Biography of Martyr Jamaluddin Asad Abadi – Part 2

The Asian world was in crisis in the late 19th century. From China to India to Turkey, societies that had stood largely unchanged for centuries were powerless to resist western armies and commerce. Appalled by the vulgarity and materialism of the white barbarians; eastern elites nonetheless recognized that something would have to be done.

Jamal ad Din was a little known and seemingly ineffectual revolutionary whose writings would inspire later generations. “He preached the necessity of reconsidering the whole Islamic position and instead of clinging to the past, of making an onward intellectual movement in harmony with modern knowledge.” But he never wavered in his hatred to the British and in his later years became an Islamic ideologue, advocating armed struggle and violent resistance.

 All sources agree that Jamal ad Din went to India in his late teens. An authentic Iranian personal reminiscence regarding his stay in the southern port city of Bushehr on his way to India dates his stay in 1855/6, when Jamal ad Din was 17 or 18. He travelled to India to continue his education, and spent a considerable part of the next decade there, in among other places, Bombay [which had a large community of Persians] and Calcutta. However long he stayed, there seems, judging from his later life and activity an inescapable inference that this Indian stay had a profound and traumatic effect on Jamal ad Din. From the time of his first appearance in Afghanistan in 1866 Jamal ad Din was a champion of Muslim struggle against British imperialist encroachments and a violent critic of British rule over Muslims. Such ideas scarcely could have obsessed him in northern Iran or in the Shrine cities of Iraq, where British influence was hardly felt, but could have easily arisen from a stay in India in the period right before, and probably during the Indian mutiny of 1857. In the decade ahead, Jamal ad Din would frequently find himself on the losing side. But, still he would amplify, more eloquently and urgently than any other Muslim of his time. The manifold threats posed by the west to the civilizations built by Islam, and he would never cease to stress his early experience of India, the only country with a large Muslim population to be occupied and partly administered by the British. Writing about the Mutiny in 1878, Jamal ad Din claimed to have been struck by the anti-British feeling shared across all social and religious divisions in India. “Their rancor and enmity towards the British, he wrote, “have attained such a pitch that there is not an Indian living who does not pray for the advance of the Russians to the frontier of India.”

The political instruction Jamal ad Din drew from the Mutiny and its particularly bitter aftermath served him well for the rest of his life. Talking to an Afghan year later, he was still lamenting the weakness of the mutineers and the ease with which the British had annexed Awadh. He would compare the British to a dragon which had swallowed 20 million people and drunk up the waters of the Ganges and the Indus but was still unsatiated and ready to devour the rest of the world and to consume the waters of the Nile and the Oxus.” The violence of Jamal ad Din’s language was provoked at least partly by the destruction of a whole Muslim society and culture that witnessed in post – Mutiny India. In Delhi the British had leveled large parts of the city, and killed or expelled most of its Muslim inhabitants.

Ghalib, the greatest poet of the last Mughal court, wrote to a friend, “When the angry lions entered the town, they killed the helpless and burned houses. Hordes of men and women, commoners and noblemen, poured out of Delhi from the three gates and took shelter in the small communities and tombs outside the city.” The city, Ghalib lamented, “Has become a desert.” The British did not allow Muslims back into the city until 1859. “The Muslim houses remained so long empty… that the walls seemed to be made of grass,” Ghalib wrote.

It was in India that Jamal ad Din had his first contact with western learning. It seems possible that this contact was more traumatic than this bare statement would suggest. Coming from an Iranian and Iraqi Sh’ii environment where unorthodox religious and philosophical ideas were being widely discussed, Jamal ad Din had now entered a country that had not only some parallel religious novelties, but also some contact with western science and ideas. More certain is the inference that it was in India and specifically from contacts with Indian Muslims under British rule, that Jamal ad Din first developed his lifelong hatred of the British. The British tended to blame Muslims more than the Hindus for the Mutiny, and after it they were more eager than ever to reduce the role of Muslims in public life.

The forbearers of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been administrative officials at the Mughal courts, were among those who fled British vindictive fury in Delhi in 1857. But, the Nehru’s high caste Hindus from Kashmir did not suffer as much as the elite Muslims such as their munshi [secretary], who Nehru relates in his autobiography, saw his family financially ruined and then partly exterminated by the English troops. These weren’t the only kind of losses… For Indian Muslims accustomed to ruling over India, the vicious quelling of the Mutiny was nothing less than a radical and comprehensive spiritual defeat. It was the poets who evoked most eloquently the humiliation and deracination of their community. Akbar Illahabadi, who witnessed the Mutiny, versified a widespread bitterness, “If you should pass the way you’ll see my ravaged village, a Tommie’s barrack standing by a ruined Mosque.”

In another poem, Illahabadi described the painful sensation of adjusting to an entirely new world:
“The minstrel, and the music, and the melody have all changed.
Our very sleep has changed,
The tale we used to hear is no longer told.
Spring comes with new adornments:
The nightingales in the garden sing a different song. Nature’s every effect has undergone a revolution.
Another kind of rain falls from the sky;
Another kind of grain grows in the fields.”

In a personal meeting with Randolph Churchill, the British secretary of the state of India in 1885, Jamal ad Din would confront him with reasons why Indian Muslims hated the Britain: “You destroyed the empire of Delhi, secondly, because you give no salaries to the Imam’s and Muezzins and the keeper of the Mosque. And you have resigned the wakf property and do not repair the sacred buildings.”

But, when he first arrived in a humiliated country in the late 1850’s, Jamal ad Din seems to have been more interested in absorbing the larger lessons from the victims of imperialism. Jamal ad Din encouraged his fellow Muslims over the next decades to educate themselves. He wrote in 1879, “O, sons of the East, don’t you know that the power of the westerners and their domination over you came about through their advance in learning and education, and your decline in those domains.” At the same time, he would never cease to hate and distrust perfidious Albion feelings developed during his time in India, and best summarized by the satirical poet, Akbar Illahabadi,

“The English men can slander whom he will,
And fill your head with anything he pleases,
He wields sharp weapons,
Akbar, best stand clear!
He cuts up God himself into three pieces.”

In Egypt in 1878, when his accounts of British oppression in India was challenged, Jamal ad Din dismissed his critics as influenced by history books authored by English people, which, he claimed, are marked by the hands of English self-love, with the pens of conceit and the pencils of deception, and inescapably they do not relate the truth and do not report reality. Convinced that the British accounts of India “laid the snare of ambiguity and the trap of duplicity,” for their readers, Jamal ad Din also never succumbed to the claims of imperial propagandists that the British were in India for the good of the Indians, and had built cities, railways and schools and deposed tyrants like the King of Awadh, to his end. This was laughable, he claimed. Even if Indian rulers were oppressive and corrupt, their reach was limited, and they spent their ill- gotten wealth in India. The British terrorized and exploited all Indians, and exported the spoils to Britain. As for the telegraphs and railways, any Indian would say, he asserted, that they were built only in order to drain the substance of our wealth and facilitate the means of trade for the inhabitants of the British Isles and extend their sphere of riches. Other than this, what has brought us to poverty and need, our wealth exhausted, our riches ended, and many of us dead, consumed by hunger? Claiming to speak on behalf of Indians, Jamal ad Din sounds presumptuous.

But, writing his autobiography decades later, Jawaharlal Nehru was no less emphatic that the “heralds of industrialism, railways, telegraphs and the wireless, came to us primarily for the strengthening of British rule”- to the extent that, Nehru wrote, “The railway the life giver, has always seemed to me like iron bands confining and imprisoning India.”

British aggression and opposition on one hand and Indian resistance and the peoples deadly and indefatigable struggle on the other hand, created scenes which were a manifestation of violence, pressure and tyranny of the most powerful western government of the time upon the deprived Indian nation deeply moved Jamal ad Din. Due to his fiery and sensitive disposition he began to reflect over these matters and decided to investigate them through further studying so as to understand the cause and root behind this European tyranny towards eastern nations. With this view in light after completing his education in British ruled India in early 1860’s, all sources have Jamal ad Din next take a leisurely trip to Mecca, and the Arab countries of Baghdad and Istanbul. The pilgrimage to Mecca was an experience which transformed Jamal ad Din’s spirit and opened his mental horizons. During the pilgrimage ceremonies, Jamal ad Din observed how hundreds of thousands of Muslims belonging to different race, color, language, culture and traditions, but of the same intention, faith and a single religious magnificence had gathered in the house of God from all parts of the world, exhibiting such a striking and glorious solidarity and collaboration, the idea of the unity of Islamic nations and world Muslims suddenly struck him. He saw that if this unity was achieved one day by the Muslims who had one goal and one thought, no power in the world could rise against it. Jamal ad Din continued his travel with this thought in mind. During this time he learnt several languages, and gathered much knowledge and experience about the conditions of the eastern countries and especially Muslim nations, and then returned to Afghanistan. Since documents from Afghanistan show that he arrived there only in 1866, we are left several years unaccounted for. The most probable supposition seems to be that he may have spent longer in India than he later said, and that after going to Mecca he travelled elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. When he arrived in Afghanistan in 1866 he claimed to be from Istanbul and he might not have made this claim if he had never even seen the city, and could be caught in the ignorance of it.

Jamal ad Din entered documented history in a small but tantalizing role, which was then, as it has been recently, the treacherous crossroads for many different geopolitical ambitions. Secret British government reports from Kandahar and Kabul in 1868, describe Jamal ad Din as having arrived from India in 1866. “ A virulent anti British agitator and likely Russian agent, a slender man with a pale complexion, open forehead, penetrating azure eyes and goatee, who drank tea constantly, was well versed in Geography and History, spoke Arabic, Turkish and Persian, not visibly religious and with a European rather than Muslim lifestyle.” Shortly after arriving in Kabul, Jamal ad Din became a counselor to Afghanistan’s Amir, who was then involved in a complex civil war with his half brother and was suspected by his powerful neighbors, the British in India, of conniving with Russia. The Afghan’s had proved perspicacious foes of the British. In 1839, the British in India tried to install a friendly ruler in Kabul. Afghan guerrilla fighters bided their time, and then assaulted a large British expeditionary force sent to the city, reducing it through successive attacks to just one man; a British army surgeon whose slumped figure on a horse, famously depicted in a Victorian painting titled “Remnants of an army,” came to stand for the worst of British military disasters in the 19th century.

By the 1860’s, the British were pressing Afghanistan again, and Jamal ad Din apparently saw an opportunity. In the history of Afghanistan he wrote in 1978, Jamal ad Din affirmed his faith in Afghan hatred of foreign usurpers: “Nobility of soul leads them to choose a death of horror above a life of baseness under foreign rule.” Here Jamal ad Din got a chance to pit the fiercely proud Afghans against the British. He advised the Amir to consider collaborating with the Russians, by now the well established rivals of the British in the region spanning the Ottoman Empire and Tibet. Among the reasons for preferring Russia over Britain that Jamal ad Din gave to an Afghan informant of British was this, “The English are thieves of unknown extraction, who have lately sprung up, and owe all that they gained to their intrigues, the Russian state has existed since the time of Alexander the great.” In any case, Jamal ad Din overplayed his hand. In 1868 the Amir was defeated by his half brother, Sher Ali, and lost his throne. Sher Ali struck a deal with the British and promptly expelled Jamal ad Din from Kabul, forcing him to look for another Muslim ruler to indoctrinate with the perils of British imperialism. Jamal ad Din left Afghanistan with a particularly poor impression of Afghan leaders, whom he thought were unreliable and prone to collaborate with European powers. {He later altered his impression when Sher Ali turned against his British patrons in 1878, sparking the second Anglo-Afghan war.}

Imprisoned at the Bala Hisar fort in Kabul awaiting expulsion from the country, he composed in rhymed prose an ironic commentary on the misunderstanding he evoked in Afghanistan:

The English people believe me a Russian
The Muslim think me a Zoroastrain
The Sunni think me a Shiite
The Shiite think me an enemy of Ali
Some of the friends of the four companions have believed me a Wahhabi
Some of the virtuous Imamites have imagined me a Babi
The theists have imagined me a materialist
The pious a sinner bereft of piety
The learned have considered me an unknowing ignoramus
The believers have thought me an unbelieving sinner
Neither does the unbeliever call me to him
Nor the Muslim recognize me as his own
Banished from the mosque and rejected by the temple
I am perplexed as to whom I should depend on and whom I should fight
The rejection of one makes the friends firm against its opposite
There is no way of escape for me to flee the grasp of one group
There is no fixed abode for me to fight the other party
Seated in Bala Hisar in Kabul
My hands tied and my legs broken
I want to see what the curtain of the unknown will design to reveal to me
What fate the turning of this malevolent firmament has in store for me

Jamal ad Din Assadabadi.

Jamal ad Din’s little cameo in the great game in Afghanistan was only the first of many international intrigues Jamal ad Din involved himself in. But, it set a pattern; the consistent thread through his activities from now on would be his fear and distrust of western, particularly British-power and its native enablers in Muslim countries. Certainly, India was already a subjugated country, and Afghanistan a backward little principality, its ruler’s petty feudatories compared to the rulers and intellectuals of the Ottoman Empire, to which Jamal ad Din next went in 1869. But, here he was to witness how even the most powerful Muslim Empire of its time, though not militarily threatened by the west, had slipped into dependence on it, and how the Ottomans in their attempt at self renovation by creating new administrative structures, modern armies and efficient taxation- had set off a great internal tumult.

What brought on this era? What happened that other people,
Ignoring us completely while they changed and developed their machines,
Built, carried out plans, and moved in and out of our midst and we awoke to
Find every oil derrick a spike impaling the land?
Why did we end up Westoxified?
Let’s go back to history.
Jalal Al- Ahmad, Gharbzadegi.
[“Westoxification”], 1962

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