By Kabir Babar
22 May 2015
“The function of knowledge, after all, should be to comprehend reality in order to change it.” Thus spoke Eqbal Ahmad – revolutionary, activist, political scientist, teacher, and one of the most outstanding thinkers ever to originate from the Subcontinent. His analyses of the major political events and trends of the 20th century were noted for their astuteness and predictive power. Some of the most prominent intellectuals of the past century – Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn, to name just three – held him in the highest regard. Yet he is not as well known in his home country as he should be. This may be partly due to the fact that he spent much of his life abroad and did not routinely engage in politics in Pakistan. It may also be related to the fact that his writings are difficult to procure in Pakistan. Whatever the reasons, a new biography of the man by friend and colleague Stuart Schaar, a retired American professor of North African and Middle Eastern history, goes some way to explaining Ahmad’s life and legacy.
Violence and politics shaped Ahmad’s early years in pre-Partition Bihar. As a boy he was subjected to the trauma of witnessing his father being murdered because of the latter’s support for poor peasants in their land disputes with wealthy landowners. Soon he was forced to move into the house of his older brother, where his sister-in-law’s mother would hang him up with ropes for hours in order to exorcise the evil spirits that she thought possessed him. Later came the ordeal of Partition, during which Ahmad walked part of the way to Pakistan while toting a gun to fend off attackers. In school he volunteered to defend Kashmir, disappearing into the north of the country without telling anyone and ending up getting shot during an exchange between rival Pathans. And all of this while still just a teenager.
His student years were no less eventful. At Forman Christian College in Lahore, he organised a few of his classmates to travel to Kalabar, a backward area near the North-West Frontier, in order to set up a school for the children there. The Nawab of Kalabagh – an Oxford graduate – hearing about the arrival of these well-meaning students, invited them to tea at his residence, where he told them, “We don’t want education here. [...] If you don’t leave, you’ll be skinned alive.” Since “Eqbal was an idealist, but also a realist”, notes Schaar, the budding activist returned to Lahore. After graduating from FCC he travelled to the United States, where as a student at Princeton University he tried to unionise the kitchen and dining room staff.
These anecdotes regarding Ahmad’s youth allow us to see how, right from the beginning, he was involving himself in political and social activism and learning about political processes from direct observation and participation. As the book progresses, we are given numerous personal accounts of Eqbal’s struggle for justice for oppressed peoples of the world, whether they were in Algeria, Palestine, Bangladesh, or Vietnam. His travels led to engagements and encounters with some of the most prominent political figures of the past century, ranging from his friend Edward Said to leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Osama Bin Laden. By the end of the book, one comes away with the impression of an active, empathetic, and intelligent individual who never hesitated to speak truth to power and who, as a result, was often ostracized for it. The subtitle of this book is well-chosen: because he was ideologically difficult to pigeonhole and the scope of his activities and intellect was global, Eqbal Ahmad was an outsider everywhere.
“There is an intellectual indolence here which combines with an excess of interest in political intrigues and [...] gossip”
In this respect it is worthwhile to compare for a moment the life and fate of Ahmad with another Pakistani intellectual of international repute: Dr Abdus Salam. Both men spent a great deal of their lives abroad in institutions and environments that fostered their growth. Both were accorded respect and sought for advice by various governments around the world. Both of them tried at various points in their lives to return to Pakistan in order to advance education in their home country – and were spurned by the government in their attempts to solicit aid. And both were exiles; the nature of each man’s exile was different, but the end result for both was a certain intellectual isolation from their countrymen. Ahmad spent the final years of his life in Pakistan and found the place to be boring, writing to his daughter that, “there is an intellectual indolence here which combines with an excess of interest in political intrigues and [...] gossip.”
This book is not without its flaws. A drawback of the anecdotal style in which it is written is that Ahmad’s life is presented with neither chronological nor thematic consistency. Comprehensive indices would make this a minor irritant, but since the index here is rather incomplete, reviewing material on any particular event or subject necessitates paging through the entire book.
And while the book is revealing, it is by no means a definitive biography, for there are numerous aspects of Eqbal Ahmad’s life that are either ignored or glossed over in this work. For instance, no mention is made of Ahmad’s encounters with Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. Also, while much is made of the impact that Ahmad’s exposure as a boy to Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had on his thought, there is no reference to Syed Abul Ala Maududi, to whom Eqbal acknowledged owing an intellectual debt. Ahmad is said to have directly participated in the Algerian revolution, but few details are provided. In his foreword to a collection of Ahmad’s essays, physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy states that, during successive martial law governments in Pakistan, there were warrants of arrest and death sentences put out on Ahmad. None of this is mentioned in Schaar’s book.
In addition to these omissions, there are conflicts between what Schaar reports and what can be found in other sources. For example, Schaar writes that there is no definitive evidence as to whether or not Ahmad ever met Frantz Fanon. But Noam Chomsky, in an article titled “Thoughts of a Secular Sufi”, states that the two worked closely together. What is more, Ahmad himself, in interviews with David Barsamian for the book Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire, recounts working with Fanon for several months. Since Schaar is familiar with these sources (he cites them both), his position on this issue is puzzling.
It may be that the omissions in the book reflect Schaar simply wishing to avoid repeating what has been written about Ahmad before and provide fresh material. In this he has succeeded: because Schaar knew him well, he had access to personal correspondence, archival material, and information provided by the friends and family of Ahmad not commonly available or found in any other source. The result is a unique book to which we can apply Eqbal Ahmad’s own words in his Introduction for a book of interviews with Edward Said: “[...] this book reveals more than any previous work the person behind the name. Most of Edward Said’s writings are scholarly and analytical. The mind is all there but not the man. [...] These interviews are unique for the connections they uncover between the man and his ideas.” Schaar has done a service in providing an introductory overview of Eqbal Ahmad’s life and thought, unveiling the man’s humanity, frustrations, foibles, brilliance, and even his culinary talents (an appendix provides a recipe for a “Chicken Tikka Masala Marinade”).
Thus, despite its limitations, this book provides insightful material even to those who have previously read something of Ahmad. And one hopes that the appearance of this book will revive interest in a man who is in danger of being forgotten, but whose style of clinical, yet morally grounded, analysis is sorely required. Two previous books published by OUP Pakistan compiling the speeches and writings of Ahmad [Between Past and Future – Selected Essays on South Asia (2004) and The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (2006)] are long out of print. An Urdu translation of some of his essays as published by Mashal Books is similarly unavailable. Fortunately, Mashal Books have made freely available online their Urdu translations, and scattered around the Web are several other useful resources. Few people could hope to match Eqbal Ahmad’s knowledge and experience, but to study him is to be exposed to the rare phenomenon of academic rigour coupled to a will to act. Of him Noam Chomsky wrote, “Ahmad was an inspiring figure, in his work and his life. There could hardly be a better model to try to follow, as best we can.”
Kabir Babar is an antiquarian and bibliophile who discusses books at www.facebook.com/KabirBabarSPQR