Islamic Modernism in the Works of Jamaluddin Al-Afghani and Syed Ahmed Khan: Contrast and Relevance

Islamic Modernism in the Works of Jamaluddin Al-Afghani and Syed Ahmed Khan: Contrast and Relevance

Priyanka Chandra
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3435-9.ch023
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Linkages between religion and politics have engaged the interest of scholars for centuries. Two thinkers, whose works are central to these inter-linkages are Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Syed Ahmed Khan. Both were Islamic modernists in the late nineteenth century who sought to reform religion by engaging with modernity. They have also contributed significantly to shaping the nationalist movements in West Asia and India respectively. This chapter will examine their ideas on important issues like religious and educational reform, nationalism and Pan-Islamism, differences and contrasts in their ideologies and their contributions to Islamic modernism. Through this examination this chapter will highlight the relevance of their contributions to the study of contemporary political Islam.
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Jamaluddin al-Afghani is an important figure in the history of Islamic modernism, and has influenced numerous thinkers and movements down the centuries. Born in the late 1830s1, he came to be known as a political activist and Islamic reformer as well as thinker. Having himself been influenced by the rational school of thought through the works of Avicenna and Ibn Khaldun as well as the earlier Salafi2 tradition, he is known for his contribution to the ideas of Islamic reform and pan-Islamism, and his staunch opposition of colonial rule. His discourse on Islam and politics has influenced ideas of identity of the self, pan-Islamism and the concept of umma3 and anti-colonialism. His ideas of reform influenced subsequent thinkers, political activists and reformers through the centuries. His most famous disciple was Muhammad Abduh, who in turn contributed significantly to reform and reinterpretation in the fields of Islamic education and jurisprudence among others. Together Afghani and Abduh also propagated the concept of ijtihad or reinterpretation of Islamic texts and law, as opposed to the then prevalent practice of taqlid. He was one of the major advocates of Pan-Islamism, a concept that held varied but important political connotations in the following decades. He gave a lot of emphasis to the centrality of rationality to interpreting Islam, theologically as well as politically.

He is often known as the father of Islamism and some of his followers in later decades include Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which is still the strongest political organization opposing the military regime in Egypt. Sayyid Qutb, whose writings are believed to have incited radicalism and extremism within the Muslim Brotherhood, was also influenced by the works of Afghani and Abduh. In the South Asian region, Abul A’la Maududi, an eminent political Islamic thinker and political activist whose influence in India and Pakistan has been significant on the colonial and post colonial eras, was deeply influenced by ideas of political Islam propagated by Afghani.

Syed Ahmed Khan was born in 1817 in India, and in the early years of his life witnessed the decline of the Mughal empire, and the ascendance of the British colonial empire. This had a significant impact on his mindset, and he came to identify the decline of the Mughal empire with the stagnation of the Muslim community in the India subcontinent as a whole. He was also deeply impressed with key aspects of the British rule, most notably the British education system, which he sought to imbibe in his programme of educational reform for the Muslim community in subsequent years. His reform programme was aimed at proving the confluence of religion with science and reason, and on his appreciation of Western modernity. His most important achievement was to reconcile tradition with science by highlighting how reason and natural law was central to Islam. Although his efforts at reform were directed towards the Muslim community, more so in the later years of his life, the pro-British image that he projected as an admirer of British rule alienated him from the more conservative sections of the Muslim community, and brought him directly up against the traditional ulema.

Khan wrote extensively with a view to propagate modern ideas aimed at the liberation of the society. His works included a journal titled Tahzibal-al-Akhlaq (referred to as the Mohammedan Social Reformer in English) which was an interpretation of Islam. It emphasised the importance of western education, and stressed on how imperative it was for the Muslim community to imbibe it and learn from it. He also established the Scientific Society in Ghazipur in 1863 in order to instil a temperament for scientific inquiry among Muslims, where he translated several western classics to Urdu.

His most significant contribution to the Muslim community in India was the establishment of the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College (M.A.O. College) in 1875, at Aligarh, which came to be known as the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) by the year 1920. It was based on the institutional and educational structures of Oxford and Cambridge universities, both of which Khan had visited and been highly impressed with. It included teaching in Urdu, Persian and Arabic as well as English. “He was an erudite scholar and jurist who sought to find solutions through modern education to the backwardness of his Muslim fellows after the catastrophe” (Galonnier, 2012, p. 132).

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