Biography of Martyr Jamaluddin Asad Abadi – Part 1

 “Allah does not change the condition of people until they change their own condition.”

  Holy Quran.

Sayyed Jamal Ad Din Assadabadi, entitled Al Afghani, is considered to be the founding father of the “Islamic Revival Movement”. He was a far sighted Islamic leader, thinker and an activist who worked to transform Islam into a lever against Western Imperialism. He was a cosmopolitan of the great Islamic Ummah, living throughout the Islamic territory. He was especially famous for his endeavors in the so called Islamic “Awakening” movement. He paved a path which was followed by other Islamic activists throughout the 19th and 20th century. He was considered one of the most important and effective pioneers of the awakening in the east. In the darkest period of the deprived nations he prepared to be a lamp of guidance, an untiring fighter for the Islamic nations. He worked tirelessly to unify “The Islamic Ummah” and revive the former greatness and glory of Islamic nations in our history. In many aspects, Jamal ad Din was the prototype of the modern fundamentalist. He had been deeply influenced by western rationalism and the ideological mode of western thought.

Jamal ad Din welded a traditional religious hostility toward unbelievers to a modern critique of Western Imperialism and an appeal for the unity of Islam, and while he inveighed against the west, he urged the adoption of those western sciences and institutions that might strengthen Islam. Jamal ad Din spread his message in constant travels that took him to Cairo, India, Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul. He visited Paris, London and St. Petersburg as well. What gives a particular value and credit to Jamal ad Din’s struggles is the extent to which his thoughts were spread in all Islamic lands and his efforts for the welfare and salvation of world Muslims. No figure can be found in the history who had won such a wide reputation as Sayyid Jamal ad Din had attracted public attention from a scientific, political, social and even literary viewpoint.

The main contents of his ideas and views are reflected in the famous publication of “Urwah al Wuthqa” and his other valuable works.

This crusading Alim rose up in the darkest era of the life of eastern nations, at the time when the tyrannical dominations of Colonization was rampant in Islamic Nations. He rose to defend Islam and its authentic principles against various materialistic, political and philosophical schools of thought. He was focused on restoring Islamic law to its original status in society. He was a true prodigy of Iran a selfless, steadfast personality who was way ahead of his time, his political acumen, farsightedness and his passion for the unity of Islamic Ummah created fear in the hearts of political personalities and the western world. His adventurous life was devoted to making Muslim Governors aware of the potentialities for development and social flourishing innate in the Holy Quran.

Sayyid Jamal ad Din’s heritage inspired many “Islamic Movements” against imperialism and dictatorship in the Islamic world in the 20th century; this attempt has not yet ceased.

His contribution to the realization of a Modern Islamic identity would prove to be a model in Iranian society for the creation of movements opposed to despotism and colonialism; indeed; Iran’s later Islamic Revolution was also promoted on the foundations of his thought. The awakening of Iranian Muslims at the beginning of the present Islamic century 14th century hijra in connection with western colonization and the superpowers of the time, especially Britain and Russia, is indebted to the efforts and alertness of this well informed, crusading A’lem. Jamal ad Din’s fear of the west and obsessions with Muslim self strengthening prepared the way for Ayatollah Khomeini and still animates the politics of Islamic societies. 

This work presents and analyzes and gives details about a movement which was the precursor of the constitutional Revolution. The Pan- Islamic leader, Sayyid Jamal ad Din’s career spanned the entire Middle East and Muslim India. In the 1880’s and 1890’s he helped awaken the Iranian’s contributing significantly to the tobacco protest of 1891-1892 and his ideas and tactics were adopted by many of the leaders of the Constitutional Revolution.

The movement against the concession of a Tobacco Monopoly to an English company which took places in Iran from 1891 to 1892 presents in microcosm many of the features which were to reappear in the Persian constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. Although the movement has been discussed in various Persian and Western works, no analysis of it has yet appeared in a western language which draws attention to the complex political factors which found expression in this successful mass rising and to its relations to the later development of Iranian political life.

Some indication of its importance can be seen in the following points:

The protest against the Tobacco concession was the first successful mass movement in Modern Iranian history and led to the defeat of the government and triumph of the protestors in their demand for a total cancellation of the concession. This success undoubtedly gave courage to the conscious opponents of the government and of foreign encroachments, and led many to see for the first time that it was possible to defeat the government, even on a matter involving European interests. 

The movement involved the first successful alliance between the Ulama, modernizing reformers and the discontented population of Iran, particularly the Merchants. {An alliance which reappeared in the later protests and came to fruition in the Constitutional Revolution.} 

The movement also marked a watershed in Iran’s foreign relations. The government, having tried to rely on Great Britain in the late 1880’s could no longer resist the pressure of Russian power. (In this period Iran becomes entangled in a web of superpower rivalry between Britain and Russia.) The same Prime Minister who had been known for his Anglophile policies had his position to shaken by this opposition movement that he saw no alternative, if he were to save his post , to coming to terms with the Russians, which he did immediately after the tobacco fight was lost. Later he became notorious for his Russophile policies, and when after a period out of office he was recalled in 1907 as a prime minister, he was assassinated by extreme revolutionaries who considered him a tool of Russia.

Afghani was one of the first influential figures to try to restate the Muslim tradition in ways that might meet the agonizing problems brought by the growing encroachments of the west in the Middle East. Rejecting both unthinking tradionalism and blind imitation of the Christian West, he began what has been a continuing reinterpretation of Islam, emphasizing values vitally needed for life in the modern world, such as activism, the free use of human reason, and political and military strength. He was seeking these values within the Islamic tradition, instead of openly borrowing from the heretical West. As the first “Neo-Traditionalist” whose influence spread beyond the borders of a single Muslim country, Afghani is in some sense the parent of various later trends that reject both pure traditionalism and pure westernism.

In Iran, Jamal ad din is revered as the intellectual God father of the Islamic revolution, which Michel Foucault, visiting Tehran in 1979, called ‘the first great insurrection’ against the ‘global systems’ of the west. More remarkably, left wing secularists as well as Islamists, pan-arabists and pan-islamists in Muslim countries as desperate as Egypt, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Malaysia regard Jamal ad Din as a path breaking anti-imperialist leader and thinker. He is often compared to the two other great political and philosophical exiles of the 19th century, Karl Marx and Alexander Herzen, Jamal ad Din is barely known in the west today, even though his influence exceeds that of Herzen and at least in its longevity, almost matches Marx’s. This is at least partly because there are gaping holes in his biography. Much of what he did and said during his journeys across the Muslim world has been lost to history. To reconstruct his intellectual trajectory, as the following biography attempts, it explores the social and political tumult of the different countries he travelled through- the experiences that defines his world view. In any case, a history of his ideas cannot depend, as is the case with many western thinkers, on published texts setting out clear concepts and well-referenced biographies. Intellectual history in this case is the history of his arguments, which are not and could not be internally consistent with this world. By his own admission, Afghani was an “insignificant man” who has no high rank and who has not achieved exalted office” yet, as he warned, “great deeds” were performed by men like himself, “wandering and with rough garments, knowing cold and heat, bitter and sweet, and having traversed many mountains and deserts and experienced the ways of men. His deed looks greater in retrospect, especially when compared to those of the Muslim thinkers who preceded him. Remarkably, Jamal ad Din was already alert to the perils ahead for Muslim countries in the 1860’s, when the European presence in Asia was still largely confined to India. He worked to transform Islam into a lever against Western Imperialism. His was an age of European expansion into the heartlands of Islam, and of a frenzied search by Muslims for ways to ward off foreign conquest…

This intellectual biography is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual’s lives…

Jamal ad din was a mysterious figure; he has attracted interest because of the mysteries and controversies surrounding his life. The two most controversial questions about him concern his nationality and his religious orthodoxy.

It is clear that he was one of those people, who cannot tell the truth about themselves, facts about Jamal ad Din’s early life are scarce and obscured by his claim, repeated in several countries, to have been a Sunni Muslim from Afghanistan. But, it is clear now that he was born in 1838 in the village of Assadabad near Hamadan in the north-west Persia, and educated in Tehran, the seminaries of great Shiite cities, mainly Najaf and then in India. His early years in Persia coincided with the rise in Babism a radical and messianic interpretation of Islamic traditions, Jamal ad Din received an early grounding in the tradition of Persian Islamic philosophy which was more open to innovation than its Sunni Arabic counterpart, clearly emboldened Jamal ad Din’s revisionist Islam. Shiite Islam had a more unorthodox tradition in Persia, which even as late as the 19th century produced a major Islamic philosopher, Mullah Hadi, Shiite Persia had preserved philosophical traditions that had long been moribund in Arabic speaking lands, such as reconciling rationalist ideas with revealed religion. Trained in a heterodox tradition, Jamal ad Din was sooner able to speak of reform and change than his Sunni peers. But, as a Shiite his appeal would have been limited among Sunnis, and he seems to have thought it prudent to claim Afghan ancestry in order to pass himself off as a Sunni Muslim in the countries that he wished to reform.

Following is a brief review of some of the evidence proving Jamal ad Din’s Iranian birth and upbringing:

First: There is no early account of an Afghan birth and upbringing that does not rest on Jamal ad Din’s own word. Whereas several Iranian contemporaries have recorded their knowledge of Jamal ad Din’s family and childhood in Iran, there is nothing analogous for Afghanistan.

Second: There are several Persian accounts that give particulars about Jamal ad Din’s birth and childhood in Iran, the most detailed of which comes from Jamal ad Din’s nephew Lutfallah, who grew up in Jamal ad Din’s own village of Assadabad near Hamadan in northwest Iran. Letters to Jamal ad Din from Lutfallah and other members of Jamal ad Din’s family in Assadabad, photographs of which appear in the recent Persian documents volume, confirm many essential points of Lutfallah story. The same volume contains several passports issued to Jamal ad Din by the Iranian government listing him as a Persian subject, but no comparable document from the Afghan government.

{Evidence of his Iranian nationality: Sheikh Agha Bozorg Tehrani, the great expert on books and Shiite hadith, does not doubt the Iranian origin of Sayyid Jamal ad din.

Some of his professors were Iranians such as Sheikh Morteza Ansari, the great Shiite marja of the 19th century. This is also supported by the correspondence of Jamal ad Din with the religious leaders of Iran, such as Mirza Hassan e Shirazi in the tobacco movement, Sayyid Mohammed Tabatabai at the beginning of the constitutional movement in Iran, and Tabatabai encouragement of Sayyid Jamal to stay in Iran and assume the leadership of the justice seeking movement in Iran.

Sheikh Muhammad Waiz Zada al Khurasani mentions in one of his books that on completion of his studies in Najaf, Iraq, Sheikh Jamal ad Din conceived the great lofty idea of uniting the ranks of Muslims by means of political and social reform, and understood that he would be unable to achieve that as a Shiite scholar. He therefore travelled to Afghanistan and claimed a connection with it, styling himself as “Al Afghani”. He became familiar with the Afghani dialect of Persian, immersed himself in Hanafi fiqh and chooses a family of Kunar sayyids from Assadabad (Afghanistan) as his family, even though he was in fact a Sayyid from Assadabad. Afghanistan was a highly suitable place for Jamal ad Din to study Hanafi Fiqh for a short time, and he was fluent in Arabic.} European and American writers and researchers such as Albert Qodsizadeh, Hamed Elgar and Edward Brown in his history of constitutionalism, confirm his Iranian origin.

Third: Documents from Afghanistan for the years 1866-1868 show that these were the years of his first and only trip to Afghanistan. In these years the government of India’s representative was concerned about the appearance of a mysterious foreign Sayyid in the counsels of the Amir of Afghanistan, and set out to find out about this man. The man’s given name was Jamal ad Din; he was accompanied by his lifelong servant named Abu Turab; and the dates for his stays in Qandahar, Ghazni, and Kabul correspond exactly to the dates independently documented in the Persian documents volume. The government of India’s investigations shows that Jamal ad Din in 1866-1868 made no claim to be in Afghan, and was known to everyone as a foreigner, unknown in Afghanistan until his entry in 1866. He could hardly have been brought up in Afghanistan, as it was reported that he “talks Persian like a Persian.” He claimed in this period to be a Turk from Istanbul.

Finally: Both the British foreign office and the U.S Department of state at different times launched independent investigations to determine the question of Jamal ad Din’s birthplace and both decided unequivocally that he was “Iranian”.

There are somewhat conflicting Iranian accounts of Jamal ad Din’s childhood. The most complete one, the general chronology and outline of which have been confirmed by recently published documents, is given by his nephew, Lutfallah Assadabadi whose relationship is proven by recent Documents volume. Lutfallah based his account both on the words of Jamal ad Din, with whom he spent much time in Tehran between 1887 and 1890, and on family and friends from Assadabad, including Jamal ad Din’s cousin and friend, Sheikh Hadi, who was still alive when Lutfallah wrote.

Lutfallah begins by giving a genealogy of Jamal ad Din’s father, who came from a respected branch of Sh’ii sayyids {descendants of Muhammad} who has lived in Assadabad for centuries. Jamal ad Din’s father, Sayyid Safdar, is said to have been a modest cultivator but a learned man in contact with many of the outstanding Ulama of his time, including the chief Mujtahid {religious leader} of the twelve sh’ii, Sheikh Murtuza Ansari{then living in Ottoman Iraq}. 

From ages five to ten Jamal ad Din is said to have studied at home with his father and to have quickly learned Arabic and the Quran and its secrets. Jamal ad Din’s fellow pupils, like his cousin Sheikh Hadi, tell amazing stories of his abilities, such as his explaining the secrets of one of the suras{chapters} of the Quran to his playmates. Many of Jamal ad Din’s childhood games are said to have been in preparation for his later travels, once he got on a wooden horse, bid goodbye to his parents and sisters and said he was off for India, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan and other places. He promised his mother and father that he would actually make some of his trips. A unique document on Jamal ad Din’s childhood is an adult letter to him from Sheikh Hadi saying that his own mother was still awaiting Jamal ad Din’s nomination of her as a governor of province of Khurasan, a promise he made as a child. Lutfallah states that when Jamal ad Din’s father saw how intelligent his son was, he took him to the city of Qazvin to study, at the age of about ten. Jamal ad Din is said to have been so enamored of his studies that he worked very hard every day, taking no holidays and refusing to walk around to visit the town.

Towards the end of his second year in Qazvin there was a cholera epidemic there, and the dead bodies were placed in the cellar of the Madressa {religious school} where Jamal ad Din lived. Lutfallah then quotes a story directly from Jamal ad Din; after he had helped his father prepare the body of a mullah, who had been their friend, and put it in the cellar, Jamal ad Din determined that he must learn the cause of the dreaded disease. He took some candles, went for several nights to the cellar, secretly from his father, opened the shrouds, and studied the heads and faces of the victims, replacing the shrouds afterwards. When his father discovered what he was doing, he took him to Tehran. This story, which seems to have no strong motive, may well be a true and vivid recollection.

The next passage, quoted directly from Jamal ad Din, does have the flavor of his adult accounts of bold encounters with the great and powerful. Jamal ad Din told his nephew: “At the beginning of 1266 {1849-1850} we went to Tehran and lived in the Sanglaj quarter in the home of Suleiman Khan Sahib Ikhtiyar, who knew my father, was from the same district, and was the governor of Assadabad. The next day I asked the people: who today is the most famous Alim {religious scholar} and Mujtahid in Tehran? They designated “Aqa Sadiq Tabatabai”, the next day without my father’s knowing I went to his mosque {school} and saw him. The religious students were around Aqa and he was busy teaching. I greeted him and, owing to the lack of places, I sat at the door of the chamber. He had an important book in his hands, and he was explaining and interpreting it, but in an abbreviated and unclear fashion. After the completion of the lesson, I said, “Sir, could you restate this problem again in a way that will be useful since full advantage was not derived from this brief explanations?” Aqa looked towards me and said with a sharp look and angry with disdain: “you- what is this impertinence? “I said, ‘A request to understand intellectual problems has nothing to do with impertinence. The understanding of knowledge has no relation to greatness or smallness.’ And I read and translated the same problem without hesitation to the extent of two pages. Aqa when he saw this immediately rose and came to me and I also rose and got ready, thinking that he intended to hit me. When he reached me he kissed my face and, taking my hand, sat me down next to him. He showed great kindness and asked me about my circumstances and origin. I introduced myself, and he immediately sent someone to bring my father and ordered a set of clothes in my size. After introductions and completing the external formalities, he related everything for my father and asked me to put on the clothes, with his own hands he fastened the turban and put it on my head. Until that day I had not put on a turban.”

Aqa Sayyid Sadiq Tabatabai is said to have been host to Jamal ad Din and his father for the next few days. During the same year the boy and his father set out for the holy Sh’ii shrines cities of the Ottoman Iraq where Jamal ad Din could continue his education. Other sources indicate that Jamal ad Din’s later servant Abu Turab, had served Sayyid Sadiq Tabatabai, possibly confirming some contact between Jamal ad Din and the latter.

That Jamal ad Din was educated in the shrine cities appears to be confirmed both by a correspondent in the documents who remembered studying there with Jamal ad Din and by the investigations of an Iranian scholar, Muhit Tabatabai, who found an Iranian religious scholar who remembered studying in these cities with Jamal ad Din. {Interview with Muhit Tabatabai and Sifatallah Jamal Assadabadi, Tehran, September, 1966 Documents, pp. 100-101, letters from Aqa Sheikh Muhammad Hassan from Qom. In these letters the author says he had known Jamal ad Din at Najaf for years, and names their teacher there.} These Iranian accounts and later reports by acquaintances indicate that Jamal ad Din received a thorough grounding in the traditional Islamic disciplines, plus considerable knowledge of the Islamic philosophers and of Islamic mysticism or Sufism. The documents show that he read and taught philosophical and Sufi works, and showed an interest in various esoteric and heterodox subjects, such as mystical alphabets, numerical combinations and esoteric treaties. There is much in Jamal ad Din’s later life and thought that seems to reflect both traditional Iranian influences and the particular religious and political climate of Iran in the mid 19th century. 


                                                                                                                   To be continued…..


“The life and thought of Sayyid Jamal ad Din Assadabadi.” Mohammad Reza Majidi[ PhD] Assistant Professor, University of Tehran. Mohammad Reza Dehshiri[PhD], Assistant Professor, School of International Relations.

“Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The tobacco protest of 1891-1892” By Nikki R Keddie.

“An Islamic response to Imperialism.” Political and religious writings of Sayyid Jamal ad Din Al Afghani. By Nikki R Keddie.

“Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The politics of ideas in the Middle East.” By Martin S Kramer.

“Sayyid-Jamal-ad-Din-al-Afghani a political biography.” By Nikki R Keddie.

“From the Ruins of Empire” By Pankaj Mishra.

“Ten Decades of Ulama’s Struggle.” By Aqiqi Bakhshayeshi.

“The history of the Awakening of the Iranians.” By Nazen al Eslam Kermani.

“Call to unity and rapprochement among Muslim and their various Rites.” By Sheikh Muhammad Waiz Al Khurasani. 

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