The Birth of a Nation

The Muslims of India were late to embrace the inadvertent benefits of colonial rule in the nineteenth century: the access to the modern world that Western-style education provided to the Hindus and that created a pan-Indian intelligentsia—people like Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore—who went on to assume the leadership of the freedom movement. Many of the Muslim leaders still dreamed of reviving the power and glory of Muslim rule over India, which the British had comprehensively destroyed. As independence from colonial rule began to appear a possibility in the early twentieth century, many educated Muslims began to know new anxieties about their people’s inferiority vis-à-vis both the British and the Hindus.

It is no coincidence that the person who articulated best the fears and frustrations of Indian Muslims was a Kashmiri, Mohammad Iqbal, one of the most important Muslim philosophical thinkers of modern times. Iqbal was born in 1876 in what is now Pakistan to an illiterate family of shawl peddlers and tailors. His parents managed to send him to school and college, where he did very well. He was already famous for his poetry when he went to Cambridge in the early years of the twentieth century to study philosophy.

Iqbal followed many other Indians in being deeply impressed by the progress made by Europe in the nineteenth century; the idea of individual struggle and fulfillment, and the related idea of the individual’s responsibilities to society and the nation, could not but come as a revelation to people from listless subject communities. Iqbal came to admire Nietzsche. The idea of the Superman, of self-creation and self-assertion, spoke to him in the powerful way it always has to people from colonized countries. But he was also disturbed by racism and hypercompetitiveness, and while in Europe, struggling with the complex mix of admiration, fear, and insecurity the place aroused, he became even more aware of his Muslim identity. The history of Islam acquired new meanings for him; from a ship the sighting of Sicily, the setting of one of Islam’s greatest triumphs in Europe, could make him weep.

He came back to India convinced, like many Indians before him, that the progress of his community lay not in imitating Europe but in reforming and reviving the religion he had been born into. To this end, he began to exalt masculine vigor and the great Islamic past in his writings. He became a determined critic of Sufism, of the mystical and folk traditions within Islam that advocate the rejection of the ego and the self, and that had found such a hospitable home in his ancestral Kashmir. He saw these traditions as emasculating Muslims, making them inadequate before the outstanding tasks demanded of the self and of the larger Islamic community.

Iqbal’s ideas about Islam in India had to have political ramifications. Politics itself at that time of colonial oppression was primarily a quest for dignity, an assertion of identity first, and then only secondarily an attempt at creating new institutions. As such,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.