So, mystery and how obscure and unknown

 

            So, what makes Afghani different from his predecessors,
like Tahtawi or al-Jabarti? He realised, after early encounters with British
imperialism in Persia, India, and Afghanistan, that history was unfolding
before his eyes quite independently of God and the Qur’an. It was for this
reason that he was so drawn to the work of Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqaddama he
taught to all of his disciples. He was important, in Blunt’s words, because:

Jemal-ed-din’s
originality consisted in this, that he sought to convert the religious
intellect of the countries where he preached to the necessity of reconsidering
the whole Islamic position, and, instead of clinging to the past, of making an
onward intellectual movement in harmony with modern knowledge…

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The true originator of the Liberal Religious Reform movement
among the Ulema of Cairo was, strangely enough, neither and Arab nor an
Egyptian, nor an Ottoman, but a certain wild man of genius, Sheyk
Jemal-ed-din Afghani, whose sole experience of the world before he came to
Egypt had been that of Central Asia.1

To
this “liberal religious reform movement” we will return. But what is perhaps
most remarkable about Jemal ad-Din is how little is actually known about him,
and the controversy that surrounds his biography. For an activist figure with
continued political relevance on the scale of someone such as Karl Marx, it is
ridiculous how much of his life remains shrouded in mystery and how obscure and
unknown he is to most in the West. In his own account, and that which was
accepted at face value by Blunt and many others, Jemal ad-Din was a Sunnite
from Afghanistan, a Seyyid from a noble family of religious scholars who
descended from the Prophet. This standard biographical account of Jemal ad-Din
was published in Arabic by ‘Abduh in Beirut in 1885, as a prefix to his translation
of Afghani’s Refutation of the Materialists (first published in Bombay,
in Persian). It was later prefixed to a complete edition of al-Urwat
al-Wuthqa published in Cairo in 1903, and later translated into French by
AM Goichon in 1942.2
All of these accounts, however, have since been called into question by the
available historical evidence, most notably by the work of Nikki Keddie.

In her own words:

 

During Jamal ad-Din’s lifetime, he and his followers may have
had convincing political reasons to claim for him a Sunni origin, and to play
down utterances of his that might lessen his influence and reputation among
religious Muslims. It now seems time, decades after his death, to reconstruct
with newly unearthed evidence a true picture of his life, beliefs, and
activities. To say that Jamal ad-Din did not always tell the truth about
himself is not to state that he was morally reprehensible, but only that his
statements about his life are not an accurate guide for the biographer. His own
concerns, unlike ours, were not biographical, but rather with liberating
Muslims from European encroachments and reforming their lives and politics, and
the stories he told about himself were usually seen as useful for achieving
these larger goals.3

 

A
good example of the type of stories that Afghani would tell about himself for
political purposes comes from an 1878 letter that he penned to the Ottoman
Sultan.  Despite his supposed noble
birth, Afghani claimed to be “an insignificant man, who has no high rank and
who has not achieved exalted office… wandering and with rough garments, knowing
cold and heat, bitter and sweet, and having traversed many mountains and
deserts and experienced the ways of men.” Certainly, Jemal ad-Din was a
wanderer, but he was not an insignificant man. As to his noble or not so noble
origins, it is hard to say definitively either way. This passage, despite the
perils of translation, can give some sense to the reader of the hyperbolic ways
in which Afghani discussed his own biography.

The
current scholarly consensus in the West is that Afghani was born in 1838 in Asadabad,
Iran, to a Turkic, Azeri speaking religious family of Seyyids who
claimed descent from ‘Ali and, through him, the Prophet Mohammed. As a young boy
Afghani was sent to the Shi’a holy city of Najaf for religious schooling and
then to Tehran, where he received the standard Shi’ite curriculum of religious
instruction. In Tehran, he likely witnessed the brief Anglo-Iranian War and Iranian
defeat in 1856. Following this, Afghani travelled via Bushire to Bombay in
India, where he stayed for at least two years and likely witnessed the Mutiny
of 1857 and its violent suppression by the British, along with the execution of
the last Mughal Emperors.

From here Jemal ad-Din
undertook a slow Pilgrimage to Mecca, likely returned home to Iran, but did not
stay long, and next went to Afghanistan, his supposed birthplace, where the
first documented historical evidence (a British secret report) mentions him by
name and describes him as one with, “Pale complexion, open forehead, azure
eyes, has a goatbeard, with some red hairs in it, moustache small, slender
make, head shaved, age about 35 years. Is dressed like a Noghai Circassian/Caucasian
ethnic group, from just north of Azerbaijan in what is now Southern Russia on
the Caspian Sea Coast, which in 1868 had just been ethnically cleansed and
evicted by the southwards expansion of the Russian Empire, drinks tea
constantly, and smokes in the Persian style. Is well versed in Geography and History,
speaks Arabic and Turkish fluently, talks Persian like an Irani (Persian).

Apparently, follows no particular religion. His style of living resembles more
that of a European than of a Mussulman. He is attended by an Irani

1 Secret
History, p. 112

2 “Réfutation des materialists”,
in Les Joyaux
de l’Orient, Vol. XI (Paris, P. Geuthner, 1942) See also: Amélie
Marie Goichon, Le panislamisme d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (Paris
: ?, 1950)

3
Nikki R. Keddie, Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani”: A Political
Biography, (Los Angeles: UCLA Press, 1972).  p. 8