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Emancipation and Unity: Comparing Iqbal and Fanon

Abbreviations Used

TWOTE:  The Wretched of The Earth (1961), by Frantz Fanon

TTAR: Toward The African Revolution (1964), by Frantz Fanon

Lx, RORTI: Lecture number, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1934), by Muhammad Iqbal

Muhammad Iqbal and Frantz Fanon remain to this day two of the leading thinkers from former colonies. Bound by a common concern for oppressed humanity, they espouse, in my opinion, two quite different approaches to emancipation/decolonisation of the self for the ‘the outcasts’ of the world. Their respective conceptions of emancipation are rooted in their differing ideas on the role of material conditions in the development of the self and, by extension, the collective. Fanon and Iqbal’s ideas on individual emancipation also inform their almost life-long striving for Third World Unity  (African Unity in case of Fanon and Muslim Unity for Iqbal). In the following sections I will be looking at the approach these two eminent thinkers take towards decolonisation/emancipation of the self and Third World Unity while trying to understand the conceptual bases of their differences. However, a holistic analysis of Iqbal and Fanon’s ideas must start with a brief account of the respective contexts in which they were operating.

Situating Iqbal and Fanon

Muhammad Iqbal was born in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Punjab province of British India. He studied at Cambridge and Heidelberg where he was particularly influenced by Enlightenment philosophers such as Hegel and Neitzsche while also closely studying contemporary idealists such as Bergson (Bary, 1958). Iqbal was also well-versed in both the traditionalist (Ashari’te) and mystical (Sufi) traditions of Islamic thought. The influence of these differing strands of thought (Enlightenment rationality, Islamic traditionalist and Sufi tasawwuf) can be clearly discerned in Iqbal’s incessant struggle to harmonise and renew Islamic jurisprudence and the Muslim polity in light of contemporary conditions. Moreover, almost all of his productive work (both prose and poetry) was done in an era when Muslim communities from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent were suffering under the yoke of European colonialism and witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the twentieth century. Concomitantly, it has to be kept in mind that Iqbal’s seminal work The Reconstruction of Religious Though in Islam (a set of lectures given in 1928 and published in 1930), was produced in an era where the antagonistic imperialisms of the advanced capitalist nations had already produced the destructiveness of the First World War and, with the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, seemed well on its way towards the Second.

Frantz Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique in 1925 and was influenced early on by the founder of Negritude movement Aime Cesaire (Hopkinson, 2000). Although later on he did come to disagree with Cesaire, Fanon still campaigned for him in a post-World War II election. During the War, Fanon fought with French forces against fascism but was shocked by his encounter of racism in mainland France. After studying psychiatry in Lyon, where he was involved with Trotskyite circles and published his first book, the semi-autobiographical Black Skin, White Masks, he got posted to a psychiatric hospital in Algeria in 1953. Here he secretly helped the FLN guerilla force once the Algerian War of Independence against French colonialism began in 1954.

Fanon eventually resigned from his position in 1956 after which he was expelled to Tunisia and from where he edited the FLN organ El Moudjahidon almost up to his early death in December 1961 due to leukemia, just three months before Algeria achieved independence. While in Tunisia, he published A Dying Colonialism (1959), a study of the Algerian revolution, and his most famous work on colonial violence and revolutionary warfare The Wretched of the Earth (1962). Fanon’s training in Marxist political economy and psychiatry and his practical experience of treating victims of colonial violence are threads which can be clearly discerned in his writings.

The Emancipation of the Self: Between Ego and National Consciousness

The concept of Khudi (variously translated as ‘self’ and ‘ego’) is a constant current underpinning Iqbal’s thought. For Iqbal serial time is enmeshed in and part of a transcendent Reality, an eternal Time ‘which is absolutely free from the quality of passage’ (Hassan, 1984). The serial nature of time creates difficulty in understanding the essential being of God and thus, Iqbal uses an almost Aristotelian concept of God as the Unmoved Mover from which all being (and serial time) emanates and strives towards. This transcendental reality, the Unmoved Mover, is what is translated in the concrete condition of the world as the Islamic concept of Tauhid (Unity of God) and forms the basis for the unity of all existence.

Due to the alienating effects of a ‘ruthless egoism’, man is ‘entirely cut off from the unplumbed depths of his own being’ (L1, RORTI). This alienation, according to Iqbal, is produced due to ‘the mistaken separation of the spiritual and temporal which has influenced European religious and political thought’. This artificial separation has produced a civilisation where man is looked upon as a ‘thing to be exploited and not as a personality to be developed [italics in original]’ (ed. Vahid, 1992). For man to escape this alienation and become truly liberated he ‘must undergo a complete transformation of his inner being’. It is this inner being, and man’s (re)discovery of his transcendental ‘self’ from the ruins of materialist modernity, that Iqbal terms Khudi.

The discovery of man’s Khudi, his journey towards becoming a Mard-e-Momin (‘the perfect man’) proceeds through three stages of (what is almost exclusively) an individual endeavour (L7, RORTI). The three stages (‘Faith’, ‘Thought’ and ‘Discovery’) correspond to definite modes of action and critical reflection in a seeker’s life. In the first period, a person follows religion as ‘a form of discipline’ .i.e. an emphasis on rituals and active performance of religious edicts. The second stage is one where a rational understanding of religion is attempted through critical reflection on the ultimate source of authority. This stage represents an attempt to reconcile one’s faith in religious tradition with the material reality of the world (characterised by serial time) and a, theoretically, transcendental God-Being. The last stage is where man ultimately finds communion with the ‘Ultimate Reality’. This stage is where man actually comes into his own being and becomes the Divine Viceregent on Earth. Man moves through these stages through cultivation of Love and a ‘transparency of the heart’ which ‘is continued till the heart mirrors the self that leads the person to see God’.

While Iqbal’s conception of the three stages towards the discovery of the ‘self’ might be mistaken for a Sufi- almost Gnostic-inspired communion with a transcendent Reality, he decries the inaction of traditional Sufis as ‘life-denying’ and ‘fact-avoiding’. For Iqbal, ‘in the experience (of achieving Khudi) itself there is no mystery. Nor there is anything emotional in it.’ He decries mysticism for divorcing itself from the concrete realities of the world and declares empirical science as an indispensable stage in the development of the ‘self’ (M Iqbal, Crescent 1925). Scientific study should only be a stepping stone for ‘moulding the stimuli to ideal ends and purposes’. Critical action while remaining rooted in the material conditions of the world is ‘the highest form of contemplation’.

For Fanon, in contrast to Iqbal, emancipation is deeply rooted in the material conditions of a colonised self. Like Iqbal, Fanon’s self too is bifurcated due to its position as a colonial subject (in contrast to Iqbal, whose ideal ‘self’ is divided between the material and spiritual, the sacred and the profane). However, Fanon’s prescription for emancipation is based less on an individual’s striving and more on a collective process of decolonisation. In a similar vein to Iqbal, Fanon also outlines three stages to emancipation (“On National Culture”, TWOTE). The first of these stages is one of assimilation whereby the colonised subject (in Fanon’s case, the native intellectual) tries to mould himself in the image of the European coloniser. However, the native despite his best efforts at self ‘deracialisation’ is shocked by the racism he encounters and the failure he faces in acceptance among the masters (“Racism and Culture”, TTAR).

Face to face with this stark reality of in-admission, the native intellectual turns back and tries to immerse himself in (what he imagines to be) his ‘native culture’. He clings on to whatever ossified traditions or cults that are deemed to be ‘national culture’ in a bid for anchorage after his disillusionment. In the absence of native heroes (due to the colonialists’ domination of historiography), the native intellecutual  sets a ‘high value on the customs, traditions and the appearances of his own people’ (p. 178, TWOTE). Fanon terms this stage ‘a banal search for exoticism’ as the native intellectual has still not realised the nefarious ways in which colonialism has worked to denigrate the native culture. Colonialism’s onslaught of racism and denigration of national culture, as a means for producing a discourse which justifies its material domination, has resulted in an ossification of cultural expression among the colonised (p. 190). The material domination and exploitation of the natives results in their hitherto organically developing culture being ‘thrown back to the laws of inertia’. This results in an ossification of tradition which becomes ‘more and more shrivelled up, inert and empty’ (p. 191). The native ‘culture’, our striving intellectual discovers, is nothing more than the solidified shell of a once vibrant culture now incorporated by colonial hegemony and thrown back at the locals as evidence of their own immutability and, by extension, inferiority (in comparison to the European ‘civilisation’).

A dialectical synthesis of the stages of (attempted) assimilation and ‘nativisation’ then takes place, whereby the native intellectual throws himself into the thick of the anti-colonial struggle. It is now that the native intellectual who had hitherto attempted to ‘lose himself in the people’, ‘will on the contrary shake the people’ (p. 179). In this stage the native intellectual realises that emancipation (and national culture) is not something out there to be looked for in the dark dredges of the past but a process which is ‘perpetually in motion’ and whereby the colonised awaken to their agency and become actively involved in the struggle against colonialialism. Thus, the recipe for self-emancipation is to join the people ‘in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving shape to’ (p. 182). The forging of a national culture and, by extension, a decolonisation/emancipation of the self can only ‘take its place at the very heart of the struggle for freedom which these countries are carrying on’ (p. 188).

Thus, for Fanon, the struggle of the ‘self’ is inevitably tied to the struggle of the ‘collective’. Moreover, for Fanon, both space and time are socially produced (i.e. shaped by contemporary material conditions) and, unlike Iqbal, he does not have any conception of a transcendent Reality tied to a Timeless Self. Thus, while Iqbal’s conception of self is minimally rooted to material conditions and strives for the transcendent, Fanon’s ‘self is an ensemble of social relations which are always located in specific contexts’ (Hopkinson, 2000). Moreover, due to his emphasis on materiality and a very dialectical conception of the relation of the individual to the community, emancipation for Fanon is deeply tied to an active anti-colonial struggle. In contrast, the major thrust of Iqbal’s thought seems to be on the purification and ‘transparency’ of the individual with minimal engagement of the ‘Self’ with the reality of British colonialism in India. His emphasis on the individual as a means for producing a collective emancipation is reflected in the following quote, which also leads us nicely to the discussion on two thinkers’ conception of nationalism and Third World Unity:

‘The powerful man creates environment; the feeble have to adjust themselves to it. Self-control in individuals builds families; in communities it builds empires.’

(New Era, 7th April 1917 Lucknow)

Third World Unity: Between Tauhid and the United States of Africa

While Iqbal’s conception of nationalism is shaped primarily by his emphasis on Tauhid and insistence that ‘religion is not a departmental affair’ (in an attack on the separation of state and religion), a certain revulsion to territorial nationalism may be due to the historical context he was operating in. As seen in the last section, Iqbal decried the false dualism created by ‘European’ rationality between the spiritual and temporal domains. For Iqbal, both the secular and religious have roots in the same eternal Time/transcendental Reality (‘all that is secular is sacred in the roots of its being’) and thus, the state should be ‘an effort to realise the spiritual in a human organisation’ i.e. ‘an endeavour to transform these ideal principles into space-time forces’ (L6, RORTI).

For Iqbal, the nationalist theory of state suggests a binary (between the sacred and the profane) ‘which does not exist in Islam’. While Iqbal admires the efforts of newly emerging intellectuals aiming to liberalise Islamic jurisprudence, he proposed the concept of Tawhid as an ‘anchor’ to prevent liberalism’s ‘tendency to act as a force of disintegration’. Iqbal’s constant evocation of, and warnings against, the ‘race-idea’ and ‘national egoism’ can be seen as the product of an era where a particularly toxic and chauvinistic nationalism (in the form of fascism) was unleashing havoc upon the people of Europe and pushing them closer and closer to another World War. It is in this context, that he implores Muslim intellectuals to, in their zeal for reform and liberalisation, not lose sight of the ‘broad human outlook which Muslim people have imbibed from their religion’.

However, in keeping with his exaltations of the self, he also concedes that ‘for the present, every Muslim nation must sink into her own deeper self… until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics.’ Therefore, Iqbal’s conception of nationalism is one where Muslim nations, each an organic expression of the unity of sacred and secular expressed in Iqbal’s concept of Khudi, come together through a ‘unifying bond of a common spiritual bond’ (Tauhid) into a ‘League of Nations which recognises artificial boundaries and racial distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restricting the social horizon of its members.’

Fanon, on the other hand, looks at the problem of African unity through an intersectional lens of class and state formation. For Fanon, the biggest obstacle towards the achievement of a ‘United States of Africa’ is the ‘middle-class chauvinistic national phase with its procession of wars and death-tolls’ (“African Unity”, TWTAR). In the famous chapter on ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’, Fanon lambasts the national middle class/bourgeoisie which takes over the newly independent state as a ‘managerial’, ‘intermediary class’ which fails to revolutionise the conditions of production. As a result, uneven development (between the towns and the countryside) persists and neocolonial relationships of capitalist dependency are perpetuated. In setting up ‘its country as the brothel of Europe’ (!!), the bourgeoisie fails to deliver upon the promises of the anti-colonial struggle and its token nationalisation of industries fails to hand over control to the people and instead turns into an extractive, state capitalism. As the demands (and misery) from below increase and the state machinery increasingly becomes a one-party dictatorship, the national middle class, instead of striving for a unity with other decolonised countries and in a bid to protect its own narrow interests, falls back into ‘nationalistic chauvinism’ and ‘a tribal dictatorship’.

For Fanon, the solution lies in once again reverting ‘back to the Marxist formula’ whereby the ‘bourgeoisie phase’ is skipped altogether. He declares unequivocally that ‘African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people, that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie’. Throughout his articles and books, Fanon advocates for unity among the working class not just within a particular country, but also with the working classes of other colonised countries. He extols the struggling masses to remember that the ‘enemy of the African under French domination… is the manifestation of colonialism, whatever be the flag under which it asserts itself’ (“Unity and Effective Solidarity Are the Conditions for African Liberation”, TWTAR). In an impressive understanding of capital’s ‘spatial fix’, Fanon also explains the link of colonialism (and concomitant need for solidarity) with working classes of the coloniser countries:  ‘The “metropolitan” capitalists allow social advantages and wage increases to be wrung from them by their workers to the exact extent to which the colonialist state allows them to exploit and make raids on the occupied territories’ (from “The Algerian War and Man’s Liberation”, TWTAR).  Moreover, he also recognises that due to the anti-colonial struggle of each country being, first and foremost, a national struggle, it is only through the deepening of the national consciousness (based on a peoples’ democracy) that a universal consciousness, an African unity, can be forged. Thus, ‘it is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows’ (p. 199).

While Iqbal and Fanon have a similar ideal of achieving a unity of colonised nations, the routes that they propose for achieving such a unity are decidedly different. Iqbal, in keeping with his general focus on the individual and spirituality, ignores the class bases of national culture and state formation preferring instead to emphasise, in my opinion, the idealistic concept (in the philosophical sense) of Tauhid as basis for international unity. Due to his overlooking of political economy, he also falls into the trap of portraying the toxic effects of nationalism as being due to an artificial separation of the sacred and profane in man’s (and, by extension, the polity’s) nature rather than looking at the material bases of fascism, imperialism and inter-imperialistic rivalry. A tension can also be detected in his concept of a ‘League of Muslim Nations’ with more conventional forms of territorial nationalism. Fanon, on the other hand, places class and a critical look at the political economy of newly emerged states at the center of his analysis of African unity (or lack thereof). Moreover, he also makes linkages (and suggests unity) with working classes of other countries on the basis of his incisive analysis of capitalism and the spatial manifestations of its myriad contradictions.

Final Thoughts

Even a cursory look at the impressive, and rigorous, corpus of scholarship produced by both Iqbal and Fanon confirms their status as Third World thinkers par excellence. However, their respective approach towards the problems they set out to tackle differ fundamentally. While both focus on reforming a large polity (African peoples and Muslim Ummah), Iqbal’s attention is on the reform of the individual (achieving Khudi) as a means to reform the community. Fanon, on the other hand, emphasises collectivity and pays close attention to class interests, relations of production and dependency.

Both thinkers have also had significant impacts on their contemporaries. Fanon’s ideas on the urban-rural rift and the role of urban lumpen proletariat has been the subject of much debate among contemporary revolutionary-theorists like David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre. Moreover, while himself being an avowed Marxist, Fanon has been appropriated by the post-colonial school of thought emerging in the late 70s and early 80s. Iqbal’s legacy, on the other hand, has been even more contested. He has inspired revolutionary figures such as Ali Shariati (of Iran) while in Pakistan, his poetry particularly has been appropriated by the state (and its religio-political allies) for perpetuation of their own cultural hegemony. Progressives and dissident intellectuals too have appropriated and derided Iqbal in equal measure. The great left-wing poet and winner of the Lenin Peace Prize Faiz Ahmed Faiz was even moved to remark once that “there is no poet who is more mazloom (subjugated) than Iqbal!” (Hasan, 2002). Perhaps the greatest testament to Iqbal’s contradictions (and perhaps, inscrutability) is that while his Taran-e-Hindi is the Indian national song, in Pakistan Iqbal is hailed as the ultimate paragon of Muslim nationalism and unity across time and space.


Fanon, F. (1961). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, F. (1964) [1967]. Toward The African Revolution. New York: Grove Press.

Iqbal, A. M. “Muhammad Iqbal: Poet and philosopher of the Islamic revival”. In Sources of Indian tradition. Vol. II edited by William Theodore de Barry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Iqbal, A. M. (1934). The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. London: Oxford University Press.

Hasan, K. (2002). Iqbal: one in a million. Academy of Punjab in North America, May 2002. Retrieved from <>.

Hopkinson, S. W. (2000). The Legacy of Frantz Fanon: The Dialectics of Culture, Class and the Psychology of Oppression. Thesis (Ph.D.): University of Newcastle, UK.

Hassan, R. (1984). Iqbal’s Analysis of Various Time-Concepts and His Own View of Time. Journal of the Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 25(1). Retrieved from <>.

Vahid, S. A. (ed.). (1992). Mohammad Iqbal in Thoughts and Reflections of Iqbal, edited by Syed Abdul Vahid. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers.

Muhammad Iqbal. Self in the Light of Relativity. Crescent, 1925.

Muhammad Iqbal. Stray Reflections. New Era, Lucknow, 7th April 1917. 

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