Afghani on empire, islam, and civilization

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Political Theory

Afghani on Empire, Islam, and Civilization
Margaret Kohn Political Theory 2009 37: 398 originally published online 10 March 2009 DOI: 10.1177/0090591709332339 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Afghānī on Empire,Islam, and Civilization
Margaret Kohn
University of Toronto

Political Theory Volume 37 Number 3 June 2009 398-422 © 2009 Sage Publications 10.1177/0090591709332339 hosted at

This essay provides an interpretation of Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī, a controversial figure in nineteenth-century Islamic political thought. One aspect of thiscontroversy is the tension between “Refutation of the Materialists,” Afghānī’s well-known defense of religious orthodoxy, and a short newspaper article entitled “Reply to Renan” that dismisses prophetic religion as dogmatic and intellectually stifling. In this essay I argue that close attention to Afghānī’s theory of civilization helps resolve this apparent contradiction. Afghānī’s interest in IbnKhaldūn and the French historian Guizot is well known, but has not been fully explored in the literature. I suggest that understanding Guizot’s distinctive approach to the concept of civilization illuminates Afghānī’s writings on the political utility of religion. Afghānī was an ardent anti-imperialist and his goal was to encourage reform in Islamic countries while resisting Western hegemony. Heconcluded that the tension between prophetic religion and critical thought could help Islamic civilization to flourish. Keywords: Islam; imperialism; civilization; reason; progress; Guizot; Afghānī

number of scholars have shown that the concepts of civilization and progress played a crucial role in legitimizing and justifying imperialism in the nineteenth century.1 This research has illuminated therelationship between the concepts of universalism and exclusion, freedom and domination in European political theory. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way that non-European thinkers have both assimilated and contested the concepts of civilization and progress. Yet the critique of European civilization was a prominent theme in nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-imperialist writing.2Many anti-imperialist theorists diagnosed and criticized the pathologies of European civilization: materialism, individualism, corruption, violence, and decadence.3 This essay explores the themes of civilization and progress in Islamic thought. It focuses on the work of Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī (1839– 1897), a prominent anti-imperialist and one of the leading figures in Islamic

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Kohn / Afghānī on Empire, Islam, and Civilization


modernism. Afghānī concluded that the European civilizing mission was exploitative and barbaric, but he also emphasized the compatibility of Islam and modernity. His concept of civilization reflects the influence of both Islamic and European sources. In his mostfamous essay, “Refutation of the Materialists,”4 Afghānī starts with a basically Hobbesian account of endemic conflict and then explains why religion is the best method for creating social order. His main argument is that religion provides the conditions for civilizational progress and general well-being. Secular sovereignty is inadequate because it incorporates no mechanism short of revolution...