Iqbal, the economist, we ignore

There are compelling reasons why we need to revisit the poet’s Ilmul Iqtisad

Arjimand Hussain Talib
Publish Date: Nov 11 2012 12:00PM

Allama Iqbal’s poetry and philosophy have fascinated many of our generations. In the 90s era our turbulent political and social conditions then made us to look for particular insights and answers in his poetry and thoughts that seemed relevant to those times.
As we marked the 135th birth anniversary of the great poet philosopher on Friday, our today’s social and economic conditions must make us revisit Iqbal – Iqbal, the economist - the long ignored dimension of his persona. 
It is not too well known that Iqbal’s first published book in 1904 was neither his poetry nor philosophy, but economics. Apart from philosophy, Iqbal taught economics at the Government College, Lahore in his early profession. And what is remarkable is that Iqbal never studied economics formally.
For understanding the relevance of Iqbal’s economic thought to these times it is important for us to recognise the social and economic context that influenced Iqbal’s evolution. What is also critical is to revisit Ilmul Iqtisad (the Science of Economics).
One of the few books on economics in Urdu in those times, Ilmul Iqtisad is not about economic philosophy; rather, it is a book written in text book style. Ilmul Iqtisad makes a case about why it was written in the first place in its preface. It sought to link its content with the oppressive social and economic systems of those days, rooted in village sahokari system and landlordism. While emphasising to its Urdu readers the significance of economics in our lives, Iqbal categorically states “that a positive change in this world, especially in South Asia, was not possible without understanding and mastering economics.”
There is a debate among scholars whether Ilmul Iqtisad could be attributed to Iqbal as his original work or a translation of material from English sources. Pervez Tahir, former Chief Economist of Pakistan’s Planning Commission, in his review of Ilmul Iqtisad in the Pakistan Development Review, 2001, notes: what Iqbal has rendered in Ilmul Iqtisad is basically a synthesised body of available knowledge on the subject.
In the book’s preface, Iqbal makes a case in his own way, “The study of this science and reflecting on its results is particularly important for the Indians, as poverty is becoming a common complaint here. ….History of man is witness to the fate befalling nations who neglected their socio-cultural and economic conditions.”
Today as modern economic thought is caught on the horns of many dilemmas, Iqbal’s economic philosophy is as clear as before. And what is interesting is that the cynicism he nurtured for capitalism and an economic system based on high interest and credit addiction by his time is shared by a far larger number of economic philosophers today.
Today the argument in the west about austerity and unbridled expenditure remains as contentious as ever. Even as there are people who believe that government debt cannot be paid off unless there is some degree of austerity and thus reduction of that debt, the mainstream economic thought remains wedded to the idea of unbridled government borrowing and expenditure as a recipe for growth and job creation.
Allama Iqbal’s critique of market capitalism has always been known. But when we analyse today’s role of market forces in aggravating inequality and poverty Iqbal’s this verse would always inspire awe: Dayar-e-maghrib ke rahne walo khuda ki basti dukaan nehi hai…
Khara jise tum samajh rahe ho who ab zar kam ayyar hoga
(O, Residents of the West! God's earth is not a shop; the gold you think to be genuine will now prove to be debased)
One of the most remarkable predictions of Allama Iqbal is what today is seen as the Asian Century. There is hardly a thinker of his times who had predicted what is today shaping as a reality.
It is clear that Iqbal’s thought never wavered on his cynicism about a soulless capitalism.  Here is that proof: “Ummatey bar ummatay deegar charad…dana ei mai karad aan hasil karad, Az Zaeefan naa raboodan hikmat ast…. Az tan shan jaan raboodan hikmat ast, Sheevaye tehzeeb-i-nav aadam dari ast… pardah-e-adam dari sauda gari ast (One nation pastures on the other…One sows the grain which another harvests. Philosophy teaches that bread is to be pilfered from the hand of the weak, and his soul rent from his body. Extortion of one's fellowmen is the law of the new civilisation. And it conceals itself behind the veil of commerce.)
Iqbal has said a lot all of which is not possible to mention here. The best tribute to him will be making our younger generations to approach and understand Iqbal, for he remains one of those rare social, religious and political thinkers whose thoughts haven’t been rendered redundant by times.
And despite owning Iqbal all this must make us to reflect on our own past follies. I remember the times (late 90s and early 2000s) when this column started writing on political economy of Kashmir, many people would call that “diversionary.” Today we must reflect on that cynicism and its costs to us too.
The columnist is a technical consultant in international development, covering Asia-Pacific and Africa regions