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Jamāl al-Dīn Afghānī
Jamil Ahmad

During the last thirteen centuries, whenever the world of Islam was plunged in the darkness of decadence, an outstanding personality emerged, who, by his illuminating achievements, dispelled the gloom encompassing it. One such personality was Jamaluddin Afghani, the harbinger of Muslim Renaissance in the 19th century. Being a wandering missionary, a versatile genius, an intellectual and an orator of the highest calibre, he brought about a universal awakening throughout the world of Islam. He moved about in the capitals of Muslim countries---lecturing, discussing and writing about his mission to bring about the unity of Muslims, leaving behind him a band of zealous workers, who continued his work even after his death. Several movements of religious revival and social reform owe their origin to Afghani and were started by his disciples who were deeply influenced by him. In fact, no other person has influenced the 19th century Islam more profoundly than him. Another great thinker of the East, Dr Iqbal, pays glowing tributes to Jamaluddin Afghani when he says: `A perfect master of nearly all the Muslim languages of the world and endowed with the most winning eloquence, his restless soul migrated from one Muslim country to another, influencing some of the most prominent men in Iran, Egypt and Turkey. Some of the greatest theologians of our time, such as Mufti Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, were his disciples. He wrote little, spoke much and thereby transformed into miniature Jamaluddins all those who came into contact with him...He never claimed to be a prophet or a renewer; yet no man in our time has stirred the soul of Islam more deeply than him. His spirit is still working in the world of Islam and no one knows where it will end.'

Syed Jamaluddin was born in 1838 at Asadabad (Afghanistan). His father Syed Safdar, a descendent of Syed Ali Al-Tirmizi, later migrated and settled in Kabul. Even at the early age of eight years, Jamaluddin exhibited extraordinary intelligence. Before he was 18, he was well versed in almost all the branches of Islamic learning including philosophy, jurisprudence, history, metaphysics, mathematics, medicine, sciences, mysticism, astronomy and astrology. His learning was encyclopedic and his genius was versatile.

Having equipped himself thoroughly in diverse branches of western and oriental learning, he set out on his sacred mission of bringing about an awakening in the decaying world of Islam. He entered India when he was hardly 18 and roamed about in this country for more than a year, influencing those who came into contact with him. At this time, India was passing through a critical period of her history. It was a lull before the storm. The fire of native hatred against the tyrannical alien rule which had installed itself as the supreme power in the country through intrigues and conspiracies was smouldering slowly and at last burst forth in May, 1857 in the form of the first war of independence, in which the Indians made a united effort to throw off the alien yoke. At this time, when the storm of revolt had engulfed northern India. Jamaluddin Afghani was in Makkah, where he had gone for pilgrimage.

After perfoming Haj, he went to Kabul. Here he was welcomed by the Afghan ruler, Dost Muhammad, who bestowed upon him an exalted position in his government. He wielded much influence both among the Afghan intelligentsia and the masses. On the death of his patron, the throne of Kabul was occupied by Sher Ali who did not like the progressive ideas of Jamaluddin. He was, therefore, forced to leave Kabul.

Leaving Kabul, he proceeded again to Hejaz to perform the Holy Pilgrimage. He was not allowed to take the overland route via Persia. He had to travel through India. In 1869, when he entered India for the second time, he was honourably received by the government. But he was not allowed to meet the Indian leaders, except under the strict eyes of the government of India. The alien government which had a bitter taste of the national upheaval in 1857 was afraid of his revolutionary progressive ideas, and soon he was dispatched in a government ship to Suez. He arrived in Cairo. Here he came into contact with the professors and students of Al-Azhar, who were much impressed by his deep erudition and high scholarship. He left an abiding impression of his progressive ideas on the intelligentsia of Egypt which, later appeared in the person of Muhammad Abduh. Instead of proceeding to Makkah, he went to Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. His learned discourses soon made him extremely popular among the Turkish intelligentsia. During one of his lectures at the Constantinople University, the Sheikhul Islam, who had become jealous of his popularity raised a storm of objections against certain parts of his speech. This inspired agitation gained momentum and the Ottoman government had to order him to leave the capital for sometime. He, therefore, proceeded to Cairo, where he arrived for the second time in March, 1871.

During his stay in the Egyptian capital, Jamaluddin Afhani soon commanded great popularity and respect among the educated class. His learned discourses on Muslim philosophy, jurisprudence, religion and sciences couched in an impressive language and bearing a progressive outlook were listened to with rapt attention by his ever-increasing audience. His contacts and discourses fired a number of young progressive writers and scholars in Eygpt with a missionary zeal.

With the increasing popularity of his progressive ideas aimed at the unity of the Muslim world, the British, who happened to wield much political influence in Egypt at that time, smelled danger for their divide and rule policy. Their interest lay in the division of the Muslim world and not in its unity---in the narrow-minded nationalism rather than in the pan-Islamism preached by Afghani. The British saw a danger to their evil game. They instigated the orthodox and out-of-date theologians, who raised a storm of agitation against him. This furnished an excuse to the British governor-general who, it is learnt, advised the Egyptian government to order the expulsion of Syed Jamaluddin from Egypt.

After a stay of about eight years in Egypt, Jamaludin Afghani left Cairo in March, 1879, and arrived in Hyderabad Deccan (India). Here he wrote his famous treatise, "Refutation of the Materialists", which created a stir in the materialistic world.

During this period, nationalist revolt broke out in Egypt in 1882 and the Syed was suspected to have a hand in it. He was summoned to Calcutta by the government of India and interned there. He was, however, released when the nationalist struggle subsided in Egypt.

He left India and arrived in London, where after staying for a few days only he proceeded to Paris. There he met his life-long associate and disciple, Mufti Muhammad Abduh, who had been exiled from Egypt.

The two outstanding celebrities of the Muslim World started their famous Arabic Journal "Al Urwat-ul-Wuthqa", from Paris, It was an anti-British organ, whose scathing criticism and fiery articles created a furore in the imperialist circles and its entry was banned in India. Its expositions of the imperialist designs in the Muslim east terrified the western imperialists who viewed with alarm its growing popularity in the Arabic speaking world.

His activities were not confined to Paris only. He moved about in the continent, contacting important personalities and impressing them with the progressive outlook of Islam. He even went to London and had prolonged discussions on international relations with Lord Salisbury, a high dignitary of Britain. Wherever he went and whomsoever he met, he left a deep impression of his magnetic personality and winning eloquence.

Leaving London, he proceeded to Russia, visted Moscow and St. Petersburg and remained in that country for about four years. He wielded much influence in the intellectual circles of Czarist Russia and enjoyed the confidence of the Czar.

It was through his influence that the Muslims in Russia were permitted to print the Holy Quran and other religious books, whose publication was earlier banned in Czarist Russia. Here, in St. Petersburg, he met Shah Nasiruddin Qachar, the ruler of Persia. A little later, the Shah met Syed Jamaluddin in Munich, Germany, for the second time. He was so much impressed with his dynamic personality that he offered him the exalted position of Prime Ministership of Persia. The Syed hesitated, but yielded due to the extreme persuation of the Shah.

He arrived in Persia along with the Shah. Soon he began to enjoy great esteem of the Persian masses. His growing popularity among the intelligentsia created apprehension in the mind of the ruler. The Syed, being an extremely sensitive person, smelled this apprehension and sought permission to leave the country. But he was not allowed to do so.

Now there was hardly any course left to him. He openly criticised Shah Nasiruddin Qachar and his reign of terror. His vehement denunciation of the autocratic rule in Persia won around him many disciples. He was arrested and deported from Persia. But the fire which he had kindled in Persia could not be put out and culminated in the assassination of Shah Qachar on May, 1, 1895.

Syed Jamaluddin Afghani roamed about in Europe, until he arrived in London in 1891. In 1892, he proceeded to Constantinople where he was warmly received by the Ottoman Caliph. He was granted a monthly pension of 775 pounds and a free furnished residence. He continued to expose the tyrannical rule in Persia through the press until the Persian government appealed to the Ottoman ruler to put a stop to this ceaseless venomous propaganda. The Syed discontinued his scathing criticism of the Persian monarchy on a personal request of the Ottoman Caliph. But his words had done their work and, as stated earlier, the autocratic ruler of Persia was assassinated on May 1, 1885. The Persian government demanded four persons from the Ottoman government, whom they suspected of the conspiracy leading to the assassination of the ruler. One of them was Jamaluddin Afghani. The Ottoman government surrendered the remaining three but refused to surrender the Syed.

But Jamaluddin Aafghani was not destined to live long. He had an attack of cancer of the jaw in 1896 and died on March 9, 1897. He was buried with great honour in the Sheikh's cemetery near Nishan Tash.

Thus ended one of the most dynamic personalities of the age---one who made kings tremble.

Jamaluddin Afghani was a great Muslim revolutionary and reformer who aimed at the unity of Muslim people all over the world. He wanted to make Islam a great force in the world. The imperialists, whose interest lay in the division of the world of Islam, were always conspiring against him and did not allow him the peaceful propagation of his mission. But the magnetic personality of Jamaluddin Afghani, his versatile genius, his sincerity and eloquence, deeply stirred those who came into contact with him and gave birth to nationalist and progressive movements in several Muslim countries.

Jamaluddin Aaghani was a linguist. He knew Arabic, Persian, Turkish, French, English and Russian. His extremely busy and turbulent life did not give him respite to settle down to the writing of books. But he wrote a number of pamphlets on diverse subjects in different languages. In fact, he stirred the spirit of Muslim intelligentsia all over the world and directed their hitherto dormant energies towards constructive channels. The East has much profited from the writings of his disciples.

As a man, Jamaluddin was humble, courteous, hard-working and amicable. He slept little, working for more than 18 hours a day. He received those who came to visit him with great courtesy. Writes Edward G. Browne, author of the well known work, "A Literary History of Persia": `the humblest as much as the most distinguished, but was very chary of paying visits, especially to persons of high ranks, In speech, he was eloquent, always expressing himself in choice language, and avoiding colloquial and vulgar idioms, but carefully adopting his words to the capacity of his hearers. As a public speaker he had hardly a rival in the east'.

Regarding his other qualities Browne states: `He was abstemious in his life, caring little for the things of this world, bold and fearless in face of danger, frank and genial but hot tempered, affable towards all but independent in his dealings with the great. His intellectual powers and his quick insight and discernment were equally remarkable so that he seemed able to read men's thoughts before they had spoken.' About His versatility Browne writes: `His knowledge was extensive, and he was specially versed in ancient philosophy, the philosophy of history, the history and civilization of Islam, and learnt French in three months without a master, sufficiently well to read and translate...He knew the Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Afghani languages together with a little English and Russian. He was a voracious reader of Arabic and Persian books. He appears never to have married, and was indifferent to female charms.'

His influence throughout the east and specially in the world of Islam was indeed overwhelming. He was, to a great extent, responsible for the awakening of Muslims during the 19th century.

The contemporary high personalities of the east and the west vied with each other to win his favour. He was loved and respected by Muslim intelligentsia all over the world, but feared by the imperialist powers, who were afraid of his mission and growing influence. He raised up a living spirit in the hearts of his friends and disciples which stirred their energies and sharpened their pens, and the east has profited and will profit by their labours.

He was responsible directly or indirectly for the organization of several progressive and reformist movements all over the Islamic world, including the Nationalist and Modernist movement in Egypt, the movement of Union and Progress in Turkey, the Reform Movement in Persia, the Modernist and Khilafat movements of Muslim India. `It was really wonderful', writes Browne, `that a wandering scholar, with no material resources save only an eloquent tongue and a pen, literally made kings tremble on their thrones and defeated the well-laid plans of statesmen by setting in motion forces which he knew how to evoke and with which secular politicians, both European and Asiatic, had utterly failed to reckon.'


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