Afghānī, Jamāl Al-D

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AFGHĀNĪ, JAMĀL AL-DĪN AL- (1838/91897), Muslim thinker and politician. Born near Hamadhan in Iran, al-Afghānī was Iranian, in spite of his later claim to be Afghan. His own version of his early life was not always accurate, but it seems clear that he had a traditional education in Iran and then in the Shīʿī holy city of Najaf, Iraq. He spent some early years in India, where he first learned of modern Western ideas and observed British rule over a partly Muslim population. From then onward his life was one of movement and shifting fortunes: in Afghanistan, Istanbul, and Cairo, then India again, then Paris and London, then Iran, Russia, and Iran once more, and finally in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman empire. Through all the changes there is a recurrent pattern: everywhere he gathered around him groups of disciples; everywhere he tried to warn Muslims of the dangers of European, and particularly British, expansion; and, although he won favor with Muslim rulers, he ended by attacking them for being weak or corrupt and was several times expelled by them.

His writings are few: Al-radd ʿalā al-dahrīyīn (The refutation of the materialists), an attack upon certain Indian Muslims who were willing to accept British rule, and a periodical, Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā (The indissoluble link), written with the Egyptian theologian Muammad ʿAbduh and addressed to the whole Muslim world. It is not always easy to discover what al-Afghānī really believed, for he wrote in different ways for different audiences. His main theme is clear, however: Muslims cannot acquire the strength to resist European expansion unless they understand their own religion rightly and obey it.

His understanding of Islam seems to have been that of such Islamic philosophers as Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), reinforced by what he learned from modern Western thinkers. Human reason properly enlightened can teach people that there is a transcendent God and that they are responsible for acting in accordance with his will. Ordinary people cannot attain to such knowledge or restrain their passions, and for them prophets have embodied the truth in symbolic forms (it is not clear whether al-Afghānī believed that prophets were inspired by God or were simply practicing a human craft). The Qurʾān is one such symbolic embodiment of the truth. Properly interpreted, its message is the same as that of reason; thus, as human knowledge advances, the Qurʾān needs to be interpreted anew.

The Qurʾān, rightly understood, teaches that Muslims should act virtuously and in a spirit of solidarity. If they do this, they will have the strength to survive in the modern world. Al-Afghānī's main endeavors were to stir Muslims to such activity and solidarity, yet his hopes of finding a Muslim ruler who would accept his advice were always disappointed. In later life he appealed more to the rising pan-Islamic sentiment of the time, and his writing and activities took on a more orthodox Islamic coloring.

Al-Afghānī's personality seems to have been powerful and attractive, and wherever he went he found followers. At times he had considerable influence, although less than he claimed. In his last years in Istanbul his fame declined, but it returned after his death, and he came to be regarded as the precursor of a wide variety of Islamic movements.


Nikki R. Keddie's Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn "al-Afghānī": A Political Biography (Berkeley, 1972) supersedes all previous works on al-Afghānī's life. Using a wide variety of sources, it corrects inaccurate versions given by his followers and, so far as possible, traces the course of his career and the development of his ideas. Elie Kedourie's Afghani and ʿAbduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam (London, 1966) goes too far in its doubts about al-Afghānī's belief in Islam and about his importance. Keddie's An Islamic Response to Imperialism (Berkeley, 1966) gives a full translation of The Refutation of the Materialists and some other writings. The weekly periodical Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā, published in Paris (March 13October 17, 1884), has been reprinted several times in Cairo and Beirut.

Albert Hourani (1987)