28 January 2019

How to make sense of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn?

Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn

I have briefly mentioned Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn ‘al-Afghânî’ before here, particularly his contribution to the concept of wahda (‘unity’) in the discourse of early Arabic modernity. This was a topic that deeply concerned him. However, after having read some annotated primary source materials (in translation, of course) on the man himself, I confess that I could have made that case much better than I had. Iran scholar Dr Nikki R Keddie, in her study on Jamâl ad-Dîn, places him squarely between the mediæval tradition of Islamic philosophy (which includes, in ad-Dîn’s own words: al-Fârâbî, ibn Sînâ, ibn Bâjja, Suhrawardî, Mir Dâmâd and Mulla Sadrâ) and the modern tendencies of ‘political Islam’ as embodied by his students Muhammad ’Abduh and Rashîd Ridâ. Occupying this transitional position, however, he doesn’t belong entirely with either group.

To confound things even more: there is a strong dispute over the branch of Islâm and the sect of jurisprudence to which ad-Dîn belonged. Was he, as his Ægyptian one-time admirer and student ’Abduh claimed, a true blue Afghan Sunnî of the Hanafî school? Or was he, as Keddie argues and as seems more likely from the documentary evidence, a sceptical and philosophical-minded Iranian Shî‘i with Shaykhi sympathies? Certainly, ad-Dîn had no problem either acknowledging the intellectual debt the Muslim world owed to Arab Christians, Jews and Persian ‘Magians’ – or, indeed, welcoming Christian students (who themselves were embracing anti-colonialist and pan-Arab sentiments) to his lectures and speeches. In addition, ad-Dîn was clearly a dissembler when the situation demanded it, and represented himself in different ways to different audiences. He was an Iranian among the Iranians and an Indian among the Indians; however, among the Turks and Ægyptians he presented himself as an Afghan, and among the Afghans a Turk. He was a fire-breathing champion of Islâm before the masses, and a cultured critic of Islâm before European scholars like Renan. As we can see: he followed the philosophical tendency of al-Fârâbî (and possibly also Plato) in having an exoteric message for the masses and an occluded esoteric message for a select inner circle.

It would be absurd to pretend that ad-Dîn didn’t have a political agenda. He was, very forthrightly, a most bitter foe of Western imperialism and colonialism, whether in India, in Ægypt, in East Africa, or indeed anywhere else where Muslims happened to be under foreign (particularly British) administration. And he always seemed to have a certain problem with authority – not just British. Unlike Philo, who also hated authority but knew when to bite his tongue, it seems ad-Dîn couldn’t resist poking the eyes of the rich and pompous. (I say this with the deepest endearment.) His magnetic personality seems to have bred in him a certain megálothūmía. He almost invariably became involved in intrigues and assassination attempts against truculent or corrupt princes, and was banished multiple times from multiple different Muslim polities.

Clearly there is much that is contradictory and enigmatic about the life and thought of Jamâl ad-Dîn, despite his outsized impact on the development of political Islâm on the one hand, and Arab nationalism on the other. His stances on power, on sæcularism, on ‘Western thought’, are all complex and resist easy ideological classification. But Keddie argues forcefully against the interpretation of Jamâl ad-Dîn as a political opportunist. He does have a distinct religious-political orientation, in despite of the effusions of Islamic piety aimed at the masses and the religious scepticism aimed at fellow-scholars. Keddie, as the title of her book indicates, argues that his positive religious-political stance is one of anti-imperialism and self-strengthening. Jamâl ad-Dîn did indeed want the British out of India and Ægypt, and generally off the necks of Muslims everywhere; and he did encourage Muslims to acquire some forms of Western knowledge, science and technology. Surprisingly, the terms of this anti-imperialism correspond rather well to similar doctrines in other parts of the world.

There is in fact a direct relationship between Jamâl ad-Dîn and the Russian Slavophils – or at least, some of those associated with the Aksakov circle. During his stay in Russia he met, for example, with Oberprokurator Pobedonostsev, who treated him with a surprising degree of cordiality. During this time Jamâl ad-Din published a number of anti-British, anti-imperialist editorials in the Moscow Gazette, which actually seem to have garnered some sympathy among the Slavophils but which failed to ‘move the needle’ of Russian policy in a more anti-British direction as ad-Dîn had intended.

Intriguing – though much more difficult to prove, given that ad-Dîn never went to China – is Keddie’s use of ‘self-strengthening’ as a descriptor for Jamâl ad-Dîn’s ideology, and the apparent overlap between ad-Dîn’s highly-selective advocacy for Western knowledge, and the contemporary enthusiasm in China for the doctrine of zhongti xiyong 中體西用 (‘Chinese [learning for] principles; Western [learning for] application’) first propounded by conservative-reformist Chinese statesman Zhang Zhidong 張之洞 in the wake of the First Opium War. Zhang was the first to come up with the phrase ‘中學爲題,西學為用’, but the idea and its application had long been practised by reformers in China such as Lin Zexu 林則徐 and Wei Yuan 魏源. All of these political figures were directly reacting to the brutal realities of British capitalist rapine in China and attempting to chart a different way forward with (some of) the tools at hand. Pankaj Mishra makes a much more, in my view, intellectually-daring linkage between Jamâl ad-Dîn and Liang Qichao 梁啓超 – the one-time student of Kang Youwei 康有爲 and progressive political reformer in China – and Indian reformer Rabindranath Tagore, following a similar theme, and his thesis should be heeded carefully. As an internationally-minded philosopher and anti-imperialist himself, I cannot help but think Jamâl ad-Dîn himself would deeply approve of such a reading of his work.

Still, I have to wonder. Since the Arab Spring (if not long before), the Arab world at large has witnessed a resurgence of fundamentalism on the one hand and obsequiousness to the West on the other – the two as often as not going hand-in-hand. With the exception of one nation – Tunisia, which has already had a long tradition of reformist post-imperial rule in Bourguibism – the revolution has everywhere failed to bring what it had promised: it sold out everything, and got nothing in return. The clarion calls of warning, from the likes of worthy luminaries such as the late great Samîr Amîn, have been notable for their rarity as well as their clarity. Arab nationalist ideas seem petered out… the era of despair having given way to an era of confusion.

Speaking as a sympathetic observer, it is in precisely such times of crisis as this one that a return ad fontes is desperately needed. The thinkers of the Arab world would do well to put old hatreds to bed, and consider from the very same classically-rooted virtue-ethical philosophical perspective their relationships with the various political powers in the world. The example of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn, whose knowledge of the entire tradition of Islamic neo-Platonism and Peripateticism is demonstrably as profound as any of his contemporaries’, is instructive in numerous ways. Some later Arab nationalist presumptions about the fundamental character of Western sæcularism and political science need to be carefully re-examined in light of Jamâl ad-Dîn’s cautions against the ‘neicheri’ and his admonitions about the telos of religious belief. And the passions of the very recent Arab youth movements, though the initial justice of many of these movements is beyond reproach, need to be tempered by certain Socratic-Platonic doubts (which were all too near the forefront of Jamâl ad-Dîn’s mind) about the fundamental character of mass movements, and the movements of the human soul by which they are aroused. It is only under the shelter of such doubts that the valuable kernel of these movements’ initial radicalism can be preserved long enough to sprout and bear good fruit. Perhaps this is a good admonition in general for political organisers of any stripe, in any polity!

In any event, the life and political-philosophical work of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn, though not without serious flaws, are worthy of deep consideration and reflection. Even, and perhaps especially, for those of us Christians in the West who oppose the continuing violence of the American state against the Middle East; and even more, those of us who share communion with Arabic brothers and sisters, and deeply and genuinely desire their good.

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