Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
The lives of towering personages and great minds are like prisms through which we can study the past so that we can make some sense of the present. In this article we will briefly look at one such personality.
Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani was undoubtedly one of the most influential Muslims of the 20th century. Some consider him to be the principal figure in awakening Islamic political sentiments and social reforms in India, Persia, Afghanistan, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Others criticize his role in the destruction of Islamic institutions, including the Sultanate of Persia and the Ottoman Caliphate and suspect that he was working in collusion with one European power or the other. The verdict of history on whether he was a patriot or a turncoat is not clear. It is much easier to make a case that while he fervently believed in his grand pan-Islamic vision, he was caught in the whirlwinds of the times like so many Muslims of that era and became a partner in the demise of political institutions that had provided stability to the Islamic world for 500 years.
Seyyed Jamaluddin was born in 1838 at Asadabad near the Afghan-Persian border. He was called a Seyyed because his family claimed descent from the family of the Prophet through Imam Hussain. The title of “Afghani” refers to his Afghan-Persian heritage. As a youth, Seyyed Jamaluddin studied the Qur’an, Fiqh, Arabic grammar, philosophy, tasawwuf, logic, mathematics, and medicine, disciplines that were the backbone of an Islamic curriculum at that time. In 1856, at the age of eighteen, he spent a year in Delhi and felt the rising political pulse of the subcontinent, which was soon to erupt in the Sepoy Uprising of 1857. From India, Seyyed Jamaluddin visited Arabia where he performed his Hajj. Returning to Afghanistan in 1858, he was employed by Amir Dost Muhammed. His talents propelled him to the forefront of the Afghan hierarchy. When Dost Muhammed died and his brother Mohammed Azam became the emir, Jamaluddin was appointed the prime minister.
In 1869, Seyyed Jamaluddin fell out of favor with the Emir and left Kabul for India. In Delhi, he received the red carpet treatment from British officials, who were at the same time careful not to let him meet the principal Indian Muslim leaders. That same year he visited Cairo on his way to Istanbul where his fame had preceded him and he was elected to the Turkish Academy. However, his “rational” interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet was deeply suspect in the eyes of the Turkish ulema and he was expelled from Istanbul in 1871.
Back in Cairo, Jamaluddin had a major role in the events that led to the overthrow of Khedive Ismail Pasha who had brought Egypt to its knees through his extravagance. European influence increased, and Jamaluddin was at the head of the Young Egyptian Movement and the nationalist uprising under Torabi Pasha (1881) that sought to expel the Europeans from Egypt. The British, suspicious of his motives, sent him back to India just before their occupation of Cairo in 1882.
From India, Seyyed Jamaluddin embarked on a journey through Europe and resided for various lengths of time in London, Paris and St. Petersburg. In Paris he met and influenced the Egyptian modernist Muhammed Abduh. Together, the two started a political organization Urwah al Wuthqa (The Unbreakable Bond) whose avowed purpose was to “modernize” Islam and protect the Islamic world from the greed of foreigners. Its strident anti-European tone annoyed the British who engineered to have the organization and its mouthpiece, the Minaret, shut down.
In 1889 Sultan Nasiruddin Shah of Persia visited St. Petersburg and invited Jamaluddin to return to Tehran, promising him the post of prime minister. A reluctant Jamaluddin saw an opportunity to influence events in the Islamic heartland and returned, soon to find himself out of favor with the monarch. Fearing the wrath of the Shah, Jamaluddin took refuge in the Shrine of Shah Abdul Azeem and from the sanctuary, denounced the Shah as a tyrant and advocated his overthrow. It was while he stayed in the sanctuary that Jamaluddin met and influenced the principal figures who had a major impact on the subsequent turbulent events in Persia, including the assassination of Nasiruddin Shah.
The Shah, furious at Seyyed Jamaluddin’s tirades, banished him from Persia in 1891. The Seyyed arrived in Istanbul and was warmly received by Sultan Abdul Hamid II who nonetheless kept a close watch on his activities. Jamaluddin Afghani spent the rest of his life in Istanbul and died of cancer in1896.
Two principal themes run through the life and work of Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani. First, his proclaimed goal was to unite the Islamic world under a single caliph resident in Istanbul. Towards this end, he sought a rapprochement between the Ottoman Empire and Persia, working to have the Shah recognize the Ottoman Sultan as the Caliph of all Muslims, while the Caliph recognized the Shah as the sovereign of all Shi’as. He wrote to the leading theologians of Karbala, Tabriz and Tehran, passionately arguing his case and was partially successful in bringing them to his point of view. However, the rapprochement did not take place due to the political turbulence in Persia. Second, he sought to “modernize” Islam to make it responsive, as he saw it, to the needs of the age. The movement that he started, which was championed by his disciple, Muhammed Abduh of Egypt, was called the salafi movement. It derives from the word “as salaf as salehin” (the pious ancestors) and refers to the legal opinions advanced by the first three generations after the Prophet. It was essentially a rationalist and apologist movement, which sought to bring about a nahda (renaissance) of Islamic thought.
Muhammed Abduh sought to replace the four schools of Sunnah Fiqh (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali) with a single Fiqh. He taught that the laws of the Qur’an could be “rationalized” and if necessary, reinterpreted. The Salafi movement had a major impact on Arab intellectual circles around the turn of the 20th century. It influenced the Aligarh movement of Sir Seyyed in India as well as the Muhammadiya movement in Indonesia. The salafi movement, however, had no roots either in Islamic traditions or Islamic history. The nahda was suspected of attempting to secularize Islam, just as the renaissance of the 16th century had secularized the Latin West. As a mass movement, the Salafi movement was a failure and was rejected by the Islamic world.
Jamaluddin Afghani’s one major success was in paving the way for the tobacco revolution of Persia (please see “Constitutional Revolution of Persia, 1906” in this Encyclopedia), a passive resistance movement, which contained British influence in Iran at the turn of the 20th century.