Iqbal’s ‘Khudi’ as Creative National Power


If ever there exists a constant factor in the history of human race, it is nothing but phenomenon of ‘change,’ which has its manifestation in the form of continuous evolution. Leaving aside the physical realm of the things, the domain of the idea and thought is always and ever evolving.

In the domain of religious thought, often the new interpretations are made to allow the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) to make its way, whereas in case of human idea, the continuous process of addition, deletion or supersession is always underway. The famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic process by German philosopher Friedrich Hegel explains one manifestation of this continuous evolutionary progression. One fundamental reason for this behavior is attributed to the limits of idea and the thinker vis-à-vis time and space dimension of life of human race itself.

Consciously or unconsciously a thinker is partially, if not wholly responds to the phenomena prevailing in a particular age that in some way is constrained by space itself. Alluding to this change phenomenon, Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal writes in the preface of his most famous compilation of lectures, ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,’ as:

“It must, however, be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.” — (Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, published by Sang-e-Meel Publishers, page 8)

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Iqbal is not only the most celebrated poet in the sub-continent, but also a philosopher-thinker for the Muslims. Many draw inspiration and meaning of life – both individually and collectively — from his poetry. He is one of the founding fathers of Pakistan. His poetry and thought played a fundamental role to nurture a resolve among the Muslims of the sub-continent to unite and throw away the yoke of slavery during the British Raj and create a separate homeland for themselves.

‘Khudi’ (ego or egohood) among others was a key message of Iqbal to his nation, which lacked the materialistic wherewithal to stand up and break the shackles imposed by the British colonial power and a dominant Hindu-majority.

Iqbal’s man of ‘khudi’ was so highly empowered by his self-actualization that despite lack of wealth and material power, he possessed an iron will and he could withstand, fight and win against heavy odds. In the times of colonial subjugation and predominance of Machiavellian politics by the Hindu-majority, this man relying on iron will won independence by offering huge sacrifices. However, Iqbal’s message of ‘khudi’ was not limited to that particular pre-independence age, and is valid beyond time and space for any universal man or nation that by espousing the agency of supreme power i.e., khudi (attaining highest power, remains at the pinnacle stage in evolution of ‘khudi’ and no base desire or challenge could constrain it).  Since ‘khudi’ is not mere an abstract idea but a power that affects the worldly affairs of the man, it remains relevant to the spirit of the age i.e., zeitgeist, and will be path to success and glory whenever applied accordingly.

Notwithstanding above, many of Iqbal verses due to peculiar environment of first half of 20th century’s subcontinent politics and people, emphasize an aspect of ‘khudi’ which shuns away the material power of wealth and military means, and fundamentally prepares a man with an iron will to withstand against the challenges posed by the life itself.

This man in common understanding appears somewhat a ‘dervish,’ a minimalist in desires and needs, not interested in wealth, prefers being frugal and devoid of material means to life, and does not need any or modern equipment to fight his war.

Below are a few examples of such verses which are very popular in our national life and still taken in same literal sense when we were under colonial power in the pre-Partition era:

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There are numerous such verses which place more emphasis on will-power than the worldly means — monetary wealth or military equipment. This was a very potent message for a community, waging a Herculean struggle against the wealthy and mighty powers — the British and the Hindu-majority.

Even today, when such a verse is read without the full grasp of its meaning, it appeals to our youth to idealize the man of ‘khudi’, who appears to abhor being rich and prefers to live in poverty — almost renouncing all the worldly needs. For some simple minds, this can translates into being uninterested in any kind of invention or innovation — vital in day-to-day routine modern life – and not relying on material means of modern warfare and equipment, and instead banking on the sword. This type of interpretation of ‘Khudi’ evokes an image of a hermit and a lone warrior.

Such traits when found in a man can be sparingly celebrated, but when adopted by a nation, living in the abundant age of 21st century, it can lead to poverty and weakness. If the 19th century can be called the age of colonization, and the 20th century as age of ideologies and revolution, the 21st century can be aptly called as an age of consumerism and consumption, technological innovations and material abundance. Today’s yardstick of power is not the number in armies alone, but added emphasis is on trade surplus, industrial growth, scientific and technological innovations, and provision of services to a world population, preferring luxury and comfort than pursuing any other goal in individual or collective life. This spirit of age is so pervasive that any denial to it, will be the denial of power, and in many ways add to reliance on others; and in fact becomes death of ‘khudi’ when begging and borrowing is adopted for survival as a nation.      

Today, when such verses are read with fervor by our youth without understanding their full meaning, there always remain enough possibilities that subconsciously a hatred towards wealth-generation become part of the collective national thought, and in the same vein discarding all modern developments, technical advances and innovations, including the military ones, get into our national psyche.

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We, as a nation, will have to first understand in the intellectual domain and then adopt in our national life that the context under which these verses were written when we read them in the 21st century. Now we are an independent nation, which confronts economic and military challenges of its own age. The zeitgeist of this age is different than first-half of the 20th century; at that time it was the struggle for liberation, and now it is preserving our freedom by our financial and military might. Breaking the shackles of slavery through unflinching resistance was one aspect of our national life, and it now must be replaced by great powers of construction to survive and lead in the comity of nations.

Here again none other but great Allama Iqbal is our guide when he concludes his argument on ‘khudi’ in the book of his lectures as under: 

“The ultimate aim of the ego is not to see something, but to be something. It is in the ego’s effort to be something that he discovers his final opportunity to sharpen his objectivity and acquire a more fundamental ‘I am’ which finds evidence of its reality not in the Cartesian ‘I-think’ but in the Kantian ‘I can’. The end of the ego’s quest is not emancipation from the limitations of the individuality; it is, on the other hand, a more precise definition of it. The final act is not an intellectual act, but a vital act which deepens the whole being of the ego, and sharpens his will with the creative assurance that the world is not something to be merely seen or known through concepts, but something to be made and re-made by continuous action. It is a moment of supreme bliss and also a moment of the greatest trial for the ego.” — (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, page 173)

A few important points related to Khudi (ego) that can be derived from above words of Iqbal are:

  • The ultimate goal of ‘khudi’ is not in the realm of thought or some abstract idea but purely action.
  • A super-being (egohood) in realm of action is achieved through sharpening the objectivity (objectivity here can be equated to critical thinking, aiming at power acquisition goals).
  • The aim of ‘khudi’ is not emancipation from limitations of individuality, but being defined by these in a way that the will to act gets strengthened through a creative assurance that makes and re-makes the world in physical being through continuous action (It can also be deduced from this particular point that the men of khudi are need not to abhor worldly life and its means, rather they must master the worldly life and add to it through their power of creativity).
  • It can also be deduced from the above concluding message by Iqbal that the ultimate aim of khudi is to be a power of action which is able to shape and re-shape the world. It is the combination of objectivity, creativity and action through which khudi would lead to power that dominates and shapes the physical world than mere winning a higher thought contemplation competition.  

Before delving upon further on what to be done by us as a nation which is caught struggling to live and prosper in first half of 21st century, it is important to have a review of contemporary power agencies (zeitgeist of present time and space). Today, we live in an age of a somewhat regulated capitalism, which defeated communism. In this world, wealth creation remains a primary objective and a power measure rather than wealth distribution. In simple terms, when the United States or China are being assessed as a world power, their financial health is taken as the primary yardstick, followed by military might which is again not measured by counting the men but superior military technology and sophisticated equipment. When Iqbal lived and gave his poetic message during the first-half of the 20th century, the world was suffering from ills of unregulated capitalism, espoused hopes for a better world from communism, and science and technology had not been able to harness human life as it can be seen today, and reacting to the ills of time, messages of abhorrence towards wealth generation, accumulation or capitalism, were common in those times.  Also never forget that Iqbal was addressing and reviving the hopes of an individual who was not only slave, but poor and ill-equipped. So Iqbal made his weakness as his strength. This part of Iqbal’s message should be seen in the light of his age. However, Iqbal’s universal message of ‘khudi’ aiming at attaining the power to change the world in any given time and space, needs a new interpretation and visionary courage to match the ever changing world.

While we deduce meanings of ‘khudi’ in milieu of individual and national acquisition of power, some critics can raise the issues of morality attached to the pursuit of power. Since Iqbal is a universal thinker and in certain aspects of his messages stretches beyond the limits of time and space, his care for morality is understandable and merits reverence. As a universal philosopher, Iqbal’s vision of pursuing a moral and just world as its final goal is somewhat a fait accompli for any universal message and messenger. However, those responding to the issues of lack of power limited to their age, can seek guidance from another angle of Iqbal’s philosophic message related to power acquisition and exercise of power, conveniently ignoring the issue of morality. Or, those seeking the power to meet a national crisis emerging out of lack of power can first acquire the power, and then later suitably regulate it to the demands of morality, but only to the extent where it does not lead to yet another weakened state of affairs.

Iqbal on various occasions accepts the primacy of power and its application for attaining one’s goals:

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Today, the limitations our nation suffers are from poor economy, weak industrial base, stagnant agriculture, untrained human capital and insufficiency in modern technology, including military among others. If we want to master the power (for ease simply equated to financial wealth, technological advancement and military power), Iqbal’s man and nation of ‘khudi’ can never stay away from happy pursuit of the both. It needs a change of attitude towards money or wealth generation as a nation as well as mastering science and technology. Today and tomorrow, as a nation and people we will be living and competing in a world and age which is entirely different than first half of the 20th century. We are no more waging a struggle to overthrow a colonial power, but have to compete with neo-colonialism, and have to construct a contemporary power as a nation that should guarantee and safeguard our territorial integrity and sovereignty. Our today’s and tomorrow’s man of ‘khudi’ needs not to dream of acquiring an iron-will to acquire both money and power, which add to the national power. We as a nation must adopt to and master the ways of wealth generation. For a nation with no money and modern knowledge, has no future!

While we as a nation decide to fight out this decay which can result in further economic strangulations by rich powers, there remains a needs to be cautious of any over-organisation of the individual and society.

Iqbal’s man of ‘khudi’ is a free man to attain self-actualization and fulfil his dreams. Iqbal alludes towards this reactionary tendency in one of his lectures:

“For the fear of further disintegration, which is only natural in such a period of political decay, the conservative thinkers . . . focused all their efforts on the one point of preserving a uniform social life for the people . . . Their leading idea was social order, and there is no doubt that they were partly right, because organization does to a certain extent counteract the forces of decay. But they did not see, and our modern Ulema do not see, that the ultimate fate of a people does not depend so much on organization as on the worth and power of individual men. In an over-organized society the individual is altogether crushed out of existence. He gains the whole wealth of social thought around him and loses his own soul. Thus a false reverence for past history and its artificial resurrection constitute no remedy for a people’s decay. ‘The verdict of history,’ as a modern writer has happily put it, ‘is that worn-out ideas have never risen to power among a people who have worn them out.’ The only effective power, therefore, that counteracts the forces of decay in a people is the rearing of self-concentrated individuals. Such individuals alone reveal the depth of life. They disclose new standards in the light of which we begin to see that our environment is not wholly inviolable and requires revision.” — (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, page 133)

We as a nation and people today face enormous challenges of economic downfall and technological reliance on others, and it is only through reinterpreting the message of ‘khudi’ as a national creative power that we will rule the spirit of the age. All men and women into the fields and factories, and nothing short of it, will grant us a creative power of production that makes us a truly independent and honorable nation. That stage of self-reliance to self-sufficiency will be a real tribe to Iqbal’s message of ‘khudi’ by a ‘khudar’ (honorable) people and nation.

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Tahir Mehmood
Tahir Mehmood
The writer is a student of human history. He has authored two books: A Lone Long Walk and Where Clouds Meet.
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