Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, often referred to as the founder of pan-Islam, was born in Iran. He attended madrasas (religious schools) in Iran and as a young man traveled to India, where he observed firsthand discrimination against Muslims by the ruling British government. After making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, al-Afghani moved on to Karbala and Najaf, the main centers of Shi’i pilgrimage in Iraq.

During the 1860s al-Afghani lived in Afghanistan before moving to Istanbul, where the ruling Sunni Muslim Ottoman elite did not accord him the respect and honor he felt he deserved. In 1871 al-Afghani moved to Egypt, where he lectured on the need for unity and reform in Muslim society.

His popular lectures attracted a following among young Egyptians, and he became the mentor to a future generation of Muslim reformers that included Muhammad Abduh and others.

Al-Afghani’s popularity, calls for political reform, and opposition to British influences in Egypt attracted the attention of the ruling authorities, and the khedive (viceroy) expelled him from Egypt.

He then returned to India, where he resumed teaching and writing on what he referred to as the Virtuous City—a society based on Islamic tenets and governed by honest, devout Muslim rulers. Al-Afghani argued that only a unified Muslim world could confront the Western imperial powers, particularly the British, on an equal basis.

He traveled to London and Paris, where he debated the role of science in Islam with Ernest Renan, the noted French philosopher. He spent two years in Russia before returning to Iran, where he vigorously opposed Nasir al-Din Shah (the Qajar ruler).

In Iran as in Egypt, al-Afghani also spoke out against British influence, calling for a constitutional, parliamentary government. Al-Afghani’s opposition to the monarchy forced him to leave Iran for Turkey, where he continued to write and lecture about the need for basic constitutional reforms throughout the Muslim world. Al-Afghani carried on this work until his death in 1897.