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Smokers’ Corner: Eqbal Ahmed: the astute alarmist

Updated May 03, 2015
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

When I dropped out of the Karachi University (due to ‘political reasons’) in 1990 and joined journalism, I found myself hanging in an ideological limbo.

Having styled myself as a ‘Marxist’ at college in the mid-1980s, by the decade’s end I wasn’t quite so sure where I stood during a time when the Cold War was winding up and the Soviet Union had begun to collapse.

This is when I stumbled upon the columns of Eqbal Ahmed. Almost immediately I found myself relating to his every word. Thanks to him, I believe, I finally discovered something that was always in me; something for which I didn’t have the academic discipline and intellectual tools to fully articulate and shape.

For me, Eqbal became an intellectual guru. A guru I actually met just once. I bumped into him in 1993 in a hallway of the offices of the Dawn newspaper. I was too much in awe of him to say much, but was quietly thrilled to learn that he had heard of me, despite the fact that I was still in my early 20s and had been in journalism for a mere three years.

So what did I find in Eqbal that I couldn’t in Marx, Mao, Faiz and Hamza Alvi (on the left) and in men like Abul Ala Maududi (on the right)?

My days as a reckless student activist had seen me fervently trying to complement this recklessness with the writings and thoughts of classical and modern leftist and rightest ideologues. In hindsight I now believe I was always searching for some sort of a progressive middle ground.

I was surprised that, even though Eqbal Ahmed had been a well-known intellectual and writer ever since the early 1960s, I somehow didn’t pay a lot of attention to him till 1990.


Eqbal took great pride in the cultural history of his faith and in his writings and lectures he often denounced Muslim rulers and the clergy who he believed were hell-bent on whitewashing this history to meet their myopic and avaricious ends.


But I believe that he is still a relatively lesser known intellectual entity in Pakistan compared to the country’s other intellectual giants and political thinkers.

Nevertheless, he remains to be perhaps the most relevant because whereas the thoughts of his above-mentioned contemporaries are firmly rooted in the ebb and flows of Cold War politics and ideologies, Eqbal had the uncanny ability to transcendent the tyranny of being grounded (and thus stuck) in the myopia of contemporary political trends and events.

He did this by understanding the present with the help of historical dialecticism (that he was a master of), and then actually predict what certain current events were promising (or warning) about the future.

In a recent book on Eqbal by his friend Stuart Schaar, the author suggests that Eqbal was able to derive uncanny insights into political and social events and then make poignant predictions. Schaar suggests that this was mainly due to the fact that these insights were not only being shaped by Eqbal’s immaculate grasp of political histories and philosophies, but also by his first-hand experiences as an activist.

The latter clearly sets Eqbal apart. Born into an aristocratic Muslim family in Bihar, Eqbal migrated to Pakistan with his elder brother in 1947. His parents were supporters of the Congress party, but Eqbal became smitten by Jinnah who remained to hold a special place in Eqbal’s thoughts throughout his life.

Eqbal (who was just 14 when Pakistan emerged as a separate South Asian country), made most of his journey to his new homeland on foot along with millions of other Muslim migrants.

Eqbal often spoke about the violence that he witnessed during this mass migration. It reminded him of the brutal murder of his father by his opponents in Bihar. His father was stabbed to death in front of Eqbal when he was just nine.

In Pakistan Eqbal lived with his elder brother and joined college. In 1948, he volunteered to join a battalion of Muslim League youth who had come to his college to recruit men to fight in Pakistan’s first war in Kashmir. He was wounded in action.

In 1958, he won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Princeton University in the United States. Here he immersed himself in the study of Middle Eastern and African history and politics and also learned Arabic. He was already fluent in Urdu, English and Persian.

In 1961, he travelled to Paris where he learned French and came into contact with Algerian nationalists who were fighting a war of liberation against the French in Algeria.

For his PhD thesis he travelled to Tunis and then entered Algeria in 1962 where he fought side by side with Algerian nationalists till the French were driven out.

By now Eqbal had also begun to study and master Islamic history. He was invited to join the first independent government in Algeria but he declined and returned to the US.

He began to teach at a university in Massachusetts where he became an early opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1971, he was arrested for his anti-war activism, tried and eventually released.

He had already begun to describe himself as a progressive Muslim and vehemently opposed ‘Soviet Communism’ and ‘American imperialism.’ He was also extremely critical of dictatorships in Third World countries and of Arab Sheikhdoms in the Middle East. He also became a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Eqbal took great pride in the cultural history of his faith and in his writings and lectures he often denounced Muslim rulers and the clergy who he believed were hell-bent on whitewashing this history to meet their myopic and avaricious ends.

Now well armed with immaculate academic and experiential knowledge of Islam, the Middle East and Africa, Eqbal travelled to Paris in 1978 to interview Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been living there in exile.

Though Eqbal hailed the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he predicted that the Shah’s pro-West autocracy in Iran will be replaced by the religious despotism of the clerics. He was proven right.

In the early 1980s when the US openly began to arm Afghan insurgents against Soviet troops that had invaded Afghanistan, Eqbal predicted that ‘this will come back to haunt the US.’ And it did as it did other parties in the conflict, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Eqbal once again warned the US against attacking Saddam in Iraq in 1990. He predicted that Saddam’s fall would usher in sectarian chaos in the region. Fourteen years later, he was once again proven right when the US finally toppled Saddam in 2004 and the region went up in flames.

Schaar suggests that Eqbal had also predicted tragic events like 9/11. Eqbal had interviewed Osama Bin Laden in Peshawar in 1986 and in the early 1990s suggested that the same ideology that had been drummed into men like Osama by the Americans and the Pakistanis in the 1980s, would spiral out of control and turn the indoctrinated into adversaries.

Eqbal spend the last decade of his life in Pakistan writing a weekly column for Dawn. He continued to advocate social democracy in Muslim countries as an antidote to extremism, poverty and injustice.

His greatest ambition was to establish a large social sciences university in Pakistan that could herald in a progressive and enlightened Muslim Renaissance. Unable to raise the $30 million that was required to build such a project, Eqbal succumbed to cancer in 1999. He was 65.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 3rd, 2015

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