al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din (1838-97)

Al-Afghani is often described as one of the most prominent Islamic political leaders and philosophers of the nineteenth century. He was concerned with the subjection of the Muslim world by Western colonial powers, and he made the liberation, independence and unity of the Islamic world one of the major aims of his life. He provided a theoretical explanation for the relative decline of the Islamic world, and a philosophical theory of history which sought to establish a form of modernism appropriate to Islam.

  1. Life and times
  2. Philosophy of history

1. Life and times

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was born in 1838 about 180 miles from Kabul, of a distinguished family. He received a thorough training in a variety of languages of Islamic countries and the religious sciences. When he was eighteen years old he began the constant travels which were to mark his life. He visited much of the Islamic world as well as Europe, and set up a political organization which called on Muslims to fight injustice and the imposition of imperialism. He had a great impact upon Muhammad 'Abduh and reactions by intellectual Egyptians to the incursion of the Europeans. He eventually sided with the Ottoman empire but soon became disillusioned with the Sultan, and died in suspicious circumstances in Turkey in 1897.

2. Philosophy of history

Al-Afghani's philosophical contributions are to be found in his book ar-Radd 'alal-dahriyyin (Refutation of the Materialists). Citing philosophers such as Democritus and Darwin, he criticized the naturalist and materialist philosophers for their denial, either directly or indirectly, of the existence of God. He then went on to elaborate at great length on religion's contribution to civilization and progress. According to al-Afghani, religion has taught humanity three fundamental beliefs: its angelical or spiritual nature, the belief of every religious community in its superiority over other groups, and the assertion that our existence in this world is but a prelude to a higher life in a world entirely free from sorrow and suffering. Our angelic nature urges us to rise above our bestial proclivities and live in peace with our fellow human beings. The feeling of competitive superiority on the part of the various religious groups generates competitiveness, whereby the various communities will strive to improve their lot and persist in their quest for knowledge and progress. Finally, the third truth provides an incentive to be constantly aware of the higher and eternal world that awaits us. This in turn will motivate human beings to refrain from the evil and malice to which they may be tempted, and live a life of love, peace and justice.

Al-Afghani mentions that religion implants in its believers the three traits of honesty, modesty and truthfulness. He further maintains that the greatness of the major nations of the world has always been entailed by their cultivation of these traits. Through these virtues the Greeks were able to confront and destroy the Persian empire. However, when the Greeks adopted the materialism and hedonism of Epicurus, the result was decay and subjection by the Romans. Likewise the ancient Persians, a very noble people, began with the rise of Mazdaism the same downward journey as the Greeks, which resulted in their moral erosion and subjection by the Arabs. Similarly, the Muslim empire, which rose on the same solid moral and religious foundation as did both the Greeks and Persians, became so weakened that a small band of Franks (that is, the crusaders), was able to score significant victories against them. Subsequently, the hordes of Genghis Khan were able to trample the whole land of Islam, sack its cities and massacre its people.

Al-Afghani bases his philosophy on a theory of history in which religion is portrayed as a catalytic force in the progress of humanity. Interestingly, he stresses that religious beliefs must be founded upon sound demonstration and valid proof without any supernatural aspect. This rationalism manifests an important element of modernity in al-Afghani's thinking. However, such modernity does not diminish his strong belief in religion as an integral component and fundamental force behind humanity's quest for morality, truthfulness and integrity.

Al-Afghani's philosophical views revealed a great deal of faith in the human mind and its capacity for innovations based on knowledge rather than ignorance. He expressed great faith in humanity as being one of the greatest miracles of the universe, and believed that there are no areas which can remain forever closed to the human mind. Surprisingly, he predicted that people would reach the moon as a step in a series of strides by mankind, as he believed that nature and the universe were created so that we could continue the challenge of unravelling their secrets.

In his criticism of Darwin's theory of evolution (see Evolution, theory of), al-Afghani presents a philosophical theory about nature in response to Darwin's theory. He believes in the nature of what he termed 'natural selection', whereby survival in nature will be for the strongest and the fittest. Thus if a number of plants are planted in a single space of earth which does not have food for all these plants, it will be noticed that the plants will compete among themselves for food. In due course, some of the plants will become more developed than the others, which will wither. He applies the same theory to the world of animals, including human beings, where the influence of power is more noticeable than elsewhere. He even goes further than Darwin by applying the theory to the area of ideas, maintaining that ideas are born out of other ideas and may be greater than those ideas; this explains why posterity may sometimes excel and be superior to its ancestry. Al-Afghani believes that these developments are due to the impact of nature's aspects and not necessarily the result of human effort. His criticism of Darwin's theory lessened gradually as he began to express views similar to those of Darwin. He cites earlier Muslim scholars such as Ibn Bashroun who had talked about the evolution from dust of plants and animals. Al-Afghani, however, continued to maintain strong disagreement with Darwin on one fundamental issue, that of the creation of life; this al-Afghani unequivocally ascribes to God.

See also: 'Abduh, M.; Darwin, C.R.; Evolution, theory of; Islamic philosophy, modern

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Afghani (1838-97) ar-Radd 'alal-dahriyyin (Refutation of the Materialists), Cairo, 1955. (The main philosophical contribution of al-Afghani.)

References and further reading

Keddie, N. (1968) An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (An useful series of essays linking al-Afghani's philosophical and political views.)

Keddie, N. (1972) Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani: A Political Biography, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (An important study of al-Afghani's politics, with useful material on his general philosophical views.)

Kedourie, E. (1966) Afghani and 'Abduh, London: Cass. (Deals extensively with Afghani's political philosophy and its influence on 'Abduh.)

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