Is Personalism Really a Middle Path Between Individualism and Collectivism?

Dr Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), South Asia's most famous Muslim poet-philosopher

Secular ideologies are characterized by their extremism. This is because their foundations are necessarily materialistic, and man is obviously more than just mere matter. Thus, in order to engineer man in accordance with their worldview, they must resort to using extreme anthropological remodeling.

It is for this reason that we bear witness the traditional conflict between two “friendly enemies,” liberal capitalism and communism. Both of these are materialist ideologies which aim to secularize the world, but they have seemingly antithetical means for achieving this goal. The former pushes for individualism, while the latter imposes collectivism.

In order to grow, liberal-capitalism needs hyper-rationalist and atomized individuals, those who chase after their own self-interests by competing in a zero-sum game (John von Neumann’s game theory, where, essentially, you are either the winner or the loser). Such an individual is disconnected from religion, family and community.

Communism, on the other hand, fetishizes the authoritarian State. It was needed because the societies wherein it was imposed were overwhelmingly agrarian, such as Russia, so its project of modernization and industrialization could only have occurred through the drastic and coercive use of the State apparatus.

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Despite appearances, however, they aren’t actually that different. Since Thomas Hobbes, the State in Western political theory just happens to be an individual but on a larger, national scale.

So, these are the secular options:

Under liberal capitalism, you’re an individual who is disconnected from all forms of collective existence, including religion, while under communism you’re a slave to the State and have no individual existence. For example, the notion of Iman or “personal faith” would be blasphemous in the eyes of the communist State, which seeks to impose its own notion of atheist ideology.

You can see how this kind of secular dualism has been adopted by different strains of Muslims as well. The “reformists” promote individualism concealed behind some buzzwords such as “personal dignity” or “human rights,” whereas others reduce their entire politics (and they also reduce the whole religion itself into politics) to the capture of the State and “Islamization from above.”

Some have sought a middle ground between these two polar extremes, with perhaps the most significant attempt coming from the “non-conformists of the 1930s” in France.

Post-WWI, a group of French thinkers, who were virtually all Christians and were centered around Emmanuel Mounier, proposed that the West was not condemned to either choose between New York (a globalist financial capitalism uprooting traditional communal existence) or Moscow (a globalist Marxism attempting to erode individualities).

In his book, Personalism, first published in 1923, Mounier writes:

On the one hand individualism, finding a congenial climate in the period of capitalistic triumph, flourishes beyond all bounds. The liberal State is its crystallisation into codes and institutions, but whilst that State professes a personalism that is ethical (of a Kantian colour) and political (in the bourgeois style) it leaves the urban masses in material conditions of slavery—social, economic and, before long, political. Romanticism heightens the passion of the individual at every level of affectivity but, in the isolation which it accentuates, it leaves him no choice except between the desperation of solitude and the dissipations of desire.

He goes on to also write against Marxist collectivism as well. He describes it as a bad antidote to the liberal capitalist disease which actually shares many of its characteristic traits, including viewing life in terms of economics.

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Mounier never claimed to have created a new philosophy. He often refers to premodern Christian theology as well as modern and contemporary existentialist Christian thinkers, most notable among whom is probably Russia’s Nikolai Berdyaev.

This is not something that was confined to Christianity either. The (quite underrated) Moroccan thinker, Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi, has tried to showcase the Islamic roots of personalism. He names Muhammad Iqbal, one of South Asia’s most famed poets, as a representative of this kind of Islamic personalism.

Considering Iqbal gives us the opportunity to propose some critical notes on the subject.

Iqbal is well known for his concept of Khudi, or “selfhood.” This is the idea that an individual must actualize his inner potential for self-realization.

Some have tried to establish this idea as being rooted in German idealist philosophy, more specifically in Fichte and his idea of the ego. However, many Iqbal scholars have refuted this claim, deeming it to be Eurocentric, and they argue that Iqbal’s Khudi is rooted within sources closer to home, i.e., the metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabi as interpreted by Abd al-Karim al-Jili.

Without immersing ourselves into the technical debates surrounding the intellectual genealogy of the idea, let’s suffice to say that the personalism of Iqbal contains some very problematic propositions.

Anyone who is relatively familiar with Iqbal’s poetry would likely be able to guess what we’re referring to—the “heroic selfhood” of Khudi which expresses itself in a sort of sacralized irreverence towards the Creator.

Readers who are not familiar with the Urdu language would perhaps be able to get an idea through a translation of some of Iqbal’s most famous lines, which, unsurprisingly, actually feature in a popular rock song compiled by Pakistan’s most famous “Sufi rock” band, Junoon:

Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdir se pehley,
khuda bande se khud puchey bata teri raza kya hai.

Elevate your Self to such a level that, before issuing every decree,
God Himself asks man what his expectation/desire is.

In fact, the ambiguity lies in the term itself, as Khudi (selfhood) sounds a little too much like Khuda, the Persian word for God which is used in the region.

From our perspective, this has a great deal to do with the fact that personalism still absorbs the anthropological biases of liberal individualism. Mounier often insisted on the notions of humanism and freedom, and Iqbal seems to have possessed some modernist and Eurocentric notions too, something that is evident in relation to other matters as well, including his approach to Islam’s “Golden Age.”

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This is, of course, not a total and outright rejection of Iqbal, unlike other “modernist Islamist” thinkers such as Algeria’s Malek Bennabi tend towards. I believe his benefits outweigh his errors incomparably.

That being said, however, it must be borne in mind regarding Iqbal, as well as personalism, that a seemingly apparent “middle path” between two secular ideologies isn’t necessarily the straight path.

Guide us along the straight way — the way of those upon whom You have bestowed grace, not those upon whom there is wrath, nor those astray. (Qur’an, 1:6-7)

For, indeed, this is My way, a straight one. So follow it. Thus, you shall not follow [other crooked] ways, for they will separate you from His way. [All] this has He enjoined upon you, so that you may be God-fearing. (Qur’an, 6:153)

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Iqbal went through many ups and downs in his creed and thought. His later works are supportive of a worldview of wanting a unified and religious Muslim ummah rising above western hegemony. He wasn’t a religious scholar, so he surely has mistakes in aspects of theology or fiqh, but he can’t be grouped together with reformists, nor with religious scholars. He should be left with his poet status trying to uplift the ummah (specially the subcontinentals) through his poetry.


But I’ve always been taught what’s between Iqbal’s lines is: to raise one’s “Khudi” is to erase one’s ego. Then, as our Prophet (SAW) told us in a Hadith Qudsi, when a slave submits so much to Allah, Allah loves him & “becomes his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees…” And Allah’s love for His Prophet was as in Quran:2:144 – We have seen you turn your face towards Heaven: and now We shall surely make you turn in prayer in a direction that will fulfill your desire..


Allah changed the direction of the Qiblah from Jerusalem to Makkah, saying He saw the blessed Prophet (S) raise his face to the sky – although the Prophet SAW hadn’t eve made the request to face his beloved city Makkah. Because He loved him. Of course the implication is not that Allah needs anyone’s permission. The model of the Prophet SAW was that of a human who erased his self for Allah, and this is how his status was elevated in the heavens and earth for all time to come. Out of Allah’s love.


You are more than wrong on this. I don’t know how familiar you are with him. He was one of the greatest Islamic thinkers and It was he who perceived the idea of an Islamic state. However, Iqbal does not venerate the state like God, and he believed that loyalty to the country is subservient to the obedience of God


In Taza Khudaon Mein Bara Sub Se Watan Hai
Jo Pairhan Iss Ka Hai, Woh Mazhab Ka Kafan Hai

Country, is the biggest among these new gods!
What is its shirt is the shroud of Deen (Religion)

Ye But Ke Tarashida-e-Tehzeeb-e-Nawi Hai
Gharatgar-e-Kashana-e-Deen-e-Nabwi Hai

This idol which is the product of the new civilization
Is the plunderer of the structure of the Holy Prophet’s Deen (Religion)


Bazu Tera Touheed Ki Quwwat Se Qawi Hai
Islam Tera Dais Hai, Tu Mustafavi Hai

Your arm is enforced with the strength of the Divine Unity
You are the followers of Mustafa, your country is Islam

Nazzara-e-Dairina Zamane Ko Dikha De
Ae Mustafavi Khak Mein Iss Butt Ko Mila De!

You should show the old panorama to the world
O Mustafaa’s follower! You should destroy this idol

Guftar-e-Siasat Mein Watan Aur Hi Kuch Hai
Irshad-e-Nabuwwat Mein Watan Aur Hi Kuch Hai