We live in the aftermath of perhaps the most consequential movement in modern history, the world anti-colonial movement. This movement succeeded in securing political freedom for most of humanity. It has made unprecedented progress in the educational and economic upliftment of the masses through increasing literacy, housing, standard of living, and life expectancy. On the ideological plane it destroyed the notion that the alleged civilizational superiority of the West gave it the right to politically enslave the rest of the world. It smashed the scientific belief in white supremacy and the color-line. It has given billions of people a say in the way their societies and, indeed, world affairs are run for the first time in human history. Quite apart from Western bourgeois notions of liberal democracy, these were massive gains in achieving what W.E.B. Du Bois called “world democracy”. The leading lights of the world anti-colonial movement developed a new set of ideas to serve darker humanity, synthesizing the progressive elements of the European Enlightenment with the best of the civilizations of Asia and Africa. Allama Muhammad Iqbal was one of the pioneers of anti-colonial thought in Asia, synthesizing the radical element of the Enlightenment with Islamic and Indian philosophy and developing a literature to awaken the masses of the East to claim their rightful place in history.
The advent of the unipolar world, globalization, and the rampage of Western imperialism since 1991 have weakened these gains. Western intellectuals and Eastern purveyors of neocolonialism have made racist arguments about corruption, primordial ethnic conflict and the inefficiency of socialism in the Third World. Much intellectual work has been done to erase the memory of anti-colonial victories in the youth so that they do not have a base with which to envision a better and more democratic future. History, philosophy, sociology, and political economy have all become victims of this assault.
We are in an era in which much economic and technological progress has been made by the formerly colonized nations, especially in Asia. However, the threat of neocolonialism remains and retains a strong hold over the minds of the people of the East. Religious fundamentalism, cultural nationalism, and other ideologies of obscurantism offer little resistance to the West when they refuse to engage with Western philosophy nor do they make any attempt to bring Eastern philosophy into relevance for the modern world. In this exciting but perilous era, the philosophy of Allama Dr. Muhammad Iqbal provides an example for a way of thinking that can contribute to the rise of the darker nations and the freeing of humanity.
The Oppressed Engage the Enlightenment
Every corner of the world we live in has been touched by Western thought, technology, politics, and culture. The darker peoples of the world have only recently emerged from the political subjugation and civilizational stagnation engendered by Western colonialism. The challenge since the dawn of the anti-colonial struggle has been to reject the innate superiority of the West over all of humanity. A serious rejection of the superiority of Western civilization entails a mastery of its highs and a knowledge of its lows, giving darker humanity a full understanding of how the present world came to be and the possibility to choose a different path than the one dictated by the Western elites. If science is the key to the modern era, and Western science claims supremacy, then it must be philosophy, what Hegel called the Science of Sciences, that is the fundamental battleground for the future of human thought. Allama Iqbal was a pioneer model of the Eastern philosopher engaging with the heights of Western philosophy but rejecting its inherent supremacy, and retaining the right to work out his own synthesis to serve the majority of humanity outside of the fold of Western civilization.
The European Enlightenment, fuelled by the knowledge of Africa and Asia, laid the groundwork for political revolutions that brought the masses of the West into the struggle for politics, art, and culture for the first time. However, for Asia and Africa, this was the period of the advent of colonial rule, degradation and the advent of the color-line. Humanity soared to new heights and fell to new lows. Colonial rule trapped the peoples of the East in the ugliness of political slavery and the social backwardness of feudalism.
For instance, 1857 marked the full tragic colonial conquest of India by British power. History shows us the heroism of the fighters against British encroachment uniting in the name of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Yet the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, through ornate metaphors, protests the decay of the Mughal system and the failure of the Mughal intellegentsia to break from its old ways of thinking to meet the new modern power of the British. The barbarism of British conquest and rule was justified through the concept of the color-line and the civilizing mission.
After the foreign military conquest, some among the colonized sought a simplistic return to the pre-colonial order and refused to engage the new ideas animating the world. Another group of “reformers” accepted the “civilizing mission” of the colonizers and sought to uncritically remold colonized society in the image of liberal Europe. There was a need for a new set of thinkers who would be able to engage the ideas of modern Europe, the ideas animating the dominant civilization of the West, in a bid to assert the humanity and dignity of the colonized people. A new struggle emerged not just to turn back history to the pre-colonial era but to understand the new world and the possibilities it held for the colonized.
New philosophical concepts such as the interconnectedness of all human beings, new notions of democracy and socialism, the need for reconstruction of religion, and a revolutionary notion of love were developed as common philosophical assumptions for a new world vision. Out of this thinking came the emergence of the Bandung Spirit and the struggle for world democracy. Though this project has weakened since the end of the Cold War, our time is one to return to this ideological and political project. Our task is to accept the challenge of standing on the shoulder of these giants to claim humanity’s revolutionary future. Iqbal emerged as a model of this type of intellectual.
Iqbal: The Poet of Self-Respect and Awakening
As Ali Sardar Jafri described him, Allama Iqbal is a poet of the awakening of Muslims, of Indians, and of Asia. Crediting the East with developing a philosophy of the self with action as its basis, Iqbal recognized the ways that Eastern traditions such as Hinduism and Islam had lost their original message of action in a retreat towards refuge in pantheism. He credited the European Enlightenment for rediscovering this philosophy of action in taking it forward in the development of modern science and rationality, but developed a critique of the severe limitations of modern European thought that had minimized the role of ethics and morality.
Iqbal was born in 1877 as English education was beginning to take hold of the Indian Muslim intelligentsia with the founding of the Anglo Mohammedan College in Aligarh, later known as Aligarh Muslim University. Besides the small minority which Macaulay hoped to convert to Englishmen, the colonial government had little interest in educating the Indian populace. Though young Iqbal’s primary education was in the madrassa system, providing him a command over Arabic, Persian and Urdu, a forward thinking maulvi recommended he attend an English mission high school. His hard work and good fortune led him not only to the elite Government College in Lahore but also led his British teachers to recommend him for higher studies at Cambridge University.
At a time when it was more usual to study law, Iqbal took the rare step of pursuing an MA and then a PhD in philosophy. Though the MA was in Cambridge, the PhD was in Germany, where he was not hindered by the conservatism of English empiricism or analytic philosophy but was freed by the relative openness to the East and radicalism of German thought. From his dissertation one sees a comparative analysis of the development of Persian Sufi Metaphysics with the thought of European philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, along with numerous references to Greek and Hindu philosophy.
Iqbal was the rare colonial subject privileged to study European philosophy during the high point of empire. His education in Europe and his living there during its zenith as the “center of the world” did not produce in him an uncritical submission but rather triggered a great awakening. Indeed, Ali Sardar Jafri would describe Allama Iqbal as a poet of awakening, of Muslims, of Indians, and of Asia as a whole.
It was in Lahore in 1904 that Iqbal penned “Sare Jahan Se Acha Hindustan Hamara” (Better than the whole world, our India). The poem not only praised the beauty of India and all of its people, but its lesser known lines contrast the continuity and dynamism of Indian civilization with Rome, Egypt, and Greece, “though the passing of time for centuries has always been our enemy”. The poet ends with “Iqbal! No‐one in this world has ever known your secret / Does anyone know the pain I feel inside me?” indicating an awareness of where he stood in terms of the social consciousness of the society.
In a poem entitled March 1908, while studying in Europe, Iqbal penned verses that would be a theme of his work:
Diyar-e-Maghrib Ke Rehne Walo ! Khuda Ki Basti Dukan Nahin Hai
Khara Jise Tum Samajh Rahe Ho, Woh Ab Zr-e-Kam Ayaar Ho Ga
O inhabitants of the Western world, God’s world is not a market!
What you are considering genuine, will be regarded counterfeit.
Tumhari Tehzeeb Apne Khanjar Se Ap Hi Khudkushi Kare Gi
Jo Shakh-e-Nazuk Pe Ashiyana Bane Ga, Na Paidar Ho Ga
Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger
The nest built on the weak branch will not be permanent, stable
Iqbal realized at a young age that Western civilization’s values were tied up with capitalism. Iqbal’s first employment after his MA in Lahore was a lecturer in economics, and his first publication was a translation of Western economic thought into an Urdu textbook. Nevertheless, his analysis of European civilization at its height did not lead him to analyze it merely through economics. Though his subsequent poetry would demonstrate admiration for the works of Marx and Lenin, he did not proceed through Marxist categories. Though basing himself on Islamic and especially Sufi philosophy, his critique of the West was not a superficial rejection but determined by a deep study of the heights of Western philosophy.
Khudi: The development of the individual to awaken humanity
The modernization process of colonized societies was blocked by colonialism. The anti-colonial movement placed darker humanity in the process of what Marx termed the ‘absolute movement of becoming’, the transition from one stage of society to another. One central question that arose in colonial and feudal conditions was the question of the individual’s relationship to society. A philosophy had to be put forward to address this question. Darker humanity had to struggle for freedom from colonial domination alongside waging a struggle for a new type of free individual.
In engaging with the question of the individual, Iqbal developed the concept of Khudi in order to show how darker humanity might move all of humanity forward through self-respect and self-actualization. Unlike the rebellion of thinkers like Nietzchse and later, the movement of existentialism, Iqbal's search for the self went from his own religion and culture to a universal human vision for the future.
He made a major contribution in recovering Eastern philosophy with his dissertation “the History of Metaphysics in Persia '' utilizing German philosophy to analyze the oeuvre of metaphysical thought in Persia from Zoroaster to the Bahai’i movement. Persia was a place where Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Islamic philosophy met.
Iqbal used Insights from this philosophical study for Asrar-e-Khudi which laid out his understanding of Khudi, or the self. He engaged and challenged Sufi pantheism, which held the submergence of the individual into the divine as the goal of spirituality. Drawing from Maulana Rumi, among others, he called for the individual to take on the attributes of God and return to a life of action in the world. Where Khudi was invoked as a negative thing, to be dissolved into God, Iqbal held Khudi and its development as central to existence.
Where Sufi philosophy was divided between the basis of all as God versus God and his creation being separate, Iqbal argued that Khudi is the eternal form of all things. Even being reunited with God they individual Khudi’s would not dissipate. It was not agony to be separated from the divine in this life but a joy of constant striving.
For example, he inverted the traditional Sufi metaphor of music as an expression of the instrument’s longing for the seed bed from which it is made. The metaphor alludes to music as longing for a return to the divine. In Iqbal’s retelling, the instrument coming out of the seed bed is an expression of the instrument’s desire to become itself, and musical notes similarly long to be released from the instrument. The striving of each being to achieve its potential and purpose is the reason for its existence. Being and becoming is an active process that is the fundamental nature of existence and ultimately the way to God. Each individual must strive not to surrender, but to become.
Iqbal called on each person to raise their Khudi to its highest level. HIs call was for “a Kingdom of God on Earth” as “democracy of more or less unique individuals, presided over by the most unique individual on Earth”. This is a call for a world where every human being can have full development and in which no one would be reduced to begging another, but rather have the power to transmute handfuls of dust into gold.
In a world order dominated by greed and the diminishing of man, he challenged those who would put down the dignity of man. He also challenged the colonial middle class that sought nothing but offices and financial gain:
Ae Tair-e-Lahooti! Uss Rizq Se Mout Achi
Jis Rizq Se Ati Ho Parwaz Mein Kotahi
O Bird, who flies to the Throne of God, You must keep this truth in sight,
To suffer death is nobler far Than bread that clogs your upward flight.
As part of this process of becoming, there was the need to reimagine religious philosophy in a more democratic way. By keeping his philosophy centred on the individual’s development, Iqbal inverted the meaning of religion from acceptance of the world as God’s will to the raising of the colonized individual to shape destiny.
Khudi Ko Kar Buland Itna Ke Har Taqdeer Se Pehle
Khuda Bande Se Khud Puche, Bata Teri Raza Kya Hai
Develop the self so that before every decree
God will ascertain from you: “What is your wish?”
In Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Iqbal challenged the religious authorities' resignation about colonialism in India and the broader Muslim world. His poetry challenged fatalism about taqdeer, divinely ordained destiny, when he not only wrote a critique of God’s disloyalty to the faithful Muslims but also wrote a reply castigating the Muslim intelligentsia in the voice of God. Not one to shy away from world events, Iqbal’s religious imaginary allowed for none other than V.I. Lenin to serve as a foremost example of raising one’s self to God, as in the poem Lenin Before God, the revolutionary castigates almighty Allah for failing the workers of the world. Lenin’s challenge leads Allah to call on his angels to deliver the message of the revolt of the poor against all forms of oppressive authority.
Additionally, Iqbal’s Khudi sought to constantly renew life through various understandings of love emerging from Sufi thought. God is not separate from man nor is he a refuge from the world of action, but God’s attributes represent an infinite goal for the growth of man. Iqbal saw through the ugliness of a colonized world to the possibility of man rising to new heights, of dedicating himself solely to love and morality. Arzu, the desire for the impossible, and justuju, the quest to achieve purpose, could awaken man’s innate personality into transformative striving.
Iqbal’s love whether prem, mohabbat, ishq, are powerful forces guiding the self into higher and higher forms. He identifies a new patriotic feeling among India’s communities with a “Naya Shivala”, or new Temple, whose foundation will be preet, love. He identifies the masjid of Cordoba, the highpoint of Muslim civilization in Europe, with Ishq, the only force humans will leave behind in this world. He sees the history of human achievement and civilization as having love as its foundation. Iqbal’s emphasis on khudi, the self, and love as central to his vision for the future parallels anti-colonial thinkers such as Du Bois and Gandhi in seeing democracy as based on the ability of all individuals to develop themselves to their full potential with the goal of fulfilling the potential of all.
Need for Inter-civilizational Unity
Iqbal’s message is not comfortable for a colonized mindset that only seeks worldly gain and conformity. That either bows down to the West or seeks spiritual refuge from the struggles of this world. Cold reason will not allow us to see a new world nor will it give the youth the courage to sacrifice for it. A multipolar world, or world democracy as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois termed it, requires the philosophy of Rumi to be as appreciated as Shakespeare, and Iqbal to be as relevant as Goethe. Iqbal’s body of work seeks to present the individuals throughout Indian, Islamic and world history including Ram, Nanak, Karl Marx, Einstein, Shakespeare, Ghalib. It covers the highs and lows of history in Muslim, Asian and Western civilizations. Iqbal is a force for a new human culture whose literature rejects the domination of one civilization over others, and sees the common moral and spiritual heritage of humanity as its basis.
Iqbal’s vision shows us that Islam, and the other religions of the East, will not go through a reformation making them comfortable for Western liberalism, now in the process of devouring its own values, but will go through a democratic reconstruction with the masses as the agents. This will be a transition to a new world, whose final point we cannot see yet but whose need is urgent.
In this process, South Asia moves forward with a strong policy of sovereignty by India and Bangladesh, as well as a growing consciousness of the need for independence against neocolonialism in Pakistan. There is talk of civilization but confusion on how the essence of the region and its people will rejuvenate its civilization and take a new democratic form. It must be the people of the subcontinent who return to him. Imran Khan, who fights for haqeeqi azadi, or real freedom, is an ardent admirer of Iqbal who accuses the Pakistani elites of cowardice as against Iqbal’s empathy for the struggle of the masses. The poet whose work spanned Delhi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Hyderabad and Madras belongs as much to the Republic of India too. A real unity among the people of South Asia will be constructed upon going back to the heritage of the struggle against colonialism. Iran is perhaps the country that has appreciated the revolutionary message of the great Indo-Persian poet the most. A natural basis exists for the unity of these countries on their shared anti-colonial heritage.
The anti-colonial movement has greater potential than the European Enlightenment. It has already given more people lives of dignity and for the first time in history given them a voice in the running of world affairs. Iqbal wrote his works on the concept of the self as a PhD holder at a time when very few of his fellow Indians or other Asians could even hope to graduate high school. Now there are a billion plus people in place with an understanding to grapple with the questions of the self and the future of the human personality. Democracy requires that this new wave of humanity must have an opportunity to grapple with the ideas of thinkers like Iqbal who present an alternative to the Western paradigm. Billions of new human personalities must have the right to develop their “khudi”, to develop their own strivings for the ultimate purpose of life. Western imperialism seeks to block this with new ideologies grounded in the end of humanity through artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and other anti-human worldviews. Though the Western elites say humanity’s role in the world is ending, the anti-colonial revolution shows us that it is only beginning with the world’s non-western majority claiming their rightful place in world history.
Though much work is left to be done to fully empower the masses, we are at the threshold of a new stage of history. The rise of major economies of the Third World into organizations such as BRICS+ are a very significant development. However, the real revolution will not be the emergence only of economic or political systems to rival the West but the emergence of new systems of values. At the foundation of this will be a new culture based on a new philosophy. BRICS+ must be built on the heritage of Bandung and the sacrifice of masses of anti-colonial fighters of all stripes. Iqbal was a pioneer of this project which must come to fruition in our time.