by Niels Lee

The famed fin de siècle Muslim intellectual Jamāl Ad-Dīn Al-Afghānī (1839–1897) hailed by Western scholars for his “modernist” approach to Islamic thought, became a figure of controversy during the 1960s. At the center of the dispute lies al-Afghani’s most famous work, “Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan” published in the Journal des Débats in May 1883. At the time, the famed French orientalist Ernest Renan (1823–1892) had recently argued in a Sorbonne lecture that Islam had an antagonistic relationship with science. In response, al-Afghani asserted that, despite Islam’s historical opposition to science, Arabs preserved a ‘natural attachment’ to philosophy. While the article’s overarching argument was not controversial in itself, the last paragraph’s seemingly bleak portrayal of religion in general and Islam in particular, received critical attention. Statements such as “No agreement and no reconciliation are possible between these religions and philosophy” has led historians such as Sylvia Haim, Elie Kedourie, and Nikki Keddie to argue al-Afghani was not an “orthodox” Sunni as previous scholars such as Edward G. Browne had assumed.

As a result of al-Afghani’s non-Muslim associates and his musings on controversial doctrines, he has been portrayed as a “heterodox” Muslim who held a cynical attitude towards Islam. Some even go so far as to suggest al-Afghani was intellectually inconsistent or dishonest, if not “irreligious.” However, the long-standing argument that the 1883 article exhibits al-Afghani’s cynicism rests on two assumptions, both of which fail to read the last paragraphs in conjunction with the article’s larger theme and language. Despite the admittedly bleak tone, al-Afghani was providing a limited critique of both the Muslim public and governing elite, rather than dismissing Islam as a whole.

When “Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan” resurfaced in the 1960s the bewilderment it caused is understandable, given how it ends on a rather somber note:

No agreement and no reconciliation are possible between these religions and philosophy. Religion imposes on man its faith and its belief, whereas philosophy frees him of it totally or in part. How could one therefore hope that they would agree with each other?…Whenever religion will have the upper hand, it will eliminate philosophy; and the contrary happens when it is philosophy that reigns as sovereign mistress. So long as humanity exists, the struggle will not cease between dogma and free investigation, between religion and philosophy; a desperate struggle in which, I fear, the triumph will not be for free thought, because the masses dislike reason, and its teachings are only understood by some intelligences of the elite, and because, also, science, however beautiful it is, does not completely satisfy humanity, which thirsts for the ideal and which likes to exist in dark and distant regions that the philosophers and scholars can neither perceive nor explore.[i]

Such stark rhetoric on the nature of religion, testimonies from associates attesting to his “irreligion,” and the fact that he rejected the idea of translating “Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan” into Arabic, has left scholars and subsequent intellectual historians debating the extent of al-Afghani’s religiosity or the lack thereof. Some continue to broadly agree with Haim and Kedourie reframing Afghani as an advocate for “secular liberalism,” while others disagreed by doubling down on al-Afghani’s numerous “orthodox” writings. Others such as Margaret Kohn have even suggested reading al-Afghani through Francois Guizot (1787–1874), where the aforementioned conflict between religion and philosophy is meant as a constructive tension that can deter civilizational stagnation.

In spite of the long and detailed scholarship on this question, I contend that there is an overlooked interpretation of the controversial passage. This oversight posits two very important questions. First, when al-Afghani uses the term “religion” in “Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan” is he referring to religion in general, and is the term applied consistently, as many scholars have assumed? Before al-Afghani engages with the actual merits of Renan’s argument, he shrewdly asks whether this opposition toward science “come uniquely from the Muslim religion itself or from the manner in which it was propagated in the world; from the character, manners, and aptitudes of the peoples who adopted this religion, or of those on whose nations it was imposed by force” (“Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan,” 182). In other words, what Marwa Elshakry once referred to al-Afghani’s distinction between “Islam and Muslims,” was Renan referencing Islam itself or how Islam was promulgated and sustained by the faithful?

Not only did this categorization provide a general outline for his rebuttal, but it also hints at how he conceptualizes “religion” in general and Islam in particular. This is important because he often handles religion-related terms in a confusing manner. For example, in his 1883 article, he uses the phrase “Christian religion” only to then define it as “the society [emphasis mine] that follows its inspirations and its teachings and is formed in its image…” Soon after, he also argues “Muslim society has not yet freed itself from the tutelage of religion [emphasis mine],” a statement that seems to reflect his view of how existing Muslim communities have not freed themselves from what he would later refer to as “dogma” (“Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan,” 183). This suggests the possibility he may not be referring to religion in general even when he uses the term “religion” in the concluding paragraph, but rather “the manner in which it [Islam] was propagated in the world.”

Although an esoteric definition of religion, is it not also possible to read the passage in question not in isolation but as an extension of a preceding passage? In it, al-Afghani sets out to explain two questions: “Why Arab civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world” begin to reject science, and why have they remained in “profound darkness” (“Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan,” 187). He begins by blaming the governing elite for eliminating philosophy, citing theologian Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505) who reported the death of numerous philosophers under the orders of an Abbasid Caliph. This statement is then immediately followed by an interesting binary between religion and philosophy, in which both disciplines appear irreconcilable. One represents faith and the other freedom. This contrast alone would not seem controversial if “religion” is a reference to how Islam was “propagated in the world” by certain Muslim sovereigns. Indeed, “how could one therefore hope that they would agree with each other” if the governing elite’s interests conflict with that of philosophers? Therefore, the first half of the concluding paragraph is more likely a commentary on the past, present and likely future power struggles between Muslim rulers and philosophers—a reflection of their general incompatibility.

The second half of the concluding paragraph assembles a similar binary. There, the conflict is between the religion of the masses who are tied to their “dogmas,” and the philosophy of the educated elite who practice free investigation. Contextually, this suggests “religion” is a reference to the version of Islam propagated by the public, perhaps akin to what James Grehan once described as “agrarian religion.” If sovereigns are responsible for Islam’s initial rejection of science, al-Afghani is suggesting Muslims remain in “profound darkness” at least in part, due to the public’s distaste for reason and philosophy’s lack of popular appeal. The provocative claim that “triumph will not be for free thought” then seems to be an acknowledgment that there will always be those who reject intellectual culture.

This alternative interpretation of the term “religion” as either a version of Islam propagated by Muslim sovereigns or the public, better aligns with an earlier optimistic statement regarding the future of Islam. Directly responding to Renan’s Sorbonne lecture, midway into the article he uncharacteristically pleads for understanding: “I cannot keep from hoping that Muhammadan society will succeed someday in breaking its bonds and marching resolutely in the path of civilization after the manner of Western society . . . No, I cannot admit that this hope be denied to Islam” (“Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan,” 183). The disconnect between such optimism and the concluding paragraph’s supposed pessimism did not go unnoticed by Keddie who refers to the contrast as a “variation,” evidence of “contradictory tendencies within one complex individual” (An Islamic Response to Imperialism, 90). However, it is more likely that his aim was to convince Renan that the Muslim World would eventually progress in the “manner of Western society,” despite its rulers and public stifling intellectual culture.

While the concluding passage of “Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan” was a limited critique of both the Muslim public and governing elite for their rejection of science and philosophy, there are still lingering questions. Al-Afghani did mull over the then controversial theological concept    Wahdat al-Wujud (oneness of being), expose himself to Shaikhism and Freemasonry, and even claimed to be a Sunni from Afghanistan when in fact he was a Shiite from Iran. His legacy is further complicated by writings and testimonies that appear to suggest he had a rather cynical attitude toward Islam. Such findings prompted Haim to suggest al-Afghani was a religious skeptic who approached Islam purely in terms of its utilitarian function (Arab Nationalism, 9-12), while Kedourie went further claiming he was “secretly a free­ thinker and a sceptic” who sought the eventual “subversion of the Islamic religion, and that the method adopted to this end was the practice of a false but showy devotion” (Afghani and Abduh, 14, 45). Yet, Keddie openly challenged such characterization arguing whenever Islam was described in a negative light it was a reference to the deteriorated state of Islam i.e. “negative Islam” and not an open condemnation toward the religion as a whole (An Islamic Response to Imperialism, 38-39). The dated if not hyperbolic characterizations notwithstanding, a close assessment of al-Afghani related documents, testimonies and scholarship is long overdue. Hopefully such will lead to a reexamination of al-Afghani’s intellectual legacy and in turn, that of modern Islamic intellectual history.

Niels Lee received an M.A. from Yale University, with a focus on modern Ottoman intellectual and cultural history. He currently works as an editor and has recently published an article for MERIP titled “Orhan Veli’s Poetry and the Struggle to Preserve Istanbul’s Green Spaces,” which explores Istanbul’s landscape and soundscape through the lens of the Turkish poet Orhan Veli.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: A 1921 issue of Journal des Débats, via Wikimedia Commons.

[i] Jamal al- Din Afghani, “Answer of Jamal ad- Din to Renan,” Journal des débats May 18, 1883, trans. Nikki R. Keddie and Hamid Algar, in Nikki R. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din ‘al-Afghani’, 187.