Iqbal’s Concept of Democracy

Iqbal's Concept of Democracy

The worldwide acclaim Dr Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a revered poet-philosopher and a visionary leader, commanded from both the Eastern and Western critics bears a vivid testimony to his great stature, and earns him the place occupied by very few in the literary world. Whilst chief source of his repute is his timeless poetry, his philosophical thought, too, is no less catchy. The fact remains that the scheme of his philosophy cannot be touched upon in isolation from his poetry, and his poetic genre largely teams, inter alia, with political philosophy. 

Analyzing Iqbalian Democracy vis-à-vis Western Democracy

Induced by his extensive inquiry into the new emerging trends in the West, which held the Muslim worldIqbal's Concept of Democracy spellbound, Iqbal picked apart the contemporary Western civilization as rotten to the core. The social and political institutions based on a civilization that was barren of ethical and spiritual elements could not take root. To him, any system resting upon a moral, ethical foundation was agreeable, and durable. An ideology born out of the womb of atheism could never refine and elevate the human thought.

Iqbal singled out democracy, nationalism and imperialism as the most infernal banes befallen the humanity. He denunciated the contemporary Western democracy which he strongly believed was deceptive and fraud. He took to his writings to apprise the Muslims of the inherent flaws the cult of democracy was beset with. He branded democracy a mirage which had wrecked more mayhem than any good to human beings.

It may be noted that Iqbal’s views on diverse facets of democracy remain scattered over various sources of his work; therefore, a painstaking enterprise has to be undertaken to make a compact yet comprehensive picture of his philosophy.

Assumptions of Western Democracy

Before we look into to Iqbal’s thesis, here is a brief overview of the theoretical and practical implications of the Western democracy to form a realistic opinion on its pros and cons:

The technical complexities emanating from the nuances of the term make it increasingly difficult for scholars to reach a consensus on its indicators and their extent. Obviously, scientific experimentation in a laboratory to gauge the degree to which its indicators, say, sovereignty devolving on masses, are in place, cannot be executed. Democracy having wide and varied connotations always evades evolving a universally plausible definition. In its ideal form, it guarantees liberty and equality for subjects to pursue their socio-economic life in accordance with their capabilities, ensuring that their rights are not trampled by external forces.

Corry and Abraham in “Elements of Democratic Government” list the following indicators indispensable to a democratic culture:

(1) Respect for individual personality
(2) Individual freedom        (3) Belief in rationality
(4) Equality                            (5) Justice
(6) Rule of law                       (7) Constitutionalism

Nonetheless, every political system, however repressive, ostentatiously takes pride in asserting itself as democratic. Even the authoritarian regimes have designated themselves as ‘democratic’ or ‘people’s governments’. The oft-quoted definition by Lincoln ‘democracy being the government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is mostly tabled by the protagonists of democracy. Again, given the stark contradiction between theory and practice, the word ‘people’ itself becomes all the more hazy, as to who exactly is denoted by ‘people’, and in what manner the government is to be formed and by whom, and how common man’s interests are to be perfectly articulated and integrated.

Iqbal’s views on Democracy

Allama Iqbal’s outlook on all walks of individual and collective life was out and out Quranic. He didn’t budge an inch to discredit any creed nourished beyond the purview of Quran and Sunnah. Obviously, being a Muslim, Iqbal might have weighed his views up heavily from the vantage point of his religion, but that is not to suggest that he was swayed by a jaundiced eye in his treatment of the other ideologies. In fact, he stretched his arms wide open to embrace those aspects of democracy he saw finely in line with the tenets of Islam and canons of rationality. As a matter of fact, his was the thesis that the Western representative institutions were misleading, and he had the strongest arguments to support his assertion.

1. Absence of Ethical Element

Democracy as understood in the West is devoid of a spiritual and ethical basis. Grounded in materialistic base, it paves the way for the unscrupulous and dishonest politicians to cling on to the ladder of power. The absence of moral and spiritual values renders democracy repulsive.

In Bal-e-Jibril, Iqbal says:

جمہور کے ابلیس ہیں اربابِ سیاست
باقی نہیں اب میری ضرورت تہ افلاک!

For fiends its rulers serve the populace:
Beneath the heavens is no more need of me!

In Zabur-i-Ajam, Iqbal has heaped scorn upon democracy in the strongest terms noting that by inventing democracy, the West has let loose a monstrous demon. The democracy the West bangs on about frenziedly wears around its neck the beads of imperialism threaded with aggression and capitalism.

2. Unbridled Democracy: A Bane

Once exposed to the unrestrained democracy, the uncouth masses due to their sheer ignorance of the complexities of life; and politics bring disaster after disaster to them, and to the country at large. ‘Masses wanting wisdom’ is the recurring theme of Iqbal’s thesis of democracy. Therefore, he opposes the indiscriminate importation of liberal ideas to the Muslims. Democracy has left the most vital affairs of life to the vagaries of every untamed Tom, Dick and Harry, ignorant of their own good, let alone the collective good of the society.

Iqbal's Concept of Democracy

“You seek the treasures of the alien philosophy from the common, low-grade people;
the crawling ants on the ground cannot attain the heights of wisdom of Hazrat Sulayman (The Prophet of God).

You should avoid democracy and become within the bond of the perfect man (the Holy Prophet (PBUH)) as two hundred donkeys cannot combine the brain of a man.”

There is always a possibility that a man of insight may be left behind on account of myriad of reasons to make it to a top-notch position, and get superseded by a majority of illiterate and coarse people. This is what happens in a democracy and it has been ingeniously depicted by Iqbal in the following verse:

اس راز کو اک مرد فرنگی نے کیا فاش
ہر چند کہ دانا اسے کھولا نہیں کرتے
جمہوریت اک طرزِ حکومت ہے کہ جس میں
بندوں کو گنا کرتے ہیں تولا نہیں کرتے

“A certain European revealed a secret, although the wise do not reveal the core of the matter.
Democracy is a certain form of government in which men are counted but not weighed.”

3. Playground of Conflicting Ambitions

A society morphs into a battleground for the covetous scoundrels to manoeuvre against each other for getting into the corridors of power dividing the entire nation into parties and factions. To Iqbal, such a system causes deep schisms in the Ummah on false and fragile lines. In his letter to Sir Francis Younghusband, published in The Civil and Military Gazette on 30th July 1931, he notes in the following lines:

“Democracy means rows. If anybody thinks that approach to democracy means sailing into a kind of lotus land, he cannot have read a word of history. The truth is exactly the opposite. Democracy lets loose all sorts of aspirations and grievances which were suppressed or unrealised under autocracy; it arouses hopes and ambitions often quite unpractical …”

It is noteworthy here that Iqbal’s views on democracy have been shared by a number of renowned Western scholars and critics. In fact, in the Europe of the post-WWI and WWII era, a strong reaction emerged against the sanctified tradition of democracy where many a principle of the latter was challenged. Mussolini and Hitler’s self-styled democracies installed with a popular vote reduced the Europe to ‘a savage continent of devastation’.

4. Instrument of Secularism

With nationalism, Iqbal discerned in the Western democracy the germs of secularism and atheism. Secularism entails a divorce between state and religion – something Iqbal could never digest. A system, wherein religion is reduced to an immaterial state of ‘private life, brings societal fabric on the verge of moral and social decadence; besides, bringing disgrace to the nation. Secularism, and as its consequence, democracy, are anathemas to Iqbal.

جلالِ پادشاہی ہو کہ جمہوری تماشا ہو
جدا ہو دیں سیاست سے تو رہ جاتی ہے چنگیزی

“Statecraft divorced from faith to reign of terror leads,
Though it be a monarch’s regime, or farce of a democracy.”

Falling in with the views of Laski that the problem with democracy is moral rather than technical in nature, Iqbal believes that its ideal is different from the realities of realpolitik. In fact, popular revolution is possible only through observance to the divine code embodied in Quran. Islamic democracy, which to Iqbal is “Spiritual democracy,” is more suited, as it stresses the need for loftier ethical values, instead of a cutthroat competition.

تو نے کیا دیکھا نہیں مغرب کا جمہوری نظام
چہرہ روشن، اندروں چنگیز سے تاریک تر!

Have you not observed the democratic system of the West?
With a brilliant exterior, its interior is darker than Genghis’s.

5. Old Wine in New Bottle

Iqbal believes that the cult of democracy has, in fact, old wanton Caesars and despots under its guise. At its best, it serves old wine in new bottles. It doesn’t cure; instead, it afflicts both body and soul. In place of offering a panacea to the sufferings of masses, it has plunged them into the appalling deprivation even further.

Allama Iqal writes:

“The monster of tyranny has masqueraded in the garb of democracy, but people are led to think that it is the goddess of freedom. The so-called law-making assemblies, rights and duties are only narcotics. Debates in parliaments and assemblies are nothing else but demands of capitalists for greater exploitation.”

Spiritual Democracy

Allah says in the Quran: “…and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when you have taken a decision, repose your trust in Allah.” (Aal-e-Imran: 159)

Allama Iqbal advocates for a spiritual democracy nurtured under the divine guidance. His is the democracy unhampered by the intrigues of the tumultuous party politics, and oriented towards nothing else but securing people’s good in this world and in the hereafter. Justice for everyone at the doorstep is its cardinal principle. Rule of law reigns supreme in it. Iqbal makes a case for a democracy the essence of which has been envisioned in the Quran. However, its form and structure may be tailored on the basis of Ijtihad in view of the requirements of the contemporary political realities.

From Armughan-e-Hijaz, it is discernable to eye that Iqbal has a fascination for Khilafah (caliphate) as an ideal form of government. Drawing inspiration from the epoch of Khilafat-e-Rashida, he holds, democracy was literally put in place in letter and spirit then. He firmly believes ‘democracy to be the most important aspect of Islam where there is no aristocracy and monarchy’.

Iqbal's Concept of Democracy

ـKhilafat is the ideal of the Muslims, any system tinged with monarchy is objectionable.
Monarchy is but deceit and treachery; while Khilafat is the protection of the will of God.

Moreover, the essence of Tauhid (Oneness of Allah Almighty) as lively ideal is freedom, equality and solidarity, and liberation from all sorts of fetters – something the modern democracy claims to secure. It brings the ruler and the ruled unconditionally on an equal footing. Allah alone is the repository of absolute sovereignty. Dismissing the parliaments as talking-shops which yield only follies, he proposes the constitution of an assembly of enlightened men versed in both modern scholarship and Islamic jurisprudence. The same should be fully equipped with the authority of exercising ‘Ijtihad’ to find a way out to the quandaries besetting the contemporary world. It can safely be construed from the discussion that Iqbal is for a limited franchise, favouring a government by the men of professional expertise and veritable integrity.

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