Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Afghānī was the Pan-Islamist politician and teacher whose intense hatred of, and opposition to, British colonial policies focused the energies of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Indian Muslim intellectuals on the plight of the masses. His untiring quest for Muslim solidarity influenced Egypt’s nationalist movement and Iran’s constitutional and Islamic revolutions.

Early Life

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī as-Sayyid Muhammad Ibn-i Safdar al-Husain was born into a family of sayyids in the village of Asadābād, near Hamadan, Iran. He claimed, however, that he was born in the village of Asʿadābād, near Kabul, Afghanistan. Only a sketchy account of Afghānī’s childhood can be pieced together from the information provided by his biographer, Mīrzā Lutfullāh Asadābādī. Contrary to his own assertion that he grew up in Afghanistan, Afghānī was educated at home in Asadābād until age ten. He then attended school in Qazvīn and Tehran. During his teens, he studied theology and Islamic philosophy in Karbalā and An Najaf, centers of Shiʿite learning in Iraq.

In 1855, around the age of seventeen, Afghānī traveled to Büshehr, on the Persian Gulf, and from there to India. In India, he observed British imperialism at work. Indian Muslims were openly discriminated against in government appointments, religious institutions, and education. The Muslims’ struggle against British tyranny left an indelible impression on the young Afghānī. He agreed with the Indians that the British intended to undermine and discredit Islam. From India, Afghānī journeyed to Mecca and then returned to the Shiʿite centers of learning in Iraq, where he had studied earlier. He remained in that area until 1865, when he traveled to Iran and, the following year, to Afghanistan.

Documented reports of Afghānī’s early years date to 1866, when he was part of the entourage of Muhammad Aʿzam Khān, the military ruler of Qandahār under Dōst Muhammad Khān. When Dōst Muhammad died in 1863, his three sons fought among themselves for the rulership. Amīr Shīr ʿAlī Khān, Dōst Muhammad’s third son, assumed power in Kabul, pledging to modernize the nation. Shīr ʿAlī’s brothers, however, rebelled in Quandahār and ousted him in 1866. Aʿzam became king, and Afghānī entered Afghan politics with him as his close confidant. Afghānī reportedly drew up a national recovery plan that included provisions for a network of schools, a national newspaper, a centralized government, and a well-regulated communications system. In politics, he advised the king to ally himself with Russia against the British in neighboring India. Aʿzam’s rule was short-lived. Shīr ʿAlī returned in 1868, deposing Muhammad Aʿzam and expelling Afghānī—a foreigner who spoke Farsi with an Iranian accent. Afghānī’s modernizing reforms, however, were retained.

Life’s Work

Afghānī was a mullah with a strong constitution. He had a magnetic personality and a dogged determination, both of which he used competently to penetrate exclusive circles and promote his cause. He cherished secrecy at the expense of social norms. He wore a white turban, while calling himself a sayyid, and adamantly refused any association with women. He was quicktempered, quick of action, and quick to envisage a British plot at every turn.

Afghanistan afforded Afghānī a worthy education by supplementing his understanding of the dynamics of struggle against imperialism with a possible response. He came to realize that the Shiʿi and Persian rational philosophy that had inspired him in India could rid the Muslim masses of ignorance and poverty, if it were enhanced with armed struggle and savage confrontation. If Afghans with bare hands could defeat Great Britain in the First Afghan War, he imagined what the impact of an Islamic army under a charismatic leader would be. Afghānī decided to inject himself into the growing confrontation between the Muslim East and the Christian West in Afghanistan.

The Muslim ruler charismatic enough to realize Afghānī’s secret aspiration was Abdülaziz, an Ottoman sultan. In 1869, Afghānī traveled to Istanbul by way of Bombay and Cairo, expecting to be named confidant to the sultan. Turkish officials, busy with the Tanzīmāt reforms, appointed him instead to a lesser position on the Council of Education. While serving in this office, Afghānī began a series of inspiring lectures on reform. These lectures, tinged with anti-imperialist allusions and modernist tendencies, and imbued with Shiʿite rational philosophy, raised the ire of the Sunnī ulema (holy men) in Istanbul, who found the lectures heretical. The powerful ulema waited for an opportunity to embarrass Afghānī publicly. This opportunity came when Afghānī compared the ulema with a human craft. The ulema brought their wrath down upon him, the sultan, and the Tanzīmāt. To save the Tanzīmāt, Abdülaziz was forced to expel Afghānī from Turkey.

With hopes dashed, Afghānī accepted Riyadh Pasha’s invitation and, in 1871, went to Egypt. There he continued to teach and to pursue his dream of a Pan-Islamic nation free from imperialist domination. In a series of provocative lectures, he grafted the example of Egypt’s economic strangulation by European banks to medieval Islamic philosophy in order to foment revolt against Western exploitation. He also formed and led a Masonic lodge in Cairo, among whose members were counted such promising young leaders as Muhammad ʿAbduh, a future leader of the Pan-Islamic movement.

Afghānī’s activities in Egypt brought him in direct confrontation with Khedive Ismāīl of Egypt and his suzerain, Sultan Abdülhamid II, as well as with European, particularly British, powers. Afghānī had placed Khedive Ismāīl in a difficult position by openly condemning his financial mismanagement as the cause of Egypt’s capitulation to European bankers. To ward off Afghānī’s allegations, Ismāīl blamed the foreign bankers, who, in turn, pressured the sultan to depose the Khedive, which the sultan did in 1879. Muhammed Tawfīq Pasha, Ismāīl’s son, expelled...

(The entire section is 2543 words.)