Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani whose influence continues to this day, is one of the most debated personalities of recent history. Was he a great reformist who aimed to revive the Muslim world, or a mad man who thought he was the Mahdi, or a spy?
To his followers he was a great scholar of Islam, the leader against imperialism, the one who awakened the East, while to his opposers he was a charlatan who deceived Muslims by concealing his real identity, a thrill-seeker, a British spy, a heretic, Not much is known about Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), who was highly influential on the Muslim world in the last century with the slogan that a powerful Islamic civilization can be restored against the dominance of Europe. And what little information available is filled with contradictions.
He comes from a Shiite Azerbaijani family from the Asadabad village of Iran. There is a another village with the same name in Afghanistan. He used the name al-Afghani to hide his Iranian and Shiite origin as he was generally active within predominantly Sunni areas. He usually traveled with his Iranian passport. The Sayyidi lineage as well as the name Muhammad were appended later to prove he is Mahdi. From time to time his nationality too would change – like his headgear – depending on the time and place. (In Islam, it is believed that close to the Day of Judgment, a religious leader named "Mahdi" will come from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad.)
Al-Afghani has taken his first lessons from the Shiite scholars in Iraq. He then went to Kabul, where at the time a fight for the throne was ongoing. When Prince Azam Khan, whose cause al-Afghani supported, won, he became the prince's most trusted vizier. A foreigner reaching this position in such a short matter of time is striking. It is claimed that he was a Russian spy who could obtain money and political support from the Russians against the British who weren't on good terms with Azam Khan – or at least he presented himself that way. However, as soon as the prince's brother Sher Ali ousted Azam, al-Afghani was deported (1868).
After deportation he came to Istanbul. The Education Minister of the time, a positivist, assigned him to a respected position. In a lecture he gave at Istanbul University, he called prophecy an art (i.e. it could be attained through effort) and said religion prevented scientific progress. This led to reaction. The university was shut down and al-Afghani, accused of being a heretic, was deported (1871).
Afghani in his later years (left), in Paris (middle), wearing a turban (right)
Expelled from Istanbul, al-Afghani then went to Egypt, which was then an autonomous state under the Ottoman Empire. During his stay in Egypt between 1872 and 1879 he became involved in reformist activities. He named himself the "Philosopher of the East." His mission was to turn the "believer/disbeliever" distinction to the "Easterner/Westerner."
Riyad Pasha, the Coptic prime minister of Egypt, also known as Riazistone (inspired from British Prime Minister Gladstone) because of his anglophile view, supported al-Afghani and put him on a salary. Confident that it would make it easier to achieve his ideals, he first joined the Scottish Freemasons Lodge. He was dismissed when they realized he did not believe in a creator. So he established his own masonic lodge under The Grand Orient de France – which did not pay much attention to theism – and encouraged his students to join. Al-Afghani describes freemasonry as, "Eagerness to work, putting one's own life at stake in the name of honor and standing against oppressors," and he would say, "Masonry is paramount to establishing a leadership authority and serving its personal aims."
He wrote for newspapers and won followers. He took the lead in the foundation of secret political societies. His meetings would be attended by people from all religious backgrounds. During his stay in Egypt, al-Afghani lived in a Jewish neighborhood. His closest companions were two Christians named Salim al-Naqqash and Adib Ishaq. His private doctor was a Jew. Meanwhile, he provoked the people in Egypt against the British, causing the Urabi revolt. The British were expecting this revolt. Thus Egypt was invaded.The Khedive (Egyptian governor) who saw al-Afghani's true colors deported him.
Al-Afghani went to Paris (1883). He, along with his Egyptian student Muhammad Abduh and friend Ya'cob Sanu who comes from a rich Jewish family from Cairo joined forces and founded the al-Urwah al-Wuthqa association to gather all Muslims around reformist ideas. He also published a namesake magazine. The magazine promoted anti-British views, the unity of Muslims and cleansing the religion of traditions. However, the freely-distributed magazine stopped publication after eight months. Abduh returned to Beirut and al-Afghani remained in Paris. He secretly gave conferences. He had many guests come and go. The Catholic nationalists sent by his Russian friend, Madame Helena Blavatsky, the Irish revolutionaries, priests, et cetera would always visit him. The extremely mysterious Madame Blavatsky was the founder of the Theosophy Society, which was a supra-religion organization.
Two portraits of Afghani
Life in Paris led al-Afghani to lose faith even further. He assumed a rebellious attitude. He was convinced that religion is the enemy of science, intellect and civilization. But his field of activity was within the Islamic society, so he had to seem religious. He would advise his students to appear to fulfil religious obligations. This is a requirement of the taqiyyah (dissimulation or religious deception toward those who hold different beliefs) principle of Shiism. In a letter from his student Abduh it said: "You know us inside out. We appear to be performing the acts of worship, but in reality we are on your path. We are going to behead religion with the sword of religion."
Al-Afghani met British agent Wilfrid Blunt, whom he would work with in the future, in Paris. Blunt is the person who ensured Britain's invasion of Egypt. They went to London together, where he stayed for three months (1885). British Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury and Lord Churchill listened to his thoughts and suggestion on the Middle East with interest. In exchange for supporting them against the Ottomans, they offered the sultanate of Sudan, which they would pluck from Egypt. However, al-Afghani, who knew the British did not have full command of this tangled geography, became suspicious. Al-Afghani was not the type to place himself in danger.
The legend that he was an Islamic thinker and warrior of Islam against Europeans, and his influence which spread after his death is largely based on his life in Paris. Here he got into the famous debate on Islam's position in the face of science with the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan. Even Renan admired his modernist ideas. He traveled a great deal. He went to Iran upon the invite of Iranian sovereign Naser al-Din Shah (1889). His real aim was to carry out the underground operation to dethrone Shah. To achieve this, he approached the Babis who worked against Shah. On the other hand he maintained his contact with the Russians. When Shah noticed this, al-Afghani was deported from Iran in 1892. He then went on to Basra from where he organized a revolt. His next destination was London, where he met agent Edward Browne, who was working in the Iran unit, and publicly continued operations against Iran.
Agent Blunt, whose house he stayed at in London, sent him to Istanbul to discuss the Egypt matter. However, al-Afghani was never able to leave. Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II decided to take advantage of him in order to strengthen the Ottoman caliphate among the Shiite Arabs in Iraq. But he relinquished after discovering that al-Afghani had made a deal with the British and was trying to establish an Iraq-based Arab caliphate. He also prevented al-Afghani from going to Arabia. He provided him a mansion and servants, and even wanted to wed him. But the idea was rejected on the grounds that he is "married to his cause." Al-Afghani never got married. He advised the sultan with respect to turning the Ottoman country into a federation, pursuant to the British policy of that century, but he couldn't convince him. He took offence to the sultan. Sultan Hamid later described him as "a foolish British spy."
Afghani on Afghan and Iranian stamps
Al-Afghani kept himself busy in Istanbul too. He sent Mirza Reza Kermani, one of his disciples, to Iran and organized the assassination of Naser al-Din Shah (1896). The following year, al-Afghani died of cancer and was buried in Istanbul. American businessman Charles Crane took care of the expenses for his grave. Years later, Crane, who is Rockefeller's partner, would support Mustafa Kemal in exchange for having Hagia Sophia turned into a museum. In 1944 the Afghan government had the bones of al-Afghani moved to Kabul, as they considered him and/or thought he was a "national hero."
In addition to the "History of Afghanistan" and "Refutation of Materialism," which was a theological work written to critique materialism with a tone of political satire; al-Afghani has articles which he penned for various newspapers and magazines. It is clear that al-Afghani did not spend much time on scholarship. Yet he is certainly intelligent. Besides, it was his active political life that distinguished him rather than his knowledge.
Al-Afghani grew under the influence of an extreme Shiite fraction called the Batiniyyah, which believed that beyond exoteric meanings, the religion had esoteric meanings that could not be understood by all. This fraction believes that every era has its own perfect, infallible leader. They deny prophetic miracles. Their leader, the messiah, emerges as a prophet with a holy book. Babism, which is known for its terrorist activities, also branched out from this path.
Similar to his idol, Shiite philosopher al-Farabi, also known in the West as Alpharabius, al-Afghani spent his life seeking for a wise ruler who would cooperate with him in his mission to awaken the East. After losing hope, he tried his hand at being mahdi. To succeed, he claimed that he was a Sayyid from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad and that his real name is Muhammad. His disciples also regarded him as the mahdi. Hence, when Kirmani shot Iranian Shah Naser al-Din in 1896, he had said, "for the sake of Jamal al-Din's eyes."
Despite being raised in Shiite culture, there are many aspects of the Shiite doctrine he opposed. Thus, not many believe he was a Shiite. He was of the opinion that the Sunni-Shiite discrimination harmed the Muslim world and he would harshly criticize Caliph Muawiyah for establishing the Sunni sovereignty . He was an advocate of "Islamic unity." But while in Iran, he never mentioned Sunni-Shiite unity. Strangely enough, just as he ignited Arab nationalism, he was also responsible for fueling the Turkism wave.
Al-Afghani appeared to be extremely idealist. He was confident that the Muslim world would be freed through modernism. He used to say, "Socialism is useful for development. Islam compliments socialism."
He would take care to use different expressions to address the sophisticated and simple sections of the public. For instance, while he appeared to be Sunni in the pieces he wrote for the Islamic world, he would lay bare his radical vision in his French articles. Pragmatism was al-Afghani's lifestyle. Even though smoking cigarettes was the thing he loves most in life and despite smoking until the day he died, he issued a fatwa (Islamic ruling) stating the impermissibility of tobacco, simply to oppose the Iranian Shah. As a result, he played a part in the famous tobacco protest in Iran. He would seem very anti-British. Yet, almost all his ideas and actions would benefit the British politics of the time.
He would say that the Turkish people accepted Islam based simply on a feeling of servitude, but they were very far from understanding the meaning of the Quran. He would say that the caliphs should be from the Quraysh tribe, hence, claiming that the Ottoman caliphate was illegitimate. This statement suited British interests in the Middle East.
Al-Afghani led a brief but very active life. However, he could not quite achieve the results of his actions while he was alive. The real "al-Afghani legend" was born after he died. The legend created by his leading students, notably Abduh, is a standard warped story that begins with a Sunni background stating that he was born and educated in Afghanistan. Despite the evidence of his Shiite identity, the claim that he was Sunni was maintained. All al-Afghani biographies are subjective and misleading. They are based on what was written by his student Abduh and Christian Arab historian Jurji Zaydan. Al-Afghani never spoke the truth about himself and his life was written by his friends. Their objective was to acquit him in the eyes of Muslims. Abduh was his favorite student. He became the mufti of Egypt by the help of British Controller-General Lord Cromer.
While in Istanbul, al-Afghani influenced some Turkish intellectuals such as Abdullah Cevdet, Ahmet Agayef, Ziya Gökalp, Mehmet Emin Yurdakul and Şemseddin Gülaltay. His ideas gained rise when Islam started to disintegrate in 1908. Günaltay praises him saying, "Sheikh [al-Afghani] is worthy of as much respect as a prophet. Those who object to this are as deserving of damnation as Prophet Muhammad's archenemy Abu Jahl. Because he had set out to revive the Islam [that was practiced] during the time of the prophet."
Al-Afghani was influential in shaping the mentality of modernists in the Muslim world, notably Abduh and Rashid Rida. Rashid Rida took it too far by smoothing out al-Afghani's extremities which got reactions, and turned modernism into a system. Thus a modernist movement emerged in the Islamic world against the conservatives who attributed the problems of Muslims to backsliding from Islam. This movement saw the blind following of traditional principles as the problem. Al-Afghani's plan to reform Islam was taken over by Abduh and Rashid Rida. Hence, al-Afghani played Luther.
Through his students, al-Afghani influenced Musa Jarullah of Kazan, Mehmed Akif, the author of the Turkish national anthem, and more surprisingly, Said Nursi, the founder of one of the currently strongest Islamic communities in Turkey. Akif even wrote a piece praising al-Afghani whom he never saw. He attributed al-Afghani's deportations to the jealousy of the traditionalist scholars. On the other hand, there have been numerous Sunni scholars who wrote rebuttals to him and accused him of apostasy.
Al-Afghani's fans generally look at his pieces published in the al-Urwah al-Wuthqa magazine he published in Paris, but disregard the letter he wrote to French philosopher Renan which is filled with clear evidences of apostasy. In this letter which he penned in French and was later translated into other languages, al-Afghani says, "all religions, in particular Islam, prevent science from advancing." He states his hope that one day religion will be scorned against philosophy. In response to this letter, Renan wrote, "For a moment I felt as though one of those great atheist philosophers who completely escaped the preconceptions of religion came back from the dead," showing his admiration for al-Afghani.