a prophet without honor in many lands

al-AfghaniI really enjoy the opening of chapter 3 in Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869–1899 by Dominic Green:

Bearded, voluble, and a little bug-eyed, Sheikh Said Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani was a prophet without honor in many lands, usually under an assumed identity. In Afghanistan and India, he pretended to be a Turk called Said al-Istanbuli: “Said of Istanbul.” In the Ottoman Empire, he called himself al-Afghani: “The Afghan.” In both guises, he claimed to be a defender of mainstream Sunni Islam. None of this was true. He was a Shia, not a Sunni; from northwest Persia, not Afghanistan; and rather than being an orthodox scholar, he was a highly unorthodox revolutionary. Afghani believed that Islamic civilization was under deliberate military and cultural assault from the Christian world. The only solution was to beat the infidels at their own game. Western technology and ideas would be the weapons of a modern, reformed Islamic society.

Afghani grew up in Persia, its shah the chief defender of the Shiite minority that had splintered off from Islam in the decades after Mohammed’s death. While messianism was incidental to Sunni Islam, it was integral to Shia faith. As a child in Tehran, Afghani learned that the twelfth in the series of infallible imams that had led the Shia had disappeared over a thousand years earlier, but would return as the Mahdi, the Expected Redeemer who would inaugurate a new millennium. In a further deviation from Sunni custom, Afghani’s education in the Shia seminaries of Najaf included both the rationalist, Greek-derived philosophy of medieval Islam — banned as heresy in the Turkish and Arab worlds — and also Sufi mysticism. In Afghani’s youth, the blending of these streams of thought produced the Shaikhi sect, a stew of rationalist philosophy, mysticism, and a cult of strong, hidden leadership. While the Sunni clerics of the Ottoman lands endorsed the sultan and stability, Afghani was a philosopher, a heretic, and a mystic who expected a messianic redemption.

Afghani dwelt on Islam’s intellectual frontier in an era when European exports and armies broke the borders between the Islamic and Christian worlds. By economics or war, the outcomes were the same: the eclipse of Muslim power. The shah of Persia intrigued weakly between the British and Russians as the borders of their empires converged on Central Asia. The Mughal emperors of India were crushed by first the French and then the British. The Ottoman sultan betrayed his caliphate, entering military alliances with the Christian nations against whom previous sultans had waged jihads of conquest and conversion.

The rise of the Christian West mocked the Muslim conviction that in the unfolding of the divine plan that was history, theirs was the final and true religion. More than modern Judaism or Christianity, Islam was a total system. Accepting no separation between religion and state, its ambit included all life, including politics. The past power of Islamic empires attested that Islam was the true religion. Yet if Muslims possessed the final revelation and the duty to spread it, how had Christians, their infidel inferiors, taken over the world?

The only reason could be that Muslim rulers and their subjects had drifted from true Islam. Some preached a return to an idealized past of authoritarian purity and desert tribalism.


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