1 minute read


Jamal Al-din Al-afghani

Born in Persia, not Afghanistan as his name suggests, al-Afghani led the life of an itinerant scholar and activist. After his initial education in Persia, he studied in India and then worked in Afghanistan, Istanbul, Egypt, and Paris. Al-Afghani's travels provided him with a unique insight into the modern condition affecting all Muslim peoples, a condition he believed was characterized by political weakness, social instability, and cultural ignorance. Contact with the West did not cause this condition, according to al-Afghani, but it did bring it into high relief; it also alerted Muslims to an essential but long-dormant element of their own tradition: rational thought. For al-Afghani, the power and success of the modern West rested on its rejection of the stultifying restrictions of Christianity and its turn toward reason; since Islam, by contrast, was rooted in rationalism, Muslims need only return to the essence of their faith to overcome the developmental asymmetry that had come to differentiate Western and Muslim societies.

Arguing for the rational nature of Islam was a common strategy among Muslim reformers, who wanted to facilitate change while maintaining cultural identity. It was a strategy that recognized the Western orientation of modern development and the threat this orientation posed to cultural authenticity in the Muslim world. Indeed al-Afghani believed that social and political change could only be brought about if Muslims had a firm sense of the civilization to which Islam had given birth. By civilization, al-Afghani meant the intellectual and moral achievements that contributed to the unity and greatness of a people—a notion he borrowed from the French statesman-historian François Guizot (1787–1874) and employed to foster a usable Islamic past. This past did not lead inexorably to the unification of the entire Muslim community (the umma) under a single Islamic state. Instead, al-Afghani viewed Islamic civilization, the foundation of pan-Islamism, as a common cultural stream that fed the national political aspirations of such distinct countries as India, Persia, and Egypt. Here the logical appeal of Islam as universal glue for all Muslim peoples was subordinated to the practical realities of a world where nation-states had become the political norm. Pan-Islamism, however, had served a very different political purpose under the Ottomans.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Overdamped to PeatPan-Islamism - Jamal Al-din Al-afghani, Late Ottoman Politics, The Khilafat Movement, A World Of Nation-states