Afghani, Jamal-ud-din

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AFGHANI, JAMAL-UD-DIN (c. 1838–1897), journalist, political activist, one of the leaders of the Pan-Islamic movement. Sayyid Jamal-ud-din, known outside Iran as Afghani and in Iran as Asadabadi, was born in Asadabad, in northeast Iran, in 1838 or 1839. Although he usually claimed to be from Afghanistan, primary documents establish beyond doubt that he was born and educated in Iran. In his teens he continued his education in the Shiʿa shrine cities of Iraq and then went to India via the Iranian port Bushire. He was in India at the time of the 1857 "mutiny" and possibly this trip helped to cause his lifetime hostility to British imperialism. From India he went, via Iraq and Iran, to Afghanistan, where he tried to persuade the amir to fight the British. Expelled by a new amir, he went to Istanbul, where the ulama (religious scholars) attacked him for a talk comparing prophecy and philosophy, which reflected his background in the Islamic philosophers. He spent eight years (1871–1879) in Egypt, where he educated a group of young reformers, including Muhammad Abduh and others who were later prominent, teaching them elements of Islamic reform, aimed at strengthening Egypt and other Muslim countries. In 1878 and 1879 he entered Egyptian politics with fiery speeches against the khedive and the British; the new khedive, Taufiq, expelled him from Egypt.

He returned to India for over two years, during which he gave a number of well-attended talks in Hyderabad. There he published in Persian his famous work, usually translated as "A Refutation of the Materialists." It attacked the pro-British reformer, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, implying he was an irreligious materialist. Before this work, Afghani was as known for religious heterodoxy as was Sayyid Ahmed, and the real basis for his attack was Sayyid Ahmed's cooperation with the British, whom Afghani strongly opposed.

In Hyderabad, Afghani published in Persian a series of journal articles, later published as Maqalat-e Jamaliyeh. During the Urabi movement in Egypt, he left Hyderabad and was apparently kept under surveillance by the British in Calcutta until Urabi's defeat, when he left for Paris. There he wrote his "Answer to Renan," which implies a view of revealed religion as untrue but useful for the masses. Abduh joined him in Paris and together they published the pan-Islamic newspaper, al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, distributed free throughout the Muslim world.

After a stay in Britain with Wilfrid Blunt in 1884 and 1885, Afghani returned to Iran, then went to Russia to try to promote a Russian war against Britain, then back to Iran, where he influenced Iranians to publish leaflets against the shah's concessions to Europeans. He was expelled from Iran to Iraq in 1891, where he influenced the leader of the Shiʿa ulama, who supported a successful mass Iranian movement against a tobacco concession to the British by decreeing an Iranian boycott of tobacco.

Afghani then went to England, working with the Iranian-Armenian Malkom Khan in his reformist newspaper, Qanun. In 1892 he accepted an invitation to Istanbul from the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II, but there, after helping the sultan to gain supporters in Shiʿa regions, he was confined to virtual house arrest. He died of cancer in 1897. Stories of the sultan's having him poisoned, like many stories about him, are untrue.

Afghani left a mixed legacy of Western-inspired reform of Muslim countries for self-strengthening, hostility to (British) imperialism and, from 1883 on, a pan-Islamic idea of uniting Muslim countries against the West. He sometimes worked with rulers and sometimes agitated against them. Different parts of his legacy have been emphasized by different groups down to today, and he remains a major symbolic figure in the Muslim world.

Nikki Keddie


Keddie, Nikki R. Sayyid Jamal ad-Din "al-Afghani": A Political Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

——. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din "al Afghani": With a New Introduction: From Afghani to Khomeini. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Pakdaman, Homa. Djamal-ed-Din Assad Abadi dit Afghani. Paris: Maisonneuve, 1969.