Opinion Maker:        

By Humayun Gauhar

I have understood after years that the best English language word for Iqbal’s concept of ‘Khudi is ‘Sovereignty’. I’ll tell you why.

The English language words and phrases currently used to describe Khudi do not convey the meaning of the concept entirely, not every nuance and layer of it. Not ‘Self’ or ‘pride’ nor phrases like ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-recognition’. Don’t get me wrong. All these words are certainly relevant to the concept because they represent some dimension of Khudi, but not the whole gamut. For better understanding, Khudi has also to be felt – head and heart both come into play. Which is why I call the translations of Khudi inadequate.

I have struggled with this for long. It’s not easy to convey the full meaning of all the nuances in a word, much less a concept. That is why any translation of the Quran is also inadequate, which is why most ‘translators’ call it ‘interpretation’, which is almost always accompanied by footnotes explaining the event that sometimes lead to a particular revelation and often by commentary or a tafheem towards understanding – fehm.

The idea that I am about to tell you came upon me when for some reason I was thinking of the phrase that is part of the prayer loudly and repeatedly proclaimed by Muslims when they go to Mecca for pilgrimage – “Lakka wal Mulk” – “None other than You has sovereignty” – ‘You’ being God. Now the concept of sovereignty is very important not just in Islam but also in all contemporary political philosophies, theories, constructs and practices. So it should be for humankind, collectively and individually, because in Islam God has conditionally devolved that portion of His sovereignty on Man that he needs to conduct his temporal or worldly affairs properly and in accordance with God’s injunctions. In turn, it is Man that has conceived and created states and devolved part of his God-bestowed sovereignty on them to look after him and his land according to God’s immutable fundamentals and principles and to jealously guard its citizens’ sovereignty. If it is unable to do so, the state either ceases to exist or its government loses legitimacy and should go.

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God devolved his sovereignty on Man because He has called humankind His greatest creation, Ashraf ul Makhlooqat, which is why he has made Man His Khalifa or vicegerent on earth. Without the devolution of some of God’s sovereignty on humankind, Man would not be equipped to be God’s Khalifa for he would not be able to look after his worldly affairs or discharge his obligations to God and His creations and practice Haqooq ul Ibad which means looking after all of God’s Creation. Khalifa also became the title of Muslim rulers after the Prophet (pbuh) died. Khalifa the ruler is called ‘caliph’ in English. In early Islam the Khalifa was the temporal ruler as well as the spiritual leader or Imam. Later these two functions were split, but this is not the place to go into that.

Because God has made Man his Khalifa (Caliph), the use of the word Khalifa for ruler is unfortunate, for it smacks of ‘divine right’. A person can be first amongst others, certainly, but not alone be God’s Khalifa. Only the whole of ongoing humanity is. Divine right was not just a western concept to give legitimacy to a king or potentate. One of the honorifics of our Mughal kings of India was Zil-e-Ilahi, meaning image or face of God, which is repugnant to Islam. It was much the same with the Japanese Emperor and the King of Siam (Thailand) and Cyrus and Darius in Persia.

Once he was made Khalifa and given part of God’s sovereignty, it became Man’s duty to conduct his affairs according to God’s immutable fundamental principles. Deviation from God’s principles can cause a lifting of that devolved sovereignty. Think of all those countries today that have lost all or part of their sovereignty. Perhaps God too has lifted our sovereignty for failing to conduct our affairs as He has ordained. I don’t know.  


We tend to limit sovereignty to state sovereignty. But God has devolved His sovereignty directly on Man, not on states or rulers and dynasties. Thus it is human beings that are sovereign, not temporary states that are not divine but human creations. It is the citizens of states who devolve part of their God-bestowed sovereignty on the states they live in to look after and protect their sovereignty within the divine framework. Failure to do so is a failure against Man and God, which is one reason why states come and go. How many different states has the land you live on seen over time? How many more will it see? Yes, states come and go but the land and the people who live on it go nowhere. Only slaves lose their sovereignty completely to other men, and believe me there are still many around. Bonded labour or the iniquitous terms of employment workers get or the degradation of women and their often sub-human treatment is slavery by another name.

States are not God-made but modern man-made entities with demarcated geographic boundaries and citizenship acts, passports and visas, despite the fact that the earth belongs to God and Man can live on it anywhere.

Let us recap:

All sovereignty belongs to God.

God creates Man and devolves part of His sovereignty on him to live life on earth in accordance with His injunctions.

Because He has devolved his sovereignty on Man, God appoints him His Khalifa or vicegerent on earth.

Man creates states and devolves part of his God-devolved sovereignty on them to look after its citizens and all of God’s creation within its realm.

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When governments lose all or part of their sovereignty, the human beings living in it also lose all or part of their sovereignty.

To make sovereign Man lose any of his God-given sovereignty is the real crime and  sin against Man and God. Sovereignty can be lost either to other states or within a state to an iniquitous anti-God status quo.

The people, not rulers, governments or systems are the Khalifa and they have the choice either to tolerate governments and dispensations that cause loss of sovereignty or dissociate themselves from them or throw them out. Failure to do so and only complain symbolizes their impotence and loss of sovereignty.

Thus I came to the conclusion – at least for now for I don’t know where my future musings will lead me – that what Iqbal means by Khudi is sovereignty. So when he exhorts us to recognise and raise our Khudi, he is asking us to regain, preserve, protect and purify the sovereignty that God has devolved on us individually and collectively. Iqbal’s famous but much-misunderstood verse, Khudi ko kar buland itna, keh har taqdeer say pehlay; Khuda banday say kuch poochay, bataa tairey raza kya hai does not literally mean ‘Raise your Khudi so high that before determining each fate God asks Man what he wishes his destiny to be’. Iqbal means preserve and protect your sovereignty and become masters of your fate.

What Iqbal says is equally applicable to Muslims as to those who claim to be non-Muslims, for God did not devolve His sovereignty on Muslims alone but on humankind as a whole. He devolved His sovereignty on Man regardless of faith, religion, colour, ethnicity, tribe, clan and what have you. That is why I used the phrase, “those who claim to be non-Muslims” because all good human beings regardless of religion are Muslims. Faith is faith, the same for all but expressed in different ways.