eqbal ahmad biography

Written by Syed Haris Shah 12:19 pm Pakistan Unveiled

A Biography of Eqbal Ahmad: Remembering the Progressive Intellectual and Peace Advocate of Pakistan

The author, Syed Haris Shah, details the life of Eqbal Ahmad, an admirable intellectual who was even once arrested because of his anti-war stance. He dreamed of establishing an institute that would meld Islamic education with Western education. His writings are a remarkable contribution to the fields of peace studies, international relations, history, Islam, and political science.
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Syed Haris Shah is a pupil of peace and conflict studies at National Defence University, Islamabad.

The Road to Education

In the list of many forgotten heroes, Eqbal Ahmad stands among them, a brilliant scholar and a respected political scientist who taught at leading universities across the globe. I start the biography of Eqbal Ahmad with his birth in a rural community named Irki in the state of Bihar of India in the times of British Colonialism in 1933. He was from a landowning and feudal family, and his father was said to have been killed in a family dispute over a piece of land.

Eqbal Ahmad migrated to Pakistan, losing contact with his family members in New Delhi. It is said that he and his brother went to Lahore from Delhi carrying a gun to protect themselves. History gives a slight account that he had served Pakistan Army during the war of Kashmir in 1948, but the information about his rank is not available. Ahmad studied at Forman Christian College in Lahore and got his first distinction in Economics in 1951.

In the middle of the 1950s, he received his degree of M.A in Modern History from the University of Punjab. It was Eqbal Ahmad’s passion for developing his intellectual capacities in political sciences and the world’s history that led him to become a Rotary Fellow at the Occidental College of California. He developed his interest in the history of settler colonialism being imposed against Native Americans.

He further pursued his studies at Princeton University where he studied political sciences and the history of the Middle East and North Africa. He completed his PhD dissertation on the Tunisian Labor Movement. To complete his dissertation, he stayed in Northern Africa and worked with intellectuals like Stuart Schaar to study African trade unions and working-class syndicates and their struggles in fighting colonialism and raising progressive voices.

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Eqbal Ahmad’s Anti-War Philosophy

He also became a vocal supporter of the Algerian War of Independence from French Colonialism. After completing his PhD in 1967 from Princeton University, he started his career of teaching at the University of Illinois as well as at Cornell University. He was believed to be one of the most qualified instructors with unconventional thoughts and unique teaching methods.

He started working with an anti-war and progressive think-tank known as the Washington Institute of Policy Studies. He later married Julie Diamond, a professor in one of the leading universities of the United States. He travelled to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and many other states to interview leading scholars, politicians and government officials.

Eqbal Ahmad had retained a strong academic and professional background throughout his successful career. He was clearly an advocate of peace; a vocal activist working for anti-colonial, anti-war and anti-racist movements, he openly criticized the United States for taking part in the Vietnam War. He also knew several languages including Urdu, Persian, Arabic, French and English.

Having had a strong grip over politics with the capacity of conducting comparative studies on differing political developments around the world, Eqbal Ahmad provenly turned out to have an open opposition to factors like bureaucratic politics, militarism and rigidity of ideology. There is no doubt that he condemned the aspect of “pathology of power”. His anti-colonialist and pro-working-class position also made him an open supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Due to his open and vocal stances for the freedom struggles of Algeria and Palestine, Edward Said, a leading scholar of postcolonialism and narrator of the theory of Orientalism, said, “Eqbal Ahmad brought wisdom and integrity to the cause of oppressed peoples.” Due to his sustaining anti-war rhetoric, he was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for being allegedly involved in conspiring to kidnap one of the intellectual minds and veteran diplomats of the United States, then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

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An Eventful Life

He proclaimed himself to be a defender of the golden past of Muslims. He was critical of factors like “Soviet Communism” and “American Imperialism” and opposed these two spectrums on a global level. He also criticized the monarchies of the Arab world and remained critical to dictatorships inside third world countries. He openly criticized the Martial Law of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan as well.

There is no doubt that he met Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Paris during his exile in 1978, where he supported the uprising of Iranians under an Islamic Revolution against pro-Western Imperial government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. He held the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in high esteem by acknowledging his non-violent position in the struggle of independence of Pakistan. Being a renowned journalist as well, Eqbal Ahmad met Osama Bin Laden in 1986 in Peshawar, Pakistan.

In the 1990s, he travelled back and forth to Pakistan and the United States. He also criticized the Pakistani state for supporting Islamist movements inside Afghanistan. Moreover, he had a critical position over the aspects of military intervention in politics, nuclear weapons and militarism inside South Asia. He openly supported the pathways for democracy and peace.

He’s known to have said: “Number one, read. Number two, intervene. For God’s sake, let us not be only consumers of information. Each person knows some truth – and I really think that almost anyone who is listening to you and to me right now has some knowledge, some truth, some understanding of the world, that is different from that of the dominant media institutions. The moment you find that your truth clashes with what is being peddled as their truth, intervene.”

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Vision for Khalduniya

Eqbal Ahmad desired to establish a university specific for liberal arts and social sciences in Islamabad, Pakistan. The name proposed for the university was “Khalduniya”, named after the inspiration from the leading Muslim scholar, historian, economist and sociologist Ibn Khaldun from the Islamic Golden Age. His main goal was to bring in the education of Islamic Madrassahs with advanced and applied Western education and intellects.

He stated that “Khalduniya’s curriculum and instructional methods shall aim at harmonising the separation – which we believe to be artificial – between the two sources of knowledge.” The idea for the university also included the encouragement of inter-disciplinary education by bringing intellectuals of different educational backgrounds and majors to teach the students regarding progressive development in an integral way.

Nawaz Sharif’s government allotted land for this project and Eqbal Ahmad was able to get funds and support for the ideology from his networks in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately, the visionary aim of Eqbal Ahmad did not come true because of political and administrative reasons as well as his sudden death in 1999 in Islamabad.

The Legacy Continues

He suffered from colon cancer which led to his death. His daughter, Dohra, is also a qualified scholar working in Columbia University. A memorial lecture series had been established after his death in Hampshire College, where leading people like Kofi Annan and Arundhati Roy gave lectures in his honor.

There are number of aspiring writers and scholars who have appreciated him for his works and his intellectual capacities. Many international and Pakistani writers take consultations from his intellectual properties for the conduct of broader research in the areas of political science, international relations, and history.


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