Iqbal’s views on imperialism, nationalism, socialism, capitalism and democracy

Iqbal’s political philosophy is firmly embedded in his view of the world, with its focus on the creation of a particular kind of individual through the creation of a certain kind of community. Since the pressing political concern of his time for most intellectuals of Asia and Africa was the European incursion into their land and subjugation of their peoples, it seems logical to begin with Iqbal response to Imperialism.


For Iqbal, the colonial situation—indeed, any kind of domination of one individual by another within a community, or of one community by another in the world—was supremely repugnant because it inhibited the development of the personality of the oppressed. Without freedom, free choice was constrained. And without free choice, there could be merely coerced obedience, not activity. Moreover, for Iqbal, both the colonizing and the colonized peoples exhibited a deviation from his ideals of the individual and the society, though in different ways.

As we have seen, Iqbal envisioned activity, guided by spiritual values, as the essence of life. The colonizers, then, were active, creative, powerful; but because their activity was not guided by spiritual values, it had led to the subjugation of other peoples. Only by subscribing to spiritual values could a people renounce destructive activity, for without a moral basis, “power was [inherently] oppressive.” The shared value of faith in God would make all communities realize the necessity for tolerance, and the repugnance of wars and subjugation. One God, in the realm of International Relations, meant the equality of all individuals and communities. And a shared belief in that God meant a basis for a common humanity, a global community comprised of separate communities, all united by their sense of equality and similarity engendered by an awareness of the Divine. It was the lack of this awareness, then, in the thoughts and deeds of the Europeans nations, that resulted in the transformation of their power, creativity and activity into an oppressive force for others, and a source of strife for themselves. On the other hand, the colonized people had failed to resist this colonial incursion because they were passive. Even while religion remained a potent force, their individuals and communities had lost their creativity and dynamism, and consequently, their power. In fact, the structures regulating their communities, especially religion, had become static and ill adjusted to the times, stifling the development of individuals, rather than nurturing it. Thus, the lack of activity on the part of the colonized peopled, and the lack of proper activity on the part of the Europeans had lead to the spread of Imperialism in the world, for “Power without religion was corrupt, religion without power was [passive] mysticism.” Thus Iqbal opposed the colonial incursion, urging Europe to regain its spiritual values as a potent factor in its politics, and calling upon the peoples of the East to regain their dynamism and creativity as well as their freedom—in fact, for Iqbal, the only way to end psychological and intellectual colonialism was to gain freedom through regaining their creativity and dynamism. Thus, even while advocating freedom, Iqbal was also among the handful of intellectuals of the time who opposed the nationalist nature of the anti-colonial movements. In fact, his opposition to the nationalist movements was based on his general critique on nationalism, which, in turn, was grounded in his larger worldview.


Amongst all the ideologies of Europe, Iqbal was most opposed to the national idea, at least, as it was understood and practiced in Europe, and as it was being adopted by the peoples of Asia and Africa. As we have seen, Iqbal envisioned widening circles of association, from the individual, to the community, to all of humanity, based on a growing realization of shared values. Territorial nationalism was an anathema to this vision—defined, as it was in Iqbal’s mind, in opposition to other nations, feeding off the idea of one’s nation’s superiority over them, and locating its uniqueness in un-shareable factors like language and race. Thus nationalism effectively made the idea of a global community (based on equality through a shared spirituality) unrealizable. Iqbal never expected his vision of a global community to be realized any time soon; what he could not accept was that the existence of nationalism would mean that his vision could never be realized. Moreover, Iqbal also felt that nationalism was one of the major forces fuelling imperialism. Being defined in opposition to other nations, it encouraged the prospect of acquiring domination over them; by portraying one’s nation as inherently superior to others, it made the actual subjugation of others palatable.

In addition to his critique of nationalism in general, his opposition to its spread in non-European lands had three other reasons. First, he felt that it made the colonized people weaker by dividing them along national lines. Iqbal’s communities could retain their uniqueness but still co-operate with each other through a sense of equality and spiritual affinity; however nations, by definition, tended to be exclusionary and antagonistic. Second, he felt that in the process of borrowing the national idea from outside, the peoples of Asia and Africa were emasculating their individual and collective selves, as must happen in all processes of borrowing. And finally, concerning lands of diversity like India, Iqbal was convinced that nationalism lead to the creation of artificial communities that were harmful to the individuals within it. In such diverse contexts, territorial nationalism attempted to create a unity out of a people who had nothing in common except that they shared the same land. Nationalism, then, not only tried to paper over differences in culture, religion, and history, it tried to suppress them and, even worse, to replace them with concocted notions, in order to create the fiction of unity. The consequent loss of history meant that individuals could not imbibe a sense of continuity with the past; the sudden and drastic disruption of social institutions meant that the community would cease to function as an effective repository of cultural and ethical values over time; and the replacement of organic and spiritual bases for affinity (like religion and culture) with inorganic and non-spiritual ones (like race and language) meant that the resulting structure if society would debilitate the development of the spiritual side of its individuals, dry up the sources of their creativity, and fail to create that particular sense of moral purpose that makes thoughts and deeds respectful of others’ development and freedom.

In short, Iqbal found nationalism to be inherently divisive—barring the creation of a global community, and simultaneously fuelling the imperial impulse and weakening opposition to it. And its importation into other communities weakened their agency as well as their sense of historical continuity and organic social organization. All these factors were inimical to the creation of an environment where the khudi could develop. Thus Iqbal’s opposition to the national idea remained a vehement and continuous theme in his life.


In Iqbal’s thought, the meta-ideal for a society was the creation of an environment conducive to the development of all its constituent individuals. This was impossible in the presence of inequality, poverty, exploitation, and oppression. Economic deprivation leads to dependence on charity, and as we have seen, for Iqbal, borrowing of any kind leads to the weakening of the ego. Moreover, poverty, inequality, oppression and exploitation constrain the freedom of the individual; and lack of freedom is tantamount to lack of activity because it leads to coercive constraints. It was for these reasons that Iqbal firmly believed in the necessity of social and economic justice—without them, the society would hamper the development of its members. The economic and social ideals of socialism, with its emphasis on the eradication of inequality, poverty, exploitation and oppression, led Iqbal to praise these aspects. There is also some similarity, duly noted by Iqbal, between the socialist ideal of an international community united by its commitment to certain ideals and Iqbal’s own notion of a global community. But this is where his appreciation ended. On the whole, Iqbal rejected socialism. He felt that socialism, with its understanding of human nature—limited to its physical aspects—was ill suited for the needs of Man. Viewing the human personality as merely a physical organism, it sought its well-being through economic prosperity, completely neglecting his spiritual needs. In fact, socialism as it came to be practiced in the Soviet Union in Iqbal’s lifetime, not only neglected individuals’ spiritual reality, it negated it, and aggressively sought to eradicate religion from the society. Iqbal, on the other hand, viewed human nature as a combination of spirit and body. Neglecting either aspect of the individual would be a flaw; in fact, the spiritual needs were more important. Hence religion was an essential component of life, since in Iqbal’s view it was essential for the spiritual growth of the individual; economic prosperity was important to the extent that economic deprivation was not conducive to the development of spirituality. Thus, while socialism made economic prosperity of the people an end in itself—in fact, the ultimate objective—for Iqbal, this was merely the means to an end: i.e. the spiritual development of the people. In addition to the neglect of Man’s spiritual side and the opposition to religion, Iqbal also found, the communist state to be excessive—it constrained individual freedom, and hence, his activity and the flowering of his potential. So while Iqbal admired the economic ideals of socialism, he rejected it as a system—and with it, the ideal of an international socialist brotherhood—because it inhibited the proper development of the khudi.

In spite of the above discussion, Iqbal’s views on socialism and capitalist democracy have often been reduced the generalization that he viewed the former positively and the latter negatively. However, a closer examination of his thought reveals that he viewed both of them critically. In fact, as we have seen, while he viewed some of the ideals of socialism to be commendable, he rejected it as a general ideology. On the other hand, while he viewed some of the practices of democracy and capitalism to be culpable, he felt that some form of republican democracy was the most suitable type of political organization in the 20th century. Thus, it would seem that his harsher criticism of European democratic and capitalist practices did ot imply his rejection of the systems. On the contrary, it reveals his desire to ensure the implementation of proper democratic and capitalist practices.

Capitalism and democracy

Iqbal’s criticism of capitalism and democracy is qualified. While he vehemently opposed imperialism and nationalism, and appreciated some aspects of socialism but rejected the system as a whole, his attitude towards capitalism and democracy was different: he criticized some aspects of these systems, while accepting them as a whole. Thus, Iqbal accepted some version of a capitalist republican democracy as the most appropriate polity in the 20th century. That is precisely why his criticism of the existing capitalist democracies is scathing and relevant for understanding his political thought.

Capitalism and democracy, in Iqbal’s mind, suffered from a flaw shared by socialism: their understanding of the human personality was limited. Therefore, their attitude towards the human condition, and their prescription for his well-being, was also limited and flawed.

Neglecting the spiritual aspects of man, capitalism focused merely on his material betterment. However, unlike socialism, Iqbal felt that even with respect to his material prosperity, capitalism as it was practiced at the time, was flawed. While socialism categorically aimed at redistributing wealth and eradicating inequality and exploitation, capitalism only claimed to do it, and in actual practice, achieved the opposite: the betterment of a few, and growing poverty, inequality and exploitation. This was an impermissible state of affairs for Iqbal; therefore, he felt that unchecked capitalism was one of the evils that needed to be treated. The treatment could not be limited to a realization that economic prosperity of everyone demanded redistribution of wealth—even while reducing inequality and poverty, this would fail to address the root-cause of social evils: the limited understanding of human nature. Thus, the profit-motive must be replaced by the objective of seeking the development of all individuals in society. The purpose of redistribution would not be to allow each individual to become rich, but to allow each individual to strengthen his personality. An unending desire for economic prosperity would not be the end in itself; sufficient economic well-being would be the means to the end of individual growth. Institutionally, it would mean some kind of a welfare state; metaphysically, it would imply the creation of a society conducive to the development of each individual’s ego.

Democracy, for Iqbal, suffered many drawbacks. The elective principle granted each individual equal weight; with Iqbal’s conception of the human personality—which is not static but susceptible to degeneration and capable of development—it was preposterous to imagine that each individual was capable of making an equally valid judgment. As Iqbal put it, “Democracy counts heads, not what’s in them.” However, this critique did not lead Iqbal to advocate the abandonment of the elective principle. Even while the elective principle may be flawed, Iqbal felt that it was the only way of ensuring the freedom of each individual, without which development was impossible. His critique was merely meant to highlight a drawback, even if it was irremediable. The point, then, was to alert others to a wider critique of democratic theory: that democratic institutions could not ensure freedom and good governance. Any system based on the franchise of the people would be as good as the individuals utilizing that franchise. And if the individuals were not developed enough, the democracy, for all its institutions, would be failure. By pointing this out, Iqbal wanted to bring the focus back to his concept of khudi, and its relevance to the modern world. His message was clear: no system can function properly by neglecting the development of all the individuals within it. And with a flawed understanding of human nature, it would not be possible to ensure its development. By being secular, it was clear to Iqbal that western democracy was indeed limited in its understanding of human nature, and hence was bound to fail.

As we have seen, for Iqbal, human nature was an inextricable mixture of spirit and body. Human development, then, could not be carried out without a combination of material well-being and spiritual elevation. By making religion irrelevant, Iqbal feared that western democratic theory would be unable to create societies that were conducive to human development. Even worse than making religion irrelevant, secular democracies were making morality irrelevant too, and replacing it by legality. For Iqbal, a legality devoid of morality could temporarily control the body from excesses, but would fail to elevate the spirits of individuals. Thus, the legislative process must be a moral affair, and not just a legal matter, and spiritual and moral values should pervade the public sphere, not be divorced from it. Only such a democracy could ensure the balanced development of its members. And only a democracy with developed individuals could be a true democracy.

Given Iqbal’s aversion to any kind of borrowing—economic or intellectual—the question naturally arises: Doesn’t this acceptance of democracy, however qualified, constitute a retreat from his position? Iqbal was certainly cognizant of this question, and addressed it a number of times in his writings. While explaining his position, it may be useful to contextualize him amongst the traditionalists and modernists of Asia and Africa, all responding to their common predicament of being dominated by Europe.

Iqbal, and the predicament of the third world

The fact of colonial domination evoked a response from all segments of the population in the colonized lands. Iqbal, too, grappled with the situation, and his thought remains very much relevant today: the end of physical colonial incursion has not ended the debate on the agency and authenticity of the third world.

Iqbal’s conception of the correct response to the situation involved a transformation in the realms of both thought and deed. It must be an intellectual act—involving the reworking of one’s worldview—as well as a vital act—involving the reworking of one’s world. Moreover, for the vital act to be authentic, it must be preceded by the intellectual act; conversely, for the intellectual act to be of any value, it must lead to the vital act. “The final act,” says Iqbal, “must be the vital act.” However, not only must the intellectual act precede the vital act, it  must be a certain kind of intellectual act. Specifically: it must take into account the requirements of the situation/ predicament and all advances in the realm of human knowledge (for only then could it be relevant and effective); it must be informed by history, tempered by a sense of continuity with the past (for only then could it be organically related to the community and could avoid being disruptive); and, most importantly for Iqbal, it must be the product of the inner experience of the developed khudi—not just a response to the situation, nor just a synthesis of Historical or Real imperatives, but a new creation altogether (for only then could it be the authentic expression of the dynamic khudi, the strong individual self, and not the working of a weak ego).

An understanding of Iqbal’s unique position amongst modernists and traditionalists of his time—and, indeed, of our time—becomes apparent. Unlike traditionalists, for Iqbal there can be no going back to the past, only going forward with it. The modernists, on the other hand, respond to modern realities and borrow from modern ideologies, wholesale at worst, critically at best. But for Iqbal, there can be no borrowing of ideology, critically or uncritically. There can only be critical awareness of knowledge, received from the past or generated in the present, by other individuals or other communities. One’s ideology—and all thought that governs one’s actions—must always be the product of the creative dynamic self (through the process delineated above). Thus, from Iqbal’s point-of-view, both modernists and traditionalists ultimately fail because they circumvent the crucial intellectual act before the vital act: the traditionalists by borrowing from the past, the modernists by borrowing from the present

It should be clear by now that for Iqbal, the process of change was crucial, not the specific outcome. (In fact, the outcome would be different for each community and time, in order to be effective and authentic.) In other words, Iqbal was more concerned with the nature of the intellectual and vital acts, not their contents. This clarifies Iqbal’s acceptance of democracy. Given the process of his arriving at the conclusion that democracy was the most suitable polity for the modern world, he was convinced that his acceptance of democracy was not a compromise with, but the product of, his ideals. As Iqbal himself pointed out, similarity of one’s ideology with those of others did not make it inauthentic; not was dissimilarity grounds for claiming authenticity. The process was of the essence, not the content. Thus, in this way Iqbal attempted to find a way from nostalgia to hopeful confidence, from reaction to purposeful action. For Iqbal, this was the only way the subjugated peoples of the world could regain their freedom—because for him, freedom did not just mean independence; it meant the strengthening of the khudi, and the creation of communities whose social order would be conducive to the growth of all its constituent individuals.



The individual and the community

The origin of the human personality or ego is independent of community; however, its temporal existence in space-time and its development occur firmly within the context of its communal environment. The reason for this should be clear from the preceding discussion: the community is the repository of the knowledge, including historical knowledge, that is imparted to the individual. Its institutions (educational, political, economic, etc), its values, mores, its religious inclinations, practices and ideas—all play a crucial role in determining the way the individual ego will perceive its past, whether it will develop its intuitive faculty, whether it will be spurred into action, and hence life, or whether it will be lulled into passivity, which is death. However, it is not only the development of the khudi that occurs within the community—its actions are also carried out within it. In fact, Iqbal was convinced that even more than occurring within nature, human activity changes nature, including community, in important ways. As Iqbal puts is “streams of causality flow from nature to the individual and vice versa.”

The fact that activity does not occur in isolation but impacts its environment made Iqbal carry his philosophy a step further: it was not enough to develop the ego and make it active, but to develop it and make it active in a particular way. The particular method of development and activity was also determined by Iqbal’s concept of the khudi—the development and activity of each individual must be such that other individuals are also allowed to develop their individuality. This is the point where Iqbal goes from elaborating the ideal goal for the individual—the development of its rationally directed, purposeful activity—to the ideal goal for the community—the knowledge it imparts to the individual should not only make it active, but should make it active in a way that allows for the development of all other individuals who are part of the same community.

The question no longer is: what kind of community will develop active individuals? Rather, it is: what kind of community will develop individuals whose activity does not hamper the development of other active individuals? It is here that Iqbal moves from the creation of unique, self-concentrated individuals to self-concentrated but like-minded individuals who identify with each other; this is so because Iqbal firmly believed that unless individuals identify with others, their activity will not be transformed from exclusionary of, and harmful to, others, to inclusionary of, and beneficial to, others. Once again, Iqbal’s sources of knowledge are crucial here: Historical awareness and the religious values, ethical standards, communal mores embodied in the environment outside the self are crucial to the creation of like-minded individuals. But does not this creation of like-mindedness inhibit the individuality and creativity of the human personality? Not according to Iqbal. While like-mindedness means that these individuals come together in a cohesive bond, it does not mean that they loose their individuality—through inner experience, their assimilation of knowledge remains a unique, and creative process. Like-mindedness, thus, does not mean passivity; it means individual creativity and activity that leads to communal harmony and cohesion. To put it differently, individuals participate in the creation of their own like-mindedness, and therefore remain active and creative. However, as we have seen, if the creation of like-mindedness is not to lead to passivity and weakening of the ego, the factors that create like-mindedness must be verified by inner experience—and for this, these factors must be verifiable! Thus, like-mindedness cannot be based on some artificial communal value, or a reconstructed history; it can only be created by a historical awareness that reflects the facts as they are, and a value that can is universally verifiable by each individual ego through its own inner experience. It is for this reason that Iqbal stresses the importance of shared spiritual values—for him, spiritual values alone can be intuitively known and verified, held strongly enough to mould action, and transmitted over time through social structures.

Continuity and change in the ideal community

Thus we arrive at Iqbal’s ideal individual, one who is active and creative. Moreover, because of his like-mindedness with other individuals (on the basis of shared spiritual values and historical memory) he comes together with them to form a community. Through participation with this community, he expresses his creativity; because it is a community of like-minded individuals, sharing spiritual values (that ensure, above all else, respect for other individuals), participation in the community amplifies his freedom, not reduces it—it empowers him to achieve communally what would be impossible individually. He benefits from the power of the community, and the community benefits from his creativity. Moreover, the values of this community—the spiritual values that create like-mindedness, a respect for other individuals, and also encourage the development of each individual’s ego and creativity—are embodied in institutions. And the preservation of these institutions is essential in order to transmit the values of the community over time. Thus, there is a tension: even as the individual expands his creativity, the community attempts to retain its structure. For Iqbal, the continuity provided by the community is important; but so is change. The products of individual creativity must be reflected in the society; but this change must be cautious and informed by the past, if it is to ensure the continuity of the community. Once again, historical knowledge provides this sense of continuity with the past, and also acts as a conservative force on the individual and the community. Sudden changes in the communal structure would threaten to dissolve the environment that fosters individual growth. Thus, even as knowledge increases, institutions change, and the individuals and the society progress; but this change must be cautious, so as to retain the environment that is conducive to proper individual development.

From the community to humanity

No community can exist in isolation to other communities. Even as individual egos within a community cannot help but affect other egos through their activity, likewise, each community cannot help but affect other communities, and hence, the development of the egos in those communities. Iqbal was universalistic; he could not be satisfied with providing a solution for one community, with disregard to others. Indeed, one of the major concerns of his life was how the preoccupation of each European nation with its own economic development had led it to disregard the well being of other peoples. Thus, he was very much concerned with creating a world order that would be conducive to the development of individuals in all of its constituent communities

As we have seen, Iqbal considered that for one ego to identify with another, it would have to perceive some similarity in it, feel some affinity for it. Moreover, since he was convinced that since the real nature of the human individual was spiritual and not physical, he was loathe to base this affinity on physical characteristics, like race or language. Given the individual’s spiritual nature, it was more organic to cultivate affinities based on shared values; and if these spiritual values were in accord with Reality, they could also be verified by each individual; this would lead to conviction, and also to a willing and active consent in their acceptance. Such an outlook proved particularly useful in a global context—physical similarity seemed impossible in the world; there were too many languages and races to create a sense of affinity through such characteristics. But which spiritual value was to form the basis of a global sense of community? A value, which would lead to a respect for all its constituent communities as well as the individuals in it, and so lead to the creation of an environment where all individuals in the world, in all communities, could develop their khudi? Iqbal came to the conclusion that faith in monotheism, in the one God, was the only way possible of achieving this on a global scale.

For Iqbal, God—understood as the Ultimate Ego expressing itself in all of creation—could be verified by each individual. Thus, faith in monotheism would not be a result of a passive acceptance of a myth—it would be the result of active verification of Reality by each individual. And so, it would not weaken the ego, but strengthen it. Moreover, faith in God—due to its magnitude and due to its verifiability—would be strong enough to create a meaningful level of like-mindedness in the individuals who shared it. And like-mindedness stemming from faith in God would be a special kind of like-mindedness—it would not only lead to a sense of affinity with all people who shared the same value, it would also lead to a respect for all people who shared the same God. This last point was crucial in Iqbal’s vision of the world—given the racial, linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity of the world, he had found, in the form of faith in God, that single spiritual value that would allow for diversity, and yet lead to a sense of affinity with, and a respect for, all peoples.

The ideal and reality

 Thus we see in Iqbal’s thought two major themes. First, widening circles of association (from the individual to the community, to all of humanity) based on the creation of like-mindedness (through the sharing of spiritual values) and all with the primary aim of ensuring the development of each individual ego in the world (by ensuring the development of its intuitive and creative faculties, and leading to purposeful, rationally directed activity). And second, essential but cautious change in the community, reflecting the creativity of individuals and other communities, but also being informed by the past, so that the cohesion and harmony of the community, as well as the environment conducive to the development of the khudi, remains intact.

This was Iqbal’s vision of the ideal world, one that shaped his attitude towards politics. However, as we shall see, it was not only the ideal vision that would shape his views on politics; indeed, he was more than willing to compromise on his ideals as he believed in not just what was good, but what was good and achievable. What he would condemn, then, is not something that did not incorporate his ideals, but rather than which debarred his ideals from ever being translated into reality. In other words, he was willing to concede a reality that was not ideal; but he was not willing to concede a reality that could never be ideal. This approach is characteristic of his views on all major political issues and ideologies of his time, namely: imperialism, nationalism, socialism and democracy.


Home    About Khudi    Concept of SelfHood    Knowledge   
Khudi & Knowledge   Kuudi & Politic      Khudi & Mard-E-Momin      Conclusion