ar-Radd 'alal-dahriyyin (Refutation of the Materialists)
In The Refutation of the Materialists, Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani gives a scathing criticism of the naturalist/materialist position from the scientific, philosophical, ethical, and social points of view. He identifies the materialists as the epitome of evil intent on destroying human civilization. He traces the history of modern materialism to the Greek materialists, among whom he mentions Democritus, Epicurus, and Diogenes the Cynic. This short historical survey is followed by a scientific and philosophical criticism of Darwin and his evolutionary theory. Afghani rejects the idea of chance in nature and accuses the materialists of attributing “perception and intelligence” to atoms (i.e., matter) in and of themselves. He rejects totally the idea of universe as a self-regulating structure without a higher intelligence operating on it. This is without doubt the most philosophical section of the treatise.
Afghani then moves to his social and ethical criticism of the materialists. According to him, the materialists are intent to undermine the very foundations of human society. They try to destroy the “castle of happiness” based on the six pillars of religion. These six pillars are divided into three beliefs and three qualities. The first belief is that man is a terrestrial angel, i.e., he is God’s vicegerent on earth. The second belief is that one’s community is the noblest one both in the sense of belonging to the human world against the animal and plant kingdoms, and in the sense of belonging to the best human and religious society. This inherent exclusivism, for Afghani, is the most important motive for the global race of goodness, which lies at the heart of all world civilizations. The third belief or doctrine that religion teaches is that man is destined to reach the highest world, i.e., his innate ability to transcend the merely material and realize the spiritual within himself.
In addition, religion inculcates three ethical qualities in its followers. The first quality is what Afghani calls “modesty” (haya’), that is, the modesty of the soul to commit sin against God and his fellowmen. The nobility of the soul increases in proportion to the degree of its modesty. Afghani considers this quality to be the most essential element for the ethical and social regulation of society. The second quality is trustworthiness, which underlies the very fabric of a society. The survival of human civilization is contingent upon mutual respect and trust, without which no society can have political stability and economic prosperity. The third quality promulgated by religion is truthfulness and honesty, which, for Afghani, is the foundation of social life and solidarity.
Through these six pillars, Afghani establishes religion as the foundation of civilization and denounces materialism as the enemy of religion and human society. To stress this central point, Afghani mentions the Batinis and the Babis as followers of naturalism/materialism in the Islamic world. He also mentions Rousseau and Voltaire as modern materialists and uses a very strong language in condemning their “sensualism” and anti-moralism. He even goes so far as to classify socialists, communists and nihilists as nothing other than mere variations of materialism in the ethical sense of the term. He holds the materialists responsible for the destruction of such great nations in history as the Persian, Roman, and Ottoman Empires. Since the materialist does not recognize any reality other than gross matter and ‘sensuality’, he paves the way for the reign of passions and desires. In this sense, the materialist is immersed in the worst kind of metaphysical and ethical mistake and cannot be trusted even on a purely human level.
In the last part of the treatise, Afghani turns to religion and, among religions, to Islam as the only way to salvation for humanity. He compares Islam to other world religions and asserts its superiority, implying that Islam is the only religion to cope with the challenges of the modern world. It is worth noting that Afghani concludes his treatise with a short statement that has become the hallmark of Islamic modernism:
If someone says: If the Islamic world is as you say, then why are the Muslims in such a sad condition? I will answer: When they were [truly] Muslims, they were what they were and the world bears witness to their excellence. As for the present, I will content myself with this holy text: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people until they change themselves inwardly”. (Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism, p. 173)
As already mentioned, Afghani’s main target in the Refutation was Sayyid Ahmad Khan and his followers in India. It is not difficult to see from Afghani’s tone how serious he took the imminent danger of naturalism/materialism for the future of the Islamic world. In this sense, Afghani’s excessively polemical discourse against the materialists is of particular significance for its attempt to draw the attention of Muslim intellectuals to the philosophical and ethical challenges emanating from the encounter of the Islamic world with the modern Weltanschauung.
Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani