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.