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Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-

Nikki R. Keddie
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838/39–1897) was a writer and Pan-Islamist political activist. Controversial during his lifetime, al-Afghānī has become since his death one of the most influential figures in the Muslim world, even though his written output was small. His influence, especially in the twentieth century, arises primarily from three factors: he reflected ideas that have become increasingly popular in the Muslim world since the late nineteenth century, including nationalism, Pan-Islamism, and the identification of many new ideas with Islam; he was a charismatic speaker and teacher; and, widely traveled as he was in the Muslim world, he had a direct impact in several countries.

Life and Activities.

Despite his claim to Afghan origin—whence his name—overwhelming evidence shows that al-Afghānī was born and raised in Iran of a Shīʿī family. Among this evidence are several documents in the papers he left in Tehran when expelled from Iran in 1891, of which a catalog was published in 1963. Here and elsewhere there are letters to his Iranian nephews, but no such early documentation is found for Afghanistan, where the first published reference to him dates from World War I and consists of a paraphrase of an Egyptian biography. His passport also identified him as Iranian. Primary documents from Afghanistan in the 1860s, when he was there, speak of him as a foreigner, previously unknown in Afghanistan and speaking Persian like an Iranian.

Sunnī Muslims are often reluctant to admit that al-Afghānī was raised in Shīʿī Iran and did not tell the truth about it. In fact, however, he was acting in a Shīʿī tradition of self-protection and apparently feared repercussions from an Iranian identification. Moreover, he knew he would have less influence in the Sunnī world if he were thought to be from Shīʿī Iran. There is no evidence that he internally identified himself as a Shīʿī, and his Pan-Islamic thinking involved the reduction or removal of Shīʿī–Sunnī conflicts.

Documents indicate that after his education in his home town of Asadābād in northwest Iran, and in Qazvīn and Tehran, he went for higher education in the 1850s to the Shīʿī shrine cities in Ottoman Iraq. In these cities there was considerable intellectual ferment, with some religious figures following the Shaykhī school of Islam and a few its heretical Bābī offshoot. The earliest treatises found among al-Afghānīʾs papers and dated from this period are Shaykhī treatises; he annotated them in a way that makes it clear that he followed, at least for a time, this innovative and philosophically oriented school of thought. See SHAYKHīYAH. Al-Afghānīʾs books and papers also confirm the influence of the rationalist Islamic philosophers, especially such Iranian thinkers as Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) and Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī.

In his late teens al-Afghānī traveled to India and was almost surely there at or near the time of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It seems likely that his lifelong hatred of the British, and especially of their power in colonized countries, dates from his contact with them in India. It is also possible, as one later account says, that he was in Būshehr, Iran, at the time of the British–Persian War of 1856–1857.

Al-Afghānī seems then to have embarked on a journey that probably included Mecca, and certainly a trip across Iran into Afghanistan in the early 1860s. According to an Indian journalist in Afghanistan at this time, al-Afghānī came to Afghanistan with secret papers (which the journalist thought were from the Russians) that gained him rapid access to the amīr. He was reported as speaking Persian like an Iranian, and also Turkish (widely spoken in northwest Iran), and he was believed to be from Anatolia (and therefore called Rūmī). His conversations of this period, the earliest ones documented, already have the fiercely anti-British ring that was to characterize the rest of his life. A change in amīrs brought a pro-British ruler to the throne, and al-Afghānīʾs attempts to keep his position failed; he was expelled in late 1868.

In 1869 he went briefly to Cairo and then to the Ottoman capital Istanbul. His intelligence and personality quickly brought him into high circles—those of the Tanzimat reformers then in power. He was involved in the council of education and the new university, where he gave one of a series of public lectures. What he said has been distorted by his followers; a text with quotations from his talk indicates that the main charge against him—that he compared philosophy with prophecy and referred to prophecy as a craft—is true. This is a theme close to those in Iranian philosophy, which was still taught in Iran but considered heretical in Muslim countries to the west of Iran. This speech gave conservative ʿulamāʿ an excuse to attack the new university, which they disliked, and the head of the university was compelled to resign, while al-Afghānī was expelled from the country.

From 1871 to 1879 al-Afghānī lived in Cairo, supported by a grant from government funds paid by the statesman Riyāḍ Pasha. He spent most of this time teaching, introducing an interpretation of Islamic philosophy that included restricting rational inquiry to the elite while encouraging orthodoxy among the masses. As Egypt entered a political and financial crisis in the late 1870s, al-Afghānī encouraged his disciples to publish political newspapers; he himself gave speeches and carried out political activities as head of a secret society. His followers included several young men who later became the leaders of Egyptian political and intellectual life, notably his closest disciple, the young Muḥammad ʿAbduh, as well as ʿAbd Allāh Nadīm, Saʿd Zaghlūl, and Yaʿqūb Ṣannūʿ. Al-Afghānī blamed Egyptʾs plight on both the British and Khedive Ismāʿīl, whom he talked of assassinating. When Ismāʿīl was replaced by Tawfīq in 1879, however, it was the work of the British and French, and Tawfīq responded to al-Afghānīʾs continued fiery anti-British speeches by expelling him from Egypt. There is no evidence for the common view that the British instigated this expulsion.

Al-Afghānī returned to India, going to the Muslim state of Hyderabad. Here he did much of his important writing, an activity he generally disliked; many of his writings are actually transcriptions of talks. He wrote a series of articles and his most famous treatise, known in English under the title The Refutation of the Materialists. It was intended mainly to refute the work of the pro-British (though liberal) Sayyid Aḥmad Khān. The writings from this and the Egyptian period include a great deal on nationalism (both local Egyptian and Indian, Hindu-Muslim nationalisms), and nothing of the Pan-Islamism with which his name is now associated but which entered his published writings only later. See AḥMāD KHāN, SAYYID.

At the time of the ʿUrabī revolt in Egypt (1881–1882), al-Afghānī took steps to leave India. Muḥammad ʿAbduh joined him in Paris, where they edited an Arabic newspaper, Al-ʿurwāh al-wuthqā (The Strongest Link, i.e., the Qurʿān). This was sent free throughout the Muslim world; it seems to have been subsidized, evidently partly by the English Arabophile Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. The paper lasted only a year but was very influential; its main themes were Pan-Islamist and anti-British, and it also included theoretical articles. While in Paris al-Afghānī published in the Journal des débats a famous “Answer to Renan,” in which he appeared at least as skeptical about religion as did Ernest Renan, with whom he disagreed only in saying that Islam and Arabs were no worse than others.

In 1884 al-Afghānī went to Britain, where Blunt presented him to high governmental figures. He became involved in an abortive plan to accompany Sir Henry Drummond Wolff to Istanbul with the aim of inducing Britain to end its occupation of Egypt. Ironically, Blunt's writings on these events persuaded some Muslims to consider al-Afghānī a British spy.

In 1886 al-Afghānī went to Iran, where he gathered liberal disciples, and thence to Russia, where he tried but failed to arouse Russian leaders to go to war against Britain. Returning to Iran in 1890–1891, he encouraged growing activity against the shahʾs economic concessions to foreigners. A pamphlet against these concessions probably inspired by al-Afghānī brought his expulsion to Iraq in early 1891. Here he wrote a famous anticoncession letter to the leader of the Iranian ʿulamāʿ, Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī, who later entered the nationwide movement against a tobacco concession to the British. From Iraq al-Afghānī went to Britain, where he joined another reformer, Malkom Khān, in written and spoken attacks on the Iranian government. See MALKOM KHāN.

The Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II invited al-Afghānī to Istanbul but became increasingly suspicious of him; he was kept in comfort but prevented from publishing or giving speeches. In 1895 he encouraged an Iranian disciple, Mīrzā Riz‥ā, to kill Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh. This Mīrzā Riz‥ā did near Tehran in May 1896. The assassin and three innocent Iranian progressives were executed, but the Iranian government failed in its efforts to extradite al-Afghānī; the Ottomans claimed—though they knew better—that he was an Afghan. In 1897 al-Afghānī died of cancer of the jaw. The illness is well-attested, and no evidence supports the story that he was poisoned by the sultan.

Al-Afghānīʾs unusual life was the source of much mythmaking, some of it based on stories that he himself told. Most biographies of al-Afghānī written before his papers became available in 1963 (and many since) derive from biographies by his disciples based on what al-Afghānī wanted people to believe—especially ʿAbduh's biography prefaced to his version of The Refutation of the Materialists. Only recently have scholars sought and found independent early documentation.

Contributions to Modern Islam.

Whatever the facts of his biography, one cannot deny the importance of al-Afghānī or his contributions to modern Islamic thought and events. It is true that he was not the kind of intellectual who did extensive writing or tried to work out a complex theoretical system. He was rather one who picked up, combined, and developed a number of existing themes to create a novel whole. The following important points may be identified.

From traditional Islamic philosophy al-Afghānī drew a belief in reason and natural law, and a deity who did not contradict these. His background in Muslim philosophy, well documented in texts marked for his teaching in Egypt, allowed al-Afghānī to give his modernizing teaching an Islamic base. He taught what Muslim philosophers advocated: preaching orthodox religion to the masses and a kind of rationalist, natural-law deism to the elite.

His political thought was impelled by hostility to British rule in foreign, especially Muslim lands. Although al-Afghānī expressed himself in friendlier terms toward the French and Russians, his anti-British speeches and writings could be, and were, extended to a more general anti-imperialism, one that has increased in the Muslim world since his time.

Al-Afghānī is strongly associated with two movements that he did not originate but that he expressed lucidly and propagated widely. One is nationalism, supported in Egypt with references to the glories of ancient Egypt and in India with praise of the ancient Hindus. The other is Pan-Islamism, which started with the nineteenth-century Ottoman sultans and was then voiced in more progressive, anti-imperialist forms by the Young Ottomans, especially Namık Kemal. As al-Afghānīʾs works on this subject were written in Arabic, he had more influence internationally than did the Young Ottomans. Nationalism and Pan-Islamism were seen as different but not necessarily contradictory strategies for communal unity and anti-imperialism. See ARAB NATIONALISM; KEMAL, MEHMET NAMıK; and YOUNG OTTOMANS.

In keeping with his stress on anti-imperialism and his desire to maintain the independence of Muslim countries, al-Afghānī stressed pragmatic aspects of internal reform and self-improvement, including technical and scientific education. Although some admirers point to al-Afghānīʾs rare proconstitutional remarks, these were largely limited to Egypt in the late 1870s, when a constitution was a practical issue. He frequently worked with autocratic rulers, and only near the end of his life did he express regret and speak rather of the need to awaken the people.

Al-Afghānī was one of the first modern Muslim figures to be involved in a wide variety of activist political undertakings, accounting for much of his lasting influence. In Egypt he made public speeches, encouraged and wrote in newspapers, and used a masonic lodge for political purposes. In Iran he encouraged opposition to foreign concessions, as well as the formation of secret opposition organizations and the publication of leaflets, and even the assassination of the shah.

Al-Afghānīʾs reputation has continued to grow since his death. His chief disciple Muḥammad ʿAbduh, even though he renounced al-Afghānīʾs political activism, carried on one aspect of al-Afghānīʾs work when he tried to elaborate modern and pragmatic interpretations of Islam. ʿAbduh's pupil Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā specifically stressed al-Afghānīʾs influence, even though Riḍāʾs more conservative emphasis on Islam was rather different. Together ʿAbduh, Riḍā, and others, chiefly in North Africa, are often characterized as the Salafīyah, those who wanted to return to the ways of Muḥammadʾs early followers. Although al-Afghānī occasionally spoke in this way, his ideas did not have a specific Salafī emphasis. He was, however, probably congenial to the Salafīyah because he identified himself as a reforming and activist Muslim. See ʿABDUH, MUḥAMMAD; RASHīD RIḍā, MUḥAMMAD; and SALAFīYAH.

Pan-Islam, in the sense of either a political or a more general unity of Muslim countries as a barrier to further European conquest of Muslim territory, became especially strong after the British conquest of Egypt in 1882, the establishment of the French protectorate of Tunisia in 1881, and the European taking of Muslim territories in the Russo-Turkish war and the Congress of Berlin in 1877–1878. In the more general sense of Muslim solidarity against the Christian and imperial West, Pan-Islam has continued to be popular to the present. This, combined with his anti-British activities, is one reason al-Afghānī has remained popular in the Muslim world at a time when reformers associated with Westerners, such as ʿAbduh, have lost much popularity.

More generally, al-Afghānī may be said to have had his finger on the pulse of modern Muslim thought, especially that concerned with politics. His status keeps him popular with a variety of sometimes contradictory groups and individuals. Those who stress political reform can cite his few articles on this subject from Egypt; those who stress Islamic principles and values can cite his 1880s articles on Pan-Islamism. Although he was not at all what would now be called an Islamist or fundamentalist, his belief in using certain aspects of Islam to promote a primarily political program shows a temper of thought shared by many Islamists. Nationalists can similarly find support in his program. Thus he is one of the few Muslim thinkers who have retained considerable popularity both in the liberal age of the interwar and immediate postwar years and in the current age of Islamism. He is popular and much discussed, for example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Naturally, Islamists do not cite the evidence that he was less than a true believer and that his use of Islamic themes was not only philosophical and rationalist but also largely instrumental.

Al-Afghānīʾs deliberate use of different arguments in different situations encourages a variety of interpretations. His legacy of political activism and of a modernist, pragmatic, and anti-imperialist reinterpretation of Islam have been of great importance to the modern Muslim world. See also MODERNISM and PAN-ISLAM.


  • ʿAbduh, Muḥammad. The Theology of Unity. Translation of Risālat al-tawḥīd by Ishaq Musaʿad and Kenneth Cragg. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966. Treatise of modern Islam that reflects the influence of al-Afghānīʾs philosophical rationalism.
  • Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-. Réfutation des matérialistes. Translated from the Arabic by Amélie-Marie Goichon. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1942. French translation, with an intelligent introduction, of al-Afghānīʾs most important book-length treatise.
  • Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1964. The first work to use primary material to demythologize al-Afghānīʾs first stay in Istanbul.
  • Browne, Edward G.The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. Contains important primary documents in translation, although this account contributed to the exaggerated al-Afghānī myth.
  • Cole, Juan R. I.Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East: Social and Cultural Origins of Egyptʾs Urabi Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. The only work to make good use of the Arabic material in al-Afghānīʾs papers and other early primary sources in Egypt.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. The most intelligent presentation of al-Afghānī before the publication of his papers.
  • Keddie, Nikki R.Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn “al-Afghānī”: A Political Biography. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1972. Biography of al-Afghānī making extensive use of his papers and other primary sources.
  • Keddie, Nikki R.An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn “al-Afghānī.”2d ed.Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983. English translation of the “Refutation” and of al-Afghānīʾs most important articles, preceded by an analysis of his life and influence.
  • Kedourie, Elie. Afghani and ʿAbduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam. London: Cass, 1966. Perhaps overly skeptical, but deserves to be read for its use of new material.
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Mahdavī, Aṣghar, and Īraj Afshār, eds. Documents inédits concernant Seyyed Jamal al-Din Afghani. Tehran, 1963. Excellent catalog of the papers and books left by al-Afghānī in Tehran when he was expelled in 1891, covering his adult life to the beginning of exile. In Persian, Arabic, and French.
  • Moaddel, Mansoor. “Conditions for Ideological Production: The Origins of Islamic Modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran.”Theory and Society30, no. 5 (Oct. 2001): 669–731.
  • Mohamed, Aishah. “A Critique of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani's Reformist Ideas and Its Importance in the Development of Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century.”Islamic Quarterly45, no. 1 (2001): 49–66.
  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Islam in Modern History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Classic and still useful analysis.
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