Jamāl-al-dīn was born in the village of Hamadān, Iran. Some people think that he was born in Afghanistan. However, overwhelming documentation (especially a collection of papers left in Iran upon his expulsion in 1891) now proves he was born in 1838 in Iran. He spent his childhood there.
According to the best evidence, he was educated first at home, then taken by his father for further education to Qazvin, then to Tehran, and finally, while he was still a youth, to Iraq. Thus, Jamal al-din was an ethnic Persian. However, he always claimed that he was an Afghani Sunni.
In 1857, Jamal al-Din spent a year in Delhi, India. Later, after performing the pilgrimage of Hajj in Mecca, he returned to Afghanistan in 1858. He became a counselor to the King Dost Mohammad Khan and later to Mohammad Azam. At that time he encouraged the king to turn to Russians and to oppose the British. However, he did not encourage Mohammad Azam to any reformist ideologies that later were attributed to Jamal al-Din.
In 1859 a British spy reported that Jamal Al-Din was a Russian agent. The British representatives reported that he wore traditional cloths of Noghai Turks in Central Asia and spoke Persian, Arabic and Turkish fluently. Reports from the British Government in India and Afghani government said that he was a stranger and spy of Russian Government in Afghanistan and spoke Persian with Iranian accent and followed European lifestyle more than that of Muslims, not observing Ramadan or other Muslim rites. In 1868, the throne of Kabul was occupied by Sher Ali Khan, and Jamal al-Din was forced to leave that country.
He traveled to Istanbul, passing through Cairo on his way there. He stayed in Cairo long enough to meet a young student Muhammad 'Abduh who became his devoted disciple.
In 1884, he began publishing an Arabic newspaper in Paris entitled al-Urwah al-Wuthqa ("The Indissoluble Link") with Muhammad Abduh. The newspaper called for a return to the original principles and ideals of Islam, and for greater unity among Islamic peoples.
Political and religious views
Jamal al-Din's ideology has been described as a welding of "traditional" religious antipathy toward non-Muslims "to a modern critique of Western imperialism and an appeal for the unity of Islam", urging the adoption of Western sciences and institutions that might strengthen Islam.
Although called a liberal by the contemporary English admirer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Jamal al-Din did not advocate constitutional government. In the volumes of the newspaper he published in Paris, "there is no word in the paper's theoretical articles favoring political democracy" according to his biographer. Jamal al-Din simply envisioned "the overthrow of individual rulers who were subservient to foreigners, and their replacement by strong and patriotic men."
According to another source Jamal al-Din was greatly disappointed by the failure of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. He believed that Islam and its revealed law were compatible with rationality and, thus, Muslims could become politically unified while still maintaining their faith based on a religious social morality. These beliefs had a profound effect on Muhammad Abduh, who went on to expand on the notion of using rationality in the human relations aspect of Islam (mu'amalat).
In 1869, he came to Egypt and became a free mason. Ali Pasha (d. 1871) brought him to Istanbul and assigned him duties. Hasan Tahsin, the Rector of the University of Istanbul and another free mason educated in Paris by the Grand Vizier Rashid Pasha, declared to be a disbeliever by the Shaikh al-Islam Hasan Fahmi Effendi, allowed Afghani to give lectures that year. But, when he spoke recklessly, the great scholar, Shaikh al-Islam Hasan Fehmi, gave the fatwa that Jamal al Din was a disbeliever.
Hasan Fehmi Effendi was one of the profound scholars of his time and 'hundred and tenth' Shaikh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire. He had won the first place in the examination of Ru'us. He became Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Istanbul. He educated many disciples. Having been promoted through many positions, he became the Shaikh al-Islam. When Sultan 'Aziz went to Egypt, he prepared the Khutba delivered at the Juma prayers. He kept long company with Hadrat Shaikh Saka, the famous scholar at Jami' al-Azhar. The Egyptian scholars appreciated his knowledge. Because of this scholar's righteous opposition, Jamal ad-din was disgraced. Ali Pasha had to dismiss Jamal ad-din from Istanbul.
In 1881 he published a collection of polemics titled Al-Radd 'ala al-Dahriyyi (Refutation of the Materialists), agitating for pan-Islamic unity against Western Imperialism. In London and in Paris, Jamal ad-din wrote many harmful articles on reform in the religion. In 1886 he came to Iran. He did not keep quiet there. He tried to stir up a rebellion in Iran, therefore, was thrown out of Iran. Fastened with chains he was left inside the Ottoman borders by five hundred Iranian cavalrymen. Then, he went to Baghdad and London. There, he wrote articles against Iran. Later, he came to Istanbul, where, cooperating with the Bahais he made the religion a means for political gains.
In 1896 his chin became cancerous and he died in 1897. He was buried in the Cemetery near the Macka Barracks in Istanbul. An American built a tomb over his grave. However, after the Second World War, his bones were taken to Afghanistan for re-burial there.