Posted by: newperspectives85 | February 13, 2012

Afghani’s vision

Afghani’s Vision of a Pan-Islamic Civilization

Afghani was one of the early Muslim political reformers during the latter half of the 19th century, and has undoubtedly been one of the most influential Muslim political thinkers. He lived during a time of European colonization in Islamic countries and he spent the better part of his life devoted to salvaging his Islamic heritage that he was afraid would be swept away in the tides of Western infiltration. His primary concern was how to explain the decadence of the Islamic world and how to rejuvenate it. In general, AfghaniÍs primary goal was to rebuild a strong Islamic state capable of withstanding Western encroachments. Undoubtedly, Afghani was an ideologist of pan-Islam and Islamic reform, and it was his vision and determination that Islamic history shall again be splendid.

Of all of his ideas, one of his most notable legacies was his commitment to a pan-Islamic civilization. He strongly believed that the Muslim world could recover its lost glory and power if it would return to its fundamental teachings and, most importantly, would unite. Because of these views he advocated the overthrow of corrupt Muslim rulers and supported the pan-Islamic pretensions of Sultan ïAbdülhamîd of Turkey. I argue that afghaniÍs call for a pan-Islamic civilization was solely a political goal, not a religious one, meant to counter the infiltration of ideas from the West and the sense that Western society as a whole was to be imitated. I further argue that afghaniÍs argument was motivated by his belief that the world of Islam could only regain a place in history of greatness if it were united, instead of split by internal divisions. In order to argue that afghaniÍs call for a pan-Islamic civilization was a calculated response to the Western influence of his time, I first need to show that the infiltration of the West was indeed seen as a threat to many Muslims. Secondly, I must argue that indeed he was espousing a political doctrine, not necessarily a theological one, intended to strengthen the Muslim world politically.

Afghani felt that the West was a real and pressing threat to Islamic countries — their way of life and their autonomy. He felt that Europe — the imperial power in India and Egypt — was the enemy from which Islam needed to be saved. He strongly believed that the West was undermining the Muslim sense of identity by turning their conquered subjects away from their traditions, and that the British tricked Muslims into believing that Western ways of life and Western civilization was superior. Afghani argued throughout his life that Western civilization was not innately superior, it just happened to have the upper hand at that time because Muslim society was weak. Muslim society was, in his opinion, torn apart by internal division and immoral leaders.

Afghani believed that to live in the modern world demanded changes in Muslim ways of organizing society, and that it must try to make those changes while remaining true to itself. Islam, Afghani believed, was not only compatible with reason, progress and social solidarity, the bases of modern civilization, but if properly interpreted it positively enjoined them. However, he felt that this would be possible only if Islam was interpreted to make it compatible with survival, strength and progress in the world. He wrote

ñThere are two kinds of philosophy in the world. One of them is to the effect that there is nothing in the world which is ours, so we must remain content with a rug and a mouthful of food. The other is to the effect that everything in the world is beautiful and desirable, that it does and ought to belong to us. It is the second which should be our idea, to be adopted as our motto.î(1)

In other words, Afghani believed that it was feasible for Muslims to regain their status and possession of the ñbeautiful and the desirableî; He felt it was the end of human activity and specifically of political activity to pursue this, and he felt strongly that there must be a way for Muslim countries to regain their power.

Afghani felt that a united Islamic civilization was one answer to this problem. He felt that if all Islamic sects united, they could balance the threat from the West better than they could in their current divided state. He desired to unite all branches of the Islamic community in a program of self-strengthening that required theological distinctions to be played down — including the Sunni/ ShiÍi split — in favor of a vague belief in the superiority of Islam that could appeal to everyone. Keddie argues that ñpan-Islam and the reform of Islam could seem to him two sides of a program for strengthening the Muslim world and defeating imperialism.î(2) After all, in the face of Western attack, it could be natural for the Muslim community as a whole to draw together, and maybe even abandon sectarian differences in a common decisive effort.

Afghani felt that for the Muslim mass, the means of solidifying against their oppressors was precisely Islam. Afghani favored the preaching of an Islamic messianism promising the faithful earthly salvation and the establishment of a reign of prosperity and justice. He realized that there could be other solidarity-producing beliefs other than religion, but he felt that in the case of the Muslims, this was the most pragmatic answer. Keddie argues that in none of his writings does Afghani appear as a man moved by a truly original religious vision. She argues that it is hard to escape the conclusion, in reading Afghani, that the ñIslamî to which he appeals has almost exclusively secular virtues and little positive religious content. This point is further exemplifies by the fact that Afghani was willing to appear in so many different religious guises to different audiences.(3) He posed as a pious ShiÍi to the ShiÍi ulama, interested in preserving the existing faith against an infidel Shah, an excoriator of the backward clergy to his followers, a defender of Islam against Western-inspired materialism to a mass Islamic audience, and a defender of science and philosophy against religion to Western audiences. In other words, Afghani felt that one was a Muslim not because Islam was true, but because it served, by means of solidarity which it instilled, to keep together and thus endow with political power the societies in which Islam held power.

It is important to note that throughout the Refutation on Materialism, Afghani is thoroughly pragmatic. The virtues claimed for religion are purely social virtues. Afghani claimed that religion is good for the people because it supports the social fabric, while sectarians bring dissension and political ruin to a community:

ñThe materialists, or neicheris, have appeared in numerous forms and various guises among races and peoples, and under different names. Sometimes they have become manifest under the name ñsage,î sometimes they have appeared adorned as those who remove oppression and repel injustice. Sometimes they have stepped into the arena dressed as those who know the secrets and uncover the mysteries of truth, and as the possessors of esoteric knowledge. Sometimes they have claimed that the goal is the removal of superstitions and the enlightenment of the peopleÍs minds. For a time they came forth as the lovers of the poor, protectors of the weak, and well wishers of the unfortunate. Sometimes to fulfill their evil aims they have laid claim to prophethood like other false prophets. Sometimes they called themselves educators, teachers, and benefactors of the community. But among whatever people they appeared, and whatever guise or name they bore, they became — because of their evil premises and false principles, their false teachings, deadly views, and fatal sayings — the cause of the decline and collapse of that people and the annihilation of that community. They destroyed the social order of those peoples and scattered their members.For man is very cruel and ignorant. And to this treacherous, greedy, bloodthirsty creature there were supplied beliefs and qualities in the earliest period by means of religions/ Tribes and peoples learned these beliefs and qualities as an inheritance from their fathers and grandfathers, and they adjusted their behavior accordingly, avoiding the evil and corruption that are the destroyers of the social order. As a result they enlightened their minds with that knowledge which is the cause of happiness and the foundation of civilization. Thus there was produced for them a kind of stability and continuity.

The sect of neicheris, among whatever people they appeared, tried to nullify those beliefs and corrupt those qualities. From them destruction penetrated the pillars of social order of that people and headed then toward dissolution, until they were suddenly destroyed. (4)

In this powerful dialectic, Afghani shows how detrimental division has been to the downfall of Muslim political power in the Middle East. On a personal level, he refused to openly defy religious authorities, even though his hero Luther done so. He saw that as detrimental to the future stability of Islamic countries.

Arguably, Afghani espoused the notion of Islam as a society and a civilization as more necessary and urgent than Islam as a faith. Bernard Lewis argues that ñfor Afghani, Islam was a civilization, potentially a world power, and only incidentally a faith; its basic demand was for loyalty rather than for piety. The Muslims were to be united as the Germans and the Italians were untied, and Afghani passed his life in search of a Muslim monarch to whom he could be a Bismarck or a Cavour.î(5) Also, Keddie argues, ñit might be more accurate to say that Afghani stressed the practical, political side of Islam, rather than its speculative or theological side.î (6)

Specifically, Afghani called for an Islamic civilization that shared a common religion, common language and common faith. He stressed that in a pan-Islamic civilization, there would be no separation between church and state as there had been in the West. After all, in Islam, even from its earliest times, religion and matters of state, ethics, law and politics were blended and Islam does not make the western distinction between religion and politics.

Furthermore, he felt that the Muslim people had to take their future into their own hands, and in many sermons he would quote the QuÍran: ñVerily, God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own conditionî (13:11) He urged the Muslim masses to action and to help him realize his dream of Muslim self-determination.

Incidentally, it is also important to note that in AfghaniÍs time, there were many reasons to appeal to the Islamic community as a whole — as Keddie argues, there was still a strong sense of community among Muslims of the world, and religious identification was usually stronger than national. During that time, the Arabic-Persian cultural tradition extended throughout most of the Middle East, and provided those communities with a sense of supranational community. Keddie argues ñeven such secularized intellectuals as Akhundov in the Transcaucasus and Malkam Khân of Iran appealed to the whole Islamic Middle Eastern community in theory worked for political and script reform.î

Nevertheless, nationalism won in the end. The Shahs and Kings of the Middle East were too powerful and clearly unwilling to give up their power for a united Islamic kingdom. Colonialism played a large role in the rise of Arab nationalism around the turn of the century, and ultimately, the developing nationalism was to render pan-Islam abortive. Afghani, however, never gave up his aspirations to find a king to lead his visionary pan-Islamic society. He always believed that only though an Islamic civilization could Islam regain its vitality and fulfill its greatness. Because of his strong views, though, he was exiled and died virtually powerless.


Danielle Costa February, 1999
Tufts University: HIST 194

(1) Lewis, Bernard, ed. Islam and the Arab World (Knop), 1976, pg. 336. (2) Keddie, Nikki. An Islamic Response to Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1968 (3) IBID pg.45 (4) IBID pg. 73 (5) Lewis, Bernard, ed. Islam and the Arab World (Knop), 1976, pg. 333. (6) Keddie, Nikki. An Islamic Response to Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1968, pg. 41


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