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What Is to Be Done?

Mahmud Tarzi


Mahmud Tarzi (Afghanistan, 1865–1933) was Afghanistan's foremost proponent of modernization and reform within an Islamic context, after Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (chapter 11), whose birthplace is claimed by both Afghanistan and Iran. The son of a famed poet whose outspokenness led the family into exile, Tarzi spent more than 20 years in the Ottoman Empire, mostly in Damascus. Tarzi studied with Afghani for seven months in Istanbul, and also had intellectual contact with reformers in the Levant, Central Asia, and India. He returned to Afghanistan in 1905, opened a translation office, taught history and geography at a military school, and assumed editorship of Siraj al-akhbar (The Lamp of the News), the bimonthly periodical that became the cornerstone of modern Afghan journalism. He used this publication as a forum to spread his message of modernization, nationalism, and identity —Afghan, Eastern, and Islamic—among the elite of Afghanistan and neighboring Muslim states. Because of his break from ornate literary styles, Tarzi is sometimes referred to as the father of modern prose in Afghanistan. The specimen of Tarzi's work presented here is drawn from a book presented to subscribers of Siraj al-akhbar in September 1912. Tarzi's account of Afghan history is sketchy and not always factual, reflecting the version that enjoyed state sponsorship at the time. It is likely that Tarzi was one of the main architects of this version, just as Tarzi's model for education policy was later adopted by the state, forming the foundation of modern education in Afghanistan.1 Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969); Sobir Mirzoev, Literaturno-prosvetitel'skaia Deiatel’nost’ Makhmuda Tarzi i Ego Gazeta Siradzh-ul’-Akhbar, 1911–1919 (The Literary and Educational Activity of Mahmud Tarzi and his Newspaper, The Lamp of the News, 1911–1919) (Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Izd-vo “Irfon,” 1973); Ashraf Ghani, “Literature as Politics: The Case of Mahmud Tarzi,” Afghanistan, volume 29, number 3, 1976, pp. 63–72; May Schinasi, Afghanistan at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: Nationalism and Journalism in Afghanistan, A Study of Seraj ul-akhbar (1911–1918) (Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1979); ‘Abd al-Bashir Shur, Mahmud Tarzi-yi Afghani (Mahmud Tarzi the Afghan) (Kabul, Afghanistan: Nasharat-i Ittihadiyya-i Zhurnalistan, 1988).

The reign of the Great Amir [Dust Muhammad Khan, reigned 1826–1839, 1842–1863] passed in tranquility and total affluence. Great efforts were exerted for internal reform. All dependencies became attached to the central administration of Kabul, making Afghanistan a strong state with many dependencies. No thought, however, was given to foreign policy. Neither was anything done in the area of public education.

After the death of the Great Amir, once again the plague of disunity afflicted his sons and a destructive civil war inflamed the dynasty. Chaos and bloodshed ravaged the country. It was at this time that Baluchistan, Shalkut, the Diras, Peshawar, and other territories were lost.

We must say that there were two main reasons for such a civil war and fratricide. One was the practice of marrying a multitude of wives.2 [Tarzi's sponsor, Amir Habibullah Khan, also had a multitude of wives and concubines in his harem.—Trans.] We do not call it polygamy, as the latter term signifies the number set by the shari‘a [Islamic law] of four wives that can only be allowed under specified conditions. By contrast, a multitude of wives means twenty, thirty, or forty wives, from each of whom would be born at least one child, good or wicked! The rival wives would instill discord in their children from their early days. Rivalries and antagonism among the nannies, the male attendants, and the nurses would also reinforce the discord. Second, there was a lack of proper education and discipline for the princes. From their birth, they would be addressed with royal titles and would spend their days playing games and seeking pleasure. Their scientific education would, generally speaking, remain limited to reading books in Persian and writing decrees and orders. They would be unaware of news from the outside world. Such innate ignorance and lack of education was so prevalent that no one could escape from its effects.

In the end, it was Amir Shir ‘Ali Khan [reigned 1863–1865, 1869–1879] who captured the throne of Afghanistan, and once more the entire country was unified under one central command. He raised an army of about sixty to seventy thousand soldiers, who received modern military training. He also brought a number of reforms in the civil administration. In the end, however, Amir Shir ‘Ali Khan made a political error in that he was deceived by the conspiracy of the Russian state and declared war on the English state. Consequently, he was defeated, fled to Turkistan, and died in Mazar-i Sharif. His son, Amir Muhammad Ya‘qub Khan [reigned 1879–1880], who had been imprisoned by his father for many years, was released and, at such a sensitive time, ascended the throne. His unbalanced state of mind after a long imprisonment, added to the ill intentions of some royal advisors and an incompetent entourage, resulted in the new amir signing a most damaging and pernicious agreement with the English. This agreement resulted in the killing of [British official Louis] Cavagnari [in 1879] and the imprisonment and subsequent exile to India of the amir himself. The English occupied Afghanistan for the second time. The famous General [Frederick] Roberts [1832–1914], under the pretext of avenging Cavagnari, set up gallows in Kabul and began ordering the deaths of five, ten, or twenty innocent Afghans on a daily basis. A number of treacherous people, because of ignorance, lack of education, and ignorance of patriotism and religiosity, sold out their faith in religion for the vile carcass of worldly gains and committed all sorts of contemptible indecencies. Their names forever will be mentioned with damnation in the pages of Afghan history.

Most inhabitants, though, rose against the English. Mullas [religious scholars] everywhere declared jihad [holy struggle]. Women, men, old and young, anyone who could hold a weapon marched to the battlefield. The chaos of an uprising began to challenge the English. Their army was besieged at Shirpur, the garrison that the late Amir Shir ‘Ali Khan had built as an excellent stronghold for the national army of Afghanistan. In Qandahar too, the English army was surrounded. The misery and destruction that had previously befallen the English was threatening them again, but this time in manifold. At this precise moment the news also struck like thunder that his late majesty Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan [reigned 1880–1901] had crossed the Amu River [from his exile in Central Asia]. If the Afghan nation could bring such calamity on the English without having a king or a military leader, imagine what kind of pandemonium and tumult could be handed to the enemy when such a valiant commander and chivalrous amir would lead such brave people. Like hungry lions, they were thirsty for the blood of the enemies of their homeland!

The esteemed English state employed a prudent policy and preemptively sent a delegation to the late amir, before the latter set out for Kabul. The delegation carried a confidential letter containing an offer for peace and negotiation. When his majesty arrived in the Charikar district of Kuhistan, approximately 300,000 armed civilians of the region and a number of soldiers from the regular army were ready to serve him. As a result of the agreement, which was signed at Zima, the English troops left Afghanistan in safety, and the control of the affairs of Afghanistan was passed on to the capable and strong hands of the wise, intelligent, and brave king. Here, it will not be an exaggeration if we say that because of this incident, the esteemed English state became greatly indebted to his majesty the late amir, for had he chosen, the amir could have brought much misery upon the English army. Therefore, if the good English state claims that it has approved the legitimacy of the Afghan government, the exalted government can also assert that it saved their troops from certain annihilation.

This ushered in an era of renewal for Afghanistan, as after a period of foreign domination, once again the independent state of Afghanistan was established. We will not discuss all the work and progress that was made during the tenure of his late majesty, as it has not yet been forgotten from our memories. In short, we will just mention that under his majesty's leadership Afghanistan became a mighty and powerful state, with all the aptitude and potential to establish and build a great Islamic state in Asia.

After the demise of that founder of the kingdom, came the turn of his eldest and wisest son, his great and enlightened majesty, the beacon of the nation and the religion, Amir Habibullah Khan [reigned 1901–1919]. This sovereign's ever-increasing innate talent and capability has caused continuous growth and advancement. So much so that at this moment Afghanistan has gained such an important place in the continent of Asia that it would be appropriate to call it the beam of the scale of justice and equality in Asia. It is precisely for this reason that one is compelled to pose the question:

“What is to be done at this time?”

Yes, Muslims must ask this question of one another. They must think and deliberate on their state of being. Time is very limited, and the opportunity for attack will soon be lost. One moment of negligence results in a day of damage. One day of damage entails a month of lagging behind. One month of lagging behind means a year of retardation. One year of retardation is an entire lifetime of regret. In this case, all the trees, stones, mountains, deserts, sky, and space would recite in unison:

“It is useless to have regrets later.”

If we carefully study questions such as “What were we and what have we become?” and “What have they done?” we will arrive at the issue of “What is to be done?” Some say that even if we so desired, it would be impossible to return to the state of affairs as it appeared 1,300 years ago. The serenity, the justness, and the righteous morality of the four companions of the Prophet [the first four caliphs] ended with them, for in that golden time of happiness the rays of the light of that brightest of moons were still shining in the hearts of people, keeping them in clear conscience. The farther we have come from the brilliant sunshine of that era, the darker our hearts and minds have become.

We, however, consider this a lame excuse. We see the truth in a different light. We do not attribute our backwardness and the darkness of our age to the withdrawal of that light. That kind of light will not distance itself from us until the day of judgment. Were that light limited to a particular time period, all would have ended at the close of that golden age. But we believe that light shines over the entire world and for all time. The whole world will be enlightened by it until the end of days. The only reason for this darkness and this abject baseness of ours is that we have distanced ourselves from that light.

The Holy Qur'an is a sacred and steadfast book and a venerable right path that has been sent to guide and direct all of humankind. Alas, most of us Muslims have reserved that life-giving holy book for our dead, and read from it only for the souls of departed ones. We consider that great book, sent to heal and bless the inhabitants of the earth, as a book for the dead. More than in any other place, we hear recitations of the Holy Qur'an in cemeteries and before corpses! This is not to say that we must not recite the Qur'an for the souls of the dead—rather, the living should also read it to improve their own lives.

All of the miseries and adversities that have come upon us are from our ignorance of the Qur'an, and of our duties toward ourselves and toward humanity and the world. All our destitution and impoverishment is a result of ignorance and lack of education. The Holy Qur'an has shown us that knowledge is life and ignorance death, that knowledge is light and ignorance darkness. Regrettably, we read our Qur'an and memorize it too quickly without pondering its meaning. We do not apply this effective weapon to the needs of our time. Our Qur'an expresses and explains to us that all things in the universe are conquerable. Therefore, if we put into practice that which is taught to us, with the help of science and knowledge, we can achieve the conquest of all things, and put them to use for ourselves and our countries. If we dominate our mountains, mines, oceans, and rivers, we have done nothing more than obey the commands of our Qur'an.

Urgent Actions

O, our Muslim brothers! We have much urgent action to take and very little time. Whatever we do, we must do it fast. We must move fast and wake up at once, or else we will soon be hunted in our sleep, as happened to so many of us before.

First, we must read carefully our Holy Qur'an and make its glorious commands our guide for this world and the next. We must organize large gatherings of scholars, scientists, and specialists of Islam in each and every Muslim country. In those gatherings, we must carefully study the sacred book and translate its beneficial passages into all languages that Muslims speak. We must then publish the translations abundantly and distribute them to the entire Islamic world, so that Muslims learn that this is not just a book for the afterlife and for the dead, but one that covers the entire universe and all its creatures. In bestowing that book on us, He has bestowed the universe and its creatures on us.

It is because we are ignorant of the Qur'an that we commit such vile and immoral acts as bribery, falsehood, slander, hypocrisy, and bigotry. We cause resentment and envy by inventing lies and false accusations. We destroy any chance of brotherly sympathy and cooperation. We commit, with much certitude, these and many other unmentionable acts. Curiously, we feel that we have been absolved of all our sins when we bow in prayer a couple of times or recite a few passages of the Holy Qur'an. In fact, prayers benefit only one's self, while such acts [as bribery, lies, and the like] unsettle the foundations of Islam. Just as prayer is prescribed in the Qur'an, those vile acts are proscribed. Therefore, if we truly learned from our Qur'an, we would act differently.

Second, as the Holy Qur'an dictates, we must adopt unity as the very foundation of our principles. Let us begin with individuals, then spread this unity, this harmony and oneness, to all the tribes and clans of the various Islamic nations. This task, however, will require great sacrifice, effort, and perseverance. Societies, clubs, associations, and schools must be established all over the Islamic world, especially during the time of pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Medina and Mecca, where Muslims of different backgrounds gather. This unification must be based on the principles of survival, progress, and Islamic uplift. The land of the Franks [that is, Europe] has a great and uncontrollable fear of this Islamic unity. However, our aim and indeed the aim of all of Islam, is not to form a union and then confront the Christians, but rather to unite for the purpose of our own community's advancement, improvement, civilization, and cooperation. It would be a terrible crime to use the unification of Islam against Christianity. For example, to provoke the Muslims of India, China, or Turkistan against their respective ruling states would be to commit an atrocious crime. The purpose of their unity would be to replace malice and hypocrisy with benevolence, friendship, and harmony. Concurrently and jointly they should preoccupy themselves with the task of protecting the Qur'an, the faith, rights, and morality. Together with other Muslims they should try to reach the levels of education and sciences that their rulers possess. They should then spread their knowledge to their brothers, both free and needy, and preserve their right to their own resources. Praise be to God, day by day we witness an increasing inclination toward such unity among Muslims. The Holy Qur'an commands unity. If Muslims are not yet there, it is because of their lack of understanding of the meaning of the Qur'anic ordinances. We find, for example, the Ottoman Empire struggling in an abyss of disunity. Iran is an even worse case, while Afghanistan also suffers due to the animosity, rivalry, and bloodshed that obviously prevails among its many tribes, clans, and races. It is therefore incumbent upon Muslims to draw strength from their absolute faith in the Qur'an and sow the seeds of unity in the field of the Islamic world, so that they may collect its fortuitous fruits.

Third, we must consider science and industry as a depreciated asset, and seek it aggressively. This is especially recommended for independent countries such as the Ottoman, Iranian, and Afghan states, which unfortunately make no use of their minerals, that is, their mines. European states, by contrast, not only exploit their own mines but also those of the entire world. In addition to natural resources, they are also capable of industrial production. This is simply because they have the knowledge and we do not. We remain deprived of thousands of things, for lack of knowledge, while others with the knowledge have acquired them. Minerals are but one example. To achieve this, there is only one remedy for Iran and Afghanistan, and that is to send and expose our children to schools, colleges, and workshops. There is no cure except to build an infrastructure in our countries for scientific education, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. If we start work today, we may see results in 10 years. The more we delay, the greater loss we will have to face.

Fourth, in the esteemed Ottoman Empire every citizen has become a soldier [in the Balkan Wars]. The same practice must be enforced in Iran and Afghanistan. The nation that does not take responsibility for protecting its nationhood and its statehood by participating in its country's armed forces has evaded its obligation toward its homeland and national honor. Such people will surely be punished in this world and the next. To suggest that all join the armed forces does not mean that the entire population of Afghanistan must simultaneously take up arms. It means that each and every citizen, without exception, upon reaching the age of twenty-one, should become a conscript. The duration of their training should be two years, at the end of which they will leave the military with the knowledge of military basics. In this manner, in a matter of a few years, the issue of all becoming soldiers will have been resolved.

Although there are many more things that we need to do, at this moment I will limit my humble suggestions to the above four items.

This humblest of creatures of the Creator of land and ocean has written this small and inadequate essay, and has presented it to readers along with the twenty-fourth issue of my newspaper, which is the last issue of the first year. Despite the fact that better-written essays on this topic have appeared many times in the Islamic press, I ignored my shortcomings and wrote this piece. My courage came from the conviction that speaking out and writing are always better than not saying or writing anything. No doubt the present work will not adequately and entirely answer the question, “What is to be done?” However, this humble essay will serve in opening the door for more writings of this sort, and in provoking thought and debate. It is therefore hoped that scholars and intellectuals who believe in the progress of Islam through such means will produce writings of their precious and beneficial thoughts and suggestions. Also, I hope that our generous readers will forgive any error or shortcoming that they may find in this humble work. In conclusion, I pray to the Almighty, in His sublime greatness, to bestow prosperity, progress, and enlightenment upon all Muslim brothers.

Bibliography references:

Mahmud Tarzi, Chih Bayad Kard? (What Is to Be Done?) (Kabul, Afghanistan: Siraj al-Akhbar, 1912), pp. 119–159. Translation from Dari and introduction by Helena Malikyar.


1. Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969); Sobir Mirzoev, Literaturno-prosvetitel'skaia Deiatel’nost’ Makhmuda Tarzi i Ego Gazeta Siradzh-ul’-Akhbar, 1911–1919 (The Literary and Educational Activity of Mahmud Tarzi and his Newspaper, The Lamp of the News, 1911–1919) (Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Izd-vo “Irfon,” 1973); Ashraf Ghani, “Literature as Politics: The Case of Mahmud Tarzi,” Afghanistan, volume 29, number 3, 1976, pp. 63–72; May Schinasi, Afghanistan at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: Nationalism and Journalism in Afghanistan, A Study of Seraj ul-akhbar (1911–1918) (Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1979); ‘Abd al-Bashir Shur, Mahmud Tarzi-yi Afghani (Mahmud Tarzi the Afghan) (Kabul, Afghanistan: Nasharat-i Ittihadiyya-i Zhurnalistan, 1988).

2. [Tarzi's sponsor, Amir Habibullah Khan, also had a multitude of wives and concubines in his harem.—Trans.]

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