June 17, 2019

Sublimity of Iqbal in the 21st century

A review by Manzar Imam

Iqbal by Zafar AnjumAllama Muhammad Iqbal was a great poet, thinker, philosopher, and much more but his philosophy of khudi was too high to address the immediate needs of a community that battled then and is still battling against odds. However, his message is as powerful and relevant now as it was then, views Manzar Imam


Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician

Zafar Anjum, Random House India, 2014

ISBN 978-81-8400-586-8, 247 Pages, RS 499


Muhammad Iqbal is one of the most widely read and frequently quoted poets in the Indian subcontinent.  Poet he is. But he is also a thinker, scholar, philosopher, politician and a man of fine taste for music, art, literature and Islamic sciences.

Known for sowing the initial seeds of the idea of Pakistan, Iqbal died as an Indian before the new state took birth. However, he still occupies as much respectability in India as in Pakistan or elsewhere because of his philosophical ideas and reformist poems. But the general reader, or the new generation of readers is largely unaware of these aspects of his personality. Those who know him, mainly know him as a poet.

It is in this backdrop that the book under review, “Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician”, aims to ‘spur’ reading of the life of Iqbal, not just as a poet, but also as a philosopher, political thinker and modernist who for a long took strong exception to the mulla and pundit alike. Zafar Anjum describes the biography as his “spiritual homage to Iqbal and his universal message”.

One of the memorable contributions of Iqbal according to Anjum is the propounding of the philosophy of “Khudi” which is not only for Indians or Pakistanis but for “for the entire world”.

I have a different opinion. To me, Iqbal’s most significant contribution to world of ideas and especially to Muslims across nations and nationalities has been his assertion that Islam is compatible with modern science at a time when there was a strong Western attack on it being incompatible with modern sciences.

Iqbal’s persona in that respect is unmatchable with any other Muslim scholar of his time. But as the author himself questions, “How many know that there is much more to Iqbal than his poetry?”

Contrary to the common perception, it is Iqbal first, not Jinnah, who actually came up with the idea of a separate nation for Muslims under the British India rule. Anjum asks again, “How many know about Iqbal’s political role in the creation of Pakistan and why a patriotic poet like him came up with the idea of Pakistan”. The question remains the least satisfactorily answered though.

In Pakistan: Founders’ Aspirations and Today’s Realities, (Karachi: OUP, 2001, p.vii), Hafeez Malik writes, “Conceptually, however, Dr Muhammad Iqbal, …, had articulated the architectural design of a Muslim state in the northwest, and another one in the northeast of India in 1930, when he delivered the presidential address at the annual session of the Muslim League in Allahabad.”

Inquiry here must be made about the two-nation theory and related arguments for seeking a deeper understanding of the subject as India and Pakistan continue to remain traditional rivals. Recent debates would only assert that.

A detailed explanation of the above cannot overlook many related issues. Therefore Anjum divides the book into four parts supplementing it with a thought-provoking epilogue bringing Iqbal back alive at the centre of discussion.

Iqbal was born on 9 November, 1877 in Sialkot. His ancestors were Kashmiri Brahmins who had embraced Islam two hundred years ago. His father, Shaikh Noor Muhammad was a devout Muslim with Sufistic bent of mind.

He received early education in Sialkot. When Iqbal joined Intermediary College he became highly influenced by Mir Hasan, a great oriental scholar who had a special aptitude for imparting his own literary taste to his students. The author feels that Iqbal’s interest in poetry and Islam at the early phases of life could be derived from Mir Hasan’s literary teachings.

The choice of subjects also reveals Iqbal’s orientation to the thoughts and ideas he would later give. He graduated from Government College, Lahore with English Literature, Philosophy and Arabic. During college days, Iqbal met Professor Thomas W. Arnold and Sir Abdul Qadir in whose journal some of his early poems were published. Iqbal received recognition and critical acclaim as a poet in Urdu literary circles.

Iqbal started reading and writing poetry. In the meanwhile, he also did MA in Philosophy and was appointed lecturer in History, Philosophy and Political Science at the Oriental College, Lahore. His ideas made deep impressions on people around him.

The wide recognition of his poetry and philosophy is due to the fact that Iqbal did not stop thinking and learning. He based his thoughts on what he learnt and understood and kept on moving ahead and enhancing his ideas on newly gained knowledge and wisdom. It was for this persistence perhaps that despite getting a well-deserved recognition and moderately-paying teaching job, he proceeded to Europe for higher studies. In 1909, he took the Honors Degree in Philosophy at the Cambridge University and taught there Arabic in the absence of Prof. Arnold whom Iqbal had met in his college days in Lahore.

After a three-year stay in England, Iqbal went to Germany: the home and hotbed of nationalism and did his Doctorate in Philosophy from Munich.

From Munich Iqbal again returned to England where he qualified for the bar with a law degree from the Lincoln’s Inn, London.

In Europe Iqbal not only read widely but also penned and lectured on Islamic subjects that increased his popularity. Yet, there was more to come.

By the time Iqbal returned to India, he was well known and had won academic laurels. He was then just 32 or 33. He practiced law till 1934 which he gave up on account of health.

According to the author, Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman, of self-creation and self-assertion and Bergson’s elan vital inspired Iqbal to develop his own philosophy of khudi, in the light of Quranic teachings, the Prophet’s traditions, and Arabic and Persian literature.

It is in this background that we must see Iqbal’s poetry as distinguished from others’. This also raises the need to understand his poetry and philosophy. Important here also is to understand Iqbal’s educational philosophy that would help get the picture of his idea of Pakistan. However, the latter aspect is only superficially touched in the book.

Iqbal’s genius lies in his ideational approach towards Universe and the Individual. To Iqbal, the individual has the capacity to reach where no other creature can:

Afrad ke hathon mein hai aqwam ki taqdeer,

Har fard hai millat ke muqaddar ka sitara.

(Fortunes of Nations are shaped by the hands of its citizens, Each one is a star to guide the destiny of the community: Anjum)

Manzar Imam and Zafar Anjum

From left to right: Manzar Imam (reviewer) and Zafar Anjum (author)

Iqbal emphasizes the growth of Ego and Individuality in which community has a major stake and vital role to play. This makes him powerful. It is membership of the community that gives the individual sense of power. The poet’s asking of building khudi, to me, is about raising one’s individuality.

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle, Khuda bande se khud puchhe bata teri raza kya hai, [Elevate your individuality to such a height that before any decree God Himself asks you “Tell me, what is your wish”], is one of the most often cited poems of Iqbal.

Iqbal has a cosmopolitan view of unity where colour, racial and geographical boundaries carry little meaning. He despises “narrow communalism”, hopes for revival of “Ijtihaad”, sees in the “excessive competitiveness and unbridled expansion” the coming of downfall of the West and, finds in Islam a better model to combat the “ills of the West”.

In his famous Address to the Muslim Youth (Khitab Ba Nau Jawanan-e-Islam), Iqbal reminds the youth of their duty towards society and community, warns them to be watchful of the present and careful about the future:

Kabhi aye naujawan Muslim tadabbur bhi kiya tu ne,

Who kya gardun tha tu jiska hai ek tuta huwa tara?

“Muslim youngman have you ever pondered over the fact that you are a fallen star of a magnificent firmament.” (Muhammad Munawwar)

So far as Jinnah and Iqbal are concerned, they belonged to different schools of thought and learning. Jinnah never had a religious orientation and was far away from being a practicing Muslim. He avoided the company of ulama, was a Congress man and joined the Muslim League about 7-8 years after its formation, that too when the League was in conformity with the ideas of the Congress.

In fact, it was Gandhi’s liaison with ulama during the Khilafat Movement that led to Jinnah’s separation from the Congress.

However, as against common perception, it is Iqbal first, not Jinnah, who actually came up with the idea of a separate nation for Muslims under the British Indian rule. However, it would be grossly erroneous to say that Iqbal was the founder of Pakistan.

Alike Jinnah, Iqbal too was an Indian patriot who talked about Hindu-Muslim unity. Like Tagore, Iqbal also was a great proponent of eastern values. As Anjum has noted in the conclusion of Iqbal’s Presidential Address to the Twenty-fifth Session of the All-India Muslim League delivered on 29 December 1930 at Allahabad: The political bondage of India has been and is a source of infinite misery to the whole of Asia. It has suppressed the spirit of the East and wholly deprived her of that joy of self-expression which once made her the creator of a great and glorious culture.

There is rejection in Iqbal’s early poems of the narrow-mindedness of both the Brahmins and mullas, condemnation of communal tendencies and appeal for communal harmony. It remains a fact, nevertheless, that it was Iqbal and not Jinnah who inspired the idea of Muslim nationhood (read Pakistan).

A modernist and non-orthodox Muslim thinker, Iqbal was unapologetic in his belief in the supremacy of Islam. At a time of a ruthless attack on Islam from the West that Islam was incompatible with modern science, it was Iqbal who stood firm to answer the West that Islam in fact was compatible with modern science and it allowed men to observe, experiment and discover new vistas of life. He constantly debated that Islam urged its followers to let their individuality flourish and find new meanings of life.

The book contains many things about the “Poet of the East” including his love interest which kept him baffling throughout his life. However, what is missing is the critical aspect that Iqbal laid the foundations of his thought on the glorious past of Islam without clearly stating the formulae and theories on which the new generation of Muslims had to restart to regain their lost glory.

Iqbal kept on preaching Muslims to raise the status of “ego” without addressing their immediate needs. And, as truth would have it, an empty stomach cannot be filled with high sounding moral doses as Noon Meem Rashid has said:

Jahan gharib ko naan-e-javin nahin milti,

Wahan hakeem ke dars-e-khudi ko kya kije.

(When the poor cannot find a bread to fill his stomach with, what will he make of the philosopher’s lesson of ego?)

Philosopher, Iqbal was. But was his philosophy meant to addressing the challenges of Muslims needs further exploration and contextualization.

Anjum’s biographical tribute to Iqbal makes a compelling reading, offering readers the life of the poet-philosopher juxtaposed between love and longing and a fervent appeal to Muslims to wake up from their “slothful and lethargic slumber” in a splendidly refreshing prose.


About the reviewer:

Manzar ImamManzar Imam is a Ph.D. student at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. For his M Phil he had two papers on Political Development & Foreign Policy in Pakistan and, State and Civil Society in Pakistan. He wrote a paper on “Iqbal’s idea of Pakistan” as part of his course work.



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