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Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-

    ca. 1838 – 1897

    Political activist

    Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a political activist and writer, perhaps best known for his role in the Pan-Islamic movement. A controversial figure during his lifetime, al-Afghani became one of the most influential figures in the Muslim world after his death.

    Life and Work.

    Al-Afghani's unusual life was the source of legend, much of it based on his own stories. Although he claimed Afghan origin, evidence suggests that he was actually born in Iran. He began his education in his hometown of Asadabad in northwestern Iran and later traveled to the Shi'i shrine cities of Iraq to complete his studies in theology and law. The work al-Afghani did during these years reflects his innovative thinking and unique interpretation of Islamic thought. He borrowed, combined, and developed existing religious themes to create a new system of political and religious thought.

    As a young man, al-Afghani traveled to India. Witnessing the effects of colonization on that country probably inspired his lifelong dislike for the British. He became an outspoken critic of Britain and its presence in India, Egypt, and other Islamic countries.

    Al-Afghani arrived in Afghanistan in the 1860s and gained access to the amir. He soon lost this important connection when a change in leadership brought a pro-British ruler to the throne and al-Afghani was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Cairo, Egypt, al-Afghani left for Istanbul, Turkey. His intelligence and charismatic personality once again brought him into the circles of power. He lectured at the new university and presented his unorthodox ideas, which angered the establishment. The university came under attack by the conservative leaders, forcing the head of the university to resign and al-Afghani to leave the country.

    From 1871 to 1879 , al-Afghani lived in Cairo. A grant from the government enabled him to spend most of his time teaching. With Islamic scholar Muhammad Abduh , he introduced an interpretation of Islam that called for modernization and education while encouraging strict adherence to Islamic principles. He promoted political activism, urging his students to publish political newspapers, while he himself gave speeches and headed a secret society engaged in reformist activities. Several of his followers later became the leaders of Egyptian political and intellectual life. Meanwhile, al-Afghani's fiery speeches against the British soon brought him another expulsion, and he returned to India. Here he did much of his important writing, which consisted mainly of collecting and publishing his speeches. His most famous work, The Refutation of the Materialists, includes a defense of Islam against attacks made by Europeans.

    In 1886 al-Afghani traveled to Iran and Russia to gather support for a war against Britain. Failing in this endeavor, he accepted an invitation from the Ottoman sultan to live in Istanbul. Although he lived there in comfort, he was prevented from giving speeches. Al-Afghani died of cancer in 1897 . Early biographies (written mostly by his followers before his papers became available in 1963 ) were based on what he wanted people to believe. In recent years, scholars have found independent documentation of al-Afghani's life and work.

    Contributions to Modern Islam.

    The moving force behind al-Afghani's life and work was his hostility toward British rule in Muslim lands. His anger toward the British was part of a more general anti-imperialism. In keeping with his emphasis on anti-imperialism and his desire to maintain the independence of Muslim countries, al-Afghani emphasized practical aspects of political reform and self-improvement. This included technical and scientific education. When necessary, it also included cooperation with dictatorial rulers.

    He was not the first to promote these ideas, but he was highly effective at spreading the messages. This was, in part, because he wrote in Arabic, which made his work accessible to more people. Al-Afghani saw nationalism and Pan-Islamism as different but not necessarily contradictory. Both were essentially strategies for Islamic unity and anti-imperialism.

    Al-Afghani was one of the first Muslim figures to participate in various forms of political activism. He spoke publicly, wrote for newspapers and encouraged his followers to do so, led opposition groups, and even supported a plot to assassinate the shah of Iran.

    His use of different arguments for different situations made al-Afghani popular with many groups. His ideas still appeal to those who support political reform and to those who emphasize Islamic principles. He left a legacy of practical, anti-imperialist political activism that continues to be of great importance to the modern Islamic world. See also Abduh, Muhammad.

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