The Reform Movements

1150-1336 AH
1737-1918 CE

AT THE SAME TIME as these political developments, a crucial story was unfolding in the intellectual arena as well. This story began before 1800 and continued long after, with consequences that shake the world to this very day: it consisted of revival and reform movements that surged up throughout the Muslim world at the same time that Europeans were overwhelming these lands.

The two stories are related, though not identical. Some sort of sweeping challenge to the Muslim status quo was going to take place around this time with or without the Europeans. Why? Because in the Muslim world, by 1700 or so, religious institutions had bureaucratized spirituality in much the same way that the Catholic Church had bureaucratized Christianity in late medieval Europe. The whole system of Muslim law had been worked out so fully that there was no creative work left for any new enthusiast to do. The application of shari’a to every dot and detail of personal and social life was a done deal. The power of the ulama had grown encrusted. The Sufi orders had been institutionalized, and authorities at every level agreed that “the gates of ijtihad were closed.”

Ijtihad, remember, means “free and independent thinking based on reason.” It can’t depart from scripture, but it consists of thinking through the implications of scripture creatively. Muslim scholars had once allowed that ijtihad might be exercised on issues not explicitly settled by Qur’an; then by Qur’an and hadith; then by Qur’an, hadith, and the work of previous authoritative scholars. . . . And so by the eighteenth century, important scholars generally agreed that no unsettled issues existed. Everything had been covered, everything worked out; ordinary people no longer needed to exercise free and independent thought. There was nothing left for them to do but follow the rules.

Following the rules, however, does not provide the spiritual fulfillment people seek from religion. The bureaucratization of Islam created much the same stultifications and discontents that in Christendom had provoked the Protestant Reformation. And indeed, by the middle of the eighteenth century, reform movements were beginning to sprout throughout the Muslim world.

But there never was a Muslim version of Europe’s Protestant Reformation, and thus none of the consequences that followed from the Reformation: no doctrine of individualism emerged here, no coupling of religion to nationalism (except in a sense in Iran), no separation of church and state, no conceptual division of the world into secular and religious realms, no sudden development of enlightenment-style liberalism, and so no democratic, scientific, or industrial revolutions.

Why not?

Well, for one thing, some of the issues that fueled the Reformation could not arise in Islam. Protestant reformers rebelled against the Church; Islam had no church. Protestant reformers attacked the authority of the pope; Islam had no pope. Protestants said priests could not mediate between man and God; Islam never had a priesthood (the ulama were more like lawyers than priests.) The Protestant reformers insisted on a direct, personal interaction between the individual worshipper and God. The Muslim prayer ritual had always been just that.

But the Europeans were certainly a factor too. Without them in the picture, the Muslim reform movements might well have taken a different course. European religious reform took shape in a purely European context. That is, when Protestant reformers challenged Catholic practices and doctrines, they were addressing issues internal to their own society, not steeling Christianity against some external cultural challenge. In 1517, few western Christians worried that Muslims might have a more convincing message to offer than Christianity or that Christian youth might start converting to Islam. The Turks were at the gate, it’s true, but they weren’t in the living room, and they certainly weren’t in the bedroom. The Turks posed a threat to the physical health of Christians, but not to the spiritual health of Christianity.

Muslims were in a different boat. Almost from the start, as I’ve discussed, Islam had offered its political and military successes as an argument for its doctrines and a proof of its revelations. The process began with those iconic early battles at Badr and Uhud, when the outcome of battle was shown to have theological meaning. The miracle of expansion and the linkage of victory with truth continued for hundreds of years.

Then came the Mongol holocaust, which forced Muslim theologians to reexamine their assumptions. That process spawned such reformers as Ibn Taymiyah. Vis-à-vis the Mongols, however, the weakness of Muslims was concrete and easy to understand. The Mongols had greater killing power, but they came without an ideology. When the bloodshed wound down and the human hunger for meaning bubbled up, as it always does, they had nothing to offer. In fact, they themselves converted. Islam won in the end, absorbing the Mongols as it had absorbed the Turks before them and the Persians before that.

Conversion to Islam made the Mongols no less bloody (as Timur-i-lang proved), but at least, under the aegis of the converted rulers, the old quest could begin again, albeit starting over from the smoking rubble of a ruined world—the quest to build and universalize the community of Allah.

The same could not be said for the new overlords. The Europeans came wrapped in certainty about their way of life and peddling their own ideas of ultimate truth. They didn’t challenge Islam so much as ignore it, unless they were missionaries, in which case they simply tried to convert the Muslims. If they noticed Islam, they didn’t bother to debate it (missionaries are not in the debating business) but only smiled at it as one would at the toys of a child or the quaint relics of a more primitive people. How maddening for Muslim cognoscenti! And yet, what could Muslims do about it?

Even if Muslim and Christian scholars had found some forum in which to exchange views, it would have been irrelevant to the conundrum facing Muslims because by the nineteenth century, the challenge to Islam came not so much from Christianity as from a secular, humanistic world-view that evolved out of the Reformation, the mélange now often called “modernity.”

The source of Muslim weakness and European strength was not obvious. It wasn’t strictly a question of military advantage. For the most part, the foreigners weren’t torturing and killing. For the most part, the new overlords didn’t even set themselves up as rulers, quite. Officially, most Muslims still had their own native monarchs, still had their own government buildings where Muslim officials still stamped documents, and somewhere in every Muslim state was still a capital dating back to ancient days of bygone splendor, and in that capital was a palace and in that palace a throne and on that throne usually a shah, sultan, nawab, khan, khedive, or what you will, some native ruler whose wealth and pomp made him all but indistinguishable from the potentates of old.

In Iran, the foreigners roamed the corridors of power merely as advisers. In Turkey, there they were, collecting salaries as consultants. In Egypt and the Levant, they stood by as “protectors.” Even in India, which had a governor-general appointed by the British parliament, the military and police forces that “kept order” consisted mostly of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees, and other locals. How could Muslims claim that they were not still ruling themselves?

And yet by the end of the eighteenth century, Muslims looked around and saw with dawning horror that they had been conquered: from Bengal to Istanbul, they were subservient to foreigners in every aspect of their lives, in their own cities and towns and neighborhoods and in their very homes. And not just foreigners like the ones next door, but people who spoke a whole different set of languages, practiced different religious rituals, wore different kinds of clothes and different kinds of headgear (or, shockingly, none at all!), built different kinds of houses, formed different kinds of groupings. These foreigners ate pork, they drank liquor, their women moved about in public with their faces showing, they laughed at jokes that weren’t funny and failed to see the humor in things that were hilarious, ate weird-tasting food, listened to music that sounded more like noise, and spent their leisure time in puzzling and pointless activities such as cricket and quadrilles.

So the question arose now, as it had in the wake of the Mongol holocaust: if the triumphant expansion of the Muslim project proved the truth of the revelation, what did the impotence of Muslims in the face of these new foreigners signify about the faith?

With this question looming over the Muslim world, movements to revive Islam could not be extricated from the need to resurrect Muslim power. Reformers could not merely offer proposals for achieving more authentic religious experiences. They had to expound how the authenticity they proposed would get history back on course, how their proposals would restore the dignity and splendor of the Umma, how they would get Muslims moving again toward the proper endpoint of history: perfecting the community of justice and compassion that flourished in Medina in the original golden moment and enlarging it until it included all the world.

Many reformers emerged and many movements bubbled up, but all of them can be sorted into three general sorts of responses to the troubling question.

One response was to say that what needed changing was not Islam but Muslims. Innovations, alterations, and accretions had corrupted the faith, so that no one was practicing true Islam anymore. What Muslims needed to do was to shut out Western influence and restore Islam to its pristine, original form.

Another response was to say that the West was right. Muslims had gotten mired in obsolete religious ideas; they had ceded control of Islam to ignorant clerics who were out of touch with changing times; they needed to modernize their faith along Western lines by clearing out superstition, renouncing magical thinking, and rethinking Islam as an ethical system compatible with science and secular activities.

A third response was to declare Islam the true religion but concede that Muslims had certain things to learn from the West. In this view, Muslims needed to rediscover and strengthen the essence of their own faith, history, and traditions, but absorb Western learning in the fields of science and technology. According to this river of reform, Muslims needed to modernize but could do so in a distinctively Muslim way: science was compatible with the Muslim faith and modernization did not have to mean Westernization.

These three answers to the challenge of modernity were well-embodied in three seminal reformers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Abdul Wahhab of the Arabian peninsula, Sayyid Ahmad of Aligarh, India, and Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan, whose birthplace is disputed and whose presence was felt everywhere. By no means were they the only reformers. Their ideas were not always mutually exclusive. They sometimes straddled two different currents of reformism. Their contemporaries and students often borrowed from each other. But still, these three men represent three distinctively different approaches to reforming and reviving Islam.


Abdul Wahhab was born around 1703 in the Nejd, that desert of yellow sand dunes that many of us picture reflexively when we think of Arabia. He grew up in a small oasis town, the son of a judge. When he showed promise as a Qur’anic student, he was sent to Medina for further schooling. There, one of his teachers introduced him to the works of Ibn Taymiyah, the austere Syrian theologian who, in the wake of the Mongol holocaust taught that God had abandoned Muslims and that Muslims must return to the exact ways of the First Community if they were ever to regain His favor. These teachings resonated for the young Wahhab.

From Medina the youngster made his way to the cosmopolitan city of Basra on the Persian Gulf, and what this ultimate country boy saw in Basra—the clamorous diversity of opinion, the many schools of thought, the numerous interpretations of the Holy Word, the crowds, the lights, the noise—appalled him. This, he decided, was the sort of excrescence that was making Islam weak.

He returned, then, to the stark simplicity of his hometown in the desert and began to preach religious revival through restoration of Islam to its original form. There was only one God, he thundered, and everyone must worship the one God exactly as instructed in the Holy Book. Everyone must obey the laws laid down by the revelations. Everyone must live exactly as the Pure Originals of Medina in Mohammed’s time, and anyone who blocked the restoration of the original and holy community must be eliminated.

The Ottomans considered all of Arabia their possession, but they had no real authority among the small Bedouin tribes who inhabited this arid landscape, living in scattered oases and eking out a thin survival as traders and herders. Wahhab attracted some followers among his fellow Bedouins, and he led his group around the countryside destroying shrines because they were objects of improper reverence, and Abdul Wahhab preached that reverence for anything or anyone except God was idolatry. Eventually, Wahhab achieved the position of judge and began to apply Hanbali law as he saw it with uncompromising zeal. One day, he had a well-known woman of the town stoned to death as an adulteress. The locals had seen enough. A mob gathered to demand that Abdul Wahhab be ousted from his post; there was even talk of lynching. Wahhab fled that town and made his way to another oasis called Dariyah.

There, the local ruler Mohammed ibn Saud welcomed him warmly. Ibn Saud was a minor tribal chieftain with very big ambitions: to “unite” the Arabian Peninsula. By “unite,” of course, he meant “conquer.” In the single-minded preacher Abdul Wahhab he saw just the ally he needed; Wahhab saw the same when he looked at Ibn Saud. The two men made a pact. The chieftain agreed to recognize Wahhab as the top religious authority of the Muslim community and do all he could to implement his vision; the preacher, for his part, agreed to recognize Ibn Saud as the political head of the Muslim community, its amir, and to instruct his followers to fight for him.

The pact produced fruit. Over the next few decades, these two men “united” all the bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under Saudi-Wahhabi rule. Each time they confronted another recalcitrant tribe, they began by called on them to convert. “Convert! Convert! Convert!” they yelled three times. If the warning was ignored three times (as it generally was) Wahhab told the soldiers they could go ahead and kill the people they were confronting; Allah permitted it, because these were infidels.

The call to convert confused the tribes they were attacking at this point because all of these tribes considered themselves devout Muslims already. But when Abdul Wahhab said “Convert!” he meant to the vision of Islam he was preaching. He did not call it Wahhabism because, like Ibn Taymiyah before him, he maintained that he was simply calling Muslims back to pristine, original Islam, stripped of all accretions and washed of all corruptions. He was not an innovator; in fact, he was the anti-innovator.

People unconvinced of his views, however, saw his vision as a particular interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself; and they had no trouble labeling his ideology Wahhabism, a term that came into use even among some who endorsed his views.

In 1766, Ibn Saud was assassinated but his son Abdul Aziz took over and continued his father’s campaign to unite Arabia under the banner of Abdul Wahhab’s theology. Then in 1792, Wahhab himself died, leaving behind twenty widows and countless children. His life had spanned virtually the entire eighteenth century. While he was imposing his vision of pristine Islam in Arabia, England and Scotland melded into Great Britain, the United States of America was born, the French Revolution issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Mozart wrote his entire corpus of music, and James Watt invented the steam engine.

Upon Wahhab’s death, Aziz ibn Saud declared himself his successor. Already the amir, the new Ibn Saud now anointed himself the chief religious authority as well. In 1802, Aziz ibn Saud attacked the city of Karbala, where the Prophet’s grandson Hussein had been martyred. This city was central to Shi’i devotions, and many of them had gathered just then to commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom. But Shi’is ranked high on Wahhab’s list of those who had altered and corrupted pristine original Islam, and so, upon conquering the city, Aziz ibn Saud had some two thousand of its Shi’i inhabitants put to death.

In 1804, Aziz ibn Saud conquered Medina, where he had his army promptly destroy the tombs of Mohammed’s companions. From Medina, the Saudi-Wahhabi armies went on to Mecca, where they wrecked a shrine that supposedly marked Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace (so that no one would fall into idolatrous worship of Mohammed). As long as he was in the city, Ibn Saud took advantage of the opportunity to humbly perform the rites of pilgrimage in the Ka’ba.

Then in 1811, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance began to organize a new campaign, this time to Asia Minor, the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Now at last the sultan took notice of the Wahhabi movement. To grapple with these surging Bedouins, he called on Mohammed Ali, khedive of Egypt, to help him out. Mohammed Ali took his disciplined modern army into Arabia, and in 1815—the same year that Napoleon’s career was ending at Waterloo—he crushed Ibn Saud, restored Ottoman control over Mecca and Medina, and opened the Holy City up again to Muslim pilgrims of every stripe. Then he sent Aziz ibn Saud’s son and successor to Istanbul to be paraded before derisive crowds and then beheaded.

Little more was heard of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance for about a century, but the alliance did not die. The executed chieftain had a son who took over the collapsed remnants of the Saudi confederacy. Now he was just a minor tribal chieftain again, but he was still a chieftain, and he was still a Wahhabi, and wherever he could still impose his authority, Wahhabi ulama presided and prospered. Wahhab was dead, but Wahhabism lived on.

What were its tenets?

You can look long and hard through the actual writings of Abdul Wahhab and not find Wahhabism as it is defined today. That’s largely because Abdul Wahhab didn’t write political tracts; he wrote Qur’anic commentary and wrote it strictly in the vocabulary of his doctrine. His single-minded focus on details of Muslim doctrine, law, and practice might strike outsiders as obsessive. His major work, Kitab-al-Tawhid (The Book of Unity) has sixty-six chapters, each of which presents one or more quotes from the Qur’an, unpacks each quote, lists lessons to be learned from the quote, and then explains how this quote relates to Wahhab’s core creed. There is no talk here of East or West, nothing about Western influence or Muslim weakness, nothing recognizably political at all. To read Wahhab’s words is to realize that he looked at the world through purely religious spectacles. In his own view, his entire theology boiled down to two tenets: first, the importance of tawhid, or “unity,” that is, the singleness and unity of God; and second, the fallacy ofshirk, the idea that anyone or anything shared in God’s divinity to even the smallest degree.

Marx once said “I am not a Marxist,” and if Abdul Wahhab were alive today, he might well say, “I am not a Wahhabi,” but nonetheless, Wahhabism exists, and it now includes many further tenets that derive from Wahhab’s preachings by implication or that developed historically from its application by Saudi chieftains. This expanded Wahhabism told Muslims that the Law was Islam and Islam was the Law: getting it right, knowing it fully, and following it exactly was the whole of the faith.

The Law was all right there in the Qur’an, according to Wahhab and his followers. The sunna—the life of the Prophet as revealed through hadith—amounted to a commentary on the Law. The Qur’an did not prescribe principles to guide human behavior but actual acts Muslims were to perform. It revealed not just the form but the content of human life. In the life of Prophet Mohammed, it gave a stencil for every Muslim to follow.

Medina in the time of Mohammed and the first three khalifas was the ideal community, the one time and place when everybody knew the law, got the law and followed it fully. That was why the First Community was able to flourish and expand so miraculously. That Medina was the stencil for every Muslim community to recreate.

The purpose of life was to follow the Law. The purpose of social and political life was to build the community in which the Law could be reified. All who hindered the great task of building that ideal community were enemies of Islam. The obligations of a Muslim included participation in jihad, the struggle to defeat the enemies of Islam. Jihad was right up there with prayer, fasting, alms, pilgrimage, and attesting to the unity of God as a religious obligation.

And who were the enemies of Islam?

According to Wahhab’s doctrines, those who did not believe in Islam were, of course, potential enemies but not the most crucial offenders. If they agreed to live peacefully under Muslim rule, they could be tolerated. The enemies of real concern were slackards, apostates, hypocrites, and innovators.

Slackards were Muslims who talked the talk but didn’t really walk the walk. They espoused the creed, but when it was time to pray, you found them playing cards or taking naps. They had to be punished so they would not corrupt other Muslims. Apostates were those who were born into or had converted to Islam but had then renounced it. They were to be killed. Hypocrites were those who said they were Muslims but weren’t really. They mouthed the words but in their hearts their allegiance went to some other faith. They were inherently a fifth column working against the community and could commit disastrous betrayal in a crisis. Hypocrites were to be killed as soon as they were unmasked. And finally, perhaps the worst offenders of all were the innovators: Muslims who were corrupting Islam by adding to or altering any aspects of the pristine original Law. People who performed the rituals differently than the Pious Originals, or who performed rituals the Prophet and his companions never practiced, or who advocated ideas not found in the Qur’an were innovators. Both the Shi’i and the Sufis belonged to this group. Jihad against them was not only legitimate but obligatory, according to Wahhabism as it developed in historical practice.

Wahhabi attitudes and enthusiasms spread far beyond Arabia. Wahhabism found particularly fertile ground at the other end of the Muslim world, in the subcontinent of India. In practice, various people who called themselves Wahhabis emphasized various aspects of the creed the Saudi tribe preached. In India, for example, some so-called Wahhabis rejected jihad as an obligation. Others said apostates should be engaged in debate not battle. Some thought slackards should be reeducated rather than punished or that hypocrites should be chastened rather than killed, or some other variation. But all who called themselves Wahhabis looked at the Law as the core of Islam, even the whole of Islam. All tended to look back to a golden era that provided a stencil for Muslim life and tended to believe that restoring the First Community of Mohammed’s Medina would restore Muslims to favor in Allah’s eyes, thereby restoring the vigor and power the Umma enjoyed under the first four khalifas.

Outside the Islamic world, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance may have seemed like some brief anomaly that flared and vanished; but in fact it went on smoldering in the deserts of Arabia, and the world was to hear a great deal more about the alliance in the twentieth century, after the British agent remembered as Lawrence of Arabia found his way to that desert.


Sayyid Ahmad, or Sir Sayyid Ahmad of Aligarh, as he liked to be called later in life, represents an attitude of thought that sprang up independently in many parts of the Muslim world in the nineteenth century. He and others began exploring ways to rethink Islam as an ethical system that would stay true to its own traditions and spirit but make it compatible with a secular world dominated by Europeans.

Sayyid Ahmad was born in 1817 to a prominent Muslim family in Delhi. His forebears had been important officials under the Moghuls, back when the Moghuls ruled this part of the world. Now, the British grip on the subcontinent had been deepening for many generations and Sayyid Ahmed’s family had adapted to the new order. His grandfather served the East India Company in positions of responsibility, once running a school for them and another time traveling to Iran as a British envoy. Twice he had worked for the Moghul emperor as his prime minister, but the “emperor” at this point was just another British pensioner and his prime minister’s chief duties were to fill out the appropriate forms to keep his pension flowing. Sayyid Ahmad’s father worked for the company too, and his brother started one of India’s first Urdu newspapers. In short, Sayyid Ahmad hailed from a high-status, modernist, Western-oriented family, and he knew something about British life.

His mother, however, was a devout Muslim of legendary piety, respected for her scholarship. She made the boy go to madrassa, and she equaled his grandfather as an influence on this life, so Sayyid Ahmad grew to manhood with these two dueling currents in his personality: a heartfelt allegiance to his own Muslim community and a high regard for British culture and a longing for the respect of those colonials.

Unfortunately, his family sank into financial trouble after his father’s untimely death. Sayyid Ahmad had to quit school and go to work. He hired on with the East India Company as a clerk and eventually earned promotion to subjudge, handling small claims, but this was a minor post in the company’s judicial system: really not much more than a glorified clerk. He couldn’t rise higher because he had never completed his formal education; he was largely self-taught.

Still he read avidly, all the science and English-language literature he could get his hands on. He formed reading groups and discussion clubs with his Indian Muslim friends and organized lecture series on scientific topics. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, he sided with the British; but afterwards he wrote a pamphlet called The Causes of the Indian Revolt in which he reproached the British administrators for their errors and oversights, a pamphlet he sent to government officials in Calcutta and London. He followed up with An Account of the Loyal Mohammedans of India, which was translated into English by a British colonel. In this little book, he tried to resurrect his coreligionists in British eyes by depicting Indian Muslims as the Queen’s most loyal subjects. He also argued that Muslims could have no jihadist sentiments toward the British and ought not to have, quoting scholarly religious sources to prove that jihad against the British was not permissible since the British did not restrict or interfere with Muslim devotions.

Finally, in 1874, he decided to see England for himself. It was the first time Sayyid Ahmad had traveled beyond the confines of India. In London, where his writings had earned him some affection, he lived beyond his means, attending fashionable parties and hobnobbing with intellectuals, artists, and aristocrats. He cut a striking figure in this milieu, resolutely clad in Muslim robes, sporting a large beard, and wearing a small pillboxshaped religious cap, looking every inch the old-school Muslim gentleman of Moghul high society. The queen herself awarded him a ribbon, making him a “Companion of the Star of India,” which led him ever afterward to call himself Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan.

Then one day, there in London, he ran across a derogatory biography of Prophet Mohammed written by some Englishman. He was devastated. He dropped all his other concerns and began writing his own biography of the Prophet to refute the one by the Englishman. He wrote in Urdu, because it was his mother tongue, but he was aiming his book at a European public, so he paid to have it translated, chapter by chapter, as he was writing it, into English, French, German, and Latin. The job proved too immense; he had to scale down his ambitions, in the end going for a collection of essays about Mohammed. He ran out of money before he could finish even that, and seventeen months after leaving India he dragged himself home again, penniless and exhausted.

England had impressed him deeply, however—too deeply, said his critics. In comparison to England, he found his homeland painfully backward. “Without flattering the English,” he wrote, “I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and uprightness, are like a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.”

But what made his fellow Muslims so backward? What could he do to elevate his community? Sayyid Ahmad decided that the problem lay partly in the way Muslims were interpreting Islam. They were mired in magical thinking, they were clinging to superstition and calling it Islam. Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan began elaborating a doctrine that offended his contemporaries among the Indian ulama. Religion, he suggested, was a natural field of human inquiry and achievement. It was integral to human life. It evolved with the human community in the natural course of things—just like art, agriculture, and technology—growing ever more sophisticated as man grew more civilized.

Early humans had a limited capacity to explore moral and ethical issues intellectually, Sayyid Ahmad speculated. They needed revealed religion to help them overcome their passions and guide them to moral judgments and conduct: rulings from a higher power, delivered by prophets with the charismatic authority to persuade without explanation. But the moral and ethical injunctions of all great, true religions are not fundamentally irrational. They are reasonable, and reason can discover them, once people have developed the intellectual capacity to do so.

That’s why Mohammed announced that he was the last of the prophets—he didn’t mean that his rulings about issues in the Mecca and Medina of his day were to be the final word on human conduct throughout the ages. He meant that he had brought the last tools people needed to proceed on the quest for a moral community on their own, without unexplained rulings from God. Islam was the last of the revealed religions because it was the beginning of the age of reason-based religions. Rational people could achieve moral excellence by reasoning correctly from sound fundamental principles. What Islam brought were sound fundamental principles. They were the same as those found in Christianity and all the other great revealed religions with the one caveat that Islam also enjoined rationality. It would have liberated humanity from blind obedience to superstition and dogma had not Muslims misinterpreted the meaning of the Qur’anic revelations and gone off course.

Sayyid Ahmad was suggesting implicitly that Muslims disconnect from obsessing about heaven and hell and miraculous interventions by God in history and rethink their faith as an ethical system. In this approach, good Muslims would not necessarily be those who read the Qur’an in Arabic for many hours every day, or dressed a certain way, or prayed just so. Good Muslims would be defined as those who didn’t lie, or cheat, or steal, or kill, those who developed their own best capacities assiduously and behaved fairly toward others, those who sought justice in society, behaved responsibly in their communities, and exercised mercy, compassion, and charity as best they could.

Before he went to England, Sayyid Ahmad had founded an organization called the Scientific Society, in the northern Indian town of Aligarh. This organization produced lectures and made advanced European learning accessible to Indian Muslims by translating and publishing the important books of Western cultures into Urdu and Persian. After his return from England, Sir Sayyid Ahmad developed the Scientific Society into a university, which he hoped to make into the “Cambridge of the Muslim World.” In addition to the “religious sciences” and other traditional subjects of Islamic learning, the curriculum at Aligarh University offered courses in physics, chemistry, biology, and other “modern” subjects.

Even though many of the Indian ulama attacked Sayyid Ahmad’s views, the university prospered and attracted students. Aligarh University students and faculty formed the seeds of a secular movement which, in the twentieth century, lobbied for Muslims to separate from India and build a nation-state of their own, a movement that finally resulted in the birth of Pakistan.

Sayyid Ahmad’s specific ideas failed to create any widespread movement associated with his name, but modernist intellectuals in other Muslim lands were exploring similar ideas and coming up with similar conclusions. In Iran, a prime minister working for the Qajar Shahs established a school called Dar al-Funun, which offered instruction in all the sciences and in the arts, literature, and philosophies of the West. Graduates of that school began to seed Iranian society with modernists who sought to reshape their society along European lines.

Similar modernists were active at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. In the later nineteenth century, the modernist faction in the Ottoman government promoted policies called Tanzimat, or “reforms,” which included setting up European-style schools, adopting European techniques of administration in the government bureaucracies, reorganizing the army along European lines, dressing the soldiers in European style uniforms, encouraging European-style clothes for government officials, and so on.


We come now to the dominant Muslim reformer of the nineteenth century, a volcanic force named Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan. Afghans believe he was born in Afghanistan, in 1836, about fifty miles east of Kabul, in a town called Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province. His family was connected to Afghanistan’s ruling clan through marriage but did something to offend the royal and had to move to Iran in a hurry when Jamaluddin was a little boy.

Confusingly enough, they settled close to an Iranian town also called Asadabad, which has given rise to a long-standing dispute about where Jamaluddin-i-Afghan was actually born and which country, Afghanistan or Iran, can claim him as its native son. Afghans point out that he always called himself Jamaluddin-i-Afghan—“Jamaluddin the Afghan”—and on this basis consider the matter closed. Iranian historians say he only called himself “the Afghan” to hide the fact that he was Iranian and allude to documentary evidence that they say settles the question quite definitively. On the other hand, when I was growing up in Afghanistan, lots of people in Kabul seemed to know his family and relatives, who still had land in Kunar at that time. To me, that seems to settle the matter, but maybe that’s just because I’m Afghan.

One thing is certain. Today, many Muslim governments see Sayyid Jamaluddin as a prize to claim. In his day, however, every Muslim government eventually came to see this fellow as a troublemaking pest and threw him out. Let me present a brief outline of his amazing, peripatetic career.

Wherever he may have grown up, no one disputes that he went to India when he was about eighteen years old. Anti-British sentiment was rising to a fever pitch in India just then, and Jamaluddin may have met some Muslims who were cooking up anti-British plots. He happened to be in Mecca on pilgrimage when the Great Indian Mutiny broke out, but he was back in time to witness the British reprisals that shocked the Muslim east so deeply. It was during that first journey to India that Jamaluddin probably developed a lifelong hatred of the British and a lasting antipathy to European colonialism in general. In any case, from India, he went to . . .

Afghanistan. There he gained the confidence of the king whom the British had tried unsuccessfully to unseat. The king hired Jamaluddin to tutor his eldest son, Azam. Jamaluddin was already formulating ideas about the need to reform and modernize Islam as a way of restoring Muslim power and pride, and he saw the job of tutoring the country’s heir apparent as an opportunity to shape a ruler who would implement his vision. He steeped Prince Azam Khan in his reformist ideas and trained him to lead Afghanistan into the modern age. Unfortunately, Azam succeeded his father only briefly. One of his cousins quickly overthrew him, with British backing. The British probably moved to unseat Azam in part because they didn’t want any protégé of Jamaluddin’s on the Afghan throne. They sensed what he was up to. In any case, Azam moved to Iran, where he died in exile. Jamaluddin was forced to flee as well, so he made his way to . . .

Asia Minor. There he began to deliver speeches at Constantinople University. He declared that Muslims needed to learn all about modern science but at the same time ground their children more firmly in Islamic values, tradition, and history. Modernization, he said, didn’t have to mean Westernization: Muslims could perfectly well seek the ingredients of a distinctively Islamic modernization in Islam itself. This message proved popular with both the masses and the upper classes. Sayyid Jamaluddin was well situated now to claim a high position in Ottoman Turkey and live his life out as an honored and richly compensated spokesperson for Islam. Instead, he began to teach that people should have the freedom to interpret the Qur’an for themselves, without oppressive “guidance” from the ulama, whom he blamed for the retardation of scientific learning in Islamic civilization. Naturally, this turned the powerful clerical establishment against him and they had the man expelled, so in 1871 he moved to . . .

Egypt, where he started teaching classes and delivering lectures at the famous Al Azhar University. He continued to expound his vision of modernization on Islamic terms. (In this period, he also wrote a history of Afghanistan, perhaps just another sly ploy to make people think he was from Afghanistan and not Iran.) In Egypt, however, where the dynasty founded by Mehmet Ali had rotted into a despotic ruling class in bed with British and French interests, he began to criticize the corruption of the rich and powerful. He said the country’s rulers ought to adopt modest lifestyles and live among the people, just as leaders of the early Muslim community had done. He also started calling for parliamentary democracy. Again, however, he insisted that democratization didn’t have to mean Westernization. He found a basis for an Islamic style of democracy in two Islamic concepts: shura and ijma.

Shura means something like “advisory council.” It was the mechanism through which early Muslim leaders sought the advice and consent of the community. The first shura was that small group Khalifa Omar appointed to pick his successor. That shura had to present its nominee to the Muslims of Medina and get their approval. Of course that community numbered in the low thousands and its leading members could all fit in the main mosque and its surrounding courtyard, so shura democracy was the direct democracy of the town hall meeting. How that model could be applied to a whole huge country such as Egypt was another question.

Ijma means “consensus.” This concept originated in a saying attributed to the Prophet: “My community will never agree on an error.” The ulama used the saying as a justification for asserting that when they all agreed on a doctrinal point, the point lay beyond further questioning or dispute. In short, they co-opted ijma to mean consensus among themselves. Jamaluddin, however, reinterpreted the two concepts and expanded their application. From shura and ijma, he argued that in Islam, rulers had no legitimacy without the support of their people.

His ideas about democracy made the king of Egypt nervous, and his harangues about the decadence of the upper classes offended everyone above a certain income level. In 1879, Jamaluddin was evicted from Egypt, at which point he backtracked to . . .

India. There, the “liberal” Aligarh movement, founded and led by Sir Sayyid Ahmad, had evolved into a force to be reckoned with. But Jamaluddin saw Sir Sayyid Ahmad as a fawning British lapdog, and said so in his only full-scale book, Refutation of the Materialists. The British, however, liked Sayyid Ahmad’s ideas. When a rebellion broke out in Egypt, British authorities claimed that Jamaluddin had incited the eruption through his followers and they put him in prison for a few months. When the rebellion died down, they released him but expelled him from India, and so, in 1882 he went to . . .

Paris, where he wrote articles for various publications in English, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, and French (in all of which languages he was not merely fluent but articulate and even capable of eloquence). In his articles he developed the idea that Islam was at core a rational religion and that Islam had pioneered the scientific revolution. He went on insisting that Muslim ulama and despots had retarded scientific progress in the Muslim world but said clerics and despots had done the same in other religions too, including Christianity. In France, at this time, a philosopher named Ernest Renan was writing that Muslims were inherently incapable of scientific thinking (Renan also said that the Chinese were a “race with wonderful manual dexterity but no sense of honor,” that Jews were “incomplete,” that “Negroes” were happiest tilling soil, that Europeans were natural masters and soldiers, and that if everyone would just do what they were “made for” all would be well with the world.1) Jamaluddin engaged Renan in a famous debate at the Sorbonne (famous among Muslims, at least) in which he argued that Islam only seemed less “scientific” than Christianity because it was founded later and was therefore in a somewhat earlier stage of its development.

Here in Paris, Jamaluddin and one of his Egyptian protégés, Mohammed Abduh, started a seminal journal called The Firmest Bond. They published only eighteen issues before they ran out of money and into other difficulties and had to shut the journal down, but in those eighteen issues, Jamaluddin established the core of the credo now called pan-Islamism. He declared that all the apparently local struggles between diverse Muslim and European powers over various specific issues—between the Iranians and Russia over Azerbaijan, between the Ottomans and Russia over Crimea, between the British and Egyptians over bank loans, between the French and Algerians over grain sales, between the British and the people of India and Afghanistan over borders etc., etc. were not actually many different struggles over many different issues but one great struggle over one great issue between just two global entities: Islam and the West. He was the first to use these two words as coterminous and of course historically conflicting categories. Sometime during this period Jamaluddin also, it would seem, visited . . .

the United States, but little is known about his activities there, and he certainly dipped in and out of . . .

London a few times, where he argued with Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill, and with other British leaders about British policies in Egypt. He also traveled in Germany, as well as spending some time in Saint Petersburg, the capital of Russia. Once his journal folded, he had nothing to keep him in Europe anymore, so he moved to . . .

Uzbekistan. There, he talked czarist authorities into letting him publish and disseminate the Qur’an to Muslims under czarist rule, and to translate, publish, and disseminate other Islamic literature, which had been unavailable in Central Asia for decades. His efforts led to a revival of Islam throughout the region. Here, Jamaluddin also fleshed out an idea he had long been pushing, that Muslim countries needed to use the rivalry among European powers to carve out a zone of independence for themselves, by aligning with Russia against British power, with Germany against Russian power, with Britain and France against Russian power, and so on. These ideas would emerge as core strategies of the global “non-aligned movement” of the twentieth century. In 1884 he moved to . . .

Iran where he worked to reform the judiciary. This brought him head to head with the local ulama. Things got hot and he had to return to Central Asia in a hurry. In 1888, however, Iran’s King Nasiruddin invited him back to the country as its prime minister. Nasiruddin was locked in a power struggle with his country’s ulama, and he thought Jamaluddin’s “modernism” would help his cause. Jamaluddin did move to Iran, not as its prime minister but as a special adviser to the king. This time, however, instead of attacking the ulama, he attacked the king and his practice of selling economic “concessions” to colonialist powers. The most striking example of this during Jamaluddin’s stay in Iran was the no-bid tobacco concession awarded to British companies, which gave British interests control over every aspect of tobacco production and sale in Iran.2 Jamaluddin called for a tobacco boycott, a strategy later taken up in many lands by many other political activists, including the Indian anticolonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi (who famously called on Indians to boycott English cotton and instead spin their own). Jamaluddin’s oratory filled the streets of Iran with demonstrators protesting against the Shah, who was probably sorry he had ever set eyes on the Afghan (Iranian?) reformer. Jamaluddin even talked one of the grand ayatollahs into declaring the tobacco concession un-Islamic. Well, that finally snapped the shah’s patience. He sent troops to roust Jamaluddin out of his house and escort him to the border. Thus, in 1891, Jamaluddin the Afghan returned to . . .

Istanbul, where the Ottoman emperor Sultan Hamid gave him a house and a stipend. The Sultan thought Jamaluddin’s pan-Islamist ideas would somehow pay political dividends to him. Jamaluddin went on teaching, writing, and giving speeches. Intellectuals and activists came to visit him from every corner of the Muslim world. The great reformer told them that ijtihad, “free thinking,” was a primary principle of Islam: but freethinking, he said, had to proceed from first principles rooted in Qur’an and hadith. Every Muslim had the right to his or her own interpretation of the scriptures and revelations, but Muslims as a community had to school themselves in those first principles embedded in the revelations. The great error of Muslims, the reason for their weakness, said Jamaluddin, was that they had turned their backs on Western science while embracing Western education and social mores. They should have done exactly the opposite: they should have embraced western science but closed their gates to Western social mores and educational systems.

In 1895, unfortunately, an Iranian student assassinated King Nasiruddin. The Iranian government immediately blamed Jamaluddin for it and demanded that he be extradited to Iran for punishment. Sultan Hamid refused the demand but he put the great reformer under house arrest. Later that year, Jamaluddin contracted cancer of the mouth and requested that he be allowed to travel to Vienna for medical treatment but the sultan turned him down. Instead, he sent his personal physician over to treat him. The court physician treated Jamaluddin’s cancer by removing his lower jaw. Jamaluddin-i-Afghan died that year and was buried in Asia Minor. Later his body was transported to Afghanistan for reburial. Wherever he had started out, he certainly ended up in Afghanistan: his grave is situated at the heart of the campus of Kabul University.

It’s interesting to remember that Sayyid Jamaluddin Afghan had no official leadership title or position. He didn’t run a country. He didn’t have an army. He had no official position in any government. He never founded a political party or headed up a movement. He had no employees, no subordinates, no one to whom he gave orders. What’s more he didn’t leave behind some body of books or even one book encapsulating a coherent political philosophy, no Islamist Das Capital. This man was purely a gadfly, rabble-rouser, and rebel—that’s what he was.

Yet he had a tremendous impact on the Muslim world. How? Through his “disciples.” Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan operated like a prophet, in a way. His charismatic intensity lit sparks everywhere he went. His protégé Mohammed Abduh became the head of Al Azhar University and the top religious scholar in Egypt. He did write books elaborating on and systematizing Jamaluddin’s modernist ideas.

Another of Jamaluddin’s disciples, Zaghlul, did found a political party, the Wafd, which evolved into the nationalist movement for Egyptian independence. Yet another of his disciples was the religious leader in the Sudan who erupted against the British as “the Mahdi.” In Iran, the Tobacco Boycott that he inspired spawned the generation of activists who forged the constitutionalist movement in the twentieth century.

Jamaluddin inspired an Afghan intellectual named Tarzi living in Turkey who returned to Afghanistan and, following in Jamaluddin’s footsteps, tutored Prince Amanullah, Afghanistan’s heir apparent. Tarzi shaped the prince into a modernist king who won full Afghan independence from the British and declared Afghanistan a sovereign nation just twenty-two years after the death of Jamaluddin.

And his students had students. The credo and the message changed as it was handed down. Some strands of it grew more radically political, some grew more nationalist, some more developmentalist—that is, obsessed with developing industry and technology in Muslim countries by whatever means. Mohammed Abduh’s student, the Syrian theologian Rashid Rida, elaborated ways for Islam to serve as the basis for a state. Another of Jamaluddin’s intellectual descendants was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood; more about him later. In short, the influence of this intense, mercurial figure echoes in every corner of the Muslim world he roamed so restlessly.

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