Iqbal’s concept of pan-Islamism
By Prof. Sharif al Mujahid
BY the very nature of his avocation, a poet is obliged to mirror the prevailing milieu, the people’s hopes and fears, their ambitions and aspirations, their travails and dilemmas. This obligation makes him sensitive to his environment, to the diverse currents of thought and ideas around him and those affecting society he lives in. Iqbal was, of course, both a thinker and a poet, but since he chose to convey his thoughts through the medium of poetry, he would, naturally, be assessed and appreciated as a poet.
Being alive to the diverse currents of thought abroad, it is not too surprising that Iqbal, during his poetic career, spanning some four decades, had imbibed a great many ideas — ideas which were setting the pace for a wide spectrum of philosophic, social and political life.
This explains why at one time or another he commended or denounced nationalism; he had propagated pan-Islamism and world Muslim unity; he criticized the West for its materialism, for its cut-throat competition and for its values while applauding the East for its humanity and spiritualism and its concern for the soul; he condemned capitalism while preaching “a kind of vague socialism”.
But what is remarkable is that despite this contradiction, he was finally able to resolve the intrinsic conflict between nationalism — the prime basis of twentieth century politics — and inter-state relationship; between pan-Islamism, the enthralling concept which the Muslims had aspired to actualize for centuries, and nationalism as a motive force for struggle for independence from alien colonial rule.
As for pan-Islamism, for some twenty-five years, he eloquently and passionately preached his by trying to synthesize it with an improvised concept of Muslim nationalism.
On the one hand, Iqbal steadfastly stood for “the freedom of ijtihad with a view to rebuild the law of Shari’at in the light of modern thought and experience”, and had even attempted to reinterpret the doctrines of Islam in the light of the twentieth century requirements. On the other hand, he also defended the orthodox position and the conservatism of Islam on some counts. Though “inescapably entangled in the net of Sufi thought”, he considered popular mysticism or “the kind of mysticism which blinked actualities, enervated the people and kept them steeped in all kinds of superstitions” as one of the primary causes of Muslim decline and downfall.
Even so, there was yet one underlying theme in his thought and action throughout his active life. This theme held together his thoughts and ideas, diverse though they were: the rehabilitation of the Muslims in the contemporary world. Indeed, it was this goal that had led him to develop the passion for Islam, goading him to work and yearn for an Islamic resurgence in the twentieth century. His espousal of this higher ideal indicated beyond doubt his explicit recognition of the fact that Muslim regeneration could be accomplished but within an Islamic framework, and it could be accomplished only through an Islamic resurgence.
From then on, he began perceiving the current Muslim dilemmas and travails in a new perspective, even considering them as the harbinger of a new dawn. For instance, consider his comment on the defeat and desolation of the Ottomans in the First World War: What does it matter — if a thousand calamities befell the Ottomans? After all, out of the destruction of a hundred thousand stars does the dawn emerge!
In any case, it was his devotion to the cause of Muslim regeneration that led him to adopt various political philosophies at various stages in his life. Without attempting to identify the numerous currents and cross-currents, one may still pinpoint three important bench-marks, each representing a distinct phase and philosophy but not merging into one another. For reasons of clarity, these may be termed as the nationalistic, pan-Islamic and Muslim-nationalism phases.
It is common knowledge that Iqbal had entered the corridor of fame as a nationalist poet. In this phase, he was profoundly influenced by the spirit of nationalism abroad, and gave eloquent expression to feelings of patriotism. He sang of India, its rivers, its mountains, its countryside as well as its glorious past and its cultural heritage.
But this phase came to an abrupt end after Iqbal’s visit to Europe (1905-08). For now, his grounding in western philosophy, his initiation into modern western thought and his close contact with life in Europe seemed to have acted as a catalyst, enabling him to perceive things in a wider perspective and in more precise terms.
From the vantage point of a European base, Iqbal could easily see that the onward march of nationalism had bred racialism in several Muslim countries. It had disfigured the Islamic concept of ummah, enfeebling the Muslim world and, in consequence, laying it all the more open to western designs and exploitation. What, then, was the remedy? To Iqbal, it lay in Muslims holding together within the fold of pan-Islam.
To his utter dismay, Iqbal found that not only had the Muslim peoples, become a convenient target of western designs but that mundane Islam itself had also reached its nadir. Hence, his chastisement of Muslims for becoming race-conscious and race-oriented, his exhortation for the building up of a single millat or ummah, and his clarion call for forging unity among Muslims from the banks of the Nile to the frontiers of Kashgar for the defence of Baitul Haram.
Iqbal was a keen and insightful observer of Muslim affairs. Hence, over a period of time, he realized the harsh fact that his panacea of pan-Islam in its idealistic and classical form was not propitious or relevant to the contemporary Muslim societies of the 1920s. For one thing, several Muslim countries had opted for nationalism and for politics based on asabiyat — racial and/or linguistic unity. For another, they were seeking nationalist solutions to their problems. Indeed, nationalism had become a fact of life in almost all the Muslim countries.
Iqbal could not have possibly ignored all this — and much more. “True statesmanship”, he told his audience at the Allahabad (1930) Muslim League session, “cannot ignore facts, however unpleasant they may be. The only practical course is not to assume the existence of a state of things which does not exist, but to recognize facts as they are, and to exploit them to our greatest advantage”.
Hence it seems but logical that deeply concerned as Iqbal was to see the Muslim people remain firmly anchored in their pristine Islamic legacy and heritage, he tried to resolve the conflict between nationalism — the fact of life — and pan-Islamism — the ideal towards which he would like to see them strive. Thus, Iqbal, like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-96), arrived at the concept of “Islamic” — but, more accurately, Muslim — nationalism.
Islamic or Muslim nationalism is a via media between unadulterated pan-Islamism and unalloyed nationalism. A blend of these two competing ideologies, Muslim nationalism, while recognizing the multiplicity of nations within Islam, strives to promote the solidarity, identity of outlook and close cooperation between the various Muslim nations on the basis of their religious and cultural affinity.
The ideologue who had diagnosed the malaise of the Muslim world in his famous Reconstruction speeches, Iqbal came to the conclusion that “for the present every Muslim nation must sink into her own deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on herself alone, until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics. A true and living unity, according to the nationalist thinkers, is not so easy as to be achieved by a merely symbolical overlordship. It is truly manifested in a multiplicity of free independent units whose racial rivalries are adjusted and harmonized by the unifying bond of a common spiritual aspiration. It seems to me that Islam is neither Nationalism nor Imperialism but a League of Nations which recognizes artificial boundaries and racial distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restricting the social horizon of its members”.
Extremely important was this paradigmatic shift from a universal, indivisible caliphate to a ‘multi-national neo-pan-Islamism’. It would enable Iqbal to advocate the amalgamation of the four provinces in north-western India ‘into a single state’, in his Allahabad address (1930), so that the Indian Muslims, though currently designated as a mere ‘minority’ in the larger subcontinental context, could still become, in good time, an integral part of the living family of Muslim republics.