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The Idea Of Nationalism In The Writings Of Iqbal And Said Nursi: A Retrospective Study Of Their Perspectives

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The word ‘nation’ has been used since the 13th century and derives from the Latin ‘nasci’ meaning ‘to be born’. In the form of a nation, it referred to a group of people united by birth or birthplace. In its original sense, nation, therefore, implied a breed of people or a racial group but possessed no political significance.  It was not until the late 18th century that the term acquired political overtones, as individuals and groups started to be classified as ‘nationalists’. The term nationalism was first used in print in 1789 by the anti-Jacobin French Priest Augustin Barruel.   By the mid-19th century, Nationalism was widely recognized as a political doctrine and a major ingredient of the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848. The rising tide of nationalism redrew the map of Europe in the 19th century as the autocratic and multinational empires of Turkey, Austria, and Russia started to crumble in the face of liberal and nationalist pressures. By the end of 19th-century nationalism had become a truly popular movement, with the spread of flags, national anthems, patriotic poetry and literature, public ceremonies and national holidays. Each nation claimed its own unique or superior qualities where other nations were regarded as alien, untrustworthy, even menacing. This new climate of popular nationalism helped to fuel policies of colonial expansion that intensified dramatically in the 1870’s and 1880’s and by the end of the 19th century had brought most of the world’s population under European control. It also contributed to a mood of international suspicion and rivalry, which led to the world war in 1914.

Nationalism- Diverse Perspectives

Liberals and Conservatives have divergent views on Nationalism, the former subscribe to a civic view of the nation that places as much emphasis on political allegiance as on cultural unity whereas the latter regards the nation as primarily an organic entity bound together by a common ethnic identity and shared history. Socialists, on the other hand, tend to view the nation as an artificial division of humankind whose purpose is to disguise social injustice and prop up the established order.  Nationalism, for Marxists, is an example of ‘false consciousness, an illusion that serves to mystify and confuse the downtrodden and working classes preventing them from recognizing their genuine interests. The approach of Post-structuralists and Postmodernists to nationalism tends to suggest that at the heart of the nationalist project is a narrative or collection of narratives.

In the Indian subcontinent, the scholars like Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad responded to the theory of nationalism and its derivative terms nation and nation-state with an accommodative approach. Other scholars, however, such as Muhammad Iqbal and Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdoudi, challenged the theory from an Islamic perspective and contested all of its basic principles of the secular foundation.

Nationalism and Iqbal 

Iqbal’s political thought is deeply rooted in his broad and comprehensive Islamic conception of tawhid. Given the fact, his rejecting approach towards nationalism and secularism is based on his concept of tawhid. Therefore, his philosophy and political thought is very much contradictory to the ideology of nationalism, which according to him is rooted in secularism and materialism.Islam, for him, is a practical means to make the principle of unity a reality in humanity’s intellectual and emotional life, and tawhid plays a vital role in supplying the foundational principle of universal brotherhood.

Iqbal writes that according to Islamic law there is not any big distinction between the state and the Church. The state is not a combination of religious and secular authority, but it is a unit in which no such distinction exists. Iqbal unlike Hegel is not making a synthesis of “reason” and “spirit” in order to form a state but the state for him by itself is spiritual. He wrote: ‘The state according to Islam is only an effort to realize the spiritual in a human organization’.  Iqbal has asserted that Islam demands loyalty to God, not to thrones and since the ultimate spiritual basis of all life is God, loyalty to God virtually amounts to man’s loyalty to his own ideal nature.

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The Western notion of nationalism, unlike Iqbal, demands supreme loyalty to the nation-state. Iqbal was known to the fact that the nation-state that would emerge from the secular ideology of nationalism would clash with Islamic law and would become an “idol” to be obeyed fully and worshipped by the people.He, therefore, has castigated the hazardous effects of nationalism in Baang-i-Dara very vehemently.

“In Taza Khudaon Mein Bada Sub Se Watan Hai, Jo Pairhan Iss Ka Hai, Wo Mazhab Ka Kafan Hai”

“Country is the biggest among these new gods! What is its shirt is the shroud of Deen (Religion)” 

In Zarbkaleem, Iqbal says:

‘Qoum kya cheez hai qoumu ki imamat kya hai, Iss ko kya samjhe ye bechare do rak’at ke imaam’

‘What is a nation, or how to need it? What clue these leaders of prayers could have of that’.

Iqbal has traced the origin of nationalism to Machiavelli’s views and referred to him as: “the Florentine worshipper of Untruth” who blinded the eyes of the people and wrote a new code of guidance for rulers, thereby sowed according to the seeds of war and conflict.

The main objection to nationalism on the part of Iqbal is due to its secular foundation that separates religion from the nation-state or that reduces religion to insignificance in the political sphere, is based on the Qur’an, which describes Islam as the complete system of life.

Iqbal’s second objection to nationalism is concerned with the formation of nation-states on the basis of geographical, racial, linguistic, and such other differences.  

Iqbal while explaining the divisive and mischief-making characteristics of nationalism in Indian context pointed out that if nationalism was accepted in the subcontinent, Muslims would have two wrong ways before them:  “As a nation, Muslims can be other than what they are as a ‘millat’ and they would have to forget Islam as a complete way of life.

The Muslims according to Madani, should join hands with the Hindus, since both communities regardless of their religions, belong to one homeland and they should fight against the common enemy- the British’ and they should unite together to expel the oppressive and merciless force, the British imperialism, and shatter the chains of slavery.  Abul Kalam Azad, another well-known scholar who initially had rejected secularism and nationalism, later changed his goalpost and made an accommodative entry and advocated the idea of a united nationhood. He also joined the INC and was convinced that Muslims in an independent India would be fully protected. Maulana Maududi was the one who outrightly refused to do so and rejected nationalism on the grounds that it was antithetical to Islam. Like Madoodi, Iqbal also was of the view that replacing western democracy for western imperialism would not make much difference to the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. The opinion of Iqbal was not based on communalism; rather it was based on his perception of Islam as an all-pervasive social order.  It was mostly for this reason that Iqbal’spropagation for the proposal of the formation of a separate Muslim identity in 1930 was taken. He points out that ‘the inner cohesion’ of the Islamic Ummah does not lie in ethnic or geographic unity but in the political idea and the religious unity.

Nationalism in the perspectives of Said Nursi

Said Nursi understood nationhood akin to a body, the spirit of which is Islam and the intellect of which is the Quran and belief. Nursi during the first period of his life was aware of the absolute necessity of achieving Islamic unity. Many ideological approaches were explored with a view to halting the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire. The best known of these were Turkism, Ottomanism, and Pan-Islamic unity. Ottomanism had been the official ideology of the Tanzimat (constitutional reforms) period, but survived only briefly during the Second Constitutional Period; the ideas most widespread among intellectuals of that time were Turkism and pan-Islamic unity, with the latter subsumed under the general notion of Westernization. It was at this point of time that Nursi first made his voice heard on the issue of pan-Islamic unity, joining those of Namik Kemal, Tevfik Fikret, Hoka Tehsin Efendi, Ali Suavi, Mohammad Abduh and Jamal ud-din Afghani. All these were controversial figures in the Islamic world because of their activism or ideas. The acceptance of these thinkers on the part of Nursi did not extend beyond their ideas on pan-Islamic unity. ‘Although their ideas on various subjects may be thought to be extreme in one or the other, they had embraced the idea of Islamic unity wholeheartedly’. It seems that Nursi was following contemporary currents in order to secure Islamic unity. Said Nursi worked hard throughout his life on the need to prevent the fragmentation of the Muslim world. He propounds that ‘for the strongest ever bond of Albanian, Circassian, Arab, Turk, Kurd, and Laz, and their firmest nationhood is nothing but Islam’.  His belief that Islamic brotherhood was a key to the whole issue of Islamic resurgence was something that should be seen primarily as a divine command rather than a means to achieve political ends.  According to Nursi, one of the obstacles to Muslim unity was the penchant among peoples of the East for aping the nations of the West.  Nursi in various treatises reprimanded the Asian countries for their blind and inappropriate imitation of Europe and its institutions to the detriment of Muslim unity. He believed that the people of the East were becoming characterless. However, Nursi was in favour of Europe’s many democratic and humanistic institutions, including constitutionalism and republicanism. What he rejected was the unqualified adoption of western ideals of materialistic and exclusivist aggressive nationalism.

Nursi believed that there were two kinds of Nationalism- Negative and Positive. Negative Nationalism, according to him is inauspicious and deleterious, which is nourished by devouring others, persists through hostility to others, causes enmity and chaos and is fully aware of the havoc it wreaks. Positive Nationalism, on the other hand, arises from man’s inner need for social cohesion and leads to mutual assistance and solidarity. It bestows strength on those who espouse it and is a means for further strengthening of Islamic brotherhood. Nursi was a great preacher of positive nationalism and refutes the negative nationalism from the very onset. The latter which is ominous and harmful is fed by swallowing others and sustained through enmity against others. Consequently, such nationalism causes mutual antagonism and discord, which Quran and Prophet PBUH had prohibited.  Islam has forbidden the national (tribal) zealotry of the age of ignorance.

Nursi takes a dig at the pro-colonialist European officials and preachers of nationalism and see them as the conspirators against the unity of Islam. He says that Nationalism or ethnic differences have been unleashed in this century, particularly by devious European officials following the well-known principle of divide and rule. The target of this insidious assault is the Muslim world.  Nursi elaborates the ill effects of negative nationalism in a very precise way. He argues that earlier outbreaks of negative nationalism have harmed Islamic unity and the Muslim world. For example, the Umayyad’s preferred Arabs in their government and so both offended other [non-Arab] Muslims and suffered many misfortunes. European nations became excessively nationalistic during the 20th century, which ignited the long-standing ominous French-German enmity and caused the vastly destructive First World War.

Nursi while regarding negative nationalism as a form of societal egoism; elaborates the calamitous outcomes of it and describes that the national or tribal conflict between Muslim communities is so great a misfortune that it is like getting bitten by a snake to avoid a mosquito. At a time when the ‘European powers resemble huge dragons just waiting to attack us to satisfy their insatiable greed, our national integrity is harmed by encouraging hostility and taking sides, because of national differences, against our citizens in the eastern cities and the co-religionists among our southern neighbours’.  Nursi, while expressing the horrible repercussions of negative nationalism calls to avoid the acrimony towards the Arab Nations by alarming that there is no reason for enmity towards our southern coreligionists, from where the Qur’an’s light and Islam’s radiance came to us, for such national conflicts only benefit Europe. And generally, such feelings may cause enmity towards the Quran and Islam, which means treachery to all Muslims’ worldly and other-worldly lives. To destroy these two worlds’ cornerstones under the pretext of serving social life through nationalism or patriotism is stupidity.

The second type of nationalism according to Said Nursi is the positive type of nationalism, which ‘arises from the intrinsic requirements of social life, produces a beneficial strength; and is a means for further strengthening Islamic brotherhood.’ Moreover, from Said Nursi’s viewpoint, the sentiments of positive nationalism must serve and protect Islam, it should be its armour and citadel; it must not take the place of it.  Positive nationalism bestows strength on those who espouse it and is a means for further strengthening Islamic unity. While writing about positive nationalism, Nursi points out that, to love fellow members of one’s group is necessary if brotherhood and unity are to be preserved, and remains positive so long as superiority over others is not claimed. Nursi, at every opportunity, tries to show how harmful racism and negative nationalism can be. He strove to convince his immediate audience that since time immemorial, their country had been witness to numerous migrations and demographic upheavals, with many outsiders drawn to settle there. Nursi argued that considering a particular race to be superior or giving priority to race over religion is an artificial conception that destroys harmony in society, results in inequity and injustice. Thus to construct movements and ideologies on the basis of race was not only meaningless but injurious to the health of society and extremely harmful to mankind.

For him generally, the nationalism of any kind was a secular political phenomenon which would break the Islamic bonds between Muslims. With this stance, contrary to most Western-educated intellectuals of his time and like Abul Ala Mawdoodi and Allama Iqbal, Nursi supported the idea of pan-Islamic unity, rather than western notions of nationalism.

The main contribution of Said Nursi to the subject wash is the separation of nationalistic sentiments into two types or levels-positive and negative.He observed that the bond between the masses in the Western political system was based on racialism or negative type of nationalism, ideology, which, instead of promoting equality and justice, breeds enmity and wars in a society. He, therefore, considered it as an extremely harmful idea for the entire mankind, leading it to annihilation. Said Nursi lived in an age when materialism was at its peak and many crazed after communism and the world was in great crisis. In that critical period, he pointed people to the source of belief and inculcated in them a strong hope for a collective restoration of mankind from the bondage of crude materialism. At a time when science and philosophy were used to mislead young generations into atheism and nihilism, and at a time when nationalism was the rallying cry to expand ethnic, civil and nationalist wars, Nursi strove for the overall revival of a whole people, breathing into their minds and spirits whatever was taught in the institutions of both modern and traditional education and of spiritual training.


Nationalism, which is regarded as one of the oldest and most powerful ideologies had a great impact on humanity for the past few centuries. On the one hand, many writers, philosophers and researchers argued that millions of people have been killed, resources plundered, and humanity has been shattered in the name of nationalism. On the other hand, some would argue that nationalism was a binding ideology which gave stability to the territorial fragmented fiefdoms and made them into stable nation-states welded by the energized sentiments of nationalism. Nationalism, which emerged and spread in the West with jingoistic characteristics, also penetrated the Muslim Ummah. It divided them into various ethnic, linguistic, political or geographical lines. These considerations became the basis of nationalism. Hence the unity of Ummah which had a single determinant- faith (Islam)- became insignificant. The arbitrary division of Muslim countries in more than two dozen nations is a stark example of this venomous creed.Iqbal and Nursi were pained to witness the disunity among Muslims and their attraction to Western secular ways of life. Similarly, Said Nursi’s ideas have been axiomatic throughout. Said Nursi had been more than prescient in understanding the menacing impact of violent negative ‘nationalism’ that actually proved the main cause for disastrous wars fought in the twentieth century. When the erstwhile seat of Caliphate was occupied by apologetic secular Muslim leaders immersed in European secularism, Nursi strove to reorganize the Ummah on Islamic lines through peaceful means. Working against all odds, Nursi endeavoured that negative nationalism characterized by narrow national prejudices do not take roots in the Turkish society post-dissolution of the Caliphate, and therefore contributed tremendously in the inculcation of a political culture rooted in Islamic tradition. In the times of post-nationalism and globalization world is increasingly looking towards inclusive, pacifist and accommodative approaches to address the pressing issues of global peace and security, environment protection and fairness. In these circumstances, the ideas of Mohammad Iqbal and Said Nursi become not only relevant but necessary as well. 

(Note: This was a paper presented in India International Islamic Academic Conference, 2016 and later published in The Companion print)


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