Allama Iqbal in Favour of Ataturk’s Secularism

Posted on May 3, 2010 by

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By Tarek Fatah

Excerpted with gratitude from his book  Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic lllusion of an Islamic State’. Available for download at Let Us Build Pakistan


The movement to restore the Ottoman caliphate was strong in India,
under the leadership of none other than Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi. As in Egypt, Muslims in India were taken aback by the abolition of the centuries-old institution. While many among the seventy-million-strong Indian Muslim community saw the end of the caliphate as a grave setback, intellectuals such as thinker-poet Iqbal supported Ataturk’s abolition of the caliphate, suggesting that the Turks had made effective use of the Islamic tradition of Ijtehad. The Ottoman caliphate, Iqbal said, had long become a symbol of Muslim statehood in name only, as not even the next-door Iranians accepted the sovereignty of the Ottomans.

Iqbal wrote dismissively of the clerics:

“The religious doctors of Islam in Egypt and India, as far as I know, have not yet expressed themselves on this point. Personally, I find the Turkish view is perfectly sound.”

He went on to defend the separation of religion and state, writing, “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 were set free in the world of Islam.”

Iqbal further cited two examples of how in early Islam the caliphate had adapted to political realities. First was the abolition of a condition thatthe caliph had to descend from the Meccan Arab tribe of Quraysh. Iqbal cited the ruling of an 11th-century jurist that, since the Quraysh tribe had experienced a political debacle, ruling the world of Islam no longer required belonging to the Quraysh tribe. The second example involved the historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who in the 15th century declared that since the power of the Quraysh had vanished, the only alternative was to accept the country’s most powerful man as the country’s imam or caliph. Iqbal concluded from all this that there was no difference between the position of Khaldun, who had realized the hard logic of facts, and the attitude of modern Turks, who were also inspired by the realities of their time rather than by medieval laws written under different conditions of life.

Both Iqbal and Razik wrote in the 1920s, but in the early 21st century their words seem to come from the future, not the past. Today, Islamic political thought is moribund and has become more fossilized than it was at the end of

the Ottoman caliphate. Today’s movement for an Islamic theocracy is structured around the creation of an Islamic State based on the works of Abul Ala Maudoodi and Hassan al-Banna of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their views remain in sharp contrast to their more urbane and secular contemporaries, as they strove for an Islamic State that rejected the ideas of universalism, instead embracing the self-righteous supremacy of Islam at the expense of the other. Iqbal was an early convert to Ataturk’s republican secularism. In his seminal work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal wrote:

“Such is the attitude of the modern Turk, inspired as he is by the realities of experience, and not by the scholastic reasoning of jurists who lived and thought under different conditions of life. To my mind these arguments, if rightly appreciated, indicate the birth of an International ideal, which forming the very essence of Islam, has been hitherto overshadowed or rather displaced
by Arabian Imperialism of the earlier centuries in Islam.”

Iqbal considered the end of the caliphate as the trigger for a Muslim
renaissance. He felt the jolt was necessary for the revival of Islam as an
instrument of moral awakening, what he referred to as “the spiritualisation of
the heart.” When using the term “Arabian Imperialism,” Iqbal was probably
referring not just to early Umayyad Arab rule over non-Arab Muslim lands, but also to the way non-Arab Muslims had been conditioned to see themselves, their language, cuisine, and culture as inferior to their Arab cousins. He supported the adoption of the Turkish language as a medium of prayer and the Quran by the Young Turks. He wrote:

If the aim of religion is the spiritualisation of the heart, then it must penetrate the soul of man, and it can best penetrate the inner man . . . We find that when Muhammad Ibn Tumart—the Mahdi of Muslim Spain—who was Berber by nationality, came to power and established the pontifi cal rule of the Muwahhidun, he ordered for the sake of the illiterate Berbers that the Quran should be translated and read in the Berber language and that the call to prayer should be given in Berber.

The tenuous bond between the Arab and the non-Arab Muslim has, over the
centuries, created a love-hate relationship, often one-sided and rarely discussed. While non-Arab Muslims have embraced many facets of Arabian culture and custom, the gesture has rarely been reciprocated. Whether it has been the feeble relationship between the Berbers and Arabs, or the never-ending mutual mistrust between Persians and the Arabs, this chasm has gone largely unnoticed in the Arab world. Iqbal’s reference to “Arabian Imperialism” would elicit shock and denunciation from even the most liberal Arab; such is the state of denial.

Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic lllusion of an Islamic State

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