A dream rudely shattered

Suljuk Tarar on how Eqbal Ahmad's ambitious project, Khaldunia university, was wrecked by political realities in Pakistan

A dream rudely shattered
The late Eqbal Ahmad was an internationally known and respected Pakistani political scientist, intellectual, scholar and teacher who returned to Islamabad in the 1990’s with a dream. He wanted to build Khaldunia University. Khaldunia could have been a game-changer in Pakistan’s higher education system. Eqbal Ahmad taught at various US universities and was a key political voice in international affairs. He enjoyed the friendship and respect of the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky - who admired his work, his independent thinking and his identification with the causes of oppressed peoples.

Ahmad was an intellectual with roots in Pakistan, influencing thinking on major world events like the Vietnam war, Algeria’s war of independence and the Palestinian tragedy. He was fully committed to his vision. He was not a desk scholar. He was part of the Algerian liberation movement in the 1960’s and an active opponent of the Vietnam war. Along with others, he was charged with being part of a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger, in an effort to end the Vietnam war. And he advised the the PLO leadership in Palestine!

Eqbal Ahmad wanted to unify an academic system divided between English and the vernacular

Envisioned as a residential university, Khaldunia was supposed to combin Islamic madrassah education with contemporary western education. This was Eqbal Ahmad’s powerful solution: a monolithic educational system to address the challenges faced from a divided academic system producing two types of intelligentsia - “one at home in English and the other vernacular in lifestyle and politics”.

I first found about Khaldunia from an interview with Eqbal Ahmad, appearing in the daily Dawn in 1994. I was looking for an inspirational project for my Bachelors of Architecture thesis at the National College of Arts, Lahore. Experiencing the products of dual education system in my student life at Lahore’s FC College and at the National College of Arts, Khaldunia’s ideology struck me as a plausible solution.

Eqbal Ahmad participated in the Algerian struggle for indpendence from French colonial rule
Eqbal Ahmad participated in the Algerian struggle for indpendence from French colonial rule

It was the pre-Google era. Connecting with unknown people was hard. Luckily, the late Ahmad Dawood, a famous Urdu short story writer, was in contact with Eqbal Ahmad and helped me arrange a meeting. This led to an off-and-on contact with this great man for the next few years, until his death in May 1999.

Under awe of Eqbal Ahmad’s international stature, I reached Islamabad, ready for a formal meeting without expecting much interest from him in a Bachelor level thesis. However, Eqbal Ahmad, short and soft-spoken, humble and gracious, mesmerised the listener with his wisdom and knowledge. He was visibly excited to hear about my interest in giving shape - albeit on a piece of paper - to his dream of Khaldunia. He readily shared with me the project proposal and planing details for Khaldunia, in the form of a booklet. He then explained his concept and rationale for Khaldunia in a two-hour-long interview. Like a true teacher, he never lost patience with the number or quality of questions posed to him.

Eqbal Ahmad with Yasser Arafat - the former was a close confidante of the PLO leadership
Eqbal Ahmad with Yasser Arafat - the former was a close confidante of the PLO leadership

At that time options for pursuing a professional higher education in Pakistan, especially in the liberal arts, were limited. For Eqbal Ahmad, the purpose of general education is to create leaders in all areas of public service - including law, politics, education and culture etc. Khaldunia’s curriculum and instructional method synthesised the parallel educational systems of English- and Urdu-medium and madrassah education to produce able leaders who could handle the everyday affairs of a society. As explained in the project proposal, “Khaldunia’s curriculum and instructional methods shall aim at harmonising the separation - which we believe to be artificial - between the two sources of knowledge.”

Khaldunia was to be an institution of quality education to address “the needs of and aspirations of a forward-looking post-colonial society” and for those who could not afford to obtain foreign education, as well as an alternate for those willing to spend on a foreign education - and to stop the precious brain-drain because of the attractions of quality education overseas. The curriculum aimed to teach students through a four-year US-style Bachelors program and groom them to appreciate both the arts and the sciences - but also give them a thorough grounding in the knowledge of Islamic civilisation.

'Power to the people' - Eqbal Ahmad (centre) participated actively in the US anti-war movement, during the Vietnam War
'Power to the people' - Eqbal Ahmad (centre) participated actively in the US anti-war movement, during the Vietnam War

Land, funding, ideology and a strong leadership (in the form of Eqbal Ahmad himself) were all there

Believing in unity of knowledge, the academic disciplines at Khaldunia were not divided by departments. Interdisciplinary teaching and research within the university was to be encouraged. All university students, regardless of their major field of study, were supposed to complete the core requirements of the four Khaldunia schools: Science and Technology, Humanities and Arts, History and Social Sciences and Language and Communication. Thus a course on Economics or Cultural History might have involved scientists contributing on how scientific and technological development helped shape the politics, economics or culture of a given period.

The name Khaldunia was inspired by the great Muslim historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun, whose work - including the great Muqadimmah - vastly influenced both the Islamic and Western civilizations.

The prospects for Khaldunia becoming a reality looked reasonable at that time - the government had committed to give a piece of land for Khaldunia in the sector devoted for academic and research institutions in Islamabad. Eqbal Ahmad had secured some basic funding from his contacts among individuals and financial institutions in the US. Land, funding, ideology and a strong leadership (in the form of Eqbal Ahmad himself) were all there to make it happen.

In his last years, Eqbal Ahmad found his 'Khaldunia' project thwarted by Pakistani governments
In his last years, Eqbal Ahmad found his 'Khaldunia' project thwarted by Pakistani governments

After talking to him and surveying the potential site, which was close to the National Institute of Health in Islamabad, I returned to Lahore to work on my thesis - a design for Khaldunia. The proposed campus was to be appropriate to Islamabad’s topology, inspired by the traditional Islamic walled cities and spaces. It was meant to allow opportunities for interaction to students – among themselves and with faculty members. An important part of the design was the inclusion of several small amphitheatres and the placement of steps to reach different facilities in the campus. There were even small tea-stalls in the plan. These were meant to be areas for casual seating and informal interaction among scholars, outside a formal environment. Building on Khaldunia’s ideology of unity, most facilities were within walking distance of each other. Because of the concept and the potential it offered to combine tradition and modernism in design, after my thesis project was completed, Khaldunia was taken up as a thesis projects by some other students too.

When Eqbal Ahmad was accused in a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger - Photo credits - South Asian American Digital Archive, SAADA
When Eqbal Ahmad was accused in a conspiracy to kidnap
Henry Kissinger - Photo credits - South Asian American Digital Archive, SAADA

I shared my design for Khaldunia with Eqbal Ahmad, who promised to include me amongst his design advisors for the university. Sadly, things did not go as planned by him. There were changes in land allocation and political issues arose in the naming the institution. Eqbal, a person of no compromises, did not agree to any politicisation of his dream. These and other constraints led to delays and slowly the financial commitments also slipped away.

He called me one evening from Islamabad asking about my future plans and encouraging me to pursue graduate studies, offering: “If you need any recommendations or references to study in the US, I will be happy to help you.” Not knowing the value of the offer, I nevertheless, in a sense, ‘pocketed the cheque’ from Eqbal Ahmad. He called again after a few months and in my absence - this was in 1996-7, and we mostly had landlines in those days - he spoke to my father, who told him about my plans to move careers. Eqbal saw no harm in the career change but believed I ought to pursue architecture.

The Khaldunia project was named after eminent scholar Ibn Khaldun - one of the most influential Muslim social scientists
The Khaldunia project was named after eminent scholar Ibn Khaldun - one of the most influential Muslim social scientists

Eqbal, a person of no compromises, resisted any politicisation of his dream

By that time I was regularly following his insightful columns that appeared in Dawn.

Having switched careers, I moved to Islamabad in late 1998. There, as part of my professional training, I had to write a paper on domestic legislation. Searching for an advisor, I reached out to him. And he graciously agreed to be my advisor for that paper. He was especially helpful in comparative regressive laws that exist or had existed in some of the Western countries - such as a law in a US state against eating onions - and he argued that all legal system had examples of regressive or void laws that had to be either changed or made inapplicable despite their existence.

Eqbal Ahmad on the three possible responses from the Muslim world towards contemporary challenges

When a civilization reaches a point of fundamental crisis and perceptible decline, we see three responses. One may identify these as: (a) restorationist, (b) reconstructionist, and (c) pragmatist.

The restorationist is one that seeks the restoration of the past in its idealized form. This is the thrust of fundamentalism, of such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, the Sharekat Islam in Indonesia, and the Islamic government of post-revolution Iran. So far, these have been minority movements in the Muslim world. Without an exception, they have failed to attract the large majority of workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia. This was true even in Iran where the shift toward the current fundamentalist ideology began after the seizure of power.

The reconstructionist is one that seeks to blend tradition with modernity in an effort to reform society. This is the thrust of the modernist schools which have, intellectually and ideologically, dominated the Muslim world since the middle of the nineteenth century. The most influential writers and thinkers of modern Islam – Jamaluddin Afghani, Shibli Nomani, Syed Ameer Ali, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad lqbal, Tahir Haddad, among others – have belonged to this school of thought; in political life their influence had been considerable until the rise of military regimes in many Muslim countries. This was true also in Iran where until after the Shah’s fall no significant group of Ulema had openly challenged the eminent Ayatullah Naini’s formulation in support of the democratic and constitutionalist movement (1904-1905), a position that was endorsed by the leading theologians of the Shia sect of Islam. For five decades, successive generations of Iranian religious leaders had reaffirmed this position. During the 1977-78 uprising against the Shah, all the politically prominent clerics of Iran, including Ayatullah Khomeini, had claimed to favor a pluralistic polity and parliamentary government. The first appointment by Khomeini of a social democratic government with Dr. Mehdi Bazargan as Prime Minister had seemed to confirm this claim. Above all, it should be noted that the mobilization of the Iranian revolution toward Islam had been the work of such lay Muslim intellectuals as Dr. Mehdi Bazargan, Jalal Ale- Ahmad and Abul Hasan Bani Sadr. The most important populizers of Islamic idealism were Ali Shariati, a progressive layman, and the Ayatullah Mahmud Taleghani, a radical religious leader. Although the Ayatullah Khomeini had been an important opposition figure since 1963, he was far from being the central figure he became in 1978. In January 1978, as the revolution began to gather momentum, the Shah’s regime did Khomeini the honor of singling him out for its most publicized and personal attack. From this point on, he became the counterpoint to the hated but central figure of the Shah. An explanation of his meteroic rise to charismatic power lies in the complex character of Iran’s disorganic development, which lent one of the objectively most advanced revolutions of history a millenarian dimension.

The pragmatist denotes an attitude of viewing religious requirements as being largely unrelated to the direct concerns of states and governments and of dealing with the affairs of the state in terms of the political and economic imperatives of contemporary life. The regulation of religious life is left to the civil society and to private initiatives. This approach has not been opposed by the reconstructionist school of intellectuals. As discussed earlier, it parallels the historical Muslim experience; as such, it is accepted both by the masses and the majority of the Ulema. Thus, wherever popular attitudes have been tested in open and free elections, pragmatist political parties and secular programs have gained overwhelming victories over their fundamentalist adversaries.

Source: Islam, Politics, and the State
(London. Zed Press, 1985 )

I was living in a hostel. One day, he invited me over for dinner at his home. He lived close to the Faisal Mosque. Tired of monotonous hostel food, I relished his home-cooked meal. A BBC radio correspondent came over to interview him on political developments. Once the correspondent left, he engaged in conversation ranging from Pakistan’s educational challenges to the situation in Palestine. I think it was an early dinner and around 9 pm he bid me farewell, asking his driver (who also cooked for him) to drop me back. Aware of my first move away from home, he told me that “whenever you want to have home-cooked food, do not hesitate - just call and come over.”. It was yet another cheque for a rainy day, from a generous teacher.

Sadly, a few months later, as I was finalising my paper, one morning in May of 1999 I found out about his death.

His associates and relatives tried to give momentum to Khaldunia but it never reached the goal that Eqbal Ahmad had set for it. Higher education in Pakistan has progressed well in the last decades, with some institutions of higher education providing a quality Western-style education and atmosphere. But Khaldunia’s unique vision remains unmatched – one of synthesising the Western and traditional madrassah educations, building on the rich legacy of Islamic civilisation, providing opportunities to students from all strata and providing a foundation for leaders in everyday affairs of the society.

Edward Said, his friend and admirer, writing his obituary immediately after his death in the Guardian, eloquently described Eqbal Ahmad’s tryst with the creation of a university:

“During his last years, he dedicated himself - quixotically it would sometimes appear - to the creation of an alternative university in Pakistan, named Khalduniyah after the great Arab polymath and historian whose comprehensive view of the human adventure Ahmad sought to embody in a curriculum solidly based in the modern humanities, social and natural sciences.”

Eqbal Ahmad's prescient warnings on the dangers of militant religious fundamentalism in both India and Pakistan

All religio-political movements are made up, of comparable cadres and constituents. They appeal to urban more than rural people, to the lumpen proletariat and lower middle class more than the working or upper classes, technical more than the liberal professionals, to the expatriate bourgeoisie more than the national one. The pattern suggests that they attract especially those persons and classes which are caught in the ‘middle of the ford’ between tradition and modernity and who, in differing ways, feel marginal and socially uprooted.

Given their transitional social environment, leaders and cadres of the contemporary religio-political parties evince ambivalence toward products and symbols of modernity. They love the products of technology and put it to political and personal uses while they evince a negative attitude toward science with its emphasis on rationality and causation. Nearly all have a proclivity to find, post hoc, the evidence of scientific discovery in religious texts, and proclaim the existence of an Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian science that predates the modern discovery of it.

All tend to be grim and humourless. All, to varying degrees, frown on joy and pleasurable pastimes. They have few positive links to culture and knowledge, and regard these as dangerous sources of corruption. Hence the control of educational institutions and regulation of society’s cultural life becomes the primary objective of these movements. This tendency has climaxed with the Taliban who have prohibited chess, football, the homing pigeon, kite flying, singing, and dancing as un-Islamic.

All religio-political parties are inherently undemocratic even when they operate in a democratic framework. In theory and practice, they reject basic democratic values – acceptance of pluralism, emphasis on reason as the organizing principle of social and political life, commitment to the resolution of differences by dialogue, and secular legislation. Nearly all favour a centralist and absolutist structure of governance.

What then is the future of these ‘Fundamentalist’ movements and parties? I think it is limited and quite dim. The reasons for it are multiple: Their links to the past are twisted. Their vision of the future is unworkable. And their connections to contemporary forces and ideals are largely negative. Yet, in their limit lies the reason for us to fear. Between their beginnings and end, right wing movements are known to have inflicted great damage upon countries and peoples. So help us God!

Source: Excerpt from ‘Profile of the Religious Right’ by Eqbal Ahmad

At a personal level, the more I was exposed to life, the more I learnt of his global intellectual credentials. Arriving at Columbia University, New York, for my graduate studies - which was Edward Said’s academic base - I felt a spiritual link because of his special relations with Eqbal Ahmad. But this came with a deep sense of remorse that I did not fully benefit from the immense reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom that Eqbal Ahmad was always willing to impart.

The writer can be reached at smt2104@caa.columbia.edu