Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani

“Do not cut the head of religion except with the sword of religion” – Jamal ad-Din al Afghani

It's always fascinating to tease the threads of the past from ‘contemporary’ ideas. From Iran’s reformist Islamic thinkers of today like Abdul Karim Soroush and Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, we can draw a line to Ali Shariati, 40 years ago. If we follow it further, it will ultimately lead to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (born 1838/39) , the charismatic, indefatigable Iranian who packed several lifetimes into his nearly six decades on earth.

Jamal ad-Din was as creative a self-inventor as he was a thinker. His biography has always been a challenging tangle of facts and fabrication. A sayyed (descendant of the Prophet) who donned the black turban at the age of twelve, Jamal ad-Din rewrote his life story to serve whatever his needs were at the moment, so in Afghanistan he claimed to be from Istanbul, and in Istanbul he took the name 'Afghani', which concealed the fact he was Shia in a largely Sunni world. (Jamal ad-Din himself rejected the Sunni/Shia split, believing it was a tool used by kings to divide people.)

Although his place of birth is still contested, Keddie says, with some documentation, that he was from Iran. No place seems to have served as his home for long: “I am like a royal falcon for whom the wide arena of the world, for all its breadth, is too narrow for flight."

His anti-imperialist message (which at this time meant being largely anti-British) , was not, essentially, anti-Western. He recognized that the west had surpassed the Islamic world in teaching, science and reason and urged that its model be followed but in an Islamic context.

"My brothers: Open the eyes of perception, and look in order to learn a lesson. Arise from the sleep of neglect. Know that the Islamic people were the strongest in rank, the most valuable in worth. They were very high in intelligence, comprehension, and prudence. They faced up to the most difficult things with respect to work and endeavor. Later this people sank into ease and laziness..."

Jamal ad-Din doesn't blame Islam, the Prophet or the Quran for the plight of Muslims, but rather felt that the religion had been twisted into a tool of oppression by monarchs and a means of control by mullahs who hewed to a blind, narrow and flawed interpretation.

The meanings of the Quran are infinite, he argued, and encompass all of philosophy. He scolded clerics for spending their time immersed in trifling, “imaginary essences”, adding, “…you spend no thought on this question of great importance, incumbent on every intelligent man, which is: What is the cause of poverty, indigence, helplessness, and distress of the Muslims…”

Nikki Keddie's 1972 book, "Jamal ad-Din 'al-Afghani', A Political Biography" is the most comprehensive account we have of this fascinating figure whose intelligence, charisma and theatricality quickly won him followers and audiences with powerful figures wherever he went.

His ideas helped give rise to Arab nationalism, the pan-Islamic movement and, it could be argued ultimately, to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Yet a reading of Keddie's book reveals that 20th century Islamic thinkers who draw inspiration from Jamal ad-Din may be reading him selectively. In fact, Afghani comes across as the too unorthodox for most, animated both by a profound skepticism about religion and a conviction that Islam is the only means of uniting the people of the Muslim world in the face of western encroachment. In Keddie’s words, “It was Afghani’s genius to be able to adapt Islam to radically new needs and conditions and to introduce modern ideas without renouncing or breaking with those with a more traditional outlook.”

Afghani was never entirely successful. He had difficulty staying his tongue, and an uncanny knack for stepping beyond what his powerful patrons would countenance, turning them against him. He was expelled from India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.

In Keddie’s portrayal, Afghani is a man in constant motion: In his writings and speeches he exhorted Muslims to resist taking refuge in traditionalism and arm themselves with knowledge in order to rise up against imperialism.

He was Zelig-like in his approach to those in power, claiming connections and influence where he had none, in order to gain audiences with state leaders – Yet his reputation as a speaker and writer was such that no one could be dismissive of him. He adapted his message to suit his audience. In Britain he spoke as a modernist, downplaying his anti-British tone. In the East, he spoke as an Islamist, railing against imperial England.

Afghani’s message also changed with time and circumstance. In his early travels in Muslim countries he emphasized nationalism over pan-Islamism. In fact, in India and Egypt he encouraged people to draw inspiration and strength from their pre-Islamic history.

His embrace of science and his liberal, rational approach to Islam as a means to independence from foreign powers appealed to intellectuals, his emphasis first on nationalism and, eventually, on pan-Islamism appealed to a more religious and conservative populous.

“After Jamal ad-Din,” Keddie writes, “the practice of reinterpretation of koranic texts by modernist intellectuals became very popular.”

But Afghani saw religion – any religion – as only a necessary stop along the way in man’s development: A way station between barbarism and enlightenment. Syrian writer Salim al-Anhuri who knew Afghani wrote that Jamal ad-Din had studied religion until he was no longer a believer, having concluded, "that the belief in an omniscient Prime Mover was a natural delusion that arose when man was in a primitive state of's intellection capacities progressed after that, however, until they reached the knowledge that all these [beliefs] are kinds of delusions and confused dreams, originating from man's fear of death and his desire for immortality."

There were many who thought Jamal ad-Dean an atheist or heretic, but Keddie concludes that while he took an evolutionary view of religion, he was not a non-believer: "There is evidence that Jamal ad-Din saw himself as something of an Islamic Luther, and was moved by a conviction that religious reform was the only way to introduce material reform and self-strengthening into the Islamic world.

After he left Iran as a young man Jamal ad-Din returned on two brief occasions and his appeal and reputation was such that here, as elsewhere, his visits attracted a circle of like-minded modernizers. It’s ironic that after all his exertions in India, Afghanistan and Egypt to mount an opposition to Britain, he would be most successful in Iran.

He tried at first to win favor with Nasir ad-Din Shah, who ruled Iran for the latter half of the 19th century. But Afghani’s anti-British fervor unnerved the Shah. In the early 1890s when Nasir ad-Din secretly granted the British government complete control of all Persian tobacco, Jamal ad-Din’s supporters in Iran, at his urging, circulated placards denouncing the Shah and making threats on his life.Jamal ad-Din stirred the pot, but the mullahs and merchants brought it to a boil and in early 1891 there were mass demonstrations throughout Iran.

Afghani wrote a famous and impassioned call to action addressed to a leading cleric who had been banished by the Shah to Iraq for his opposition to the tobacco concession: “…if thou wilt not arise to help this people, and wilt not unite them in purpose, and pluck them forth, by the power of the Holy Law, from the hands of this sinner, verily the realms of Islam will soon be under the control of foreigners…”

It was this mullah, Hajji Mirza Hasan Shirazi, who called for Iranians to boycott tobacco (“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Forgiving, today the use of tonbaku and tobacco in any form is reckoned as war against the Imam of the Age…” which led to the cancellation of the concession to the British.

Keddie writes that the tobacco movement was a decisive victory for Jamal ad-Din’s approach to resisting the west. It showed that reformers could recruit clerics to their cause and arouse the masses. Keddie adds, “Thus an alliance of ulama, merchants, modernizers, and the city populace had for the first time in modern Iranian history engaged in a coordinated movement that shook the foundations of the government and forced it to change course.”

Jamal ad-Din barely took the time to draw a breath from his fiery tirades against the British tobacco concession before he was off to England and pleading with the government there to help the oppressed Iranian people. He wrote feverishly, publishing articles denouncing Nasir ad-Din and composing letters to the ulama of Iran exhorting them to rise up and depose him. By now Jamal ad-Din was perhaps more interested in overthrowing the Shah than he was of ridding Iran of the British, and the Shah complained bitterly to the English that they should silence him.

On May 1, 1896 a follower of Jamal ad-Din shot and killed the Shah of Iran. Jamal ad-Din was to live less than a year longer.

Despite his exertions, it seems Jamal ad-Din was not optimistic that his views could prevail. He wrote, “Science, however beautiful it is, does not completely satisfy humanity, which thirsts for the ideal and which likes to exist in dark and distant regions which the philosophers and scholars can neither perceive nor explore.”