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Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn

Nikki R. Keddie, Ibrahim Kalin
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam What is This? Includes complete coverage of Islamic philosophy, sciences, and technologies from the classical through contemporary periods.

Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn

One of the most important figures of modern Islam, Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī is considered the founding father of several intellectual and political trends, including Islamic reformism and pan-Islamism. He has influenced generations of Muslims from India and Afghanistan to Iran, Egypt, and Turkey.

Two competing theories have been proposed about Afghānī’s place of birth; questions regarding his nationality and sect have become a source of long-standing controversy. Those who claim that he was Persian and Shī ʿ ī argue that he was born in Hemedan, Iran. There is little evidence to prove this claim, other than the fact that Afghānī’s father spent some time in Iran and that Afghānī was well-versed in traditional Islamic philosophy. The other theory holds that he was born in a village called Asadābād near Kabul, Afghanistan.

Education and Political Career.

Afghānī received his early education from his father, Safder. He studied linguistics, mathematics, history, philosophy, and medicine. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, he went to India (1855–1856) to continue his studies, and he performed the ḥajj in 1857. He returned to Afghanistan in 1858 and was taken into the royal service of Amīr Dost Muḥammad. When Dost Muḥammad died in 1863, his brother Muḥammad Aʾzam acceded to the throne and appointed Afghānī as prime minister. After Aʾzam lost his rule, Afghānī left Afghanistan for Iran, then traveled to India. Taking note of his growing influence and anti-Western stance, the British sought to contain him in India, which led to his eventual departure for Egypt. In 1870, he traveled to Egypt and then to Istanbul, where he received a warm welcome from Ottoman officials and intellectuals. But some of his public announcements about certain theological issues enraged some Ottoman scholars, forcing him to leave Istanbul.

Afghānī returned to Egypt and stayed there for eight years (1871–1879), during which time he began to spread his philosophical and political ideas through private classes and public lectures. It was also during this time that Afghānī became politically active against the Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismāīl Pasha. He was critical of Ismāīl Pasha’s oppressive policies and advocated political freedom, urging the participation of all Egyptians in the government. Hopeful of reform, he supported Ismāīl Pasha’s son Tawf īq Pasha. Soon after, however, Tawfīq Pasha grew suspicious of Afghānī’s ideas and activities, and he ordered, under pressure from the British, Afghānī’s deportation.

Afghānī returned to India, remaining there until 1882. During this period, he became closely acquainted with the positivistic ideas of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān. Afghānī wrote his famous Hakīkat-i Mazhab-i Nīchīri va Bayān-i hāl-i Nīchirīyān (The Truth about the Neichari Sect and an Explanation of the Necharis), first published in 1881 in Haydarabad, in rejection of S. A. Khan and his followers. The book was later translated by his friend and colleague Muḥammad ʿAbduh into Arabic and was published as al-Radd ʿala al-dahriyyin (The Refutation of the Materialists) in 1886 in Beirut.

At the beginning of 1883, Afghānī arrived in London; after a short stay there, he left for Paris. In Paris he began to publish the journal Al-ʿUrwāh al-wuthqā (The Firmest Rope—a title taken from the Qurʾān) with Muḥammad ʿAbduh. Due to a number of difficulties, Al-ʿUrwāh was discontinued in September 1884 after the publication of eighteen issues. Through his essays and lectures, as well as his polemic against the well-known French historian and positivist Ernest Renan, Afghānī established a considerable name for himself in Parisian intellectual circles. In 1886, he was invited by Shāh Nāṣir al-Dīn to Iran and was offered the position of special adviser to the Shāh, which he accepted. Afghānī, however, was critical of the Shāh’s policies on the question of political participation. This rift forced Afghānī to leave Iran for Russia from 1886 to 1889. On his way to Paris in 1889, Afghānī met Shāh Nāṣir al-Dīn in Munich; the Shāh offered him the position of grand vizier. But Afghānī’s unabated criticisms of the rule and conduct of the Shāh led to his eventual deportation from Iran in the winter of 1891. Afghānī was later implicated in the murder of Shāh Nāṣir al-Dīn in 1896.

Afghānī spent the last part of his life in Istanbul under the patronage and, later, surveillance of Sultan ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd II. The demands for Afghānī’s extradition by Iranian officials for his alleged involvement in the assassination of Shāh Nāṣir al-Dīn were rejected by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd who, most probably, collaborated with Afghānī for the implementation of his political program of pan-Islamism and Islamic unity (ittiḥād-i islām). Afghānī died of cancer on 9 March 1897, and was buried in Istanbul. He has an empty tomb in the Seyhler Cemetery, Macka, Istanbul, as his bones were transferred to Afghanistan upon the request of the Afghan government in 1944.

Reform and Renewal.

Afghānī’s career as a thinker and activist has had a deep impact on the Islamic world and continues to be a source of inspiration and controversy. His project of Islamic “reform” and “renewal” (iṣlāḥ and tajdīd), which he developed in his lectures, polemics, short essays, and newspaper columns, was based on the idea of finding a modus vivendi between traditional Islamic culture and the philosophical and scientific challenges of the modern West. Afghānī took a middle position between blind Westernization and its wholesale rejection by the traditional ʿulamāʾ. He held that modern Western science and technology are essentially separable from the philosophical ethos, social manners, and imperialist politics of European countries and that technology could be acquired by the Islamic world without accepting European theological and philosophical premises.

Afghānī was well versed in traditional Islamic philosophy, and he considered philosophy essential for the revival of Islamic civilization. This belief is clearly reflected in his various lectures, particularly in al-Radd ʿalā al-dahriyyīn (The Refutation of the Materialists). In fact, many of Afghānī’s philosophical arguments against the naturalists and materialists derive their force from his philosophical training. As revealed in his lecture “The Benefits of Philosophy,” Afghānī’s vision of a “modern Islamic philosophy” was closely tied to his confidence in the recent advancements made in the fields of science and technology. Unlike traditional theology (kalām), philosophy should articulate a cosmology based on the findings of modern science. These and similar ideas expressed by Afghānī have been used by his critics and enemies to label him as a “heretic.”

Afghānī’s program of reform and revival is based on the principle of going back to the fundamental sources of Islam, that is, the Qurʾān and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The failure of the Muslim world is not attributable to the religion of Islam but the misinterpretation of religion at the hands of ignorant and misguided Muslims. The remedy is not to change the religion but to take it back to its original meaning and spirit. The way to do this is ijtihād, defined as independent reasoning and judgment through the methodology of Islamic jurisprudence. Afghānī strongly believed that Muslims, while relying on tradition, are capable of achieving ijtihād for themselves at any moment in history. Independent reasoning does not contradict or cancel out revelation because reason and revelation are perfectly compatible. The failure of Muslims to use reason to uncover the multilayered meanings of the Qurʾān has led to the decline of Islamic civilization. Reform and revival means recovering the original, true, and dynamic spirit of Islam to cope with the religious, intellectual, and social challenges of the modern world.

Afghānī’s political program of pan-Islamism (ittiḥād-i islām) sought to mobilize Muslim nations to fight against Western imperialism and to gain military power through modern technology. He saw the unity of Muslim countries as essential for the future of the Muslim world and the Caliphate. To this end, he sent letters to various Islamic countries and leaders, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, to mobilize and unite them against British rule, while at the same time trying to establish the foundations of a mutual rapprochement between Sunnī and Shīʿī. His goal was to unite the Ottoman Empire and Persia; his proposal included the recognition of the Ottoman Sultan as the caliph of all Muslims and the Shāh of Iran as the head of all Shīʿī Muslims.

His pan-Islamic political agenda was coupled with the independence of individual Muslim countries. It has been a key factor in the development of the so-called “Islamic nationalism” and has influenced such Muslim figures as Muhammad Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Kalām Azād in India; Mehmet Namik Kemal, Said Nursî, and Mehmed Âkif Ersoy in Turkey; and Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Muḥammad Rashīd Rīḍa, ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq, Qāasim Amīn, Lutfī al-Sayyid, and Osman Amīn in the Arab world.


As a public intellectual and activist, Afghānī articulated and expressed most of his ideas through his lectures, and he wrote comparatively little. He published only two books in his lifetime. One is a history of Afghanistan and the other is his famous refutation of naturalism and materialism, which he singled out as the most urgent threat to humanity in general and to the Islamic world in particular. It is worth noting that Afghānī’s only published book of intellectual substance is directly related to the question of religion and science. Although brief, Afghānī’s letter to Ernest Renan in response to his celebrated lecture at the Sorbonne in 1883, in which Renan openly attacked Islam as an obstacle to philosophy and science, is another important document for the understanding of Afghānī’s position on Islam and modern science.

In The Refutation of the Materialists, Afghānī gives a scathing criticism of the naturalist/materialist position from scientific, philosophical, ethical, and social perspectives. He traces the history of modern materialism to the Greek materialists, among whom he mentions Democritus, Epicurus, and Diogenes the Cynic. This short historical survey is followed by a criticism of Darwin and his evolutionary theory. Afghānī rejects the idea of chance in nature and accuses the materialists of attributing “perception and intelligence” to atoms (i.e., matter) in and of themselves. He rejects the idea of the universe as a self-regulating structure without a higher intelligence/principle operating on it.

Afghānī also provides a social and ethical criticism of materialism. The materialists, in his view, are intent on undermining the very foundations of human society. They try to destroy the “castle of happiness” based on the six pillars of religion. These six pillars are divided into three beliefs and three qualities. The first belief is that man is a terrestrial angel, that is, he is God’s vice-regent on earth. The second belief is that one’s community is considered to be the best in the sense of belonging to the human world, in contrast to the animal and plant kingdoms, and in the sense of belonging to the best human and religious society. Afghānī believes that this inherent exclusivism is the most important motive for the global race of goodness, which lies at the heart of all world civilizations. The third belief is that man is destined to reach the highest world through his innate ability to transcend the merely material and realize the spiritual within himself.

In addition, religion inculcates three ethical qualities in its followers. The first quality is what Afghānī calls “modesty” (hayaʾ, literally “shyness”), that is, the shame of the soul to commit sins against God and his fellow humans. The nobility of the soul increases in proportion to the degree of modesty/shame. Afghānī considers this quality to be the most essential element for the ethical and social regulation of society. The second quality is trustworthiness, which underlies the very fabric of a society. The survival of human civilization depends on mutual respect and trust. The third quality is truthfulness and honesty, which, for Afghānī, is the foundation of social life and solidarity.

Through these six pillars, Afghānī establishes religion as the foundation of civilization and denounces materialism as the enemy of religion and human society. He mentions the Batiniyyah (Esoterists) and the Babi as followers of naturalism/materialism in the Islamic world. He refers to Rousseau and Voltaire as modern materialists and uses strong language in condemning their “sensualism” and anti-moralism. He even goes so far as to classify socialists, communists, and nihilists as mere variations of materialists, in the ethical sense of the term. He holds the materialists responsible for the destruction or decline of the Persian, Roman, and Ottoman Empires. Since the materialist does not recognize any reality other than gross matter and “sensuality,” he paves the way for the reign of passions and desires.

In the last part of the treatise, Afghānī turns to Islam, compares it with other world religions, and asserts its eventual superiority. He believes that Islam is the only religion to cope with the challenges of the newly emerging modern world. Afghānī concludes his treatise with a short statement that has become the hallmark of Islamic reformist and revivalist movements:

"If someone says: If the Islamic world is as you say, then why are the Muslims in such a sad condition? I will answer: When they were [truly] Muslims, they were what they were and the world bears witness to their excellence. As for the present, I will content myself with this holy text: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people until they change themselves inwardly.” (Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism, p. 173)"

Afghānī’s response to Ernest Renan brought him fame across Europe and the Muslim world but also confirmed his project of defending Islam against the materialist-positivist attacks of the modern world. In his celebrated lecture “Islam and Science,” given at the Sorbonne and published in the Journal des Débats, 29 March 1883, Renan had attacked Islam and Arabs as innately incapable of engaging with philosophy or producing science. Renan’s quasi-racist attack was a result of his general typology of religion and provoked a number of responses and apologies by Muslim intellectuals, including one by Mehmet Namik Kemal, the renowned Ottoman writer, poet, and activist.

Afghānī’s language is rather apologetic in his letter sent to the Journal des Débats. Afghānī agrees with Renan that all religions are intolerant in one way or another and that they suppress the “free investigation” of scientific and philosophical truth. Even though Afghānī asserts that religions have played a vital role in bringing humanity from “barbarism” and myths to the level of advanced civilizations, he maintains that both Islam and Christianity have turned against the free use of reason and thus have stifled scientific progress at some point in their history. Here Afghānī seems to fogo his essential distinction between revelation and its unfolding in history, namely, the notorious distinction between Islam and Muslims. With the rise of the Enlightenment, European nations have freed themselves from the tutelage of Christianity and have made revolutionary advancements in all fields of knowledge. Afghānī hopes that a similar thing will happen in the Islamic world.

Afghānī’s major works include the following: Taʿliqat ʿalā sharḥ al-dawwāni lil-ʿaqāʾid al-ʿadadīyahʾ (Cairo, 1968). Afghānī’s glosses on Dawwānī’s commentary on the famous kalām book of ʾAdūd al-Dīn al-ʿĪjī called al-ʿaqāʾid al-ʿadūdiyyah. Risālat al-wāridat fī sirr al-tajalliyāt (Cairo, 1968) were dictated by Afghānī to his student M. ʿAbduh when he was in Egypt. Tatimmat al-bayān (Cairo, 1879) is a political, social, and cultural history of Afghanistan. Hakīkat-i Mazhab-i Nīchīri va Bayān-i hāl-i Nīchirīyān was first published in Haydarabad-Deccan in 1881 and is Afghānī’s most important intellectual work published during his lifetime. It is a major criticism of naturalism, which Afghānī also calls “materialism.” The book has been translated into Arabic by M. ʿAbduh as al-Radd ʿalā al-dahrīyīn (The Refutation of the Materialists). Khātirāt Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī al-Ḥusaynī (Beirut, 1931) was compiled by the Lebanese journalist Muhammad Pasha al-Mahzumi. Mahzumi was present at most of Afghānī’s talks in the latter part of his life. The book contains important information about Afghānī’s life and ideas.


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