tension between him and the Sunni ulama in Istanbul. The ulama forced the Ottoman government to expel Afghani in late 1870.[6]
From Istanbul, Afghani then traveled to Cairo and stayed in Egypt until 1879. While in Cairo, he earned a living by collecting a stipend from the Egyptian government, due to his relationship and connection with Riaz Pasha, an Egyptian statesman. Afghani taught young men at his home and in cafe settings, which quickly brought him influence within Egyptian circles. He reintroduced Muslim philosophy back to the Egyptians and wrote some of his most influential works while in Egypt.[7] One of his most famous Egyptian disciples was Muhammad Abduh. In later years, Abduh would help Afghani spread his message while in Paris.
Starting in 1875, Afghani himself entered into Egyptian nationalist and anti-British politics.[8] He promoted the abdication of the Khedive Isma’il. He also promoted the formation of politically oriented newspapers. He gained a massive following in Egypt from his public speeches. Many of these speeches railed against the growing financial and political footholds that the British and French had gained within Egypt. When the British authorities got wind of Afghani's speeches and growing popularity, they decided to expel Afghani from Egypt in 1879. The British claimed that Afghani was simply a nuisance and wanted him out of their territory.
After his expulsion from Egypt, he returned to India and stayed in the Muslim state of Hyderabad. While staying in India, he became influential with the Prime Minister, Sir Salar Jang. With the support of Sir Jang, Afghani started teaching and wrote his longest work entitled, “The Refutation of the Materialist.” This article focused less on materialism and more as an attack on the pro-British Muslim reformer, Sayyed Ahmad Khan.[9] While in Calcutta, Afghani felt that he was being put under surveillance by the British and left for Paris.
While in Paris, he managed to convince his pupil Muhammad Abduh to join him. Together they created the modernist newspaper, al-Urwah al-Wuthqa (The Sure Handle).  This newspaper, which only ran during 1884, became greatly influential. In the newspaper, Afghani and Abduh first wrote on the idea of Pan-Islamism. His idea of Pan-Islamism spoke for unity for all Muslims under the spiritual leadership of the Ottoman Sultan. He thought that having one central spiritual leader, something like a Catholic pope, would allow the Islamic world to help stave off Western aggression. Afghani and Abduh would spread the newspapers to important intellectual and religious leaders across the Muslim world to spread their idea of Pan-Islamism.[10]
In 1886, Afghani arrived in Iran to collect books and papers of his that had been seized by the British. When the Iranian Minister of Press and Publications, Etemad-al-saltana learned of Afghani's arrival, he invited Afghani to Tehran to meet with the Shah. On Afghani's trip to Tehran, he stayed with the eldest son of the Shah, Zell-al-soltan. Once Afghani arrived in Tehran and had his meeting with the Shah, the friendship quickly ended because the Shah did not agree with Afghani's colonial sentiments.[11]
Afghani then went to Russia and stayed there for two years to try and stir up a war between Russia and Great Britain. The war he wanted never happened, so in late 1889, he met with some of the Shah's family in Munich and was invited back to Iran. Against the wishes of the Shah, Afghani created secret societies to help foster a growing nationalist movement. In 1890, the Shah grew tired of the growing number of followers that Afghani had obtained and planned to expel him from Iran. Afghani learned of the Shah's plan and sought sanctuary at the shrine of Shah Abd-al-Azim, south of Tehran. The Shah grew tired of hearing that while in sanctuary, Afghani spoke with followers and created leaflets which opposed the tobacco concession that the Shah had created with the British. The Shah sent troops and forced Afghani out of the country to Iraq in mid-Winter of 1891.[12]
While Afghani stayed in Iraq, the situation grew even tenser because of the tobacco concession. Both the religious establishment in Iran and the merchant classes opposed the Shah's decree. One of the major religious opponents to the decree was the Ayatollah Shirazi. Together Afghani and Sirazi called for the Iranians to boycott the purchase and use of tobacco. Due to the mass movement that had occurred from the mujtahids and the merchants, the Shah was forced to repeal the decree.[13]
After his work in ending the tobacco concession in Iran, Afghani was invited by the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid in 1892 to become part of the Sultan's court. Afghani agreed to the Sultan's offer and moved to Turkey. The Sultan wanted to use Afghani's influence within Shi’a and Iranian circles to promote the idea of Pan-Islamism and gain their support as the Ottoman caliph. The plans were never fully realized, but while Afghani was in Turkey, many Iranians had grown tired of the Shah and in 1896, Afghani's disciple, Mirza Reza assassinated the Shah.[14] The assassination occurred on the fiftieth anniversary of the Shah's accession to the throne and had the blessing of Afghani. Reza was hanged for the murder and the Iranian government attempted to extradite Afghani, but the Sultan did not comply with Iranian officials. In 1897, Afghani passed away due to complications caused by jaw cancer.[15]

Ideology and Types of Activism:

            Afghani’s teachings tended to appeal more to the Shi’i communities rather than to Sunnis, but he was able to adapt his ideas as he traveled westward.  His main method of teaching his students was on incremental levels.  He would first teach his students in areas of study that they could already understand and over time lead the students in subjects of Muslim and Western philosophy.  His main ideas that he wanted to spread to his students included; rationalism, nationalism, and Pan-Islamism. 
            His students differed in their opinion of his religiosity.  Some claimed that Afghani was very religious, while others claimed that he was anti-religious.  This shows the ability of Afghani to adapt to the environments in which he taught.  Even though some of his students claimed that he was a religious teacher, his primary goal dealt with politics.  Throughout the Muslim world, Afghani strayed away from religion and focused his advice to the Amir on anti-British policies.  While he was in Istanbul, his attention was for reformist action that allowed him to teach in the secular university setting.  His teachings in Istanbul tended to be more anti-religious than religious, and caused controversy, which eventually led to his expulsion from Istanbul.  His teachings in Egypt dealt with teaching young students on issues with modern political issues and theories. 
            Though most of Afghani’s work was completely intellectual and advisory, he did not stray away from getting involved in actual revolutionary ideas and actions.  His support for overthrowing the puppet government in Egypt eventually led to his expulsion from the country.  Also his involvement in Iran with the tobacco concessions, he joined with Shirazi to help start a mass movement that led to the Shah’s removal of the decree.  Probably his greatest work of overthrowing an establishment also happened in Iran with the assassination of the Shah by his disciple.  Afghani took credit for the assassination and take great pride in the fact that the Shah was killed.[16] 
            As a teacher, his influence was felt all across the Muslim and Western worlds.  Unlike most of his predecessors, his focus was less on Islam and more on implementing Western ideas of rationalism and nationalism in the Islamic world.  Afghani never managed to create a formal movement that mixed his ideas of rationalism, nationalism, and Pan-Islamism, but through his teachings, his students continued on the legacy of his ideology and activism.  His students became the next generation of great Islamic and Arab thinkers, they took Aghani’s ideas and philosophy and evolved and adapted it to fit their own purposes.  Some of them became strictly secular in their teachings, while others became strictly religious in their teachings, but Afghani used the mediums of printed information and spoken word to spread his message to large numbers of people and influenced the world greatly.


 “Jamal al-Din al-Afghani” Encyclopedia Iranica (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afgani-jamal-al-din. Accessed April 1, 2012).
            This article is a basic biography of Afghani’s life.  It allows the reader the ability to get the general points of his life, while providing a detailed list of Afghani’s works. 
“Biography of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani” (http://www.cis-ca.org/voices/a/afghni.htm. Accessed April 1, 2012).
            This article goes into greater detail on the works of Afghani, which allows the reader to understand the message of his writings.
L.M. Kenny. “Al-Afghani on Types of Despotic Government” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jan-Mar, 1966), 19-27.
            In this article, the author takes Afghani’s writing while he was in Egypt and interprets the message that Afghani spread dealing with the West and despotic governments.

Nikki R. Keddie.  “Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s First Twenty-Seven Years: The Darkest Period” Middle East Journal, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Autumn, 1966), 517-533.
            In this article, the author provides information on the early years of Afghani’s life, and how they helped shape his views.

Sayid Jamal al-Din al Afghani, Abdul-Hadi Ha’iri.  “Afghani on the Decline of Islam” Die Welt des Islams, Vol. 13, Issue ½ (1971), 121-125.
            In this article, the author gives detailed reasons on how Afghani viewed Islam during his lifetime, and the reasons for the decline of Islamic society.

[1] Encyclopedia Iranica
[2] Nikki R. Keddie.  “Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s First Twenty-Seven Years: The Darkest Period”
[3] www.cis-ca.org
[4] Encyclopedia Iranica
[5] Encyclopedia Iranica
[6] Encyclopedia Iranica
[7] www.cis-ca.org
[8] L.M. Kenny. “Al-Afghani on Types of Despotic Government”
[9] Encyclopedia Iranica
[10] Encyclopedia Iranica
[11] Encyclopedia Iranica
[12] Encyclopedia Iranica
[13] Encyclopedia Iranica
[14] Encyclopedia Iranica
[15] Encyclopedia Iranica
[16] Encyclopedia Iranica

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