July 7, 2015 By Sead selmi

Jamaludheen Afghani and Decolonial Horizon


There is an avid interest in recent times in excavating in the multi-faceted career of Jamaluddin Afghani those factors which could help turn the tables on the colonizing power centres.  Pankaj Mishra, a writer committed to the cause of decolonization in the era of globalization, notes in his well-documented From the Ruins of an Empire, which recalls the pan-Asiatic and Pan-Islamic ideals of the time of Afghani in the canvas of the present, that Afghani was held as an inspiration for decolonial struggle.

Mishra notes that Ali Shariati frequently discussed Jamaludheen Afghani and his thoughts with his friends in France; a significant location of the former’s intellectual dynamism.  Shariati strongly believed that Afghani’s thoughts are powerful enough to dismantle social structures built by the colonial condition (coloniality). While Shariati was the intellectual father of the Iranian revolution, Afghani was praised as the Intellectual Godfather. This essay would attempt to shed some lights on Afghani as far as anti-colonialism is concerned and to subsume all other narratives on his life under the politically significant category.

As Talal Asad points out in his interview with Saba Mahmood, one of the main limitations of scholarship on Islamic thinkers is that it places modernity as the center of the debate; creating a hegemonic discursivity. These scholarship places these thinkers in particular categories of modernity’s essentialism, erasing all nuances. My aim is to rather decenter modernity than erase its relevance in the debate.

Afghani’s anti-colonial project expanded mainly though the geopolitical locations of Afghanisthan, India, Iran, Turkey, France, Russia and England in 20th Century. At the ends of his life, he develops the Praxis of ‘Islamic Unity’ while living in Turkey. Global Muslim Ummah against the British Empire was one his main ideas. We need to understand how Afghani located coloniality and modernity in this particular context.

For Afghani, modernity is a narrative that dynamically constructs western civilization. It is important to point out that Afghani sees west as an epistemic power rather simply than a territory. This notion is very visible in his debates with Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan. Afghani describes Sayyid as a parochial westernizer. In his book The refutation of the materialists, he says that Sayyid failed in identifying the power structures that makes colonial power possible. Iqbal Singh Sevea points out in his work (The Political philosophy of Allama Iqbal) that Allama Iqbal also locates Ahmed Khan in a similar manner.

One of the main assertions of colonialists is that as their knowledge is civilized and modern, it should be exported to inferior locations. Therefore, the logic of colonization and coloniality is operating on the rhetoric of modernity; salvation, progress, development, modernization, and democracy. I think, Afghani’s relevance and importance lies in the fact that he identified this operation logic of colonialism. Wurat-Al-Wutaq ­(the firmest robe)- the journal he brought out in collaboration with Muhammad Abdu gives insight to this relationship between knowledge production and colonial power.

In fact, Afghani’s Ittihad-i-islam (translated as both Islamic unity and Pan-Islamism) was developed in the context of identifying the epistemic power of coloniality. He understood modern nation state as flawed resistance to the operational logic of colonialism, thus formed the idea of Ittihad-i-Islam. One of the reason he is known as modernist and nationalist was because the works on him used the framework of methodological nationalism. This claim can be refuted within the context of his anti-imperialist activism. He completed his education in Afghanistan and India. His critical work on Sayyed Ahmed Khan The truth about the Neichari sect and an explanation of Neicharis was written in India. Later, he travelled to Egypt and Istanbul. He resided in Egypt for 8 years, where he formulated his philosophical and political ideas through public lectures. He lived in London for a little while in the wake of 1883. Later, he moved to Paris. This is where he publishedUvvathul Vuthka magazine. In 1886, Afghani moved to Iran accepting Sha Nasrudheen’s invite and also got appointed as his special advisor. But he moved to Russia over his contentions with Sha. At the ends of his life, he was living under the protection of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in Istanbul. This was where he formulated the praxis of Ittihad-i-islam with Sultan. For spreading the idea of Islamic Unity he sent letters to different Muslim lands and also argued for Shia-Sunni unity. He also exerted critical influence on Mohamed Iqbal, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Abdul Kalam Asad, Ali Brothers, Saeed Nursi, Namik Kemal, and Mehmet Akif Ersoy.

Most of the scholarship on Afghani describes him as traditionalist and modernist simultaneously, also limitation in Pankaj Mishra’s work. Such a binary is only becoming possible while centering modernity. Michael Cook writes about this epistemic violence made possible by modernity while analyzing the Quranic term Amr bin Maruf. Talal Asad writes about this hegemonic centering of modernity and the possibility of decentering in his recent talk as part of ‘Idea of Islam Today.’( http://www.academia.edu/11370932/The_Idea_of_Islam_Today_Towards_Non-Orientalist_Genealogies_An_International_Symposium_in_Honor_of_Talal_Asad). I think, a better term (in terms of both decentering modernity and covering nuances) for describing Afghani would be the Quranic term Mujtahid.

Anibal Quijano theorizes west as epistemic location rather than a territory. We can see that Afghani understood west in a similar praxis. This is one of the primary reasons Afghani could identify the operational logic of colonialism. He theorized Christian theology as the primer of coloniality. Walter Mingolo calls this the theo-politics of knowledge. Carl Schmitt writes about this: “ Political theology is not a metaphysical issue, but rather a well-grounded structure based on a catergories of knowledge, vision and institutional configuration.” The importance of Afghani lies in the fact that he uncovered this matrix of colonial power. Afghani’s thinking helped us expose the modern subject introduced by the European renaissance model in the epistemological base of Euro-centrism. Therefore, it is important to include Afghani in the expanding horizon of deccolonial political engagements.

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