al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din


al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din
(1254–1314/1838–97)
   An enormously influential nineteenth-century philosopher, journalist, orator and political activist-leader, al-Afghani was the chief architect of both Islamic modernism and the pan- Islamist movement. His modernism consisted in an attempt to reform and revitalize Islam by retrieving its original moral force and essential rationality, while at the same time appropriating modern western science and technology. His aim was to negotiate a middle way between the more fatalistic, authoritarian and anti-intellectual elements of the Islamic tradition and the seemingly atheistic and nihilistic worldview of the modern West. The pan- Islamist movement that he kick-started aimed at mobilizing and empowering Muslim nations with modern science and technology in order to resist European imperialism and colonialism. Ultimately he hoped to unite Muslim nations into a single autonomous caliphate, thus reattaining the glory of Islam. Philosophically, al-Afghani’s most important contribution is The Refutation of the Materialists (al-Radd ‘ala al-dahriyyin). The work begins with a philosophical-scientific critique of materialism from Democritus to Darwin, then offers a social-ethical criticism of materialism (which, he argues, has a corrosive, degenerative effect on civilization), and concludes with a defense of the value of religion (in particular, Islam) for the health of individuals and societies and the progress of humanity in general. However, far from being a traditionalist attack on the pretensions of reason, the Refutation clearly manifests a commitment to the power of the intellect and the importance of free inquiry, and holds religious belief to a fairly rigorous standard of rationality. Indeed, al-Afghani’s critical stance towards Darwin softened over time (e.g. he accepted a version of natural selection) and at times he appears to privilege philosophy and science over religion when they conflict (e.g. his famous defense of Islam against the French positivist Ernest Renan). Al-Afghani had a profound impact on thinkers such as Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida and Muhammad Iqbal, to name just a few. However, his greatest influence would be felt through subsequent developments in Islamic reformism and Islamist movements such as the salafiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood, who also sought to purify Islam, albeit in a more fundamentalist direction.
   Further reading: Keddie 1968; 1972; Kedourie 1966

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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