Iqbal’s wrong turn

Pakistan is grappling with the boundaries of his idea of religious toleration. India is going down the same path

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:April 19, 2017 1:50 am
pakistan lynching, pakistan blasphemy, pakistan blasphemy lynching, pakistan ahmadiya, iqbal and ahmadiya, Mashal Khan, Mashal Khan lynching, pakistan mob violence, pakistan intolerance, intolerance, india intolerance, india news, latest news, indian express news People demonstrate after the killing Mashal Khan, accused of blasphemy, by a mob at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, during a protest in Peshawar. (Source: Reuters)

Muhammad Iqbal was one of the most incandescent intellectuals that India has produced. Every work of his sparkles: From the deep meditation of Asrar-i-Khudi, to the remarkable reflections on time and experience in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Modern Islam, from the stunning acuity of his essay on McTaggart to the corpus of poetry. His philosophical recasting of Islam, his advocacy of the individuality and creativity of the self, and his engagement with the ideals of modernity is one of the most significant intellectual projects of the twentieth century.

And yet, there is deep political tragedy inherent in an intellectual turn Iqbal took. This tragedy haunts Pakistan, but casts its shadow on India as well. I am not referring to the creation of Pakistan, a complicated historical story. I am, rather, referring to the paradigm of toleration and religious community that eventually resulted from Iqbal’s works. That paradigm has torn Pakistan asunder. It has been hard not to think about this aspect of Iqbal’s legacy in a week in which a Pakistani student, Mashal Khan, was murdered on suspicion of being Ahmadiya. And it is hard to resist the disquieting conclusion that elements in India are also trying to follow it.

This tragedy is reflected most profoundly in a pamphlet Iqbal wrote “Islam and Ahmadism,” in response to Nehru. Space does not permit full discussion. But at first glance, Iqbal wrote the most stirring passages calling for a deep toleration. Iqbal writes, “It is obvious that these types of tolerance (based on indifference or weakness) have no ethical value. On the other hand, they unmistakably reveal the spiritual impoverishment of the man who practises them. True toleration is begotten of intellectual breadth and spiritual expansion.

It is the toleration of the spiritually powerful man who, while jealous of the frontiers of his own faith, can tolerate and even appreciate all forms of faith other than his own. Of this type of toleration the true Muslim alone is capable. His own faith is synthetic and for this reason he can easily find grounds of sympathy and appreciation in other faiths. Our great Indian poet, Amir Khusro, beautifully brings out the essence of this type of toleration in the story of an idol-worshipper. After giving an account of his intense attachment to his idols the poet addresses his Muslim readers as follows: Only a true lover of God can appreciate the value of devotion even though it is directed to gods in which he himself does not believe.”

Faisal Devji and others have read this as a theory of toleration that goes beyond standard liberal pieties. But Iqbal’s thought on toleration takes a catastrophic turn when it comes to Ahmadiyas. For Iqbal, they became the “jealous” frontier against which Islam should be guarded. Ahmadiyas were suspect because they denied the uniqueness of the Prophet. This threatened the unity of Islam. By believing in another prophet they would inhibit the self-reliance of modern man. The theological issues are intricate, but Ahmadiyas had to be cast out of toleration. The lesson is that what matters is not the theory of toleration (which everyone professes) but the boundaries of toleration.

But the real mischief in Iqbal’s argument is done by the drive to unity per se. Securing unity of a religious community through allegiance to a single principle, symbol or totem, has violence inherent in it. In Pakistan Ahmadiyas have, amongst others, been the victim. For Iqbal, ultimately all his tolerance became subordinate to his claim that “it is in the interest of this eternal solidarity that Islam cannot tolerate any rebellious group within its fold.”

Many modern Hindu thinkers like M.S. Golwalkar suffered from Prophet Envy. They wanted Hinduism with a totem of unity. They settled on the cow, not as religious piety but as symbol of Hindu unity, and it is beginning to psychologically function in the same way. It is not an accident that there is chilling similarity in the way Mashal Khan was killed, and the way in which people are killed on suspicion of trafficking in cows:

The immunity to all facts and evidence, let alone the deeper question of whether these laws should be in place in the first instance. In matters of religion, the quest for “unity” will ultimately lead to more divisiveness. Although the nature of Iqbal’s Sufism is deeply contested, the question of unity and rationalisation of Islam led him also to attempt to extirpate it of Sufi influences. He never denied the reality of Sufi mystical experience, but increasingly came to view large aspects of Sufism as an obstacle in the regeneration of Islam. The construction of an identity around a sacred totem that you use state power to protect itself shrinks the boundaries of toleration.

The tragedy with Iqbal’s turn on Ahmadiyas is illustrative. First, it was still posing the question of toleration from within the perspective of religion. But in the final analysis, that perspective has severe limitations. It does not know what to do with people who do not share those terms of religious accommodation; it has the need to imagine enemies. Surely modern toleration would require making the question of belief in a prophet or the sacredness of a cow irrelevant to what rights one should have.

Second, Iqbal was one of Nietzsche’s most acute readers. He desired a conception of the Self shaped by the fullness of possibility and strength. But how can such a fragile sense of community unity, threatened by difference, make anyone spiritually stronger? Why is the desire for unity not resentment in disguise? Third, as Nehru pointedly asked of Iqbal: “Why is it that whenever such so-called cultural and similar matters are pushed to the front, political reactionaries take the lead in them?”

Iqbal’s wrong turn was to give the unity of religious community more credence than it deserved, to confuse community strength with spiritual strength, and to limit toleration within the paradigm of religion rather than individual rights. These moves made this most generous and brilliant of thinkers complicit in intolerance. This sensibility in the end crowded out the space for individual rights.

Deviations from the central totem of unity of any community, be it the cow or prophet, have to be given their constitutional space. Iqbal’s take on toleration forgot this elementary lesson, with profound consequences for Pakistan. What both Pakistan and India need is not endless cant over religious conceptions of toleration, or two-nation theories. What they need is a culture of individual human rights, where no one is targeted for being who they are.

The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. P
    P.R.Ramanujam
    Apr 28, 2017 at 12:55 pm
    This message should reach the m es in both countries--India and stan. Who is that M Leader today to communicate effectively with the people in their language?During the Freedom Struggle there were many giants with differing ideologies and m appeal.Today the entire space has been occupied by pygmies of all hues with no support from the m es. Those who pose as giants these days are actually monster-machines with neither minds nor hearts. Intellectuals like Mehta write many sensible pieces which only some other intellectuals read,agree or disagree but sense does not reach the m es. A strategy to reach the m es is an urgent need.
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    1. J
      Jabir Mansuri
      Apr 21, 2017 at 9:59 am
      Author's honest effort to compare two different extreme divine line of monotheistic and non-monotheistic philosophy, might help in lead of healthy pluralism, co-existance with & without deference by evolving Chair of Understanding in various leading Academic Campus for translating a correct sense to future students (generation) of both the countries. Scholar(s) of religion; political science; economy; comparative foreign policy of USA; Israel; India and stan have double responsibilities to provide a solution; method and amicability to stop 'psycho-ware-fare' scoring which is pampered by arms industries.
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      1. H
        haq
        Apr 20, 2017 at 12:36 am
        iqbal seems to be a confused person. we may find him as one Iqbal in his poetry. He takes a u turn in his book "Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam"
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          pankaj
          Apr 19, 2017 at 11:16 pm
          Iqbal lived very recently and was born in the family of recently converted Kashmiri Brahmins. The kashmiri Brahmins were learned people and who kashmir was known for their philosophy since the time of Alexander and much before. Iqbal was torn between the amazing philosophy of religion of his g fathers and his current islam and he in usual iden y conflict of converts tried to imbibe the philosophy of his ancestors religion into philosophy/politics of Islam. All that Iqbal could say is trivial part of what the Upanishads/Hindu philosophy has been saying for 3000 years..
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          1. R
            rk
            Apr 19, 2017 at 10:53 pm
            When will IE get rid of "दरबारी पत्रकार"s..
            Reply
            1. S
              Sheeple
              Apr 19, 2017 at 10:09 pm
              Indian express is using a COTS software for comments. This software is filtering out the word P-A-K-I because its a cussword in the West. Hilarious beyond belief!!
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                Dr. Prithipaul
                Apr 19, 2017 at 7:39 pm
                As a proponent of a reform of Islam Iqbal was right in the position which he took, for Islam is designed and revealed for the Umma, not for the individual relying on his own private interpretation. And there is no sign of any Nietzschean influence on his book on the Reconstruction of Islam, in which he quotes some forgotten and forgettable American and French academic "philosophers". The Hindu totem to which BPM alludes is not the cow. The centrality of the three Dharmas which cons utes the foundation of the "Hindu" Indian civilisation is the Yoga of Patanjali which spread beyond the frontiers of India thanks to the spread of Buddhism. The cow is a parody of a unifying precept in the context of "Hinduism".
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                  Madhukar Nikam
                  Apr 19, 2017 at 7:34 pm
                  I was looking for supportive argument on the tag line... dia going down the same path........not an iota of evidence or argument supports the tag line...as usual Mr Mehta fights imaginary wind mills with his verbal Armour
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                  1. C
                    CClements
                    Apr 19, 2017 at 6:34 pm
                    Your headlines suggest what I had been writing for weeks now. At least, the stanis are not hypocrites. They ins uted stan as an Islamic republic the moment they found it appropriate to do so. India is a hypocrite pretending to be a democratic and secular republic in spite of the oppression being dealt out to the Muslims and Christians of the country. Modi lacks the intestinal for ude to declare India a Hindu State. But I acknowledge that the Indian people are far beyond the intentions of these Hindutva zealots and will never allow this to happen.
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                    1. D
                      DILIP
                      Apr 19, 2017 at 6:46 pm
                      Instead WE will pack all the Abrhamic converts and apes and send them ng to Luuuna bad. Stop jerking your tosh here not a public toilet, you d11ck of a donkey and as Hindu I live in the West and tell your fascist Padre that I do not live off Christy charity, in fact I contribute lavishly for their poverty alleviation. soon will become a third world.
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                      1. C
                        CClements
                        Apr 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm
                        For your information, I am not an Indian and therefore not a convert. You are yet another medieval pagan and idol worshipper. Perhaps your fanaticism has made you blind,you drainstter and snake worshipper. You live in the West and enjoying the charity of a Christian country. You surely know where the gr is greener. Perhaps in my country, the UK. Even ff we kick yourbum, you will never go back to your India. Loving the beef here, eh !! .
                        1. D
                          DILIP
                          Apr 19, 2017 at 9:53 pm
                          If you are not an IndiN THEN YOU ARE A FCCU KING CUT KN OB pUKI YOU CAN GO AND FCCCUK YOURSELF. By the way I don not live off any sc um christy charity, instead these starving food bank dependent scavengers relies on my charity. Stop chest thumping, you will soon be a third world hungry country, will eat our poo son. So stop your tosh and
                      2. V
                        Vish
                        Apr 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm
                        Comparing these slaves stand converts to Hindus, what a Joke! This is again coming from a slave with thoughts influenced by western ideas with original thinking of a 3 years old. I call them pressitutes What a waste of time and space!
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                        1. M
                          Madhukar Nikam
                          Apr 19, 2017 at 7:36 pm
                          well said
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                        2. A
                          ak dev
                          Apr 19, 2017 at 6:12 pm
                          Use of the word "P-A-K-I STAN" is not allowed and cut to STAN. This commenting tool cutting many words. It's d i s g u s t i n g.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            Sheeple
                            Apr 19, 2017 at 6:10 pm
                            Iqbal was a fundamentalist of the worst order - in love with medieval practices and worshipping an imaginary brotherhood. No wonder, pseudo-seculars are competing with each other to deify him.
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                              ashok
                              Apr 19, 2017 at 5:44 pm
                              What use Muhammad Iqbal's incandescent intellect if it could not make space in his heart for coreligionist Ahmediyyas; give me a simple stone cutter, who is a man of comp ion and tolerance.
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                              1. K
                                Karun Roongta
                                Apr 19, 2017 at 5:30 pm
                                insightful
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                                1. K
                                  Karun Roongta
                                  Apr 19, 2017 at 5:29 pm
                                  as always ,insightful
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                                  1. G
                                    Gopal
                                    Apr 19, 2017 at 4:25 pm
                                    Notice how our "secular" writers find fault with stan only to criticize the BJP when it is in power. At all other times, stan becomes a secular and friendly nation.
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                                    1. T
                                      Thrinethran T
                                      Apr 19, 2017 at 9:27 pm
                                      There is a report in the southern "national" newspaper' today of a horrific crime. A mob chased a woman to a police station in Mainpuri and the alleged leader, named Wasim shot her dead. But the theme is prominently captioned "Yogi Adityanath govt under fire for law and order situation" . Now consider different personnel and another occasion...
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                                      Murthy
                                      Apr 19, 2017 at 4:22 pm
                                      Check this out for yourself.... In every country with an Islamic minority, some of them the Mothers of Liberalism - U.K., USA and almost all the major European countries - there is a BACKLASH against Islamic radicalism... In India this backlash is wrongly portra by these columnists as the "death of freedom and tolerance" - columnists with an agenda that is same as the Congress and their caste allies. This author has said in plain English that the BJP's election victories do not make it 'legitimate' for them to rule....!!! We cannot take him seriously any longer.
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                                        Murthy
                                        Apr 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm
                                        Pseudo liberals, 'intellectuals' and failed leftists are still lamenting the eclipse of their patron dynasty. Conflicts over cow slaughter have been known in India during the rule of PBM's former patrons as well. Check the old newspapers. Problem is this author, along with one other in this daily dose we readers get from this esteemed paper, wants us to believe that all this is new. It is NOT. Laws prohibiting Cow slaughter were p ed mostly by Congress governments. Communal riots over secret slaughter of cows have been known in India in the 1960s. Check it out for yourself.
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                                        1. C
                                          CClements
                                          Apr 19, 2017 at 6:51 pm
                                          True. But those were sporadic incidents that had happened off and on for more than 60 years. But now it's being state sponsored by this Hindutva government. This is the difference.
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                                            Madhukar Nikam
                                            Apr 19, 2017 at 7:40 pm
                                            Clement...have a heart...I expect you to at least see know willfully scamgress defied its own laws on cow slaughter and allowed mushrooming of illegal slaughter houses......no court can interfere in the process of implementing the law framed decades ago, you mean lawlessness was an ideal situation for pseudo's?
                                        2. R
                                          Razik
                                          Apr 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm
                                          Why sthan and india can follow like u a e rules if any body intolerent 100000 lambs fine..
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                                            a_D
                                            Apr 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm
                                            there is one difference between India and stan... when Mashal khan was killed in stan.....their PM publicly condemned...and denounced such fanatic actions... Ditto Bangladesh...Sheikh Hasina comes out openly denouncing the killing of minorities and has ruthlessly crushed such right winger elements. When Akhlaq and Failu khan ( In Rajastahn ) were killed ......our PM....who is quick in denouncing killings in Pak, Sweden, England egypt , Maldives......remained SILENT. whihc is interpreted as tacit state support to the vigilantes acting against acts of perceieved blasphemy.......and the tacit turned into overt support when the PM apponted one such rabble-rouser hate speech maker as the CM of the largest Indian state. India is not only heading on the dangerous path of stone-age talibani mentality ...but is soon likely to over take Pak and Bangladesh.
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                                            1. M
                                              Murthy
                                              Apr 19, 2017 at 4:24 pm
                                              Yes, "major" difference... A few million Indian Ahmadis and Shias may be considering living in Stan as a better option, you reckon ???
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                                                a_D
                                                Apr 19, 2017 at 5:21 pm
                                                why should such an option be considered or even discussed ? Many Indians consider living in Europe, US and Australia as better options......because these are "more developed " countries.... dia should aspire to be like the best.. stead of some blind supporters of extreme Hindu ideology selectively quote Iraq, Afghanistan , stan , syria living conditons to make themselves look better
                                              2. M
                                                musafir musafir
                                                Apr 19, 2017 at 5:11 pm
                                                I have nothing to say in favor of our PM - but your other analogies are incorrect. In fact Bangaldesh PM had little to say about the murder of liberals, activists, critics of religions in Bangladesh. A Minister justified it by saying why did they have to criticize Islam. Also in stan, even the law dehumanizes Ahmadis and doesn't grant them equal status. stani political leaders generally show very little interest in condemning extremism of any kind. Heck....even Hindus hardly have anything close to equal rights in stan, even in legal terms. So these are all intolerant, fundamentalist countries today, no point in erting that one is better than the other.
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                                                  ak
                                                  Apr 19, 2017 at 5:57 pm
                                                  Right ! stan is soooo liberal ! That >15 of minority po tion is now < 2 . Cons ution is openly islamic. Would you be OK if we took the laws in stan related to minorities (including Blasphemy), their policies (including people vanishing abducted by the army etc. like the Balochs) and apply in Ditto-Ditto to Muslims in India (the laws would reflect the majority beliefs) ? Would you agree with that and be happy ? Can you imagine what would have happened to the Painter M.F. Husain if he had drawn objectionable pictures of the Prophet (instead of Hindu Gods ?) .. What I find amazing with these islamists is that they demand "Rights" from others while NEVER giving rights to anyone .. What rights do Hindus have in Kashmir where the Muslims are Majority .. ? Why are you not questioning that ?
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                                                    LALIT
                                                    Apr 20, 2017 at 10:21 am
                                                    I am exactly not very ecstatic over the increasing religious heat in India, specifically over the Cow vigilantism,but condemnation by Nawaz Sharif over the killing of Mashal Khan is misleading...they have drafted laws which declare a death sentence for apostasy or even blashemy which is an act of perception.PM is indirectly saying that he should have been hung by law instead of being lynched.untill such laws remain in existence,and victims are declared vajib-ul-qatl (deserves to be killed) any condemnation is a mere eyewash..Modi btw also condemned cow vigilantism openly by saying that most of these activists are anti social elements.you can ask Ravish Kumar of NDTV for the footage.it is not rocket science to guess the ill effects of rigid mindset on religion.we as a country may have to suffer irreparably loss due to increasing xenophobia.
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                                                    anandap
                                                    Apr 19, 2017 at 3:06 pm
                                                    Another typical loose level liberal narration on India - stan however highlighting some criminal petty crimes and faults or isolated incidents in India as Hindu fundamentalist thought of liberal's view of intolerance!
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