Eqbal Ahmad: Soldier, Scholar, Sage

When I dropped out of Karachi University (due to ‘political reasons’) in 1990 and joined journalism, I found myself 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 sure where I stood during a time when the Cold War was winding down 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, but for which I didn’t have the academic discipline and the intellectual tools to fully articulate and shape. For me, Eqbal became a guru. A guru I met just once. I bumped into him in 1993 in a hallway of the offices of Dawn newspaper. I was too much in awe of him to say much but was quietly thrilled to learn that he knew me, even though 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 and Mao (on the left) or, for that matter, in Abul Ala Maududi (on the right)?

My days as a rash student activist had seen me fervently trying to complement this recklessness with the writings and thoughts of classic and modern leftist and rightest ideologues. Today, in hindsight, I can conclude that whatever I was searching for could not (and cannot) be found in ideologues. Also (and again in hindsight) the search was for something which did not carry any restrictive ideological baggage.

This did not mean one was not to formulate opinions. But these opinions needed to be informed by the study of history and contemporary events in as objective a manner as possible and without the overbearing weight of any ideology. Yet, as scholars such as Eqbal Ahmad proved, theoretical knowledge or insights are best served by experiential knowledge, or knowledge gained through first-hand experiences.

I believe that Eqbal is still a relatively lesser-known intellectual in Pakistan compared to the country’s other intellectual giants and thinkers. But he remains to be perhaps the most relevant because whereas the thoughts of his many contemporaries are firmly rooted in the ebb and flow of Cold War politics and ideologies, Eqbal had the uncanny ability to transcend the tyranny of being stuck in the myopia of contemporary political trends and events.

He did this by understanding the present through a sharp dialectic process and then actually predict what certain events were promising (or warning) about the future. Eqbal was able to derive uncanny insights into political and social events and then make poignant predictions.

This was mainly because 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 Indian National Congress, but Eqbal became smitten by the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali 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 in 1947, made the journey to his new homeland on foot along with millions of other Muslim migrants. He 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 Eqbal was just 9. Eqbal saw his father bleed to death before he could be saved.

Eqbal Ahmad. He was just 9 when he witnessed the murder of his father.

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.

Decades later, about his experiences in Kashmir, Eqbal told his friend and biographer Professor Stuart Schaar: “Pashtun tribes burnt and pillaged Hindu villages, and killing people. I heard stories of similar excesses being committed (by Hindus) in the Muslim villages as well. There were the Muslim Leaguers who had brought me there. Ahmadis had also joined, primarily to proselytise. Having no interest in either, I joined the single Communist Party unit led by Latif Afghani …” [1]

An excellent student, in 1958, Eqbal 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 histories and politics and also learned Arabic. He was already fluent in Urdu, English, and Persian.

In 1961 he traveled to Paris from the US 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 Ph.D. thesis, he traveled to Tunis and then entered Algeria in 1962 where he fought alongside Algerian nationalists against the French, till Algeria became an independent republic. He went to Algeria with his notebooks and pen, but did not hesitate to become a guerrilla fighter for a cause he believed was just.

Ready for Princeton University, 1958.

Freedom fighter: Algeria 1962.

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. There he began to teach at a university where he became an early opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1969 he married Julie Diamond, a writer, and teacher from New York. With Julie, he had a daughter, Dohra.[2]

In 1971, he was arrested for his anti-war activism, tried, but eventually released. With six associates, he was accused of ‘planing to kidnap the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.’

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

Eqbal took great pride in the cultural history of his faith. In his articles and lectures, he often denounced Muslim rulers and the clergy who he believed were hell-bent on whitewashing/distorting this history to meet their avaricious goals.

Arrested, 1971.

Scholar, 1973.

Now armed with immaculate academic and experiential knowledge of Islam, the Middle East, and Africa, Eqbal traveled to Paris in 1978 to interview the Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been living there in exile. Even though Eqbal would go onto hail the Iranian Revolution of 1979, he predicted that the Shah’s autocracy in Iran will be replaced by the religious despotism of the clerics. He was proven right.

In 1980, in Beirut, he was the first to predict the exact outlines of a future Israeli invasion. According to his friend, the late scholar and author, Edward Said, Eqbal forecast the quick defeat of Yasser Arafat’s PLO forces by an invading Israeli army in South Lebanon. Two years later in 1982, this is exactly what happened. PLO forces had to move out of Lebanon.

In his 1999 obituary for Eqbal, Said added that Eqbal “was a relentless opponent of militarism, bureaucracy, ideological rigidity and what he called ‘the pathology of power’.”

In the early 1980s when the US openly began to arm Afghan insurgents against Soviet troops that had invaded Afghanistan, Eqbal was one the earliest academics to predict that ‘this will come back to haunt the US.’ [3] And it did, as it did all other parties in the conflict, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Waiting to interview Ayatollah Khomeini, 1978.

London, rallying the exiles.

Eqbal also warned the US against attacking Saddam in Iraq in 1990. He predicted that Saddam’s fall would usher in sectarian chaos in the region. 14 years later, he was proven right when the US finally toppled Saddam in 2004 and the region went up in flames.

Stuart Schaar wrote that just before his death and two years before the tragic 9/11 attacks, Eqbal actually anticipated such an event. He had interviewed Osama Bin Laden in Peshawar in 1986; and in the early 1990s, Eqbal wrote in an article 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. Again, he was one of the first observers to fear this. And years later, he was proven right again.

Sage.

Eqbal spent 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 for the project, Eqbal passed away in 1999. He was 65.

In 2004, during a gathering, the former editor of Dawn, the late Ahmad Ali Khan, who had invited Eqbal to write for Dawn, told me, Eqbal was “one of the clearest thinkers” he had ever come across. [4] He said that this clarity of thought was due to how Eqbal utilised his knowledge of history where he would know when history was likely to repeat itself.

But Ahmad Ali Khan also added that during his last years, Eqbal would often lament that many of his younger admirers refused to see him beyond the man who fought in Kashmir and Algeria and who was arrested for his anti-US views.

But some of Eqbal’s closest colleagues, such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, were always aware of the wealth of knowledge and experience that had added a powerful dimension of wisdom to Eqbal’s intellectuality and persona.

Edward Said remembered him as being “Immaculate in dress and expression, faultlessly kind, an unpretentious connoisseur of food and wine, he saw himself as a man of the 18th century, modern because of enlightenment and breadth of outlook … Humanity and secularism had no finer champion.”

References: 

[1] Head of a Gentle Clan (Indian Express, June 26, 2015)

[2] The Guardian, May 14, 1999.

[3] Stuart Schaar: Eqbal Ahmad – Critical Outsider and Witness in a Turbulent Age (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] Ahmad Ali Khan was Dawn’s longest serving editor. He was made editor in 1973 and retired from this post in 2004. He passed away in 2007.

4 Comments

Shamshad Shaukat July 12, 2020 - 7:49 pm

Brillinat compilation of his profile NFP sahab. You missed to mention that he also learned Hebrew to be able to converse with Israelis on a more equal terms. I believe his daughter is married to our own Parvaiz HoodBhoy. He was also hailed as mentor to Dr Naom Chomsky

Ahmed July 16, 2020 - 12:24 am

Dear Nadeem,

Who are these intellectual giants of Pakistan? I genuinely want to know.

Khan July 16, 2020 - 2:04 am

Theres no doubt that Eqbal Ahmed had a formidable intellect, but unfortunately like so many of his generation…he wasted much of his life engaged in far leftist delusions. He was deceived by both western rhetoric and communist propaganda. As much as I disagree with his thinking I can still respect his intellect…something I can’t say for Nadeem Paracha and the other third world communist apparatchiks who’ve recycled and re-branded themselves as “progressives” espousing the same failed ideals of the 1960s and 70s.

Mohammad Baig July 18, 2020 - 1:37 pm

Looks Iqbal has been changed now from a Marxist to a mullah and the rest time he would preach the Islam but will he talk about the Karbala” and responsible for it brutal games and why the Muawiya needed to have the law of necessity.

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