Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Iqbal’s Aurangzeb: A figure of sectarian reaction or radical internationalism?

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“The political genius of Aurangzeb was extremely comprehensive. His one aim of life was, as it were, to subsume the various communities of this country under the notion of one universal empire. But in securing this imperial unity he erroneously listened to the dictates of his indomitable courage which had no sufficient background of political experience behind it. Ignoring the factor of time in the political evolution of his contemplated empire he started an endless struggle in the hope that he would be able to unify the discordant political units of India in his own lifetime. He failed to Islamise (not in the religious sense) India just as Alexander had failed to Hellenise Asia. The Englishman, however, came fully equipped with the political experiences of the nations of antiquity and his patience and tortoise-like perseverance succeeded where the hasty genius of Aurangzeb had failed. Conquest does not necessarily mean unity. Moreover, the history of the preceding Mohammedan dynasties had taught Aurangzeb that the strength of Islam in India did not depend, as his great ancestor Akbar had thought, so much on the goodwill of the people of this land as on the strength of the ruling race. With all his keen political perception, however, he could not undo the doings of his forefathers. Sevajee was not a product of Aurangzeb’s reign; the Maharatta owed his existence to social and political forces called into being by the policy of Akbar. Aurangzeb’s political perception, though true, was too late. Yet considering the significance of this perception he must be looked upon as the founder of Musalman nationality in India. I am sure posterity will one day recognise the truth of what I say. Among the English administrators of India, it was Lord Curzon who first perceived the truth about the power of England in India. Hindu nationalism is wrongly attributed to his policy. Time will, I believe, show that it owes its existence to the policy of Lord Ripon. It is, therefore, clear that in their political purpose and perception both the Mughals and the English agree. I see no reason why the English historian should condemn Aurangzeb whose imperial ideal his countrymen have followed and whose political perception they have corroborated. Aurangzeb’s political method was certainly very rough; but the ethical worth of his method ought to be judged from the standpoint of the age in which he lived and worked.”
–Stray Reflections: The Private Notebooks of Muhammad Iqbal

The figure of Aurangzeb Iqbal constructs here through his inimitable reading of history is, without doubt, the source of Pakistani nationalism. In fact, it will neither be an error nor an exaggeration to suggest that Iqbal’s Aurangzeb can be, and perhaps is, the basis of nationalism among certain sections of subcontinental Muslims as a whole. But before Indian leftists fall for the temptations of Indian nationalism – something almost all of them are quite susceptible to – and see this as a legitimate reason to condemn Iqbal as a sectarian reactionary, they would do well to attend dispassionately and carefully to his conception of nation and nationality. Not only that. They equally need to re-examine Pakistani nationalism itself with as much materialist rigour as they can possibly summon, and thus without too much nationalist prejudice. Of course, to do that they will need, first and foremost, to take off and put aside their syncretism-tinted glasses. Syncretism — from which springs the bankrupt Indian secularist imaginary of Hindu-Muslim amity and which has many Indian leftists in its vise-like grip — is precisely what Iqbal completely shakes up and disrupts. Of course, in doing that he arguably shows us the way for developing an organically-rooted and militant approach to think and envisage non-sectarian politics on foundations that are much more rigorously materialist than the airy culturalist notion – consciously avowed or not – of Hindu-Muslim amity with its basis in the so-called Indic tradition of syncretism.

What is most striking about Iqbal on that count is his conception of nationality. Precisely the thing that has had many leftists and almost all liberal-secularists of India paint him as a sectarian reactionary. Iqbal was constantly at pains to distinguish his conception of Islam as a nation from the blood-and-soil type of racial-territorial European nationalisms, the nationalism of the English included. The book, ‘Stray Reflections: The Private Notebooks of Muhammad Iqbal’, has multiple entries in which this distinction is sought to be elucidated and emphasised in different registers. For now, let me quote from the entry, Fanaticism’, to demonstrate that: “Criticise an Englishman’s religion, he is immovable; but criticise his civilisation, his country or the behaviour of his nation in any sphere of activity and you will bring out his innate fanaticism. The reason is that his nationality does not depend on religion; it has a geographical basis – his country. His fanaticism then is justly roused when you criticise his country. Our position, however, is fundamentally different. With us nationality is a pure idea; it has no material basis. Our only rallying point is a sort of mental agreement in a certain view of the world.”

Here then we have the category of nationality — a categorial term that Iqbal is compelled and constrained to use by his objective threshold of sayability — come across as extremely fraught and openly pregnant with contradictions. One that, therefore, easily lends itself to being read against its own grain, thanks to the manner in which it constitutively operates in Iqbal’s thinking and discourse. For, if nationality is a pure idea with no territorial-racial basis what is at stake is not strictly a conception of nation. Rather, nationality can then be read merely as a word that in its discursive articulation poses, in spite of its terminological denotation, a post-national, if not an out-and-out internationalist, conceptual valency. One could, of course, still argue that such a conception of nationality — nationality as a pure idea – is post-national only in being imperial. Iqbal’s attempt to uphold Aurangzeb’s (failed) imperial vision against the (successful) imperial vision of the English would also seem to point in that direction.

However, if one were to pay heed to Iqbal’s affirmation of Islam as a kind of atheological theology – something that Annemarie Schimmel reveals in ‘Gabriel’s Wing’ through her brilliant and astute explication of how Iqbal construed the Quranic injunction of there being no god but god – one would recognise that Iqbal understood the idea of Islam, and thus Muslimness, not as an a priori metaphysical ideal, and a mystified/reified identity, respectively. Iqbal understood the idea of Islam, instead, as an axiom of demystifying difference (if not nonidentity in a rigorously Marxian sense), and Muslimness as a mobile political horizon of de-identitarianisation and demystification.
That Iqbal grasped the Islamic conception of god in terms of the univocity of being as difference should not surprise us given Iqbal’s well-known Nietzschean philosophical propensities. His reading of the Islamic conception of god in terms of the univocity of being as difference is wholly consistent with Nietzsche’s metaphysics-destroying conception of self-valorisation as will to power. (Here self being minimal self in the sense of being the concrete historical register and index of the ontico-ontological of differing away vis-à-vis the self as a metaphysically valorised presence.) This is revealed with utter clarity when Iqbal in his major theological-philosophical work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, critically poses his reading of the Quranic conception of “divine life” as the infinite scope of the creative self against medieval theologian Ibn Hazm’s reading of the same in terms of the infinity of serial change progressing from an imperfect state to a relatively more prefect state. Allow me to cite from the relevant section of the book at some length:
“It was the fear of conceiving Divine life after the image of human life that the Spanish Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm hesitated to predicate life of God, and ingeniously suggested that God should be described as living, not because He is living in the sense of our experience of life, but only because He is so described in the Qur’an. Confining himself to the surface of our conscious experience and ignoring its deeper phases, Ibn Hazm must have taken life as a serial change, a succession of attitudes towards an obstructing environment. Serial change is obviously a mark of imperfection; and if we confine ourselves to this view of change, the difficulty of reconciling Divine perfection with Divine life becomes insuperable. Ibn Hazm must have felt that the perfection of God can be retained only at the cost of His life. There is, however, a way out of the difficulty. The Absolute Ego, as we have seen, is the whole of Reality. He is not so situated as to take a perspective view of an alien universe; consequently, the phases of His life are wholly determined from within. Change, therefore, in the sense of a movement from an imperfect to a relatively perfect state, or vice versa, is obviously inapplicable to His life. But change in this sense is not the only possible form of life. A deeper insight into our conscious experience shows that beneath the appearance of serial duration there is true duration. The Ultimate Ego exists in pure duration wherein change ceases to be a succession of varying attitudes, and reveals its true character as continuous creation, ‘untouched by weariness’ and unseizable ‘by slumber or sleep’. To conceive the Ultimate Ego as changeless in this sense of change is to conceive Him as utter inaction, a motiveless, stagnant neutrality, an absolute nothing. To the Creative Self change cannot mean imperfection. The perfection of the Creative Self consists, not in a mechanistically conceived immobility, as Aristotle might have led Ibn Hazm to think. It consists in the vaster basis of His creative activity and the infinite scope of His creative vision. God’s life is self-revelation, not the pursuit of an ideal to be reached. The ‘not-yet’ of man does mean pursuit and may mean failure; the ‘not-yet’ of God means unfailing realization of the infinite creative possibilities of His being which retains its wholeness throughout the entire process.”

Now if one were to read, in this context, Iqbal’s attempt to affirmatively counter-pose Aurangzeb’s imperial vision against that of the English, one would have to acknowledge the fact that he’s not merely posing one imperial vision against another. What he is attempting to accomplish in apparently doing that is, instead, a historicizing of Aurangzeb’s imperial vision in order to refound it, admittedly through provocative rhetorical means, by reading it against its own grain. This opens the way for concretely and historically articulating — precisely through such against-the-grain-reading of that imperial vision — a political horizon of nonidentitarian internationalism. That such is his intention is arguably indicated by what he writes at the end of his entry on Aurangzeeb: “Aurangzeb’s political method was certainly very rough; but the ethical worth of his method ought to be judged from the standpoint of the age in which he lived and worked.”

Now that brings us to the question of contradiction between Iqbal’s demystifying, if not always rigorously nonidentitarian, conceptions of nationality, Islam and the Islamic idea of divine life on one hand, and the ideological self-representation of Pakistani nationalism on the other. A contradiction that is admittedly sought to be resolved with the latter instrumentalising the former, thereby rendering it an identitarian discourse. And to come to terms with this conflict one will have to begin by grasping the objective basis of the emergence of Pakistani nationalism through a process of historicisation.

There can, I guess, be little doubt that both majoritarian and minoritarian communalisms in their multiple local specificities have been, and still are, direct functions of colonial and/or capitalist modernity. They have been, or are, functions of colonial and/or capitalist modernity in the sense of communal (and caste in the case of caste politics) identities being historically-indexed concrete markers of competition for social and economic power in its entirely modern sense. Labour historian Raj Narayan Chandavarkar insightfully demonstrated that.
In that sense, the emergence of Pakistani nationalism – as a political articulation of Muslim communalism in pre-Partition India – ought to be grasped as the coming together of different Muslim communities (divided from one another on the basis of language, regional specificity and even caste hierarchy) waging their locally respective, communally-indexed struggles against equally varied forms of majoritarian domination through cornering of modern social and economic power. That Jinnah’s conception of Pakistan as a Muslim nation arose, as Ayesha Jalal has demonstrated, from a conception of Muslim federalist politics within pre-Partition India, clearly reveals Pakistani nationalism in its inception to be an articulation of sedimented class conflict. One that could very well have been conceptually articulated by Iqbal’s conception of Islam as a mobile political horizon of de-identitarianisation. But precisely because Muslim nation as a pure idea was envisaged in modern territorial (and thus ethno-linguistic) republican-federalist terms, thanks to the concrete social objectivity of varied Hindu-Muslim communal conflicts, Pakistani nationalism emerged as an idea and practice riven with acute contradictions and conflicts.
The less-than-successful attempt at identitarian consolidation of Pakistan into a homogenised nationhood of subcontinental Muslims sought to paper over and repress the ethno-linguistically and/or socio-economically indexed class contradictions internal to this supposedly homogeneous Muslim community of the subcontinent, rendering federalism in Pakistan a modality of mutual bargaining among various sections of its ruling elite, and simultaneously an instrument in the hands of these regionally divided sections of that elite to regiment and control their respective subject-populations (read working peoples). The disaffection this idea of Pakistani nationalism – an idea-in-practice — has yielded is there for all to see.
But then again this is not exactly exclusive to Pakistan. The failure of the Indian national project, which has also primarily been a pure idea, both in its secular and religious/communal articulations, is precisely on account of the same contradiction of seeking to homogenise various territorial and/or ethno-linguistic, and caste- and community-based heterogeneities, which also historically index class divisions, into a pure idea of Indian nationhood through the modern political instrument of federalised unionism. What makes matters worse here is that unlike in Iqbal’s conception of (Muslim) nationality as a pure idea, the idea of India is construed and envisaged, even and especially by the arch-secularist Nehru (a la his Discovery of India), as a transhistorical and metaphysical ideal, almost Kantian, to be generalised. Needless to say here that Iqbal’s conception of (Muslim) nationality as a pure idea — wherein this pure idea is meant, philosophically speaking, to be an axiom of demystifyication and thus de-identitarianisation — is radically distinct from this metaphysical and conservatively Kantian idea of the secular (to say nothing of the religious-nationalist) Indian nationhood. It, therefore, offers more possibilities in terms of being rendered a discourse that can be refounded to articulate a radical internationalist political project vis-à-vis the subcontinent from its determinate location in Pakistan.
That Pakistan has become a constituency tailor-made for the reception of the global re-emergence of the Islam as a pure idea of togetherness against dominance – albeit this time in a completely spiritualised and thus reactionary form – must be attributed to the failure of Pakistan as a nation-state on account of the historical contradiction at its very core. But the truth also is that if there is any discursive form organic to the Pakistani project that can be posed as an effective counter to this identitarianised, reactionary Pan-Islamism, it’s Iqbal’s conception of (Muslim) nationality as a pure idea that, as I have insisted above, points clearly in the direction of nonidentitarian internationalism, what with its discursive registers of Islam and Muslimness being no more than historically concrete and determinate indices of such an ecumenical politico-hermeneutic approach. I see such conceptions of Iqbal’s as the only ones capable of discursively articulating the constellating of the struggles of the Pakistani proletariat in its nonidentitarian diversity with the equally diverse working-class struggles in the rest of the subcontinent; India and Kashmir included.


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