Dan McEwan

Programmer, Artist, Historian

The Rhetoric of Despotism by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

    Following the expulsion of the last Frankish stronghold at Acre in 1291, Europe considered the Levant and North Africa little more than a highway to the economic prosperity of South Asia epitomized by Bonaparte�s campaign at the conclusion of the eighteenth century. Understanding the European view of the Ottoman state as nothing more than an intermediary between Europe and the British colonial-economic empire before 1797, British authority in Egypt and the Sudan can be recognized as a developing entity demanding minimalistic technological gains in the maintenance of economic transit potential, while simultaneously limiting social and political developments as threats to their own regency and eventual suzerainty. The British influence stood at contrast to the theoretical authority of the Ottoman imperial state, which certainly maintained no hegemony over the region, despite the British understanding and political recognition of such. Into this secular-Christian political dominion of Egyptian culture and statehood arrived the popular polemicist orator Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who considered Egypt and the Sudan as the initial location for opposition not only to the British, but first to the secular-Muslim imperial Ottoman state.

     In the vacuum of political control created by the British defeat and expulsion of Bonaparte in 1801, the greater Egyptian region began the process of emancipation from foreign rule; however, this progression towards autonomy rejected Ottoman authority, rather than European, and resulted directly in British imperial occupation after 1882. Although under the titular dominion of the Ottoman imperial state, the growth and expansion of Muhammad Ali�s nearly autonomous regime into the Sudan, Libya, Hejaz and Levant during the first half of the nineteen century must have seemed beneficial to the degradation of the Ottoman state in the eyes of the British, since the first British response to Muhammad Ali�s expansion did not occur until 1840. Although the subsequent wali provided little advancement, Isma�il Pasha began a project of modernization according to the European model following his ascension as khedive in 1863, establishing extensive railroad and communications routes as well as generating a bankrupting debt to Britain. The joint British-Egyptian venture constructing the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, but Egyptian rights to the project would be sold to cover national debts less than twenty years later. In the Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed ibn Abdullah�s Mahdi movement expelled the British provincial government under Major-General Charles Gordon in 1881 and maintained a corrupt, but independent Sudanese state until 1899. Ideologically, the movement actually rejected Ottoman imperial control via Egyptian proxy, rather than British colonial, since the British presence was considered a symptom of failed Ottoman authority in the region; the general rejection of imperial authority in Egypt followed this mindset as well.[1] Formal British colonial authority of Egypt began in 1882 as a result of the threat of the Madhiyya ideological movement spreading into Egypt and the gross national debt of Egypt, with the intention of securing control of the Suez Canal and access to the Red Sea.

     Born into the Iranian Shi�a community, the controversy over his self-established association with Afghanistan and the Sunni community has not been definitively settled, although his birth and status as a modern secular hero in Iran are not in dispute.[2] With a long history of exiles due to political affiliation, al-Afghani lived and studied predominantly in Iran and Afghanistan until moving to Egypt and experiencing British imperial influence, but not direct rule, between 1871 and 1879. Following his exile accompanying the dispossession of Isma�il Pasha, al-Afghani traveled to India and then arrived in Europe by 1882, coinciding with the establishment of the British protectorate in Egypt. Beginning in 1884, he published the paper “?????? ??????” from Paris in conjunction with Muhammad �Abduh. Following the development of a friendship with the Ottoman khalifa Abdul Hamid, al-Afghani moved to Istanbul where he vociferously promoted his pan-Islamic movement until his death in 1897.[3]

     Al-Afghani�s works can be divided into two types of literature, religious polemics concerning the re-emergence of a powerful pan-Islamic state and secular critiques of governance which attack British and reject Ottoman imperialism; notably the two genres tend to maintain separation in his publications. Though further development on the availability of a translation of Nietzsche�s first two works, Birth of Tragedy and Untimely Meditations, both published well before al-Afghani�s expansion into his critique of governance, al-Afghani�s focal shift bears striking resemblance to Nietzsche�s praise of Greek intellectualism and pursuit of development in contrast to his criticism of German statehood and authority. Certainly, there is no similarity in religious focus between the two and each would have staunchly condemned or outright ignored the other in that regard, both call for a reinvigoration of a perceived genealogical heritage which has been squandered and repressed; the call to a process of striving and overcoming in rejection of the scholar�s perception of societal acceptance of banality produces a very similar intention for each one�s message.[4]

     Two examples of his religious polemicism, titled �Why Islam has Become Weak� and �Deterioration of the Muslims and the Causes for That� provide the rhetorical style which likely provided the basis for his popularity as a public orator. Evidence within both articles points to authorship before 1881, contrary to Ha�iri�s placement of the former in the 1890�s.[5] The two articles establish a theme of Islamic eschatological supremacy, attacking adherents for failing to strive towards a greater unification of Islamic society and for the degradation of the religious aspects of the Ottoman state. Further, he attempts to establish a historical continuity between the initial spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula by a �handful of unequipped Arabs,�[6] transposing his view of a technologically inferior Muslim world onto the historical narrative in a suspect manner, given the relative technological and military superiority of the early Muslims and especially of the Umayyad imperial state. He points to the height of the Abbasid expansion, yet calls the empire a conglomerate of �independent and prosperous lands located in the best regions of the earth,�[7] Of note though, these articles do not employ the diction of pan-Islamic unity, but provide examples of his oratorical message of Arab-Muslim revivalism that Keddie points to as having been employed in the early portion of al-Afghani�s popular career in the 1870�s.[8] Contrary to any eschatological Muslim polemic of the current day, al-Afghani actually points to the Israelites as an example of one of the world�s greatest empires blossoming in the Euphrates-Nile region, comparing its significance in the historical record to that of the height of Abbasid expansion, along with Assyria, Phoenicia, Babylon and Egypt, but not the Roman imperial state. Certainly the omission of the Romans follows his condemnation of European domination of the region, despite also being a pre-Islamic ruling authority, in demonstration of what is probably al-Afghani�s consideration of the Greco-Roman expansion as the first colonial movement of European powers. He concludes by addressing the Ottoman and Iranian states as the sole Muslim powers free of European domination at that time, but rejects each one�s inability to openly confront the European powers.

     Diverting from his religiously polemic message, al-Afghani�s anti-colonial political articles follow the secular intellectual model of his contemporary European intellectual peers; in this manner he aimed to employ the methodological tools of the European intelligentsia without tolerating submission to European authority. The socio-political platform of Freemasonry within the colonial protectorate provided al-Afghani an established means to transition his oratory popularity into an effective political enterprise according to K. Wissa.[9] His association with both the British Kawqab ash-Sharq and French lodge provided access to the European intelligentsia and likely his connections employed in Europe during his exile in 1879. From Paris, al-Afghani criticized Muslim political enterprises which did not oppose the influence of imperial powers, such as the work of Sayyid Ahmed Khan in India after 1884; his specific rejection of Khan�s efforts focused on a perception of the Indian scholar�s tafsir as irreligious and co-colonialist, both a product of Khan�s British sympathies.[10] Concerning greater Egypt and the Levant, al-Afghani�s views paradoxically rejected the secular-Westernism and imperial qualities of the Ottoman state, but later implicitly praise the Ottoman political structure.[11]

     Immediately preceding his exile imposed by the British territorial authority, al-Afghani published an article titled �Despotic Governments� in the May 1879 issue of Misr; the article condemns the influence of external authority in a given state and calls for a shift in educational practices and representative government.[12] A later article titled �The Despotism of Lord Duphene,� published after 1880, continues this message in the specific condemnation of the British ambassador to Egypt of the time; both articles employ similar language in many regards as well the specific term �????� for �despot.� The multiplicity of Arabic allows al-Afghani to explicitly connote a specific understanding of the authoritarian rulership that he sees as extending from the European imperial powers. The term implies an arbitrary and disconnected imposition of authority or tyranny, stemming from the root relating governance in an esoteric sense and producing the diction for �court,� ????? , and �administration,� ?????. Al-Afghani avoids the use of an alternative term such as, ?????, which stems from the same root producing the diction of �overflowing� and �surpassing.� Through this, he avoids the insinuation that imperial governments have simply extended their bounds and become a vehicle of inevitable tyranny; rather, the enactment of imperial authority, be that British or Ottoman, exists as a purely external and arbitrary force which can be opposed and dispossessed. This emphasizes his argument regarding the disparity between the Muslim state and Europe as being nothing more than a product of deterioration of education and technology brought about by the restriction of �ulema and the prohibition on ijtihad. In pointing to the �arbitrary� nature of imperial influence, he argues that the assumption of superiority is fundamentally flawed and has arisen not necessarily from the advancement of the European powers so much as by the inattention and lack of innovation by the Muslims. Thus, al-Afghani�s depiction of the European imperial-colonial movement is of nothing more than technological and educational inequity which can be cast off simply through the devoted efforts of the Muslims. In this, he also connects his political rhetoric with his historio-religious polemic by pointing to the focus on scientific advancement and intellectual development which accompanied the political rise of the initial Islamic state.

     Al-Afghani�s efforts established a continuum of pan-Islamic and anti-imperial rhetoric which progressed through the line of protonationalist authorship in the Middle East, initiating the intellectual movement towards independence, especially in Egypt; his oratorical and historical legacy have become enshrined in the national mythological identities of both Egypt and Iran. The Egyptian appropriation of the Iranian scholar, joining the ranks of other non-native cultural icons as Salah ad-Din Ayyubi and Muhammad Ali, seems almost fitting to Al-Afghani�s historiographic transposition of the the narrative of initial spread of Islam onto the anti-colonial struggle. Although the rich pharonic cultural heritage of Egypt clearly predates Islam, it seems strange that the political dimension of the ancient society never found a place in the modern nationalistic trend; that no appropriation of the ancient history found a voice in al-Afghani�s works is not necessarily a surprise, since he is not ethnically Egyptian. The appropriation of al-Afghani into progressive struggles for nationalism in the region, despite his focus on pan-Arabic and then pan-Islamic identity, emphasizes the bizarrely lacking appropriation of the historical heritage of Egyptian ethnicity.

[1] Rudi Matthee, �Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the Egyptian National Debate,� International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol 21 (May, 1989), p. 152
[2] Matthee 153
[3] Nikki R. Keddie, �Pan-Islam as Proto-Nationalism,� Journal of Modern History, vol 41 (March, 1969), p. 22
[4] Notably, Nietzsche rejected much of what he initially wrote in Birth of Tragedy, even providing an addendum to the work in the form of a new preface for the 1886 reprinting, titled �An Attempt at Self-Criticism.� This however, does not impact the possibility of al-Afghani having employed the argument of the first printing in 1871.
[5] Abdul-Hadi Ha�iri, �Afghani on the Decline of Islam,� Die Welt des Islams, vol 13, (1971), p. 121. Ha�iri points to al-Afghani�s statement concerning foreign rule in a series of Muslim states, including British control over the Sudan, in dating the work in the 1890�s. However, British authority in the Sudan was temporarily halted by the Mahdiyya between 1881-2 and 1899, after al-Afgani�s death.
[6] Ha�iri, 124
[7] Ibid.
[8] Keddie, 22
[9] Karim Wissa, �Freemasonry in Egypt 1789 � 1921: A Study in Cultural and Political Encounters,� British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, vol 16 (1989), p. 148
[10] Aziz Ahmed, �Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muslim India,� Studia Islamica, no 13 (1960), p. 56
[11] Matthee, 153
[12] L. M. Kenny, �Al-Afghani on Types of Despotic Governments,� Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol 86 (Jan 1966), pp. 21-27

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