Jamal-al-din Afghani: The Wanderer Who Changed Everything

Jamal-al-din Afghani: The Wanderer Who Changed Everything

Iranians say he was Iranian, not Afghan. The Afghans strongly refute this claim and insist that he was Afghan, not Iranian. However, what matters is not whether he was Afghan or Iranian, but that during the second half of the 19th century, he arose as a volcanic force of pan-Islamism on the screen of world history, and also that he was thrown out of every Muslim country that he visited during the span of about 40 years of his active life . The story of this amazing personality unfolds like as follows.

He visited British India when he was 18 years of age, performed Hajj in 1865 and came back to Afghanistan where he first became Counselor to King Dost Muhammad (who died on 9 June, 1863) and later to his son , King Azam Khan. As the throne of Kabul was occupied by Sher Ali Khan in 1868, Jalal Uddin was forced to leave the country without making any headway in introducing his reformist ideas to lead Afghanistan into the modern age.

From Kabul, he reached Constantinople, the seat of Ottoman Empire, where he began to deliver lectures at the university. In these he emphasized that Muslims needed to learn all about modern science but at the same time ground their children more firmly in Islamic values, tradition and history. Modernization, he said, did not have to mean Westernization: Muslims could perfectly well seek the ingredients of a distinctively Islamic modernization in Islam itself. The message proved quite popular with the masses as well as the elite. He was well situated now to claim a high position in the Ottoman empire but instead, he began to teach that people should have the freedom to interpret the Holy Quran for themselves, without the oppressive guidance from the Ulema, whom he blamed for the retardation of scientific learning in Islamic civilization.

Naturally the powerful clerical establishment turned against him and so, in 1871, he was expelled from Constantinople and he now moved to Egypt where he started teaching classes and delivering lectures at Al-Azhar. He continued to expound his vision of modernization on Islamic terms. As the ruling class was in league with British and French interests, he began to criticize the corruption of the rich and the powerful.

He said that country's rulers ought to adopt modest lifestyles and live among the people, just as leaders of the early Muslim Community had done. He also started calling for parliamentary democracy – but one based on Islamic concepts of Shura and Ijma . He argued that in Islam , rulers had no legitimacy without the support of their people. Obviously, his ideas about democracy made the ruler of Egypt and the members of the country's elite classes nervous. So, in 1879, he was evicted from Egypt. From there he backtracked to India where the liberal Aligarh movement was in full swing.

Jamal-al-din saw Sir Syed Ahmad Khan as a British lackey and refused to back him. When a rebellion broke out in Egypt, the British authorities claimed that Jamal-al-din had incited the eruption through his followers and so he was locked in a prison for a few months and then expelled from India. From here in 1882 he went to Paris where he wrote articles in English, Persian, Arabic, Urdu and French (in all of which languages he was not merely fluent but articulate and even capable of eloquence).

In his articles, he developed the idea that Islam was at its core a rational religion and that it, in fact, had pioneered the scientific revolution. He went on insisting that Muslim Ulema and despots had retarded scientific progress in the Muslim world. But clerics and despots had done the same in other religions too, including Christianity. In Paris, he also vehemently opposed the claim of the famous philosopher Renan that Europeans were natural masters and soldiers, and that if everyone would just do what they were "made for", all would be well with the world. In Paris, he started a Journal called The Firmest Bond in collaboration with the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh in which he expounded his thesis of Pan-Islamism and said that there, in fact, was just one great struggle over one great issue between two global entities: Islam and the West.

From Paris, he also traveled to the United Kingdom, USA, Germany and Russia but not much is known about his activities there. Once his journal folded, he had nothing to keep him in Europe anymore, so he moved to Uzbekistan where, with the permission of the Tsarist authorities he started to publish and disseminate the Holy Quran and other Islamic literature which had been unavailable in Central Asia for decades. His efforts led to a revival of Islam throughout the region. Here he also fleshed out an idea that Muslim countries needed to use the rivalry among European powers to carve out a zone of independence for themselves, by aligning with Russia against British power, with Germany against Russian power, etc. These ideas became core of the strategies adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement of the 20th century.

In 1884, he left Uzbekistan and moved to Iran where he worked to reform the judiciary which brought him into collision with the Ulema. Things got very hot and so, he had to return to Central Asia in a hurry. In 1888, the Qajar Shah Naser-al-din of Iran invited him back, where he worked as his adviser. As economic concessions were being sold to the imperialist powers at throwaway prices, he raised objections and asked the Shah not to squander his country's resources like that. Jamal-al-din also asked the people to boycott the use of tobacco as the concession for every aspect of its production and sale in Iran had been awarded to British companies without any bid, at ridiculously low prices. As the streets of Iran filled with demonstrations against the Shah, he was ejected from here too in 1891. And now he returned to Constantinople where he told the Muslims that reason for their backwardness was that they had turned their backs on Western science while embracing Western education and social mores. In fact, the Muslims should have done just the opposite : they should have embraced Western science but closed their gates to Western social mores and educational systems. While in Constantinople, he contracted cancer of the mouth, as a result of which he died on the 9th of March 1897 and was buried there. Later on, in 1944, his remains were shifted to Afghanistan and were laid inside Kabul University.

He did not run a country. He did not have an army. He did not have an official position in any government. He never founded a political party or headed up a movement. He had no employees, no subordinates and no one to whom he gave orders. He did not leave behind some body of books, or even one book encapsulating a coherent political philosophy – no Islamist Das Capital.

This man was purely a rebel. He had tremendous impact on the Muslim world through his 'disciples'.

His protege Muhammad Abduh became the head of Al-Azhar University and the top religious scholar in Egypt.

Another of his disciples Zaghlul founded a political party, the Wafd, which evolved into the national movement for Egyptian independence.
Yet another of his disciples was the religious leader in Sudan who erupted against the British as the 'Mahdi'.

He inspired an Afghan intellectual named Tarzi living in Turkey who later on tutored Prince Amanullah, Afghanistan's heir apparent, who as King introduced sweeping changes to make his country a sovereign, modern, independent entity.

Muhammad Abduh's student, the Syrian theologian Rashid Rida, elaborated ways for Islam to serve as the basis for a state.

Another of Jamal-al-din's intellectual descendants was Hassan Al-Banna, who founded the famous Muslim Brotherhood.

To put it more succinctly, the influence of this intense, mercurial figure echoes in every corner of the Muslim world that he roamed so restlessly.

The aforesaid leaves hardly any doubt as to why the Iranians say he was an Iranian, and the Afghans insist that he was an Afghan. Whichever was his country of origin, there is no doubt that he remains the honour and prestige of the whole of the Muslim world for all times to come!

Most of the problems that he wrestled with remain relevant today.


The author is a former Member of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan with interest in writing on unknown facets of history. Email: maslamshad11@gmail.com

The author is a former Member of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan, who writes on mostly unknown facets of history. Email: maslamshad11@gmail.com