The Political Philosophy
of Muhammad Iqbal:
Islam and nationalism
in late colonial India By Iqbal Singh Sevea,
Cambridge, Rs 595
The fact that someone has written on Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) indicates that his charm has not diminished yet. Iqbal (picture) hardly participated in active politics. He remained a poet and thinker. But he was not a poet oblivious to the events around him. He held important positions in socio-political organizations of the time, was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly, participated in round table conferences in London, closely interacted with leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Madan Mohan Malaviya, and yet remained, as Rafiq Zakaria recently wrote, “a casual politician”. Writing on his political philosophy is like sauntering through an uncharted path full of surprises and endless possibilities.
Iqbal was a controversial figure in his time. He is remembered in India for advocating the state of Pakistan. But Sevea points out that if Jinnah thought Iqbal was supporting his cause, Nehru too, in The Discovery of India, wrote that Iqbal agreed with his vision. Critical writings on Iqbal’s works are abundant today, both in India and Pakistan. But few have tried to present Iqbal’s thoughts in a manner that situates him in his time and estimates him without taking recourse to Western ideas of an Eastern thinker.
Sevea tries to fit in Iqbal’s thought into the diverse and effervescent mood of Muslim political discourse during 1857-1940. What emerges from this discussion is not only a critical assessment of Iqbal’s life and times but also an evaluation of politico-religious movements like the Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahle-Hadees. Sevea points to the lack of “sustained analysis” of Iqbal’s political philosophy which, according to him, is due to “wider flaws in the literature on Muslim figures and politics in modern South Asia.” The book informs the reader about critiques of Muslim views in relation to politics and society and the vibrancy of Muslim thoughts. Sevea thinks it is the fault of “conventional historiography” and the mistaken notion of judging thoughts as ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ that comes in the way of our understanding of Islamic thoughts. According to the author, Iqbal viewed power as a synthesizing force that cemented the material and the religious and not as a regressive one.
Iqbal was a thinker misunderstood by his community and country, so much so that he wrote, “Iqbal bhi Iqbal se agha nahi hai (Even Iqbal does not know himself)”. Sevea thinks that Iqbal’s idea of “bekhudi” needs to be studied afresh and that his concept of nation/nationhood is not an assertion of pan-Islamism. An exhaustive study of Muslim political discourse vis-a-vis Western political thought and of the sources from which Muslim thinkers drew their inspiration would throw better light on the philosophy of the great Urdu poet. Sevea tries to locate some discernible phases in the political orientation of Iqbal’s philosophy to find views which he considers to be original. Iqbal, according to him, had infused new meanings into traditional Islamic concepts. When contemporaries like Syed Ahmad Khan were overawed by Western thoughts, Iqbal remained unperturbed. He aimed at a reconstruction of Islam, which he considered a complete system that could surpass modern ideologies like Marxism.
Sevea has tried to do justice not only to Iqbal’s thoughts but also to the controversial man and the complex time. He has dealt with the subject logically, with an open mind, but not without a heart.