Al-Afghani on Muslim clerics and Science

Nasir Khan, Nov. 10, 2015

“The strangest thing of all is that our ulama these days have divided science into two parts. One they call Muslim science, and one European science. Because of this they forbid others to teach some of the useful sciences. They have not understood that science is that noble thing that has no connection with any nation, and is not distinguished by anything but itself. Rather, everything that is known is known by science, and every nation that becomes renowned becomes renowned through science. Men must be related to science, not science to men. How very strange it is that the Muslims study those sciences that are ascribed to Aristotle with the greatest delight, as if Aristotle were one of the pillars of the Muslims. However, if the discussion relates to Galileo, Newton, and Kepler, they consider them infidels. The father and mother of science is proof, and proof is neither Aristotle nor Galileo. The truth is where there is proof, and those who forbid science and knowledge in the belief that they are safeguarding the Islamic religion are really the enemies of that religion.” — Lecture on Teaching and Learning (1882).

— Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani (1838 – 1897)
A short biography of Al-Afghani, a famous rationalist thinker and Pan-Islamic political activist of the 19th century:


Also known as Asadabadi because of his now-proven birth and early childhood in Asadabad in northwest Iran, Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (b. 1838/9–d. 1897) was a pioneering figure in promoting political activism to counter British encroachments in the Muslim world and in advocating Muslim unity against Western conquest. He wrote and spoke in favor of Islamic reform, modernization, science, and a variety of political ideas, including nationalism, political reform, and pan-Islam. His reformist and politically activist views influenced men involved in major political movements in Egypt from 1875 to 1883 and in Iran from 1890 to 1892. His ideas and activities have remained influential in the Muslim world. The variety of his writings, and of writings about him, have led a wide range of Muslims, from leftist reformers to religious conservatives, to honor him. In his lifetime he spent time in several countries; in chronological order of his first stay in each country, he spent time in Iran, Ottoman Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Ottoman Istanbul, Egypt, France, England, and Russia. He was expelled from Afghanistan, Istanbul, Egypt, and Iran because of his political activities. While thousands of books and articles have been written about Afghani, especially in the languages of Muslim countries, most of these have important distortions, often going back to inaccurate stories he told about himself and to an apologetic biography written by his main disciple, the Egyptian Muhammad ʿAbduh. ʿAbduh’s biography was written largely to counter what were widespread reports that he was born and raised in Shiʿi Iran and not, as he claimed, in Sunni Afghanistan, and that he was not orthodox in his beliefs and spoke in different ways to different audiences. His own writings and recorded words show that he often told different and inaccurate stories about his birth, education, nationality, religious and political views, and relations with the powerful.


The three books cited below are largely based on primary sources, some of which first became available in 1963. These documents add to the prior Iranian and other proofs that Afghani was born in northwest Iran and that he was educated in Iran and in the Shiʿi shrine cities in Ottoman Iraq. They include documents from his first trip to Afghanistan as a young man, which is also discussed in India Office documents, and from other stages of his life up to his 1891 expulsion from Iran, when he left these documents at the home of his Tehran host, Amin az-Zarb. The books, especially Keddie 1972, show that most previous biographies of Afghani were based on an apologetic account by his disciple, Muhammad ʿAbduh, who accepted Afghani’s account of an Afghan, and hence Sunni, birth and childhood. ʿAbduh also tried to refute current charges that Afghani was not an orthodox Muslim believer. Most Western and Iranian scholars accept the basic points made by Keddie 1983 and Pakdaman 1969, but several Sunni Muslim writers do not. Keddie and Pakdaman recognize the pioneering role of Afghani in spreading modern and reformist ideas in the Muslim world, his courage in opposing powerful rulers, and his innovations in methods of oppositional politics. Some Sunni authors, however, consider Afghani a great hero and reject the idea that he often did not tell the truth about his Shiʿite origins and other matters.

  • Keddie, Nikki R. Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn “al-Afghānī”: A Political Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

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    This is a long, source-based biography with many quotations from Afghani and primary sources, a critical introduction regarding bibliography, and appendixes of Afghani’s letters. It evaluates a great variety of sources in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Russian, French, and English, many never before used, and has long passages quoting and translating these sources.

  • Keddie, Nikki R. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn “al-Afghānī. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

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    Hardcover originally published 1968. Half of this shorter book analyzes Afghani’s life and thought, and half has translations of some of his articles and, co-translated with Hamid Algar, an English version of the original Persian of the “Refutation of the Materialists.” This edition contains a new introduction, “From Afghani to Khomeini.”


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