Monday, September 29, 2008

The unity of life

Iqbal’s concept of ideal state depends on three unities, which he discussed in the Allahabad Address (1930):
  1. The unity of life
  2. The unity of humankind
  3. The unity of nation
The first of these, i.e. the unity of life, implies that contradictions cannot exist. Oneness of God, as expounded in the Quran, takes this philosophical notion a step further by offering opportunities to witness and experience this non-contradiction:
"In Islam God and the universe, spirit and matter, church and state, are organic to each other. Man is not the citizen of a profane world to be renounced in the interest of a world of spirit situated elsewhere. To Islam matter is spirit realizing itself in space and time." (Read complete text of the Allahabad Address)
Is this the same thing as going back to theocracy? Many Western scholars and their Pakistani followers have indeed understood it that way. However, the mainstream Pakistani scholarship (now unfortunately marginalized even in Pakistan), has always understood it to mean something else, something unknown even in the history of Islam because although this had been evolving in the conscience of the community, it required a peculiar setting such as that of modern times in order to be realized.

It is what Iqbal described as “spiritual democracy” in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (written around the same time as the Allahabad Address): rather than isolating religion from politics, the rule of democracy should be extended to include religion as well. Norms in all walks of life, such as religion, art, literature, culture and education ought to be decided by consensus of the people rather than by any priesthood, whether of the clergy or of the academics (Read Iqbal’s statement about spiritual democracy).

Hence Iqbal’s concept of the unity of life is simultaneously opposed to secularism, atheism and theocracy. To borrow a phrase from the popular discourse of the Second Wave Feminism, it means that “the personal is the political.”

Can a spiritual democracy ever ensure equality between followers of different religions? That is a valid concern but in order to address it we need to look at “the unity of humankind”...


  1. "Hence Iqbal’s concept of the unity of life is simultaneously opposed to secularism, atheism and theocracy."

    This is the most interesting notion, in that it aspires to bring people together in a representative way, opening up the channels for discourse, and seeking to harmonize rather than divide.

    Which brings us to the question of how come it seems the opposite has happened in the case of Pakistan?

  2. Shazia, thanks. Yes, the opposite seems to have happened in Pakistan and I am inclined to believe that this is because the education system, academia and the pundits of literature did not rise to meet the challenge. They subscribed to secularism, atheism or theocracy since these were readily available and required very little originality.