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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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Comments (40) Closed

Sania Ahmed May 03, 2015 01:13pm

Excellent article, NFP. Equal is certainly underrated in his own country. But what a mind and what a soul.

Ismail May 03, 2015 01:43pm

Dr. Eqbal was the last of the action intellectuals. What ever became of Al Biruni University or some such? Perhaps instead of fraternizing with Neanderthal pro-TTP types IK would do well to carry forward the funding for this effort. But then IK is not a thinking man.

Tariq Chundrigar May 03, 2015 01:43pm

I loved his quote, and often repeat it: 'everyone loves living in Islamabad, since it is so close to Pakistan'!

Dr Mohsin Kazmi May 03, 2015 02:05pm

Thank you NFP for introducing a hidden jem, you are in a position to turn Eqbal's dream into a reality by founding a social science institute in the motherland.

Khalid Pathan May 03, 2015 02:14pm

Dr Mubarak Ali has mentioned that Dr. Eqbal Ahmad tried very hard to establish a social sciences university "Khuldunya" and had even got the support from overseas sponsors but the secretary of education didn't allot a piece of land. I understand that this person was Capt Usman Ali Essani a pygmy as compared to an outstanding intellectual giant DR Eqbal Ahmad and this product of quota system made this project impossible. Had Khuldunya been established as a research institution in social sciences at that time it would have put Pakistan on the path of enlightenment, peace and progress.

Amena K May 03, 2015 02:49pm

Thank you for a wonderful insightful loving tribute to a truly incredible man. For many of us who (like you) were searching for a meaning and intellectual stimulation...he's gone but never forgotten.

conservative May 03, 2015 02:49pm

I met Dr Eqbal Ahmad probably in 1999 at Bhurban. At that time he predicted about taleban taking up arms against Pakistan and destablizing peace in the country. At that time no one including European ambassadors believed him. We are now facing this for over a decade.

I do not know what happened to his passion about establishing Khaldunia University.

KM May 03, 2015 03:37pm

@Sania Ahmed You must have meant Eq"b"al not Eq"u"al. Typo error I presume. Anyways.

Juliana Fitzwater May 03, 2015 04:10pm

I wasn't a DAWN reader in 1999. It would be great if some of his columns can be republished

nasiroski May 03, 2015 04:54pm

Pakistan is not a suitable place for such institution, one that requires a free thinking space, where any thought can be discussed without fear. I don't know if any Muslim country can provide such environment. So an ideal place would be either West or perhaps India may provide an ideal location. I heard about a similar idea sponsored by Agha Khan to be established in Canada, wonder if anybody know about it.

nasiroski May 03, 2015 05:01pm

Here is the link reference to my previous post

Syed Ali May 03, 2015 06:13pm

There has not been any intellectual of Eqbal stature in Pakistan.

Syed Nazim May 03, 2015 06:16pm

Malik Riyaz please fulfill Eqbal's dream of opening university as he described.

Napier Mole May 03, 2015 06:18pm

I endorse the idea expressed in the comments that NFP take up the cudgels and revive the effort to set up a social sciences university of stature in Pakistan. There are enough well meaning,mwell settled Pakistanis abroad who will like to help in such an endeavour and as a tribute to this great intellectual.

Mia May 03, 2015 06:20pm

@nasiroski There is no academic freedom in India either. People like Arundhati Roy are charged with sedition and threatened by Hindutvavadi goons, and books on Hinduism are banned and pulped.

Syed Nazim May 03, 2015 06:28pm

There was another professor Ghulam Abbas who predicted about Taliblization of Pakistan in 1967. Read his short story " Hotel Moen Judaro"( in collection of short stories by Ghulam Abbas).This particular short story has been removed from the books by publisher out of clergy pressure.

fida sayani USA May 03, 2015 06:39pm

@nasiroski You are absolutely correct. Such institution will be burnt to ground on its inauguration date.

Abdur R.Jalalzai May 03, 2015 08:41pm

Eqbal Ahmed,strangely, didn't author a book.However his daughter published a book which included most of his columns.You could only order this book from Pakistan and when I ordered one it got lost in the 'MAIL".Don't know if it is still available.

AKNasser May 03, 2015 08:51pm

@Ismail - Why ask Ik ? Ask Nawaz Sharif, Zardari, for that matter ask Malick Riaz, all of them are billionaires. Who funded Altaf Hussain unversity somewhere in Sindh ?

Abdur R.Jalalzai May 03, 2015 08:55pm

+ This is a PS to my earlier comments on Dr Eqbal Ahmed. Like Ed Said he was lator on black listed by the NY Times.If I am not mistaken he was the Father-in-Law of our most popular columnist Prof Hoodbhai.`

Sohaib May 03, 2015 08:56pm

Some sensible column, apart form the bizarre sarcastics

Expat (usa) May 03, 2015 08:57pm

@KM - common error, grammatically "q" is followed by "u" - having name Iqbal, living in US, many a times my name is misspelled 'Iqubal '

Expat (usa) May 03, 2015 09:05pm

Eqbal Ahmad had close association with late Edward Said ,Palestinian American literary theorist and public intellectual , professor at Columbia University, both Edward Said & Eqbal Ahmad spoke passionately about Palestine.

Naveeda May 03, 2015 09:16pm

@Juliana Fitzwater There is a website where you can find a number of his articles.

AdHawk May 03, 2015 09:19pm

The constitution of Pakistan imposes a lot of caveats on free expression. Fix that first so that freethinkers can get some breathing space without having to run against the law. The moral police we can handle.

nadeem ansari May 03, 2015 09:36pm

Eqbal Ahmed is equal to an Arab nationalist high in politics and low in economics. Searching for some Arab inspiration is a deviation. You are grappling with the same tendency on religious side. No one can say that it is a wholly empty idea. If only deserts connect people !

Rashid May 03, 2015 10:17pm

Thanks NFP to introducing Eqbal Ahmed to us.

Khadim Soomro May 03, 2015 11:41pm

Dr. Eqbal Ahmed was great Intellectual of Pakistan. His writings about Kashmir dispute are really candid view. He is practical Intellectual who even fought in battle grounds. Nice write up F. Paracha...

ENIGMA May 04, 2015 01:23am

It's heartening to read NFP's introspective piece about a towering intellectual, Eqbal Ahmed and his forceful impact upon socio-political issues not only in Pakistan but all over the world. Since he had spent some important years in Algeria involved in the French Resistance movement, one wonders if he had spent time with Albert Camus - another powerhouse activist not afraid to speak out and write against corruption and imperialism.

It would be awesome and greatly appreciated if NFP and could post video interviews of Eqbal Ahmed for those of us who were not around at the time when he was achieving his many trailblazing milestones.

sohail May 04, 2015 01:36am

Nice read. Actually i just came across this intellectual while reading an interview of Prof Khurshid yesterday. They both were college mates and had intellectual debates together.

Salman M May 04, 2015 01:57am

This article has brought back memories when I listened to one of Eqbal Ahmed's talks. I was a privilege to know and listen to him in the early nineties. Khaldonia was the institute he wanted to build in Islamabad to bring understanding and social education. Thanks NFP for the article on a great man.

M. Emad May 04, 2015 02:22am

What was the role of Eqbal Ahmed during 1971 Pakistan crisis ?

bzr76 May 04, 2015 03:50am


Camus was a gigantic fraud, full of empty platitudes but someone who always sided with his colonial homeland, France when it came to repression of the colonized from Madagascar to Vietnam, not to mention Algeria. He now serves as a moral lightpost to Israelis who wish to eject all Palestinians from Palestine:

GMC May 04, 2015 03:59am

@Abdur R.Jalalzai David Barsamian published conversations with Eqbal under the name of "Confronting Empire". His writings were also compiled and published. I remember Noam Chomsky was the guest speaker at this book's inauguration at Harvard. There were about 1500 people there to honor Eqbal. Sadly, I met only 3 others from Pakistan....What a powerhouse who commanded much respect in the world. As someone wrote, Pakistan was not the right place for such university. Abdus Salam tried to open International Center for Theoretical Physics in Pakistan and was given similar run around. Fortunately he lived long enough to fulfill his dream in the shape of ICTP in Trieste, Italy where he received overwhelming support. Eqbal would have been better off with such an endeavor somewhere else. What a loss, but the sad part is he is not the only one.

MONAYEM CHOWDHURY May 04, 2015 06:10am

We came to know of DR. IQBAL back in 1971 when he vehemently objected to the strategy of the Pakistan Government towards Bengalis now in Bangladesh. Although he became unpopular with the Pakistanis in USA then, his position eventually did become the reality.

Atif Khan May 04, 2015 09:04am

Always been in awe of Ahmed Eqbal. Was fearless to place himself in the center of every crisis. Named my son the same - Eqbal (with an "E")

Asad Ali May 04, 2015 09:18am

Like NFP , I also got introduced to Eqbal Ahmed and his vibrant vision via his articles in Daily Dawn. Till the time of his death I didn't knew about this giant of a personality whom I really got to know when I read collection of his articles and essays titled "Between Past and Future". It is sad that Eqbal died a discontent man pitying the state of affairs.

Arshad Hussain May 04, 2015 09:54am

I met Eqbal Ahmad only one time in 1997 by chance when he and I shared a ride from Rawalpindi to Islamabad. On the way, I asked him (a question which I ask to all great thinkers and historians whenever I get a chance to meet them), "Who was responsible for breakage of Pakistan in 1971?". He replied, "Ayub Khan". Later, I painted a grim picture of that time and asked, "It is written all over the wall. Why can't ruling elite read it?" He replied, "Ruling elite is incapable of reading.". He invited me to visit him whenever I wanted but alas, I couldn't see him again. He was a great gentle soul.

Nasir-ud-din Soomro May 04, 2015 10:06am

Its beautifully written,it is without life is tale of tragedy.

brr May 04, 2015 07:56pm

Whatever clairvoyant abilities Ahmed might have had, for NFP to claim he saw 9-11 happening is a bit overboard, a bit too much hype.