In recent times, the role of Islam in the politics of Muslim countries, and the  implications of this phenomenon, has become the focus of a great deal of attention in the  media, press and academic circles, as well as in the popular imagination of developed countries. This heightened attention is spurred not only by the continuing use of religious symbolism and rhetoric in
the political arenas of Muslim countries, especially by many radical groups, but also because of the rising geopolitical and economic importance of the postcolonial Muslim countries in an increasing  interdependent world. Events like the oil shocks of the 70’s, then, have made the outside world  aware of the rhetoric of groups like al-Jihad; similarly, the nuclearization of South Asia and the fear of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Midd
le East has made the domestic politics of Muslim countries an international concern. In the academic arena, there has been growing interest in Islamic liberalism and the possibilities of democratic transition in the Muslim world, and this interest has refocused attention on the works of Muslim modernists. In this context, the study of the thought of Muhammad Iqbal, one of the most influential Muslim modernists of the twentieth century, finds a new relevance.

Iqbal was born, and lived most of his life, in India; however, since he wrote in three languages, English, Persian, and Urdu, his impact spread beyond his homeland. Also, even though he has left behind some prose works, he chose poetry as his main mode of expression, and so his message spread across a greater cross-section of community than it might otherwise have. However, what is intriguing about Iqbal is not only the quantitative diffusion of his message, but also the qualitative diversity of its impact—militant traditionalists like Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, ideologues of various strands of ‘fundamentalisms’ like Pakistan’s Abu ‘Ala Mawdudi, and committed modernists like Iran’s Ali Shariati have acknowledges the influence of his ideas. And it is not uncommon to hear his verses mouthed by mullahs from the pulpits of mosques, and recited in living rooms over tea, in Pakistan. His thought has also produced varying responses at the intellectual level. “While some regard him as a great thinker, philosopher, scholar, humanist, poet, and the intellectual Godfather of Pakistan, others perceive him as an ideologue and yet others see him as a confused thinker who could not reconcile the contradictory elements of his… ideology” (Dorraj, p. 266). Given the extensive, diverse and controversial nature of Iqbal’s thought and its impact, it would be a worthwhile venture to try to understand Iqbal’s political philosophy. This paper is an attempt in that direction.

A study of Iqbal’s works reveals that his political ideas cannot be separated from his philosophy as a whole. An attempt to understand his politics in isolation leads to only a partial grasp of the rationale behind it. It is for this reason that, before delving into Iqbal’s view on politics, this paper tries to present the relevant aspects of his general philosophy. Moreover, this paper tries to present Iqbal’s thought, not his politics. This is an attempt to cull out his political philosophy from his political participation. Most of Iqbal’s writings, and almost all of his speeches and statements, were not aimed at outlining his philosophy in a systematic way. Rather, they targeted a Muslim audience, specifically the Muslims of India, and were aimed at making his thought relevant to their activities; in other words, Iqbal’s writings are a part of his politics, not explicit expositions of his philosophy. Many scholars have overlooked this, and reduced his philosophy to his message to Muslims, or even to just the Muslims if India. This paper then, hopes to contribute to the academic focus on Iqbal by trying to extract his political philosophy, which is universal in its applicability, even if Iqbal applied it to specific situations in his lifetime[1].

As we shall see, Iqbal’s conception of the human personality and his communal ideals have
far-reaching ramifications for his political thought. However, before even that, it would be useful to
have some knowledge of Iqbal’s life and times; after all, his thought did not arise in a vacuum, but
was born in response to the circumstances he lived in, and was shaped by his personal history.

Life & times

—a brief biography of Iqbal[2], and the historical context in which he lived

The colonization of the New World had commenced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries;
by the late nineteenth century, primarily European nations, especially Britain and France, but also
Japan, were well into their enterprise of bringing the lands of Asia and Africa under their control for

the sake of economic and political dividends. The Muslim lands stretching across Asia and Africa were also coming under colonial subjugation. India, Iqbal’s place of birth, with its majority Hindu population and a significant Muslim minority, had come under official British control after the failure of the War of Independence (known to the British as The Great Mutiny) of 1857.

Even as colonialism tried to establish its foothold, anti-colonial sentiment was also on the rise and was increasingly taking an organized shape. After the failure to resist the colonial incursion, the indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia turned towards ways of reversing the ideological, technological and military domination of the colonizers. More often than not, anti-colonial movements had strong nationalist as well as religious overtones—“religious motifs and sentiments burst forth in a mighty stream in the teachings of the overwhelming majority of the ideologists for Afro-Asian nationalists” (Anikeyev, p. 267). In Muslim lands, the anti-colonial effort ranged from the violent revolt of local military leaders like the Mahdi of Sudan, to the writings of intellectuals like Rashid Rida of Egypt and the political exertions of international activists like Jamal-ud-Din Afghani. And like in other places, religion and nationalism emerged as dominant themes.

The fact of European domination was almost universally taken as a sign of the backwardness of the Muslims. This realization spawned a variety of calls for religious revivalism: from Pan-Islamism to religious nationalism; from calls to reinvent what was seen as an antiquated Islam to attempts to remake what was perceived as an un-Islamic community. The other dominant theme that emerged along with religious revivalism was a movement towards Europeanization—borrowing what were perceived to be the superior technology, institutions, philosophies and politics of Europe.  There was thus a tension between the two main tools of anti-colonial movements, one that accentuated the role of the indigenous tradition (religious revivalism) and one that highlighted the need to adapt to the foreign civilization (Europeanization). This tension was also present in India, which exhibited the whole gamut of anti-colonial ideologies, from liberal, Europeanized politicians, to fundamentalist ulema. Iqbal, then, was born at a time when the peoples of Asia and Africa including India, were preeminently concerned with the psychological angst of why they had been subjugated, and the practical dilemma of reversing the colonial incursion. Moreover, his life afforded him the opportunity of coming into contact with a wide spectrum of indigenous and foreign thought, enabling him to make an informed contribution to the thought of his era.

Born in the 1870’s[3] in Sialkot, a town in the province of Punjab in British India, Iqbal was exposed to devout Islamic observance through his mother and traditional Sufism through his mystically-inclined father. During his schooling at the Scotch Mission College, he was influenced by Shamsul Ulama Mir Hasen, a supporter of the revivalist activities initiated by Sayyid Ahmad Khan in India and stirred up by Jamal-ud-Din Afghani in other parts of the Muslim world. In 1895 he went to study at Government College, Lahore, where he studied Arabic Literature and Islamic culture. In college, he came under the tutelage of T. W. Arnold, a British Orientalist who “of all Western Orientalists, was possibly the one most concerned to affirm the values of Islamic civilization” and who “quite possibly helped Iqbal develop the attitude of balanced appreciation of western thought which remained characteristic of all his later writings about philosophy and religion” (McDonough, p. 16). After earning his Masters in Philosophy, he began teaching at Government College. He had always shown a propensity for writing poetry, and his works during this time “reflected his upbringing as a Muslim, his study of Islamic culture, his exposure … to Sufism, his awareness of the Islamic revival movement of the era…and a commitment to Indian nationalism based on Muslim-Hindu solidarity” (Lee, p. 58).

Encouraged by his mentor, Thomas Arnold, Iqbal began the next phase of his life: three years of education in Europe, from 1905 till 1908. At Cambridge, he studied with the neo-Hegelian, J. M. E. McTaggart, and also came into contact with the renowned scholar on Sufism, Reynold. A. Nicholson. From England he went to Germany, first to Munich, then Heidelberg. He returned to India with a law degree from England and a doctorate in Persian mysticism from Germany[4]; but more importantly, “he came away with a deep understanding of European thought from the theology of Thomas Aquinas to the philosophy of Henri-Louis Bergson, and Nietzsche” (Lee, p. 58). After his return, he spent most of his time in Lahore, supporting himself by practicing law till his death in 1938. His participation in active politics was limited to his city and province, but he kept in touch with most of the leading politicians of India. However, the most prominent feature of the period between Iqbal’s return from Europe and his death is the conceptualization of his philosophical outlook, and its articulation through lectures, correspondence with politicians, articles, and, most significantly, through Persian and Urdu poetry. Thus, spurred by the conditions of the world, especially the colonial predicament and the crisis in Muslim lands, and informed by Western philosophy and his Islamic heritage, Iqbal attempted to synthesized “his dynamic concept of the self which is central to his teachings” (Esposito, p. 176). The concept of the khudi is informed by both the Western and eastern traditions, yet Iqbal’s development of the concept, and its application, bears the mark of his unique creative genius. It is akin to Nietzsche’s cncept of the Superman, but without its amorality, contempt for other individuals, and atheism, and is also similar to Al-Jili’s concept of the Insan il-Kamil (Perfect Man), but without its excessive mysticism and predilection for otherworldly concerns.

Proposed in his first book of Persian poetry, Asrar-e-Khudi (‘Secrets of the self,’ published in 1915), developed in Rumuz-e-bekhudi (‘Mysteries of selflessness,’ published in 1918), and sustained and elaborated in all his subsequent works, prose as well as poetry, in English, Persian and Urdu, Iqbal’s philosophy of khudi, “embraced all of reality, self, community, and God” (Esposito, p. 177). Since Iqbal’s views on politics are naturally embedded in his understanding of reality—especially human nature and communal organization—therefore it is essential to understand his concept of the khudi in order to appreciate the rationale and vision behind his political outlook.

Khudi & be-khudi

Iqbal's philosophy of the self and the community

The concept of the khudi (the self, individual ego or human personality) is the bedrock of Iqbal’s philosophy, and his “main contribution to the thought of his times.” In fact, it is one of the two concepts that is fundamental enough that he devotes a separate chapter to it in his seminal prose work, The Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam; (the other concept is the existence of God, and is also treated separately in its own chapter).


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