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Community as Possibility: Afghani’s Critique of Sir Sayyid

By Mohammad Sayeed

A 25 year old BHMS student decides to convert to Islam and marry a man of her own choice. This becomes unacceptable to her father who challenges the validity of the conversion and marriage in court. The case has garnered attention from different sections of the country, generating many debates and has made its way to the apex court. A father objecting to a daughter’s life-choices is not unheard of in India. However, what is interesting is that the father in this case claims to be an atheist, a rationalist, and belonging to one of the communist parties. While this can be easily dismissed as hypocrisy on the father’s part, it also provides a glimpse into a fundamental problem about the relationship between rationalism and solidification of the community boundaries. Why does rationalism not automatically lead to a weakening of community affiliations? While the literacy rate and education levels in India are improving, there are also increasing cases of intolerance when it comes to a real or perceived attack on one’s community. Why did the educated class rather than leading the masses away from their parochialism itself adhere to the notions of community with renewed vigor? Why does intellectual progressivism not preclude social conservatism?

The experience of modernity in India has always been marked with this paradox. Gandhi the religious man died for Hindu-Muslim unity, while Savarkar, the atheist, was a staunch proponent of the Hindu right. Rabindranath Tagore, otherwise a known humanist, signed a memorial to the then Governor demanding an increase of Hindu seats in the Communal Award on the grounds of Hindu supremacy over Muslims due to their culture and intellectual contribution to Bengal (Chatterji 2002). In a different decade, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan opposed competitive exams for government appointments fearing that it will go against the interest of Muslims (Khan 1973, 14-15). In a sense, the movement of reason was, in some way or the other, always constrained by the limits that one’s imagination of a community placed on it.

Why were these men stuck on the questions of community, and why couldn’t they make a universal man as the subject of new sciences and the humanity as a community? For one, they probably could never dissociate the achievements of reason from their experience of colonialism. The advancements of mind that the universal man made, when brought in colonial context, went into further establishing supremacy of British ‘as a community’. The experience of rationalism, in this sense, did not abandon all the boundaries but rather recreated them. The false dichotomy of secularism and communalism, therefore, is not of much help in understanding the history of social thought in India. The actual contention has been as to what kind of community one imagines and how narrowly or broadly it is defined. In the rest of this article I compare Sir Sayyid and Afghani to elucidate how their respective projects were grounded in two contrasting notions of community.


Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Jamal al-Din Afghani are two of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Both of them left a lasting imprint on trajectories of Islam and its relationship with the West. They both received traditional education but soon realized its limitations vis-a-vis achievements of modern sciences of the West. They both connected rational education and learning with the rise of the West and the decline of the Muslims. They both reinterpreted Islamic theology in the light of modern challenges and both attempted, in their own ways, to reignite a sense of purposefulness among the Muslims.

Despite these similarities, they both reached to two opposite conclusions in their recommendation of the course of action vis-a-vis the colonial onslaught on traditional form of existence and changing scenario. Sir Sayyid saw joining the cause of the British as the only way to safeguard the interests of the Muslims. Afghani’s politics, on the other hand, spread over several countries from Egypt to India to Iran to France to Russia to Turkey, was defined by his fierce opposition to the British colonialism. Sir Sayyid worked towards radical interpretation of theology and rejected those aspects of religion that were not compatible with modern secularism. Afghani defended the traditional forms of religion and deemed it essential for imagination of a viable political future. Despite his modernist dilution of religion and, in the process, annoying the Islamic orthodoxy, Sir Sayyid’s vision to frame the politics in terms of the religious identity is widely believed to have led to the Muslim nationalism with Aligarh University becoming the center of demand for Pakistan. Afghani had been searching and imagining newer forms of politics, employing religion in various combinations to form a workable anti-British block. Most of these forms were forgotten after him, after his name became a symbol of Pan-Islamism.

How does following rational modernity lead to two different set of ideas, diametrically opposite to each other? Were science and education mere instrumental means for Sir Sayyid, to get jobs for Muslims in the colonial government? Was Afghani’s dislike for Sir Sayyid because of his general hate for the British (One cannot say the West because he was publishing anti-British pieces in Paris and later in life was trying to convince Moscow to attack Britain)? Was he accusing Sir Sayyid for being an opportunist? How did reason take different directions and colors?

In this context, I wish to argue that the specific versions of rationalities in both of them should be understood with their respective understanding of prospective and prescriptive communities. It is two different notions of communities that gave their thoughts two distinct directions. Communities in their thought is to be read more as possibilities, visions and tendencies than fully formed political boundaries. My attempt to locate community in thought of Sir Sayyid and Afghani should be seen as an analytical exercise to gain an insight into their thoughts.

From his speeches and writings, one can see that Sir Sayyid’s idea of community was very narrowly constructed. His diagnosis of the colonial problem was limited only to the decline and disgrace of Muslims. Even notionally, his understanding doesn’t stretch to include the global Muslim community but is rather restricted to the Indian Muslim community. From among the Indian Muslims, his addressees were mostly the Ashraf class (Shareef and Raees) and the lower castes and classes were deliberately[1] excluded from his program. If one also includes Sir Sayyid’s position on women’s education, the group of people that Sir Sayyid is speaking of becomes even smaller: North Indian Ashraf Muslim men. This community is so small that it might be considered as a ‘pressure group’. This group based on social positions and political demands was constructed upon an understanding of a common interest of the gentry. Sir Sayyid was aware how small this group was and therefore the protection of its interest often led him to make some awkward arguments. Like when he argued for making social position, rather than qualification, as a criterion for the membership in the council: “I ask you — Would our aristocracy like that a man of low caste or insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A., and have the requisite ability, should be in a position of authority above them and have power in making laws that affect their lives and property? Never! Nobody would like it. (Cheers.)” (Khan 1973, 13). His rationalism, though it was considered very radical in his times, failed to transcend the narrow boundaries of his constructed community.

It was this notion of community as an interest group that might have led Afghani to label Sir Sayyid’s political program as ‘worldly gains’. But it will be a mistake to think that Sir Sayyid’s use of science and education was only an instrumentalist means to gain certain favors from the British. Modern education was not only essential for developing fruitful relations with the British, it was also necessary for the the community of Ashraf Muslims to become aware of their interests and, as a consequence, strengthening the community boundary. His community would later transform into a full-fledged ideology of Muslim nationalism.


Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani’s most significant visit to India was between 1879 and 1883. By then, his views on Pan-Islamism, for which he would later become known, were in a nascent stage at the most. He was still struggling to develop a metaphysical and political critique of British colonialism and it was the mutiny of 1857, among other things, that had attracted him to India. After staying in Bombay, Hyderabad, and Calcutta, Afghani left for Paris, next stop in his long political journey. In this journey through several Asian and European cities, he was a part of so many fast changing political contexts and was constantly engaged in writing books, articles, and pamphlets; giving public speeches; forming discussion groups; teaching, mentoring, and abandoning students; mobilizing protestors; organizing secret societies and persuading statesmen for his eccentric plans. In Hyderabad, he refused a position offered to him by the Nawab, while in Cairo he was paid a substantial sum to encourage him to leave the city. If anything, his personality through these changing narratives becomes so ephemeral and multifaceted that it resists to be captured by a single ideology, Pan-Islamism or not.

Afghani’s notion of community was still not fully formed. Only in later decades of his life he would start talking of a global ummah. In his Indian writings, community is present more as a multitude of possibilities: it can be formed around a language or a territory or along something else. There is no essential binding force or common ground that brings people together and therefore a community is always yet to be formed. The only criterion that is essential for him is his opposition to the British colonialism. He envisions a community that has its own identity and character so that it does not get subsumed under the already advanced civilization of the colonizers. Therefore, rather than a common religion, caste or class, he would ground the community in a ‘spirit’ or ‘philosophy’. For example, on the question of science he argues that sciences are not of any use without the spirit of philosophy:

Thus, a science is needed to be the comprehensive soul for all the sciences, so that it can preserve their existence, apply each of them in its proper place, and become the cause of prog­ress of each one of those sciences.

The science that has the position of a comprehensive soul and the rank of a preserving force is the science of falsafa or philosophy, because its subject is universal. It is philosophy that shows man human prerequisites. It shows the sciences what is necessary. It employs each of the sciences in its proper place.

If a community did not have philosophy, and all the indi­viduals of that community were learned in the sciences with particular subjects, those sciences could not last in that com­munity for a century. . . . That community without the spirit of philosophy could not deduce conclusions from these sciences. . . . I may say that if the spirit of philosophy were found in a community, even if that community did not have one of those sciences whose subject is particular, undoubtedly their philosophic spirit would call for the acquisition of all the sciences. (Afghani 1983b, 60)

To many, this ‘spirit of philosophy’ might look like a hint towards a religious core, given Afghani’s general interest in religion, but that reading would be incongruent with Afghani’s general intellectual leanings in his Indian writings. It points more towards a spirit of the contemporary, the here and now, than seeking guidance from any higher world. The ‘spirit of philosophy’, thus, can be taken as a search for a foundation for the sociality, when it is already disrupted by the colonialism, somewhat similar to August Comte’s attempt to establish sociology as mother of all (social) sciences. This is also evident from his attempt to conceptualize religion in anthropological – as against theological – terms in his other Indian writings. I will return to this later in the article.

The community that this ‘spirit of philosophy’ would produce was yet to be determined. One of his proposals was to take language instead of religion as a basis for nationalism in Indian context: ‘In the human world the bonds that have been extensive . . . have been two. One is this same unity of language of which nationality and national unity consist, and the other is re­ligion. There is no doubt that the unity of language is more durable for survival and permanence in this world than unity of religion since in contrast with the latter it does not change in a short time’ (quoted in Keddie 157-58). Not knowing any Indian languages himself, apart from Persian, he probably was not aware of the full range of diversity of languages that existed in India. Consequently, he urged Indians to consider Urdu as a common language. This common language was not just envisaged as a common ground for nationalism. Instead, it was intended to address the compelling question of modernity. For example, he argued that learning the modern sciences in English, as had been Sir Sayyid’s approach, would result in native’s internalization of the colonialism. He suggested that the modern sciences should be translated into Urdu, so that the Indian community retained its distinctiveness after learning them.

At the same time, while exploring the possibility of community and its relation with science, he would go beyond Urdu to think of the roots of science in India: “Human values spread out from India to the whole world. These youths are from the very land where the meridian circle was first determined. They are from the same realm that first understood the zodiac. Everyone knows that the determination of these two circles is impossible until per­fection in geometry is achieved. Thus, we can say that the In­dians were the inventors of arithmetic and geometry. Note how Indian numerals were transferred from here to the Arabs, and from there to Europe” (101). And not just sciences, he would go on to describe vedas and shastras as the source of Roman Law.

Though still not able to look at the history from the eyes of the universal man, as colonizers were doing, he was struggling to find the broadest possible community that can stand a chance against British, at times dreaming about unity of the whole of the orient: “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” (quoted in Keddie 1972, 101).


These two strikingly opposite visions of ‘community to come’ can be further understood by looking at the difference between Sir Sayyid and Afghani on the question of religion. Sir Sayyid construed religious orthodoxy as a major obstacle in his mission to establish modern education as the key to overcome the Muslim decline. His reformist agenda was to reinterpret religious scriptures in a way that it becomes compatible with the modern sciences. He rejected the decrees of Ulema and called for the reconstitution of the theology based on rationality. Djinns in Quran, for example, became snakes in his interpretation to make them palatable to the contemporary rationalist mind. Afghani construed this attempt as a complete internalization of the Western ideology, comparing it with cognitive slavery, and defended the need for religion as one of the last resorts to hold the ranks against the British. He wrote, “Does he [Sir Sayyid] not understand that if the Muslims, in their cur­rent state of weakness and misery, did not believe in miracles and hell-fire, and considered the Prophet to be like Glad­stone, they undoubtedly would soon abandon their own weak and conquered camp, and attach themselves to the powerful conqueror” (Afghani 1983a, 170).

Even when he defended religion from its dilution in Sir Sayyid’s rationalist interpretations, he did not do so to defend the orthodoxy – in fact, he was equally critical of religious conservatives who opposed science. He was as much committed to reinterpret religion in the wake of the challenges of modernity, but unlike Sir Sayyid, he attempted to apply the scientific spirit more rigorously. Rather than rejecting miracles to make religion compatible with the scientific worldview, he went on to construct an anthropology of religion, focusing on what roles miracles played instead of dismissing them as irrational. The main focus of his anthropology of religion was to explore the social role of religion in building social solidarity. In “Refutations of Materialists”, while describing three essential beliefs of a religion, he did not name God, scriptures or prophethood, as a theologist would have done. For Afghani, the first essential belief of a religion was that man is the noblest of all creatures. Secondly one’s community is the noblest. And finally, that “man has come into the world in order to acquire accomplishments worthy of transferring him to a world more excellent” (Afghani 1983c, 141). Little before Durkheim began his career in sociology, Afghani proposed the role of these three religious beliefs in the social solidarity and would argue that each of them is a “firm pillar for the existence of nations and the permanence of the social order” (141). He hoped that these beliefs would provide the solidarity that the Orient lacked. Colonialism’s impact was not limited to political or intellectual spheres. It had disrupted the social fabric of the time, and therefore sociality was to be reconstructed with the scientific temper but without subsuming itself within the colonizers. A challenge that kept intriguing many thinkers and reformers after him.

As time passed, Sir Sayyid’s vision of the community would triumph and the subcontinent became a land of narrowly defined communities, often working as ‘interest groups’ with definite political demands. Afghani would also move on to explore other possibilities of communities and later on became known for Pan-Islamism. Afghani’s theoretical and political attempt to exploit the potentialities of community would be mostly forgotten only to survive in minor forms at the margins of the history. But the questions that he explored kept coming back in different forms. Gandhi in a different era would find himself exploring the possibility of reconciling rational thought with the demands of sociality and civilization and history would see Afghani and Indians, though separated by two decades, coming together in their support of the Ottoman Caliphate against British. However, for the most part, the gap between intellectual progressivism and social conservatism kept throwing unsolvable problems, further narrowing the community boundaries.

[1] He discouraged against even others’ attempts to educate to introduce modern education for lower classes and advised them to ‘keep them busy’ in the ‘ancient’ system of education. See, for example Ateeq Siddiqui’s discussion on his speech at occasion of opening of a school in Bareilly (Siddiqui 1977).


Afghani, Jamal Ad-Din. 1983a. Commentary on the commentator. Translated by Nikki Keddie in An Islamic Response to Imperialism. University of California Press.
———. 1983b. Lecture on teaching and learning. Translated by Nikki Keddie in An Islamic Response to Imperialism. University of California Press.———. 1983c. Refutations of the materialists. Translated by Nikki Keddie in An Islamic Response to Imperialism. University of California Press.
Chatterji, Joya. Bengal divided: Hindu communalism and partition, 1932-1947. Vol. 57. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Keddie, Nikki. 1972. Sayyid Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani: A Political Biography. University of California Press
Khan, Sir Sayyid Ahmed. 1973. Political umoor aur musalman (the lucknow speech 1887). In Khutbaat-e-Sir Sayyid. Lahore: Majlis-e-Taraqqi-e-Adab.
Siddiqui, Ateeq. 1977. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Ek Siyasi Mutala. New Delhi: Maktaba Jamia

Photo: Aligarh Movement

Mohammad Sayeed is an urban anthropologist and teaches at Indraprastha College for Women. He also runs a blog on Delhi, Chiragh Dillli.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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