April 9, 2015 By K. Ashraf

Political Imaginations of Muhammad Iqbal

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Muhammad Iqbal (d.1938) was one of the significant Muslim intellectuals in the colonial India. He was an orator, writer, poet, campaigner and philosopher. The Political Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal: Islam and Nationalism in Late Colonial India, a new study on the poet-philosopher by Iqbal Singh Sevea analyses the political dimension of the Iqbal’s philosophy.

Sevea develops three frameworks to tease out Iqbal’s political vision. First, he locates the time and space wherein Iqbal was born and raised-that is the context of colonial India-to provide the vital background of his political philosophy. Second, he delves into Iqbal’s perspective on the ideology of colonialism and compares it to those of other Muslim intellectuals of his time. Third, based on these discussions, Sevea presents the uniqueness of Iqbal’s vision of nation, nationalism and nation state that envisioned a postcolonial and postnational future.

The book shows the intellectual development of Iqbal throughout the period. It can be argued that the first freedom struggle in India during 1857 and the subsequent defeat of Muslims opened a great deal of soul searching especially among North Indian Muslim elites (ashraf). Many scholars are of the view that Islamic thought in colonial India is a derivative of western social thoughts. Sevea debunks such theories and argues that Islamic thought in colonial India forms a complex web of intra Islamic exchanges that can only be understood from within its own specificities.

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1898) was the most outstanding figure who led this struggle to find the meaning of Islam in a newly inaugurated British colonial state. Khan argued that Islam is a “natural religion” because Islam and scientific principles do not contradict each other. This argument led to huge debates among Muslims, especially intellectuals. Khan reasoned that God Himself said that the Qur’an is identical to nature. For Khan, Islam was synonymous with science and reason.  Later his influential disciple Shibli Nomani (d.1914) argued against his teacher saying that science and Islam deal with two different spheres of life and these are two systems of life with different purposes. This view, however, was problematic in explaining ideological underpinning of the rise of science and reason in the colony and the uncritical acceptance of science. It was Iqbal who later theorized Islam as a system of life and reimagined Islam as a social and ethical project for entire humankind.  This position of Iqbal resolved the problem of the hegemony of colonially inspired reason over religion in a colonial society. It was from this position that Abul A’la Maududi (d.1979) later interpreted his idea of the Islamic state. Iqbal’s view of Islam as a system of life was thus central to Maududi’s political thought.

The peculiarity of Iqbal’s position was that he viewed colonial state as a totalitarian hegemonic power that was not only based on force and dominance but also created a consensual power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. This consensual power worked in the realm of cultural politics and Iqbal was alarmed to see the rise of hegemonic ideas in the life of Muslims in colonial India.  But that did not stop Iqbal from reading and engaging western philosophy and social thoughts. Iqbal imagined himself as part of a counter hegemonic politics and associated with many anti-colonial projects during his life time.

Sevea’s book is an important text in which contemporary Muslims grapple with issues of nation, nationalism and the nation state.  The core of Iqbal’s argument was that nation is different from the nation-state and nationalism. He had profound suspicion about the claims of anti-colonial nationalists in colonial India when they considered the anti-colonial nation state as an alternative to the colonial nation state. Iqbal found the mode of organizing individuals, communities and societies by the nation state as part of colonial legacy.  For Iqbal, whether Muslims should have a nation state or not were secondary issues when considering the possibility of a potential Muslim nation that leads to deeper decolonial futures. In that respect, the book also argues that the construction of Iqbal as the father of Pakistan is a later invention and an influential historical misreading of Iqbal’s social vision. Iqbal supported a Muslim nation state only because it would help Muslims to give Islam a fresh beginning as a nation.

This work on Iqbal has limited itself to his engagement with Muslim intellectuals in colonial India. It can be argued that the development of Iqbal’s thoughts cannot be sufficiently explained without addressing his engagements with the dominant currents of Hindu elites of Indian nationalism.  Other studies show that Iqbal’s politics was shaped by the condition of anti-colonial Hindu nationalism. This lack of critical engagement with Hindu nationalism is the major drawback of this otherwise well-argued book. Regardless of this inadequacy, this book on Iqbal has succeeded in bringing up the uniqueness of his political vision.

  • K Ashraf is MA candidate in Department of Religion Studies, University of Johannesburg)

The Political Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal: Islam and Nationalism in Late Colonial India

Iqbal Singh Sevea

(Cambridge University Press 2012)


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