A Review of The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad

In The Nation, Amitava Kumar reviews the The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad [my late friend and mentor] by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani.


One senses that Ahmad was deeply sensitive to the waning influence of radical secular politics in the Muslim world, where Islamists increasingly led the opposition to military regimes that had betrayed the dream of independence from colonialism. It may well have been this concern that led him to return, shortly before his death in 1999, to Pakistan, where he hoped to build a university that would teach the humanities. It was to be called Khaldunia University, after the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), whom UN General Secretary Kofi Annan described as “a globalist long before the age of globalization.” (When Annan said that, he was delivering the first Eqbal Ahmad lecture at Hampshire College. Annan was no doubt also thinking of Ahmad when he reminded his audience that Khaldun had “argued that civilizations decline when they lose their capacity to comprehend and absorb change, and that ‘the greatest of scholars err when they ignore the environment in which history unfolds.'”) Alas, Khaldunia University was never built; according to The Economist’s obituary of Ahmad, he “died before a rupee was raised for it.”

Even if his dream had come to fruition, it is hard to imagine Ahmad running a university. He was too much the congenital outsider. Ahmad’s independence from institutions and political parties allowed him to deliver criticism to those least inclined to listen, and it might have been the reason why he earned the trust of statesmen and revolutionaries throughout the Third World. A critic of power rather than an intellectual seeking power, he turned his weakness into a source of strength.