Rethinking “National Culture” of India: An Entangled Indo-German Intellectual History


by Razak Khan


This post highlights one strand of the complex pattern of intellectual entanglements between Indian Muslim and German intellectuals in the twentieth century. I suggest that the issue of minority’s position with respect to national culture were central to the histories of Germany and India in the twentieth century.[i] Following Aamir Mufti´s suggestion, this post situates the problematic status of “Minority” as it emerged as the “Jewish Question” in Germany and traces its re-appearance and persistence as the “Muslim Question” in colonial and post-colonial India.[ii] The entangled intellectual history of Indian Muslim scholarly writings on the issue of “Muslim Question” and minority integration in India share a deep affinity with German thought, particularly on the issue of national culture (Kultur), self-cultivation, education (Bildung/Erziehung) and citizenship ideals that dominated the intellectual debates on the “Jewish Question” and emancipation in Germany.[iii] Kris Manjapra notes that in the “Age of Entanglement” Indo-German connections were forged and sustained both in regulated institutional contexts but also in affective personal ways.[iv] I explore these affective histories and archives by looking at institutional connections between Indian Muslim intellectuals and their German counterparts in the University context and by also illuminating personal relations and friendships forged as teachers and students that led to their evolution as intellectual interlocutors and innovators. The main exemplars in this history are Syed Abid Husain (1896–1978) and Eduard Spranger (1882–1963) within a larger connected network of intellectuals.

Crises are interesting temporalities that produce new entangled histories. Abid Husain was among the many Indian students who moved from English Universities to Germany for higher education in the politically volatile 1920s. The post-first world war period was marked by political, economic and cultural turbulence but also new transregional imaginations, ideas, and connections in Germany. Diverse actors ranging from Pan-Islamist agitators, religious proselytizers, nationalist and anti-colonial intellectuals interacted with each other in the cosmopolitan Weimar Berlin.[v] South Asian and German intellectuals showed remarkable openness to mutual learning. Husain studied and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer under the supervision of the German educationist and psychologist Eduard Spranger at the University of Berlin. The intellectual exchange lasted beyond Husain’s Berlin residence, continuing in private exchange of letters and ideas.[vi] Subsequently, Husain also translated Spranger´s influential writing on the issue of youth psychology and education.[vii] Questions around youth, education and national culture serve as the running leitmotif that can be traced in Spranger and Husain´s long-lasting Indo-German intellectual exchange which continued even after the division of Germany and partition of India: two crucial events that symbolized the “Minority Question” and “National Culture” politics in Germany and India.


Reception by Indian students in Germany to Professors of Berlin University, 1926. In the photo can be seen: Dr. Abid Husain (First from right). The publisher and author thanks the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin as the depository of Prof. Krüger’s estate for the friendly permission to use the photographs of this ZMO archive collection.

Eduard Spranger remained concerned with post-war intellectual and cultural development in West Germany and continued to expound on the themes of culture, education and university that were collected in his book, Culture Questions of Our Times (Kulturfragen der Gegenwart).[viii] His post-war writings also took into account global narratives and polemic on culture, pedagogy and the Nation State that also included developments in the philosophy and practices of higher education in India. Abid Husain notes in his autobiography that Spranger believed that while West Germany made miraculous economic progress after the war, “only an emphasis on education and citizenship ideal could revitalize revival of Germany´s true spirit.”[ix] In fact, to realise this dream, Spranger wanted to start a democratic educational society that would promote individual freedom, social justice and create a humanist culture marked by deep civility. This society was conceived as introducing a consistent, disciplined change in the educational and political sphere by emphasizing the complex relationship between education, citizenship and National development.[x] While Spranger´s educational philosophy and ideas particularly on youth, education and nation building project slowly declined in West Germany, they acquired new life and were put in practice in India. Abid Husain introduced them not just in his household in Jamia Nagar but also played a key role in implementing them at the Jamia Milia Islamia School and University as well as through his advisory role in education and culture ministry at the larger policy level in postcolonial India. Abid Husain, therefore, emerges as a crucial actor in the long process of cultural translation, adaptation, and transformation in the Indo–German entangled intellectual history.

Production of “National Culture” and “Minority Question”

The vision of education and enlightened citizens that were so dear to both of these scholars lay in ruin in divided Germany but found new fertile ground in post-partition India. When Abid Husain was offered a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to work on the subject of minority and national culture, he chose to spend his fellowship year with Eduard Spranger in Tübingen during 1954-55 on revising and translating his book. The book has an interesting history: it was initially written in Urdu as Indian Nationalism and National Culture (Hindustani qaumiyat aur qaumi tahzib) in three volumes in 1946 before the partition of India.[xi] However, as noted by the author in the preface of the revised and translated English version The National Culture of India, It was not just revised but also recast “so as to take a more comprehensive view of the problems we have to solve before a new cultural synthesis, which is necessary to ensure our national unity and freedom can be achieved.”[xii] The revised Urdu title of the book was Qaumi tahzib ka maslah (The Question of National Culture). The violent partition of India did not solve the “Muslim Question”; instead, it created a long lasting “Culture Question” marked by suspicion of the Muslims in India and question of minority integration into national culture.[xiii]

Beyond nationalist frames, it is also important to situate the translation and re-casting of this text within the larger global cold war history and politics of knowledge production about Islam.[xiv] The Rockefeller Foundation reports in the field of Humanities in 1953 emphasized that it “sought to identify and stimulate new cultural growth” and towards this direction gave support to intellectuals for writing recent history and facilitate “better understanding of international problems.”[xv] Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship allowed Husain to revise and translate his book into the English language as part of the larger initiative to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in Indian history. Interestingly, Rockefeller Foundation also funded similar projects of history-writing, most notably the work of Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi – doyen of Pakistani nationalist history-writing exemplified in his work The Muslim Community of The Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent. This book was also written during a Rockefeller Grant at Columbia University. Qureshi arrived at the conclusion of two-nation theory of religious and cultural difference that was contradictory to Husain´s composite nationalism thesis.[xvi] The study of Islam and Muslim culture in South Asia continue to remain a deeply contested topic between Indian and Pakistani historians. However, it is to Husain´s analysis that we must return to understand the responses to the vexed question of National History, Culture and Minority Identity in post-partition India.

The “physically bracing and mentally stimulating” environment of the university town of Tübingen in divided Germany allowed Husain to explore some of the shared questions about minority, national culture and education.[xvii] The book was part of Husain´s intellectual efforts to rethink the place of Muslims in the national culture of India. Husain reflects on the history and prospects of cultural unity and possibilities of a “New National Culture” in post-partition India. Husain´s work has been situated within the writings of Indian Nationalist Historians especially his teacher Tara Chand on composite culture and nationalism in India.[xviii] Husain also acknowledges the influence of his Indian teacher Tara Chand. However, in conceptualizing a new national culture as well as resolving the crisis of the existing one, Husain´s “Nationalist” ideas have a deep transnational – especially German – flavour.

The German influence over Husain´s thought and writings are evident in the salience of national culture and its relationship with education. Andrew Sartori has drawn our attention to the trope of Germanism and Kultur concept particularly in colonial Bengal while C. M Naim has pointed at the French influence in re-shaping conception of civilization in Arabic and into Urdu.[xix] The conceptual reconfiguration of Qaum as nation, Tamaddun as civilization and Tahzib as culture concept in Urdu language and Muslim thought reveals the entangled transregional and multi-lingual (English, French, German as well as Arabic and Persian) nature of intellectual and conceptual history.[xx] This aspect is also evident in Abid Husain´s translation and writings. In the revised book he starts with a comprehensive definition of culture and its various aspects. According to Husain “culture is a sense of ultimate values possessed by a particular society as expressed in its collective institutions, by its individual members in their dispositions, feelings, attitudes and manners as well as in significant forms which they give to material objects.”[xxi] In this conception, culture has objective mental aspect, subjective aspect and material aspect. Husain further elaborates these various aspects so that ”the collective complexes (state, society, art, science) which are permanent results of the attempt to create ultimate value could be regarded as its objective mental aspect, the qualities and attitudes of individuals inspired by these values as its subjective aspect, and the physical objects in which these values are embodied e.g. buildings, pictures etc. would be its material aspect.”[xxii] In this understanding, culture is seen as distinct from the “two allied concepts – religion and civilization.” Husain calls religion “soul of culture” and civilization as the “higher order of culture.” However, Husain cautioned that degenerated religion and civilization devoid of moral value could turn as “enemy of culture.”[xxiii] Thus, evidently Husain was not advocating the civilizational discourse but the concept of national culture as envisaged in the German concept of Kultur as distinct from the French and English concept and discourse of Zivilisation/Civilization.

Culture (Kultur) and education (Bildung/Erziehung) were key concepts in Spranger´s writings. As Birgit Althans summarizes, in his writings on education and culture Eduard Spranger advanced a view of culture as “objective spirit,” produced by mankind which ought to be transferred to the “subjective spirit” of the individual, youth, or child.”[xxiv] Spranger insisted that “Individual cultivation could not occur without the concurrent development of the national character.”[xxv] Bildung or self-cultivation through education was the connecting link between individual and national culture. Thus, Spranger´s culture project is allied with the nation-state project through education.[xxvi] For this project, Spranger advocated the “cultivation of cultural leadership” that would eventually lead to “New Culture.”[xxvii] The role of the pedagogue as key actor in the emotional integration with nation was an important aspect of Spranger´s vision. Husain acknowledged the deep influence of Spranger in shaping his understanding of philosophy of culture and education.[xxviii] He also advocated education as the medium of national integration, but he further elaborated that “This was not just education of body and mind but also spirit”.[xxix] Thus, affective education was the key to bringing true emotional integration with national culture. The revised edition not only diagnosed the problem of national culture and integration in post-Partition India but also recommended solutions: inaugurating a Youth Festival “to bring students from all over India to live together and understand cultural difference” and the setting up of new cultural institutions and academies “to bring together artists in common cultural creation as representative of group-cultures.”[xxx] The National Book Trust was involved in this process through writer’s camp and cultural exchange scheme.[xxxi]

A recurring theme in the German reform pedagogy thought, exemplified by Spranger, was the central role of an enlightened leadership led by the intellectual class to resolve the issue of integration in the national culture. Not just artists and writers but also teachers were involved, and large-scale teacher exchange within India was envisaged to create interaction among diverse linguistic cultures of India and to find the common thread of national culture. In this vision for national integration teachers and fellows of national academies were to be the “makers as well as the messengers of a national culture.”[xxxii] Husain emphasized that minority intellectual leaders, especially teachers, were to play a major role to “integrate our emotions and aspirations, thereby ensuring the unity and freedom of the country.”[xxxiii] Here we find the postcolonial Nehruvian discursive logic of “unity in diversity” being heralded as the mark of Indian National culture. It was not just a solution for post-partition India but also to the global cultural crisis precipitated by Cold War politics. Culture and Cold War politics were connected processes not just in Europe but also in South Asia, based on the fear of the national elites and propelled by the urgent need of harmonising diversity of group cultures with the fundamental unity of a common national culture. [xxxiv]

Abid Husain received the Sahitya Akademi Book Award in 1956 from the Government of India for his work on national culture and integration. As Mushirul Hasan observes Abid Husain represented a “secular integrationist agenda for Indian Unity in which national culture was emphasized over Muslim culture.”[xxxv] The onus here remains with the minority to transcend its minority religious identity and culture with cultural integration into national unity. The emancipation project through Bildung ideal was taken enthusiastically by elite Jews in Germany to transcend their Jewishness and become German citizen. The Nationalist Indian Muslim educationists at the Jamia Milia Islamia (National Islamic University) and the educational policy designed by them brought their German education and experience to the conception of education and pedagogues as vital to the creation of an enlightened and democratic society that is populated by co-operative citizen in post-partition India.

Institutionalizing Islamic Studies and Muslim Integration

The Indo-German intellectual connections were further employed for Indian Muslim integrationist agenda at the Jamia Milia Islamia University. This intellectual connection and influence are evident in the vision of a new Islamic Studies and Comparative Religious studies attempted at the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies established in 1971 at the Jamia Milia Islamia University. Abid Husain forged new intellectual connections with scholars of Islam and South Asia in Germany. Husain visited Germany again in 1967 regarding plans for launching a new society and journal “Islam in Modern Age” at the Jamia Milia Islamia University. His travelogue and letters recount his meetings and discussion with eminent Islamic studies scholars in Germany. When Husain visited Tübingen again, Spranger was no more, but the small town had become an important center of traditional Indology and knowledge production about India as well as Islamic Studies in West Germany under the leadership of Prof Rudi Peret, Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies, he also directed the Orientalisches Seminar in Tübingen. Prof. Peret expressed his concern about the state of Muslims in Pakistan and agreed with Husain´s project that only Muslims in free secular India could bring about modern reform in South Asian Islam and supported the initiative launched by Jamia Muslim scholars.[xxxvi] Prof. Otto Spies, Arabic and Islamic Studies scholar at Bonn University was an old friend of Husain and offered warm support to his initiative at Jamia. At Bonn University, Husain also encountered the rising young Islamic Studies scholar Annemarie Schimmel. Husain was deeply impressed by this interesting lady who was fluent in many languages including Urdu. They spoke about Islam, Muslims and Urdu Literature in South Asia and bonded over a common research interest in Mirza Ghalib´s poetry. Schimmel remained in touch with Husain. Many of the internationally renowned Islamic studies scholars including W.C Smith and Annemarie Schimmel supported the new Islamic studies globally and especially at Jamia. Schimmel contributed articles for the journal Islam in Modern Age and also forged intellectual relations and friendship with Jamia Muslim scholars as evidenced by the letters exchanged regarding Iqbal and Ghalib and Urdu Literature. Annemarie Schimmel also acknowledged and thanked Abid Husain in her work on Islam in the Indian Subcontinent. [xxxvii]


The afterlife of German ideas can still be found in the institutional archives in Jamia University and as cherished family memories in Jamia Nagar neighbourhood. The entangled Indo-German intellectual history is also spread in the affective archives of shared ideas, feelings and resultant friendship forged between individuals and that also led to connections, exchange and circulations of texts and concepts both in India and Germany. More crucially they continue to show how ideas remained profoundly transnational and manage to cross barriers in the time of partition walls and boundaries in Germany and India.


[i] I am indebted to Prof. Schirin Amir-Moazami and Dr. Ruth Streicher for exemplary editorial comments and support. I also benefited from discussions with members of Modern India in German Archives project and my colleagues at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Göttingen University. Special Thanks to Prof. Ravi Ahuja, Prof. Faisal Devji, Prof. Kris Manjapra and Prof. Margrit Pernau for interesting conversations on the Indo-German entangled intellectual histories.

[ii]Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.p.2.

[iii]There exist rich historiography on German intellectual debates on Kultur, Bildung and Jewish emancipation. On the German concept of Kultur see Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Revised edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. On Bildung see Rebekka Harlocher, The Educated Subject and the German Concept of Bildung: A Comparative Cultural History. New York: Routledge, 2016. On Jewish pursuit of Bildung ideal and integration see George Mosse, German Jews beyond Judaism. Hebrew Union College Press, 1997.

[iv]Kris Manjapra, Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014, p.6.

[v]Götz Nordbruch and Umar Ryad eds., Transnational Islam in Interwar Europe: Muslim Activists and Thinkers, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[vi]Syed Abid Husain, Saliah Abid usain ed., Avaz-i dost: akar Syed Abid usain ke khatut̤, Begam aliah Abid usain ke nam. Adab Pablikeshanz, 1994.

[vii]Eduard Spranger, Psychologie des Jugendalters. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1924.For Urdu translation see, Syed Abid Husain, Nafsiyat-i unfuvan-i sabab, Delhi, 1958.

[viii]Eduard Spranger, Kulturfragen der Gegenwart. Quelle & Meyer,1953.

[ix]Syed Abid Ḥusain, Ḥayat-i Abid: k̲hvud navisht-i Ḍakṭar Abid Ḥusain. Delhi: Maktabah-yi Jāmiah, 1984.

[x] Ibid., 165.

[xi]Syed Abid Ḥusain, Hindustani qaumiyat aur qaumi tahzib. Delhi : Maktabah-yi Jamiah, 1946.

[xii]Syed Abid Husain, Qaumi tahzib ka maslah. Delhi: Anjuman-i Taraqqī-yi Urdu, 1955. The English translation was first published in 1956, Second Revised and Enlarged edition, 1961. I consulted Syed Abid Ḥusain, The National Culture of India. Delhi: National Book Trust, 1978, 2006 reprint. Preface to the Second Edition.

[xiii] Gyanendra Pandey, “Can a Muslim be an Indian?” Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1999), pp. 608-629.

[xiv] For an insightful study of Cold War knowledge politics and Islamic Studies see, Rosemary R. Hicks, “Comparative Religion and the Cold War Transformation of Indo-Persian Mysticisms and Liberal Islamic Modernity.”In Markus Dresler & Arvind Mandair eds. Secularism and Religion Making. New York: Oxford University Press,2011,p.141-168.

[xv]Rockfeller Foundation Report,1953,p.280.

[xvi]Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of The Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947). Hague: Mount & Co. Publishers, 1962,p.7.

[xvii]Syed Abid Ḥusain, The National Culture of India. Delhi: National Book Trust, 1978,p. xv.

[xviii]Tara Chand, Influence of Islam on lndian Culture. Allahabad, The Indian Press, 1963. Also, Javed Alam, “Composite Nationalism and its Historiography.” South Asia, VOL XXII (1999),pp.29-37.

[xix]Andrew Sartori, “Beyond Culture-Contact and Colonial Discourse: ‘Germanism’ in Colonial Bengal,” Modern Intellectual History, vol. 4, no. 1, 2007.pp77-93. C. M Naim, “Interrogating, “The East,” “Culture,” and “Loss”in Abdul Halim Sharar´s Guzahsta Luckna´u. In Alka Patel &Karen Leonard eds. Indo-Muslim Culture in Transition. Leiden: Brill,2011,p.189-205.

[xx] Faisal Devji. Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea. Harvard University Press, 2013.Margrit Pernau, H. Jordheim, E. Saada, C. Bailey, E. Wigen, O. Bashkin, M. Kia, M. Singh, R. Majumdar, A.C. Messner, O. Benesch, M. Park and J. Ifversen. Civilizing Emotions. Concepts in Nineteenth-Century Asia and Europe. New York: Oxford University Press,2015.

[xxi]Syed Abid Ḥusain, The National Culture of India. Delhi: National Book Trust, 1978,p. xxiv.

[xxii] Ibid.,xxiii-xxiv.

[xxiii] Ibid., Xxiv-xxv.

[xxiv] Birgit Althans, “The Use of Culture in Education-From Shared Meanings in Contest and Competition.” In Birgitta Qvarsell, Christoph Wulf: Culture and Education. (European studies in education, Vol. 16). Münster; New York; Mflnchen, Berlin: Waxmann, 2003, p. 52.

[xxv] Eduard Spranger, Das Deutsche Bildungsideal der Gegenwart in Geschichtsphilosophischer Beleuchtung. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1928,p.68-69. Also, Eduard Spranger, Kultur und Erziehung: Gesammelte Pädagogische Aufsatze. Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1928.

[xxvi]Birgit Althans, “The Use of Culture in Education-From Shared Meanings in Contest and Competition.” In Birgitta Qvarsell, Christoph Wulf: Culture and Education. (European studies in education, Vol. 16). Münster; New York; München, Berlin: Waxmann, 2003.p. 52.

[xxvii]Colin Leader and David Kettler, Karl Mannheim´s Sociology as Political Education. New Brunswick: Transaction Publisher,2002,p.61.

[xxviii] Syed Abid Ḥusain, Ḥayat-i Ābid: k̲hvud navisht-i Ḍakṭar Ābid Ḥusain. Delhi: Maktabah-yi Jāmiah,1984.p.164.

[xxix] Syed Abid Ḥusain, The National Culture of India. Delhi: National Book Trust, 1978, p.211.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi]Ibid., 199.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 204.

[xxxiv] On National culture debates in Pakistan see, Saadia Toor, The State of Islam. Culture and Cold War Politics in Pa­kistan. London: Pluto Press, 2011.

[xxxv]Mushirul Hasan. Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims since Independence. London: Hurst,1997, p. 246.

[xxxvi]Ṣaliḥah Abid Husain, ed. Rah navard-i shauq: safar namah. Maktabah-yi Jāmiah, 1979,p. 102

[xxxvii] Annemarie Schimmel, Islam in the Indian Subcontinent.Leiden:Brill.1980.


Razak Khan is Research Fellow in the “Modern India in German Archives” project at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) Göttingen University. His current research project is titled “From Berlin to Delhi: Education, Intellectual Exchange and Politics of Cultural Translation in the life and writings of Syed Abid Husain (1896-1978)” and examines the entangled history of Indo-German intellectual connections. He has edited a special issue of Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Volume 58, Issue 5, 2015 and published commentaries in Economic and Political Weekly. He is also completing a book project “Princely Past, Subaltern Present: Locality, Histories, and Identities in Rampur.”



Citation: Razak Khan, Rethinking “National Culture” of India: An Entangled Indo-German Intellectual History, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.01.2017

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