Iqbal’s Concept of Muslim Nationalism in India

Nation is a human group conscious of forming a community, sharing a common culture, attached to a clearly demarcated territory, having a common past and a common project for the future and claiming the right to rule itself’. So awareness, territory, history and culture, language and religion all matter.Nation is large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory. There are more definitions:

  • In common language nation means a large group of people united by a common language, ancestry, history, or culture. Nationalism is the feelings people have of loyalty to their nation and pride in their national characteristics. … A nation may also be called a country or state.
    UK, for example, is a country inhabited mainly by people of four nations: the English, Irish, Scot, and Welsh.
    A nation is distinct from a people, and is more abstract, and more overtly political, than an ethnic group.
  • Definition of nation-state: A form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities.
    Nation-building is constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state. … Nation builders are those members of a state who take the initiative to develop the national community through government programs, including military conscription and national content mass schooling.
  • The term ‘nation’ refers to a group of people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular nation group, who are usually ensconced on a particular historical territory, and who have a sense of affinity to people sharing that territory. It is not necessary to specify which traits define a group seeking self-determination.
  • “Nationalism in the sense of one’s country and even readiness to die for its honour is a part of the Muslim’s faith.” Iqbal cited examples of the law of Islam for freedom of the ‘People of the Book’ stating that in countries where Muslims are in the majority, Islam accommodates nationalism; for there Islam and nationalism are practically identical; in minority countries it is justifiable to seeking self-determination as a cultural unit.” In either ease he thought there was no inconsistency.

Allamah Muhammad Iqbal’s Concept of Muslim Nationalism in India

By Rizwan Malik

It is well known that it was Allamah Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) who articulated Muslim political separatism in his presidential address to the annual session of the All India Muslim League at Allahabad in 1930. He expressed the wish that: ‘I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single state. Self-government within the British Empire or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India.’

The enunciation of this political objective was the genesis of the two-nation theory when Iqbal’s vision was adopted by the Muslim League in its Lahore Resolution of March 1940. The philosophical moorings of the two nation theory suggest that a separate Muslim homeland, as viewed by Iqbal, was essential to a healthy development of both the major communities in the Indian subcontinent. In his Allahabad address, Iqbal stated that a separate state for Muslims would be in the best interests of India and of Islam. He explained: ‘For India it means security and peace resulting from an internal balance of power; for Islam an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilize its law, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.’

Based therefore on this concept of a ‘Muslim state’, he expressed the desire to see an independent Muslim state in the north-west of India. Explaining the rationale behind this demand, Iqbal observed that since each community has the right to free development according to its own cultural traditions, Muslim demands should not be viewed as reflecting any feeling of hostility towards Hindus. He stated that: ‘The principal that each group is entitled to free development on its own lines is not inspired by any feeling of narrow communalism … A community which is inspired by a feeling of ill-will towards other communities is low and ignoble. I entertain the highest respect for the customs, laws, religions and social institutions of other communities.’

Iqbal’s articulation of the views set out above suggests the remarkable distance that he had travelled between his youth and his mature years. Iqbal first gained fame as a nationalist Muslim who cherished the ideals of a united India like the other great poet from Bengal, Rabindra Nath Tagore. It was during 1905 and again in 1908, when he was studying in Europe, that he began revising his thoughts about the principles of territorial nationalism. His studies of Islam and modern philosophy gradually and irrevocably caused him to repudiate his earlier views. On his return to India in 1908, Iqbal ceased to be an Indian nationalist and started deviating from his earlier views on Muslim-Hindu communal unity. Iqbal attempted to prove that Islam constituted a millat which could not and should not be identified with any one particular country. He also emphasized that being culturally different and separate from the Hindus with a precisely defined political orientation, Indian Muslims did not want to be assimilated into a Hindu-dominated Indian political nationalism. On the other hand, Iqbal advocated a repudiation of political nationalism by substituting for it the idea of cultural nationalism. He was clear in his mind that nationalism, originally a Western concept, demanded affiliation to a territory without having anything to do with the cultural values of the people concerned. In the West, nationalism was most generally understood in its political context. The Indian National Congress had also adopted this concept and defined various communities living in India as one nation merely because they inhabited a common territory. Cultural nationalism, in contrast, describes people a nation on the basis of their inwardly felt sharing of religious, racial, or linguistic values. Viewed from this perspective, Indian Muslims constituted a cultural nationality. Logically then, the creation of an independent Muslim state was to be an external social organization required simply to guard the inner and natural needs of its members. Therefore, in Iqbal’s vision, the notion of cultural nationalism as applied to the case of a culturally and religiously defined Muslim nation seeking a territory to give tangible expression of itself was not antithetical to Islam. In a public statement, Iqbal elaborated on this point.

Cultural Nationalism

Nationalism in the sense of love of one’s country and even readiness to die for its honour is a part of the Muslim’s faith; it comes into conflict with Islam only when it begins to play the role of a political Islam should recede to the background of a mere private opinion and cease to be a living factor in the national life. In Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and other Muslim countries it will never become a problem. In these countries Muslims constitute an overwhelming majority and their minorities, i.e., Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, according to the law of Islam, are either ‘People of the Book’ or ‘like the People of the Book’ with whom the law of Islam allows free social relations only in countries where they happen to be in a minority, and nationalism demands their complete self-effacement. In majority countries Islam accommodates nationalism; for there Islam and nationalism are practically identical; in minority countries it is justified in seeking self-determination as a cultural unit. In either case, it is thoroughly consistent with itself.

Nevertheless, the cultural definition of nationalism used by Iqbal as an instrument to prevent the assimilation of a minority into the majority community, could be interpreted negatively to mean the unwillingness of Muslim community ‘to be ruled by a non-Muslim political power’. But Iqbal’s cultural nationalism was mainly a desire to facilitate his vision of the reform of the existing Muslim social and economic order. This, in his view, could be done by mobilizing the Muslim masses, at least, those in the Muslim-majority provinces of north-west India. It should be emphasized here that Iqbal did not make the demand for a separate Muslim state as a defensive proposition against the numerical strength of the Hindus. The logic of cultural nationalism in Iqbal’s case was based on the practical necessity of first acquiring a Muslim state, which would then make it possible for Indian Muslims to proceed with their experiment of building a society in accordance with the Shari’a. Should such a state be denied them, Indian Muslims would be bereft of the opportunity to introduce innovations which the Turks had taken upon themselves. As a student of Islam, Iqbal contended that a commitment to a progressive reform of the social conditions of Muslims by the All India Muslim League would, in fact, be a return to the original principles of Islam. Accordingly, Iqbal wrote to Jinnah, in his letter on 28 May 1937, that it was about time that the League finally decided whether it has to represent the interests of upper class Indian Muslims or the Muslim masses. He believed the reason why Muslim masses were not attracted to the Muslim League was its lack of promise of any improvement in the lot of the average Muslim. As this ideal could only be achieved in an independent and sovereign Muslim state, in the same letter, Iqbal wrote to Jinnah that the question of ‘Muslim poverty’ demanded much more serious attention than did the ‘atheistic socialism’ of Nehru.

‘Happily there is a solution in the enforcement of the Law of Islam and its further development in the light of modern ideas. After a long and careful study of Islamic Law I have come to the conclusion that if this system of Law is properly understood and applied, at least the right to subsistence is secured to everybody. But the enforcement and development of the Shariat of Islam is impossible in this country without a free Muslim state or states. This has been my honest conviction for many years and I still believe this to be the only way to solve the problem of bread for Muslims as well as to secure a peaceful India.’

On the other hand, Iqbal argued with Muslims about the need to renew Islamic culture. He used his poetry as an instrument to make Muslims realize that to become once again dynamic, enterprising and assertive, there was a need for reform of the traditional interpretation of Islam. He exhorted Muslims to wake up and learn to live with the changed times, considering reform to be effort to rekindle the dynamism of early Islam.


It is relevant to note that Iqbal viewed the activities of Mustafa Kemal in Turkey generally speaking as positive. The movement of reforms initiated by Mustafa Kemal, Iqbal believed, despite many flaws that it may encompass, was wholesome in general and to be encouraged as an illustration of how Muslim thought might be reactivated. Appreciating the decree of the Turkish Grand National Assembly finally to close the chapter of the Muslim Khilafat, he wrote: ‘Let us now see how Grand National Assembly has excised this power of Ijtihad in regard to the institution of Khilafat. According to Sunni Law the appointment of an Imam or Khalifa is absolutely indispensable. The first question that arises in this connection is this – Should the Caliphate be vested in a single nation? Turkey’s Ijtihad is that according to the spirit of the Islam the Caliphate or Imamate can be vested in a body of persons, or an elected Assembly. The religious doctors of Islam in Egypt and India, so far as I know, have not yet expressed themselves on this point. Personally, I believe the Turkish view is perfectly sound. It is hardly necessary to argue this point. The republican form of government is not only thoroughly consistent with the spirit of Islam but has also become a necessity in view of the new forces that are set free in the world of Islam.’

What once had been the symbol of the unity of the Muslim ummah, Iqbal believed, had become an impediment to the development of Islamic thought. Iqbal never endorsed the contributions of the Kemalist secular experience, as is sometimes thought, in its anti-mullah and anti-Sufi interpretations of Islam. To meet the challenges of the modern world, he advocated the use of ijtihad (fresh thinking and independent judgement). He believed the example of Turkey should be followed by Muslim countries in order to rebuild and strengthen their states on modern lines. In the same vein he hoped that with the disappearance of the institution of the Khilafat the unity of the Muslim world will have to be derived from the independent and sovereign status of individual Muslim states. Iqbal wrote: ‘It seems to me that God is slowly bringing home to us the truth 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.’

Religious Ideal

It would be in this ‘League’ of Muslim countries that Indian Muslims, living in an independent state of their own, would participate and contribute to the unity and stability of the Muslim world. Iqbal’s vision was that there was a logical connection between the proposed independent Muslim state in South Asia and the territorially broken up but spiritually united nation-states in the rest of the Muslim world.

In supporting the rationale of territorial Muslim nation-states based on cultural nationalism, Iqbal was trying to emphasize Islam as the real foundation of Muslim ummah. In fact, Iqbal wanted to rescue the principles of Islam from being reduced to a personal affair and its consequent extinction as a system of life. He stated that the nature of the Prophet’s religious experience, Qur’anically speaking is [of an] individual experience creative of a social order. Its immediate outcome is the fundamentals of a polity with implicit legal concepts whose civic significance cannot be belittled merely because their origin is revelation. The religious ideal of Islam, therefore, is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other.

By DR RIZWAN MALIK: A senior research fellow at the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research,  Islamabad, Pakistan.



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