Modern Egypt ­— (V) The misunderstood sheikh

Tarek Osman
Thursday 27 Oct 2022

Tarek Osman describes the career of the late 19th-century Islamic scholar Jamaluddin Al-Afghani as part of his series of articles on the makers of modern Egypt


The last quarter of the 19th century brought Egypt confidence as well as calamity. The confidence came, as we discussed previously in this series, from the successful Egyptianisation of aspects of the modernisation that Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim Pasha, and the khedive Ismail had driven forward, especially in education. Calamity came in the shape of Britain’s occupation of Egypt.

At the core of the project that Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim had led was the objective, realised and strongly cemented in the first half of the 19th century, of establishing Egypt as an independent state. Its place within the Ottoman Empire was nominal, and decisions were made almost totally by its ruling house. Around that house there had begun to appear circles of talented Egyptians who were increasingly the designers and shapers of policies rather than the mere implementers. They included Ali Mubarak Pasha, whose role the previous article in this series described. 

The British occupation presented Egypt with a reality that had been beginning to dawn on the country (and the entire East) for some time, but was now becoming glaringly obvious. Whereas delving into Western culture would certainly lead to economic and social development, the West was determined to combine this development with the subjugation of the East. 

A movement hostile to the West began to appear in different eastern countries from Afghanistan to Morocco. Most of the leading voices of that movement were Islamic scholars who for decades had had acute concerns about how far openness to Western culture might bring about moral decay and God’s wrath. 

Jamaluddin Al-Afghani was different in terms of his thought and impact. Al-Afghani was a Persian Islamic scholar born either in Iran or in the parts of Afghanistan that were then highly influenced by Persian civilisation. He came to Egypt after working for modernising rulers in that part of the world where he had experienced the struggle between the desire to learn from the immense knowledge the West had developed and possessed and the need to fight its strangling political encroachment.  

Al-Afghani was uncompromising. For him, the British must be resisted, and the East must mobilise all its resources to fight the colonisers. He went further and advocated that the rulers who cooperated with the invaders, or whose actions had facilitated the West’s encroachment, must be opposed and if possible deposed. One of those rulers in his view was the khedive Ismail, whose borrowing of Western policies had proven reckless and therefore had been a way for the West to expand its influence.

Yet, Al-Afghani separated Western politics from Western culture. He was neither naive, nor starry-eyed. For him, Western politics stemmed from a cultural condescension towards the East. But in his view whereas the Western politics of occupation must be fought, the Western culture that had enabled the advances that had made the West able to occupy the East must be studied. 

Al-Afghani also separated politics and culture from geography. For him, occupation was not a Western phenomenon denoting a lack of morality or a culture bent on exploiting others. In his view, power dynamics always shaped history and orchestrated international relations. The powerful sought resources to grow and expand, and the weak suffered. Culture was not bound by geography. Western advances were anchored in rationalism and the disciplined application of the methodical sciences. These were not European products per se, but were the products of universal forms of knowledge that Europe had skillfully acquired, developed, and mastered in the four centuries before the 19th. 

However, these forms of knowledge had originated in Egypt and Persia and India, and they were later added to and developed in Greece. They were then lost in oblivion until the Islamic civilisation discovered, analysed, and resuscitated them in the European consciousness. It was only after this that Europe succeeded in leveraging them to build the marvelous Western civilisation of the modern age. In Al-Afghani’s words, Europe knew Aristotle and Plato in Arabic rather than Greek garb.

Al-Afghani was neither childishly feeding the eastern ego, nor stupidly asserting the East’s equality in knowledge and development with Europe. He had made it perfectly clear that Europe owned its advances, and that these advances were the results of thought and ways of living and behaving that Europe had curated to an exquisite degree of refinement. His key point was that the bases upon which modernity was built in the West were not necessarily Western as such, but originally and in essence were the flow of universal knowledge.

Al-Afghani understood that knowledge and development were inextricably linked to thought and behaviour. No advanced society tolerates chaos, noise, and dirt, he said. Internalising true knowledge instils refinement and an inclination towards beauty. For Al-Afghani, like scores of philosophers before him, this was a natural law without exceptions. 

Al-Afghani’s ideas were applicable throughout the entire East. But, as he had made clear, Egypt was special. Its location at a central point between the Mashreq and the Maghreb, between Asia and Africa, and between the seat of the Islamic caliphate in Istanbul and the Islamic holy shrines in the Hijaz made it a natural destination for people from different regions of the East. 

Its history, from the pharaonic to the Greek, the Persian, the Roman, and then the Arabic, had made it a crucible of ideas. As he noted with the admiration of the constant traveller, Egypt’s then agrarian and tranquil way of life made it a natural base for the slow and mature unfolding and nurturing of ideas. It was for this reason that while Al-Afghani had worked in Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Calcutta, London, Paris, St Petersburg, and Munich, it was in Cairo that his thought blossomed. 

Al-Afghani’s revolutionary ideas about deposing rulers resulted in his being repeatedly expelled from almost all the countries in which he attempted to settle, including Egypt. He became an inspiration for different thinkers and activists. But, lacking a base, he failed to create a movement. This was why many of his ideas came to later generations in truncated form and in fragments, often shaped by those who conveyed them and often utterly missing or deliberately obfuscating their main points. 

Pan-Islamism was the most obvious example of this. Al-Afghani entered the collective culture of the Muslim-majority East as a pan-Islamist thinker. He certainly saw Islam as the unifying cultural framework of the Persians, many Indians, the Turks, tribes on the Central Asian Steppe hailing from Turkish ancestry, the Arabs, Amazighs, and Egyptians. He also used the notion of pan-Islamism to engage with Western thinkers who viewed the East largely, and often solely, as Muslim-majority or just Muslim societies. 

However, for Al-Afghani, Islamism, or the role that Islam by theology and tradition has played in society, was a process of cultural development. It began with Islam’s exposure to the older civilisations of Egypt, Persia, and Greece and progressed with the schools of thought championed by the philosophers Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). 

Al-Afghani was far from being the traditionalist knee-jerk defender of Islam that several historical narratives have presented him as being. Instead, he was a subtle and deep thinker who believed that a fundamental role of divine inspiration lay in humanising and civilising the social milieu. 

Al-Afghani’s thought was one of the most interesting attempts to position traditional Islamic culture to benefit from West-inspired modernisation. He worked on pragmatic and serious elaborations of how far Islam’s historical trajectory in the different regions of its growth and spread could meet Western advances not only in the sciences but also in the humanities. 

However, his revolutionary politics and his assertive ways of fighting Western political domination made many in the East and West suspicious of his positions and ready to quickly, and without serious assessment, cast him among the fathers of modern Salafism.   

That was a mistake. Perhaps the best description of Al-Afghani came from his closest disciple, sheikh Mohamed Abdou, later one of the key thinkers on the role of Islam in modern society, when he described Al-Afghani’s thought as a “holistic multi-faceted truth.”

As we will see in the next article in this series, it was a contemporary of Al-Afghani’s, and another non-Egyptian who had chosen to make Egypt his home, who managed to combine Al-Afghani’s rationalistic approach to religion with a more reflective view of how to advance politics in Muslim majority societies at a delicate moment in their transition towards modernity.  

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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