Islamic political thought/Afghani lecture

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Content for the lecture:

In the lecture about Jamal al-din al-Afghani, I plan to address a few topics. First, I will address the problems that Afghani saw as the cause of the decline of Islam. I will further elaborate on those problems by explaining what it was that Afghani thought to be the solution. This solution includes his development of Pan-Islamism and his thoughts in his Refutation of the Materialists. Also, by way of that writing, he also exhibits his disagreement with Sayyid Ahmad Khan, which I will address at the end of the lecture.

Learning goals for the day:

As a result of the lecture, I anticipate that students will understand what it was that Afghani holds accountable for the decline of Islam, as well as have an understanding of what he suggests is the proper solution to halt the decline. I also think that students should be able to link how Afghani’s ideas still apply to Islam in today’s world.


Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was born in 1838, but his place of birth is unknown. What is known is that he attended religious schools in Afghanistan and Iran early in his childhood. At age seventeen or eighteen, he went to India to continue his studies. While in India, Afghani became closely acquainted with the ideas of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and wrote his famous work, later to be titled Refutation of the Materialists, in 1881. This work was written in rejection of Khan and his followers. Further detail of this will be addressed later in the lecture. Afghani is considered to be the founding father of Islamic modernism. In his expression of the necessity of modernism, he states:

“With a thousands regrets I say that the Muslims of India have carried…their fanaticism to such an evil extreme that they turn away with distaste and disgust from sciences and arts and industries. All that is associated with the enemies of Islam…they regard as inauspicious and unwholesome…Alas, this misuse of religious orthodoxy will end in such weakness and disaster that, I am afraid, the Muslims of India will some day find themselves annihilated (Ahmad, 59—quoted by Afghani).

One of Afghani’s most noted works was Refutation of the Materialists. In this work, he argues against all aspects of materialists, including the fact that they believe that the world is a being independent of any outside power (God), or a self-regulating structure. One of his fairly less noted works, but mentioned in this lecture, is Why Has Islam Become Weak. This piece primarily describes the Muslims’ decline throughout history, and especially during his time.
Afghani then goes on to elaborate on the cause of possible outcome in the decline of Islam. He views the British with suspicious eyes, and once described the country as “a dragon which had swallowed twenty million people, and drunk up the waters of the Ganges and the Indus, but was still unsatiated and ready to devour the rest of the world and to consume the waters of the Nile and Oxus (Ahmad, 66—quote by Afghani). He also blamed the decline on the fact that Islam was no longer politically integrated and all-embracing. He thought that it had been reduced to religious dogmas and that the ulama, people of religious education and background, had lost mutual contact because of it. To solve this part of the problem, Afghani proposed that the ulama should build up their regional centers in various lands and guide the commoners by ijtihad baed on the Quran and the Hadith (Ahmad, 70).
In his Why Has Islam Become Weak, Afghani describes the lament and demise of the Muslims during his time. His reasoning for such events is that Muslims have lost their courage and strength and can no longer fight. He believed that the rulers humbled themselves before non-Muslim (Ottoman) kings in order to survive a few days more. He further asserts that the decline results from the Muslims failure to keep with the right path and places the responsibility on the Muslims themselves because they had, and still have, the power to reverse the situation. On other occasions, as stated prior, Afghani sometimes place the blame mostly with the British, and even the French, the Netherlands, Russia, and China in some instances: the British occupied Egypt, Sudan and the Indian peninsula; the French had taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria; the Netherlands had become a tyrannical ruler of Java and the Oceanic Islands; Russia had captured West Turkistan; and China had taken East Turkistan. On this, he elaborates in that the Islamic states are pillaged and their property is stolen. Also, their territory is occupied by these foreigners as well as their wealth. He asserts that out of fear, the Muslims do what they can to survive, but no more (H—ir-, 122-124). As a remedy for such oppression, Afghani regards it as the religious duty of Muslims to reconquer any territory taken away from them. He adds that resistance, by violence if necessary, to non-Muslim aggression and reconquest is the duty not merely of the Muslims in the particularly affected region, but of all Muslims (Ahmad, 69).
Afghani believed that religious reform was the key to subsequent European progress and power and such a reformation was also needed for the Islamic world to achieve the same goals (Keddie, 141). He brought the modernist message to Egypt. One of his greatest contributions to Islam political thought was his belief that Islam could be used as a sociopolitical ideology to unite the Muslim world against imperialism; he saw Islam as a civilization. He found that the only way to achieve lasting social, political, and economic reform would be to contemporize the values that found the Muslim community. He joined with the Young Ottomans, who developed a reformist agenda that fused Western democratic ideals with traditional Islamic principles. These ideas resulted in what is referred to as Pan-Islamism. Its principle goal was to encourage Muslim cultural, sectarian, and national unity (Aslan, 229-231).
Unfortunately, it was tough for Pan-Islamism to gain popularity because of it diversity. Groups of secular nationalists found these ideas to be incompatible with their goals of modernization: political independence, economic prosperity, and military power. This ultimately was the basis for the ideology referred to as Pan-Arabism. The goal of this movement was to battle European colonialism through a secular countermovement that would replace Pan-Islamism ideas of religious unity with a more practical goal of racial unity.
Beginning with Refutation of the Materialists, Afghani presents himself to Muslims more and more as a defender both of Islam and Pan-Islam, according to Keddie (Keddie, 129). In this writing of his, Afghani considers philosophy essential for the revival of Islamic civilization. His Pan-Islamism sought to mobilize Muslim nations to fight against Western imperialism and gain military power through modern technology. It is believed that his call of the independence of the Muslim nations has been a key factor in the development of Islamic nationalism (, 2).
In Refutation of the Materialists, Afghani criticizes the naturalist/materialist position and identifies people with this view as the epitome of evil intent on destroying human civilization. He completely rejects their idea of the universe as a self-regulating structure without a higher intelligence operating on it. He then moves to his social and ethical criticisms of the materialists. He claimed that they were intent on destroying the castle of happiness based on the six pillars of religion. These six pillars are divided into three beliefs and three qualities. The first belief is that man is a terrestrial angel; he is God’s vicegerent on earth. Secondly, one’s community is the noblest one both in the human world and in the human and religious society. The third belief teaches that man is destined to reach the highest world. The first of the three qualities, modesty, is what Afghani refers to as the modesty of the soul to commit sin against God and his fellow men. The second quality if trustworthiness; the survival of human civilization is contingent upon mutual respect and trust. Without these traits, he believes no society can have political stability and economic prosperity. The final quality produced by religion is truthfulness and honesty. He believes this is the foundation of social life and solidarity. Through these six pillars, he established religion as the foundation of civilization and denounced materialism as the enemy of religion and human society (, 3).
In the Refutation, Afghani’ main target was Sayyid Ahmad Khan (, 4). Khan founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College where youths were educated on western lines and then sent out to various districts in the country to convince fellow-Muslims of the merit and utility of this approach. This college was the most important source of diffusion of western traits and ideas for the followers of Khan (Malik, 221). In that as well as other articles, he violently attacked Khan’s religio-political approach to the problems facing Muslim India. The disagreement was based primarily on three major points: first, Afghani did not agree with the extremist rationalism of Khan and regarded one of his writings as a heresy as it seemed to falsify the words of the Quran. Secondly, he regarded Khan’s religious views and educational program as supplementary to his political servitude to British interests in India; Afghani was extremely anti-British. Third, as an expansion of point number two, Kahn was opposed to Pan-Islamism (Ahmad, 55-56).

Reading requirement:

-Afghani’s Refutation of the Materialists
-Afghani’s Why Has Islam Become Weak

Recommended reading list:

-Nikki Keddie’s Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afhani
--pay particular attention to Chapter 6 (pg. 129-142)

Discussion questions:

-What is it that Afghani sees as the cause for the decline of Islam?
-What does he critique about materialists?
-What does he suggest Muslims do to end the decline of Islam?

Works cited:

Ahmad, Aziz. “Sayyid ahmad Khan, Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Muslim India.” Studia Islamica, No. 13 (1960), pp. 55-78. Aslan, Reza. (2006). No god but God. New York: Random House. H—ir-, Abdul-H-d-. “Afghani on the Decline of Islam.” Die Welt des Islams, New Ser., Vol. 13, Issue ½ (1971), pp. 121-125. Keddie, Nikki. (1972). Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. Berkeley: University of California Press. Malik, Hafeez. “Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Doctrines of Muslim Nationalism and National Progress.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1968), p. 221-244 pp. 1-7.