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Reflections on Syed Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abduh

By Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Nadwi

The great thinker and savant Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Nadwi writes in his book, Western Civilization: Islam and Muslims:

Syed Jamaluddin Afghani had a forceful personality and a mind remarkable in many ways. He had traveled widely in Europe and made a close study of its people. But, in spite of the immense popularity he enjoyed, his life and work are shrouded in mystery; he has become something of an enigma. Divergent views and activities are attributed to him. What is left of his own writings and speeches, together with the accounts furnished by his disciples of his sayings and doings, throw a most unsatisfactory light on his life and ideas, and it is difficult to conclude on their basis about his attitude towards the West and its civilization.

Nevertheless, Iqbal held him in the highest esteem. He thought that had Jamaluddin Afghani not frittered away his energies on so many things, he could have succeeded better than the rest of his contemporaries in dispelling the intellectual bewilderment the ascendancy of the West had produced in the Islamic world and forging an active and operative link between the widely separated conceptual, moral, and spiritual values of Islam and the downright materialistic norms of the modern Western society. His versatile mind and his creative genius, in Iqbal’s view, made him eminently suited to the task. He had a natural aptitude for it. Thus, of him, Iqbal writes:

“The task of a modern Muslim is (therefore) immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past. Perhaps the first Muslim who felt the urge of a new spirit was Shah Wali Allah of Delhi. The man, however, who fully realized the importance and immensity of the task, and whose deep insight into the inner meaning of the history of Muslim thought and life, combined with a broad vision engineered by his wide experience of men and matters would have made him a living link between the past and the future, was Jamaluddin Afghani. In his indefatigable but divided energy could have been devoted entirely to Islam, as a system of human belief and conduct, the world of Islam, intellectually speaking, would have been on a much more solid ground today.” [Iqbal: Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930), pg. 136]

Anyway, because of the situation obtaining in the Muslim World in general, and in Egypt in particular – which he had made the center of his activities – Jamaluddin Afghani, despite his extraordinary intellect and passionate devotion to Islam and his Afghan pride and enthusiasm, could scarcely devote himself to anything besides the liquidation of foreign domination and political revival and integration of Muslim countries. Politics remained his major preoccupation. His famous pupil, Muhammad Abduh, has summed up his struggle in these words:

“So far as his political objective is concerned, which became a passion with him and in the pursuit of which he spent the whole of his life and bore immeasurable suffering and made gallant sacrifices, it lay in the resuscitation of the Muslim empire so that it could take its stand against the most advanced nations of the world and be a source of real strength and glory to Islam. The breaking of the British hold over the East formed an important plank of this program.” [Ahmad Amin: Zu‘ama’ al-Islah fi ‘l-‘Asr al-Hadith, pg. 106]

As for Muhammad Abduh himself, while acknowledging the valuable services rendered by him in the cause of Islam, it would be necessary to stress the fact that he was also among the pioneers of the modernist movement in the Arab world. He gave a powerful call for the reinterpretation of Islam in order to make it conform to the requirements of Twentieth Century society. His ideas and writings bear a heavy imprint of Western ideals. In this respect, there is little to choose between him and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (with the difference that Muhammad Abduh had a very deep knowledge of the Arabic language and literature and theological sciences, while Syed’s knowledge of them was rather superficial). The modernist trend can be discerned early in his commentary of the Qur’an, his theological fiats and other writings. The protagonists of modernism who came after him have drawn liberally upon his works.


Jamaluddin Afghani’s political activities shut out for him the other avenues of fruitful endeavor and for a man of his vision and sensitivities he could make little positive contribution to the reconstruction of Islamic life and society. The opportunity to lay the foundations of a new school of thought in the light of his intimate study and critical evolution of Western civilization which could cope with the challenge of time did not come his way.

Nevertheless, he was not unsuccessful in reviving and strengthening in the Muslim intelligentsia reverence for Islam and a living faith in the soundness and universality of its message. He belongs to the select band of men who have wielded the greatest influence on the rising Muslim generations in the modern times. The most striking part of his achievements is that he arrested the advance of the educated Egyptian youth towards atheism. His writings have definitely played a part in the preservation of the intellectual effects of Islam among the Muslim intelligentsia and in keeping its spiritual allegiance alive in however restricted a manner. Carl Brocklemann says:

“The spiritual life of Egypt was ruled over by Islam in the past, and so it is up to now. This is due largely to an Iranian, Jamaluddin Afghani, who, for political reasons, preferred to associate himself with Afghanistan where he had spent his youth and to describe himself as a native of it.” [Geschich e der Islamischen by Velker und Staaten, Munchen-Berlin, 1939]