May 15, 2023•2,316 words
Allama Iqbal was arguably the most impactful Muslim thinker of the 20th century. Even though he would never ascribe the label to himself, he was more a poet than a systematic thinker with formalist philosophical inclinations. His works galvanized a large portion of the Islamicate to will itself towards an independent homeland, free from Hindu coercion. Unlike other thinkers of the period, Iqbal's words found a sympathetic audience amongst the emerging postcolonial elites of the subcontinent.
Covering the entire scope of Iqbal's work here is not my intention; there should be some familiarity with his works. I believe the best introduction to Iqbal in English remains Annemarie Schimmel's "Gabriel's Wing".
At the heart of Iqbal's project lies his idea of "Khudi" – his specific theological anthropology of man – the significance of the Self. This concept, commonly translated as "Selfhood" or "Self-identity", signifies more than just an individual's existence. It delves into the exploration of the self's potential to realize its unique capabilities and inherent greatness.
However, to confine Khudi merely within the boundaries of self-realization would oversimplify Iqbal's philosophy. His concept of Khudi extends beyond the contours of individuality and self-awareness. It's not merely about the human being as a self-contained entity, but about the human being in a profound relationship with the Divine. The more this relationship flourishes, the more the individual's Khudi, or Selfhood, unfolds and develops.
Iqbal's concept of Khudi is not an endorsement of human autonomy in the atheistic sense, where man is the master of his destiny, free of divine interference. Nor does it advocate for a vision of the Perfect Man, who is merely an earthly manifestation of God. Instead, Iqbal’s concept of Khudi embraces a striking paradox: the simultaneous existence of freedom and servitude. It is through surrendering to God that one truly attains freedom, and it is in this divine surrender that the true essence of Khudi is discovered.
To provide a simplistic overview:
Iqbal emphasized that the self (Khudi) must have a strong awareness of its existence. This self-realization is the first step towards personal and moral edification.
Khudi is about asserting one's individuality and spiritual strength. It is the power within oneself that needs to be discovered and nurtured to reach its full potential.
The self (Khudi) should have respect for its own worth and value. It should not diminish itself for the sake of anything or anyone.
Iqbal's concept of Khudi is deeply tied to spiritual development. The self should strive to get closer to God through personal and communal religious practices.
While Khudi is about individuality, it also implies a sense of responsibility towards the community. The growth of the self should not be in isolation but should contribute to the betterment of the community.
Khudi is not passive; it demands action and effort. It requires the individual to actively participate in their own moral edification and the improvement of their community.
The ultimate aim of Khudi is to achieve a deep, personal connection with God. This unity is the pinnacle of moral edification and self-realization.
He fully articulates this notion in his poetic work, "Asrar-i-Khudi" (Secrets of the Self) which focuses on the life of the individual Muslim, while his other work "Ramuz-i-Bekhudi" centers on the life of the Islamic community.
It is worth mentioning that there are strong critiques about Iqbal's project and here I can direct the reader to Muhammad Faruque's excellent paper. There are other attempts to relate it to the work of Soren Kierkegaard that are well worth visiting.
The Cypherpunk Creed
What about the cypherpunk creed? Perhaps the clearest articulation of it is in the Cypherpunk Manifesto itself published in 1993 by Eric Hughes.
To summarise its key principles:
Privacy for the Individual: The manifesto opens with the proclamation that privacy is a fundamental human right. It posits that individuals should have the power to disclose or retain their identity and information as they see fit.
Privacy in Communication: The manifesto argues that in the context of communication, privacy is essential for a functional society. People must have the ability to interact freely, without fear of surveillance or reprisal.
Cryptography as a Tool for Privacy: It emphasizes the importance of cryptography as a method for protecting individual privacy. Cryptography is presented as a tool that can help individuals protect their privacy against invasive governments and other entities.
Need for Decentralization: The manifesto highlights the dangers of centralized databases, which can be misused or exploited. It argues for the decentralization of information and control.
Limitations of Legal Protections: The manifesto suggests that relying on legal measures alone to protect privacy is insufficient. It emphasizes that individuals must protect their own privacy through technology.
Appeal for Mass Use of Cryptography: It calls for the widespread use of cryptography to resist attempts at surveillance and control by governments and corporations.
Change through Technology, not Politics: The manifesto argues that change should come through technological advancements rather than political reform. Cypherpunks are described as individuals who code and create the systems that protect privacy, not politicians or activists.
I believe whilst there are certainly tensions between Iqbal's Khudi and the Cypherpunk creed there is also much overlap, and I make no qualms that for me it is Iqbal's project which retains primacy. In other words, for me it is the insights of the Cypherpunk creed that will inform Iqbal's project not the other way around.
Iqballian Cypherpunk Ethics
The "self" as we imagine it today is under attack and bombardment. Primarily it is under bombardment by being enveloped in a opaque and complex maze of digital surveillance that primes and engineers the habits of heart and mind of the general populace.This digital surveillance is carried out by both state and coporate actors that harvest unfathomably large quantities of data to serve its own nefarious ends.
Iqbal's conception of "Khudi" can only be realised by recognizing the key parts of the Cypherpunk Manifesto and by adopting privacy enhancing technologies to escape the influence and manipulation of powerful state and corporate actors. Living out one's life on a monopolistic conglomerate of social media platforms and technologies flies in the face of personal responsibility and moral edification. There is ample studies now to suggest that using these new technologies proliferates mental health problems. Digital contagion is a real threat.
Indeed, the rise of a surveillance state (see my posts on Cybernetics I and II), where our every action is tracked, recorded, and analyzed, poses a direct threat to Iqbal's conception of Khudi. The constant surveillance and data harvesting work to diminish our individuality and our sense of self. Our behaviors are no longer a product of our free will but are instead influenced and guided by algorithms designed to keep us engaged, to keep us consuming, to keep us obedient. It is the epitome of a coercive environment that Iqbal would no doubt have critiqued.
In this context, the principles of the Cypherpunk Manifesto provide a roadmap for resistance and the reclamation of our Selfhood. The use of cryptography to secure our communications, the decentralization of data, and the personal responsibility to protect our own privacy are all aspects that align with Iqbal's emphasis on self-reliance, moral responsibility, and personal edification.
In fact, one could argue that these principles are not just compatible with Iqbal's Khudi, but that they are necessary for its realization in the digital age. They offer a way to assert our individuality, to maintain our dignity, and to protect our spiritual integrity in the face of rampant digital manipulation and control.
However, it's not enough to simply adopt these principles in a passive way. Just as Iqbal's Khudi calls for active engagement and effort, so too does the Cypherpunk creed. It's not enough to merely utilize privacy-enhancing technologies; we must understand them, contribute to their development, and educate others about their importance. This proactive approach to privacy is in line with Iqbal's vision of the self as an active participant in its own moral edification and the betterment of the community.
Thus, in an era where our digital actions and interactions form an integral part of our identities, Iqbal's concept of Khudi, informed by the principles of the Cypherpunk Manifesto, provides a holistic framework for navigating the digital world with integrity, autonomy, and a profound sense of selfhood. It challenges us to question, to resist, and to strive for a digital existence that aligns with our deepest values and aspirations. And in this struggle, perhaps we may find not just the preservation of our Khudi, but its ultimate realization.
Who is the Sovereign?
This is perhaps where one parts ways with the Cypherpunk movement. Sunni Islam historically is decentralized in the way its scholastic authority was envisioned, with meritocratic chains of transmission ensuring its epistemic stability. Any Muslim of sound mind can become a scholar - anyone can join a seminary anywhere in the Muslim world to embark on the noble quest of accumulating sacred knowledge. However, when it came to political authority, Sunni jurists adopted a pessimistic outlook, disillusioned by the bloodshed of political conflict. They emphasized stability above all else. Given the moral responsibilities the jurists were burdened with both by Prophetic command and communal expectation, this is an understandable sentiment, even heroic. The jurists were primarily concerned about keeping peace within the community - to keep the ravenous flames of fitna at bay.
The Sovereign in the Sunni imagination is God - Power flows from Him alone. As discussed in the Hallaqian Problem, the nation-state project sought to emphasize the State as the true Sovereign - a solution unpalatable to Muslims regardless of theological affiliation.
Cypherpunk authors openly espouse a type of crypto-anarchy which is anathema to the Islamic creed. So what is to be done? The digital nation-state seeks omniscience and indeed even omni-audience. What if, through privacy-enhancing technologies, these predilections could be chained and removed? What if the State could be made "dumb" again? What if the State was chained by Law? A Law that was thought to be immutable and sacrosanct beyond the machinations of politicians, generals, and schemers?
Exploring Self-Sovereign Identity
Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) is a concept that revolves around the idea that individuals or organizations should have ownership and control over their own digital identities, without the need for intermediaries such as governments or large tech companies.
Key points about Self-Sovereign Identity:
Ownership: In an SSI model, individuals have full control over their digital identities. They can control how, when, and to whom their identity data is revealed.
Control: Individuals can control their data directly, without needing to go through a central authority. This means they can verify their own identity data, and provide proof of this verification to others.
Privacy: With SSI, personal data is stored on the individual's device rather than in a centralized database. This enhances privacy and security, as it reduces the risk of mass data breaches.
Interoperability: SSI can be used across various domains and applications. This means that a person could potentially use the same digital identity to open a bank account, register at a university, book a hotel room, and more.
Decentralization: SSI is often tied to blockchain technology, which provides a decentralized, transparent, and secure method of storing and verifying identity data.
Consent: With SSI, individuals can give specific, informed consent about who can access their data, and for what purpose.
Persistence: Ideally, self-sovereign identities are persistent, lasting for a long time, potentially even for a lifetime. They should not be easily taken away by any third party.
Self-sovereign identities (SSI) harnessing blockchain technologies could mark an end to the State as being the ultimate arbiter of identity and return it back to individuals. It also opens up possibilities to reinvigorate and re-energeize the Caliphate project.
Imagine a decentralised digital civilizational state criss-crossing ethnic identity based on zero knowledge proofs and self sovreign identity that unites Muslims into some coherent federation? Instead of harnessing SSI for "digital democracy" why not use it for alternative political structures that are congruent with Muslim aspirations and their own traditions?
SSIs could be the key to unlocking the Hallaqian Problem but is an area that requires urgent exploration and discussion particularly from Muslims who have domain expertise and knowledge in areas of cryptography and blockchain technology.
Decentralised Digital Caliphate
Analogue methods of trying to achieve different permutations of political order have failed Muslims whether it be through praetorian capture or trying to go through the ballot box. This is fundamentally because in all these schemata the sovereignty of the nation-state plugged into a larger financial order based on American primacy is never challenged. The State remains king. In the Islamicate all nation-states are remnants of colonial design, hardwired to remain dependent on a global financial order for which Muslims have never participated in as equals but only as consumers.
With privacy enhacing technologies, the blockchain and decentralization we now know that the Western Five-Eyes alliance is truly feeling pressured and challenged. In the US we have the Restrict Act, in the UK we have the delightfully Orweillian "Online Safety Bill". There is a prevailing mood amongst the prevailing Anglosphere elite that encryption, decentralised technologies and blockchain modalities pose a significant threat to the prevailing political order. These technologies ultimately subvert the prevailing nation-state machinery and potentially bypasses many of the pitfalls that classical Islamism succumbed to.
I think there is an urgent need for more exploration and more conversation particularly as we are now living through a once in a generational event with de-dollarization. The future is incredibly uncertain and unpredictable but having these type of conversations to move Islamic political thought in a new direction away from the failures of classical revolutionary-style Islamism is key.