MLA 2016: Iqbal, the Figure of Spinoza, and Ahmadis

At the 2016 Modern Language Convention in Austin I presented “Iqbal, the Figure of Spinoza, and Ahmadis” on a panel of the South Asian Language Association. The convention theme was Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future.

My paper highlights the figure of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) as he appears in many works by the British Indian poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Spinoza is for Iqbal a philosopher of the highest caliber, and most of his mentions of Spinoza are laudatory. Strangely, at a crucial juncture in the history of Muslims in South Asia, Iqbal invokes the figure of Spinoza to bolster his arguments for the legal, theological, and cultural exclusion of Ahmadis—a community of followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908)—from the fold of Islam. 

Iqbal mentions Spinoza in a wide variety of his works, from philosophical prose to couplets composed in his name. Their systems of thought are in dialogue, and Iqbal openly assents to much of Spinoza’s argumentation. It is significant, then, that Iqbal would choose this figure to wrangle a theopolitical outcome in which Ahmadis, who identify themselves as Muslim but whose beliefs are subject to extreme censure and persecution in South Asia partially because of that claim, can be excommunicated from the Indian Muslim community on the eve of independence from colonial rule. Iqbal takes up the story of Spinoza’s 1656 excommunication from the Portugese Jewish community in Amsterdam and uses it to argue for his position that the Ahmadis pose a threat to the cohesion of Indian Muslims, and that consequently the state should intervene to silence them and the community should ostracize them.

In order to explore Iqbal’s exclusionary move, my work locates every textual mention of Spinoza by Iqbal, all of which I include in an appendix to the paper with the original text and translations from Urdu where necessary.