Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 5: The Misunderstood Sheikh
The last quarter of the nineteenth century brought Egypt confidence as well as calamity. The confidence came from, as we discussed previously in this series, the successful Egyptianisation of aspects of the modernisation that Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim Pasha, and Khedive Ismail had driven, especially in education. Calamity came in the shape of Britain’s occupation of Egypt.
At the core of the project that Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim had led was the objective, that was realised and strongly cemented in the first half of the nineteenth century, of establishing Egypt as an independent state. Its place within the Ottoman Empire was nominal. Its decision was almost totally that of its ruling house. And around that house there had begun to appear circles of talented Egyptians who were increasingly designers and shapers of policies rather than mere implementers, such as Ali Mubarak Pasha whose role the previous article in this series described.
The occupation presented Egypt with a reality that was beginning to dawn on the country (and the entire East) for some time, but was now becoming glaringly obvious. That is, whereas delving into Western culture would certainly lead to economic and social development, the West was determined to combine this development with the subjugation of the East.
Naturally a movement hostile to the West began to appear in different eastern countries, from Afghanistan to Morocco. Most of the leading voices of that movement were Islamic scholars who, for decades, had had acute concerns about how openness to Western culture would bring about moral decay and God’s wrath.
Jamal el-Din al-Afghani was different, in terms of his thought and impact.
Al-Afghani was a Persian Islamic scholar (born either in Iran or in the parts of Afghanistan that were then highly influenced by the Persian civilisation). He came to Egypt after working for modernising rulers in that part of the world. And there he had experienced the struggle between the desire to learn from the immense knowledge the West had developed and possessed, and the need to fight its strangling political encroachment.
Al-Afghani was uncompromising. For him, the British must be resisted, and the East must mobilise all its resources to fight the colonisers. He went further and advocated that the rulers who cooperated with the invaders - or whose actions had facilitated the West’s encroachment (in his view, such as Ismail, whose borrowing policies had proven reckless and therefore had been a way for the West to expand its influence) - must be opposed and if possible deposed.
Yet, al-Afghani separated western politics from western culture. He was neither naive, nor starry-eyed. For him, western politics stemmed from a cultural condescension towards the East. But in his view, whereas western politics of occupation must be fought, the western culture that had enabled the advances which made the West able to occupy the East, must be studied.
Al-Afghani also separated politics and culture from geography. For him, the occupation was not a western phenomenon denoting a lack of morality or a culture bent on exploiting others. In his view, power dynamics always shaped history and orchestrated international relations. The powerful sought resources to grow and expand, and the weak suffered. Culture was not bound by geography. Western advances were anchored on rationalism and disciplined application of methodical sciences, which were not European products per se, but products of universal forms of knowledge that Europe had skilfully acquired, developed and mastered in the four centuries before the nineteenth. But these forms of knowledge had originated in Egypt and Persia and India, and were later added to and developed in Greece, then lost into oblivion until the Islamic civilisation discovered, analysed, and resuscitated them into European consciousness. And it was only after that that Europe succeeded in leveraging on them to build the marvellous Western civilisation of the modern age. In al-Afghani’s words, Europe knew Aristotle and Plato in Arabic rather than Greek garbs.
Al-Afghani was neither childishly feeding eastern ego, nor stupidly asserting the East’s equality in knowledge and development with Europe’s. Al-Afghani had made it perfectly clear that Europe owned its advances, and that these advances were the results of thought and ways of living and behaving that Europe had curated to an exquisite degree of refinement. Al-Afghani’s key point was that the bases upon which modernity was built in the West were not necessarily Western, but originally and in essence, a flow of universal knowledge.
Al-Afghani understood that knowledge and development were inextricably linked to thought and behaviour. No advanced society tolerates chaos, noise, and dirtiness. Internalising true knowledge instils refinement and an inclination towards beauty. For al-Afghani, like scores of philosophers before him, it was a natural law, without errs or exceptions.
Al-Afghani’s ideas were applicable throughout the entire East. But, as he had made it clear, Egypt was special. Its location at a point quite central between al-Mashreq and al-Maghreb, between Asia and Africa, and between then the seat of the caliphate in Istanbul and the Islamic holy shrines in al-Hijaz, made it a natural destination for people from different regions of that East. Its history, from the pharaonic to Greek to Persian to Roman to Arabic had made it a crucible of ideas. And as he noted with the admiration of the constant traveller that he had been, Egypt’s then agrarian, tranquil way of life made it a natural base for slow, mature unfoldment and nurturing of ideas. This was why, despite that al-Afghani had worked in Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Calcutta, London, Paris, St Petersburg, and Munich, it was in Cairo that his thought blossomed.
Al-Afghani’s revolutionary ideas about deposing rulers resulted in his being repeatedly expelled from almost all the countries he had attempted to settle in, including Egypt. He became an inspiration for different thinkers and activists. But lacking a base, he failed to create a movement. This was why many of his ideas had come to later generations truncated, in fragments, and often shaped by those who conveyed them, often utterly missing or deliberately obfuscating their inherent points.
Pan-Islamism was the most obvious example. Al-Afghani entered the collective culture of the Muslim-majority East as a pan-Islamist thinker. Al-afghani certainly saw Islam as a unifying cultural framework of Persians, many Indians, Turks, tribes on the Steppes hailing from Turkish ancestries, Arabs, Amazighs, and Egyptians. Al-Afghani also used the notion of pan-Islamism to engage with Western thinkers who viewed the East largely, and often solely, as Muslim-majority, or just Muslim societies.
However, for al-Afghani, Islamism – or the role that Islam, by theology and tradition, has played in society - was a process of cultural development. It began with Islam’s exposure to the older civilisations of Egypt, Persia and Greece, and progressed with the schools of wisdom championed by al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Al-Afghani was far from the traditionalist knee-jerk defender of Islam that several historical narratives presented. He was a subtle and deep thinker who believed that a fundamental role of Divine inspiration was humanising and civilising its social milieu.
Al-Afghani’s thought was one of the most interesting attempts to position traditional Islamic culture to benefit from the West-inspired modernisation. He worked on pragmatic and serious elaborations on how Islam’s historical trajectory in the different regions of its growth and spread could meet Western advances, not only in sciences, but crucially in humanities.
Al-Afghani’s revolutionary politics, however, and his assertive ways of fighting Western political domination made many in the East and West suspicious of his positions, and ready to quickly, without serious assessment, cast him among the fathers of modern Salafism.
That was a mistake. Perhaps the best description of al-Afghani came from his closest disciple, Sheikh Mohamed Abdou (later one of the key thinkers on the role of Islam in modern society), when he described al-Afghani’s thought as a “wholistic multi-faceted truth”.
As we will see in the next article in this series, it was a contemporary of al-Afghani – another non-Egyptian who had chosen to make Egypt his home – who managed to bring al-Afghani’s rationalistic approach to religion along with a more reflective view of how to advance politics in Muslim-majority societies at that delicate moment of their transition towards modernity.