Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (b. 1838, d. 1897)

Islamic reformert, pan-nationalist, and agitator of the late 19th Century. Has the distinction of having been kicked out of more countries than a World Cup soccer ball. An advocate of pan-Islamic unity across the existing borders of the Islamic nations of the day, al Afghani felt that Islam must adapt, strengthen, and unify in order to survive contact with the West. He believed that Islam must adopt technology and new modes of living in order to grow strong and survive, and felt that such a drive to adapt was inherent in, rather than at odds with, the tenets of Islam. In his view, Islam was a powerful reform movement, a vehicle for progress, but its revolutionary spirit had been lost behind stagnation and superstition.

Though his most well-known name means, literally, 'The Afghan', it is likely that he was actually born a Shi'ite Muslim in territory belonging to the modern state of Iran, in the village of Asadabad. He himself claimed to have been born in Afghanistan, in a village near Kabul. Upon leaving his home land to attempt to organize pan-Islamic movements in the Islamic world, he abandoned Shi'a Islam and took the name al Afghani in order to garner favor with the Sunni inhabitants of most of the Islamic world. The minority status of Shi'ite Muslims in most Muslim nations often caused them to be regarded with suspicion, and Afghani likely hoped that adopting a Sunni heritage would lend him legitimacy among his fellow. This particular effort never entirely paid off for al Afghani; the ulama of his home in Iran recognized that he had abandoned the Shi'a way, and viewed him with suspicion. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims in areas like Turkey and Afghanistan continued to regard him as an outsider.

al Afghani spent most of his life travelling throughout the Islamic world, alternately gaining and loosing the favor of the leaders of a number of nations, including Turkey (then the capitol state of the Ottoman Empire), Egypt, and Iran. His influence in these nations led to political and social changes, including Egypt's nationalist movement, Iran's constitutional and later religious revolution, and reform movements in Turkey and the rest of the Ottoman world.

al Afghani's earliest travels took him to India, where he witnessed the effect of British imperial rule on the Muslims there. He later resided in Afghanistan, where he served as an advisor to the king, and was responsible for drafting a plan of national recovery and modernization. He was expelled from Afghanistan as a foreigner after the king he served was deposed (one of several depositions and rebellions that took place in Afghanistan in the mid to late 1860's). Following his expulsion, Afghani managed to befriend the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulaziz. He traveled to Turkey, where he was given a position on an educational council. Afghani used this position to lecture on his reform ideas, earning the ire of the local ulama by offering an alternative vision of Islam focused on modernization and reform and criticizing their knowledge of 'true' Islam. This conflict eventually earned al Afghani expulsion from Turkey.

He then traveled to Egypt, where he lectured on his pan-Islamic ideals and trained numerous young men who would go on to become important shapers of Islamic and Egyptian politics in later years, including the pan-Islamic leader Mohammed 'Abduh. He also criticized the actions of local government leaders, particularly the way in which they had allowed foreign banks to strangle the local economy, eroding the self-determination of the country. His protest caused the eventual dismissal of the man responsible for managing Egypt's foreign finance, and his own expulsion from the country. Following this expulsion, Afghani traveled to India, London, and Paris, where he wrote a book (The Refutation of the Materialists (1881)), debated European philosophers on the role of science in Islam, and wrote and edited a pan-Islamic journal. When his literary activities failed to rebuild his favor with the Sultan, Afghani traveled to Russia, where he remained for two years, campaigning against the British dominance of Iran.

His work in Russia brought Afghani to the attention of the Shah of Iran, who invited him to Tehran. Afghani began almost immediately campaigning against the Shah's numerous concessions to the British and Russians. Rumors began to circulate of Afghani's impending arrest. In response, he took refuge in a shrine south of Tehran, where he attracted numerous Iranians with his charismatic lectures and sermons, many of them condemning directly the actions of the Shah and his government.

Angry, the Shah ordered his soldiers to forcibly remove him from a Shi'a shrine, violating the traditional right of sanctuary granted to men staying on the grounds of a mosque, religious college, or shrine. The created resentment among the Shi'a ulama, and gained al Afghani some sympathy in their eyes. Afghani, half-naked, was placed on the bare back of a mule and marched to the Iraqi border in mid-winter

After expulsion, he remained in Iraq for some time, where he met Hajji Sayyid Ali Akbar, a prominent Iranian cleric who had been expelled from Iran for speaking out against the Shah's concessions to foreign powers regarding the growing and distribution of tobacco. al Afghani then wrote a letter to the prominent Islamic cleric Hajji Mirza Hasan Shirazi, reporting his own treatment at the hands of the government agents, and the treatment of 'Ali Akbar when he was expelled. al Afghani encouraged Shirazi to exert his influence with the people to oppose the Tobacco Concession, emphasizing the corruption of the Shah and the shameful treatment of Akbar and other Iranians who had protested the move. Akbar later went on to meet with Hajji Mirza Hasan Shirazi, and repeated the tale of his and al Afghani's expulsion. Shirazi then undertook to write the Shah, formally opposing the Tobacco Concession. When the Shah did not respond, Shirazi issued orders for a fatwa to be proclaimed in his name, declaring the use or tobacco to be an offense to the Hidden Imam, effectively causing a nationwide boycott of the use of tobacco products. When protestors took to the streets in Iran to voice their support for the boycott, many of them carried placards and leaflets created by reformers who had learned from al Afghani during his tenure at the Iranian court.

Afghani returned to London, and then to Constantinople at the bequest of the Sultan. Unknown to him, the Sultan simply intended to keep the volatile reformist out of trouble, not make him a confidant and advisor as Afghani hoped. Afghani lived out the remainder of his life effectively under house arrest in the Ottoman court, directing his disciples in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world through secret and overt correspondence. It is possible that this direction included instructing, or influencing, Mirza Reza Kermani to assassinate the Shah, who was murdered on the 50th anniversary of his reign in the very shrine from which Afghani was forcibly removed. In March of 1897, Afghani died from cancer, and was secretly buried. His pan-Islamic and reformist ideas continued to influence Muslim people and nations for years after his death, and he is considered to be perhaps the most important Islamic thinker of the 19th Century.

NB: Sources disagree as to the exact timeline of Afghani's life. In particular, I noticed that while sources I had seen earlier indicated that he had been expelled from the shrine in Iran prior to the repudiation of the Tobacco Concession, at least one source seemed to indicate that his expulsion did not come until later.
This write-up is based in part on material I collected for a paper written for Prof. Nur Yalman at Harvard University in the Fall of 1999. The following sources were sited through that work, and the web site listed below contributed to this write-up

Keddie, Nikki R. Roots of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981,
- - - -. Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972
Avery, Peter. Modern Iran. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, San Francisco: Westview Press, 1994
Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969 by "Bashiri"

Additional Reading (gathered from the web site listed above)

Ahmad, Aziz. "Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muslim India." Studia Islamica 13 (1960): 55-78. Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
Hodgson, Marshall G. The Venture of Islam. Vol. 3, The Gunpowder Empire and Modern Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Keddie, Nikki R. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din "al-Afghani. " Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Kedourie, Elie. Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam, Frank Cass, 1966.
Kramer, Martin. Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.