Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Syed Ahmad Khan: Reform, Rivalry, and Heresy in late 19th century India

This talk examines the writings of Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1838-1897) with particular attention to his polemical piece against Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), entitled “The Refutation of the Materialists” (1881). Scholars have assumed that al-Afghani was anti-imperial and wrote this diatribe because Syed Ahmad Khan was pro-British. It is the speaker’s intention to show that al-Afghani was not consistently anti-imperial, and in fact shared with Syed Ahmad Khan many similar views on the role of science, education, and progress. Teena Purohit reads “The Refutation” and ancillary treatises to show how al-Afghani invokes the idiom of heresy for his arguments about reform: on the one hand, al-Afghani mounts an accusation of heresy against Syed Ahmad Khan and his followers, and on the other hand, he deploys “heretical” concepts to rationalize and legitimize his aspiration to serve as a redemptive leader for all Muslims.