“Kafir-e-ishqam musalmani mara darkaar neest” ‘(I am) an infidel of love, the creed of Muslims I do not need’
– Amir Khusrow
It is presumptuous to attempt to write anything about Iqbal; to encompass the poetry and philosophy of a man whose words continue to bewitch millions.
It is equally true though that even though he was awarded such lofty titles as Mufakkir e Pakistan (Thinker of Pakistan) and Hakeem ul Ummat (The Physician of the Ummah), it is for his poetry that he is primarily known and loved.
That being the case, it is fascinating to note how ambivalent Iqbal was towards poetry in general and his own poetry in particular: “I have never considered myself a poet…I have no interest in the art of poetry. I have adopted the poem as a way of describing some issues pertinent to this country (British India).” His attraction to poetry was mainly as a tool to spark an awakening. At the historic eve of his Allahabad address where the idea of a separate Muslim state was put forward openly for the first time, he rebuked some students in the audience when they requested him to recite some of his poetry to alleviate the somber atmosphere of the occasion. He urged them to spend their time and talent in doing something more useful than writing or reciting poetry.
[quote]Iqbal urged students to spend their time and talent in doing something more useful than writing or reciting poetry[/quote]
He was of course, also a keen student of history, especially Islamic history and was no doubt aware of the unsavory reputation of poets as vessels of the occult. In ancient Arabia, ‘Kahins’ were ‘a group of cultic officials…poets who primarily functioned as soothsayers and for a fee would fall into a trance in which they would reveal divine messages through rhyming couplets’ (Reza Aslan. “No god but God, 2005). The enemies of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, accused him of being a ‘Kahin’ and would ask mockingly, “Should we abandon our gods for the sake of an insane poet?” (The Quran 37:36).
[quote]His father was a humble seller and maker of caps who had a strong love for Sufism[/quote]
Iqbal was a study in contrasts. His poetic thought was significantly influenced by Western philosophical giants like Nietzsche, Goethe and Bergson and his idea of a separate Muslim state which he proposed in his famous Allahabad address of 1930 was appallingly at odds with the violent cleavage of the subcontinent that occurred a full nine years after his death in April 1938. Knighted by King George V in 1922, he shared the title of Hakeem ul Ummat with Maulana Shah Ashraf Ali Thanvi, an orthodox religious reformer of the early 20th century considered to be the founder of the puritanical Deobandi school of thought. Ever scornful of the Puritan, Iqbal seems to be mocking the contrast in the verses below,
Merey Kadoo ko ghaneemat samajh ke baada-e-naab
Na madrassay mein hai baaqi na khaanqah mein hai
(Consider as sufficient my chalice, for the rare elixir it contains
Is amiss in the madrassa and the ascetic’s abode)
(Translation by the authors)
Perhaps it is for his staunch opposition to the idea of art for art’s sake that Iqbal the preacher and philosopher is as well known, at least in Pakistan, as Iqbal the poet and the prose-writer. (He has one Urdu- ‘Ilm ul Iqtisad’– and two pieces of English prose to his credit: his PhD thesis at the University of Munich, ‘The Development of Metaphysics in Persia’ and ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’). However despite his profound philosophical insight, it is his poetry- all twelve thousand verses of it- that transported him through the ever-turning pages of history directly into the hearts of his people, seemingly in fulfillment of his own heart-felt supplication in ‘Zabur e Ajam’ (Persian Psalms),
He was born in a Kashmiri Brahmin family, which had converted to Islam some three centuries earlier. His was a deeply religious household, with his father, Sheikh Nur Muhammad- a humble maker and seller of caps by profession- having a strong inclination towards Sufism. Iqbal’s preliminary schooling in the Quran started under the tutelage of the distinguished Syed Mir Hasan Shah, Professor of Arabic at Scotch Mission School (later Murray College). The pivotal role Syed Mir Hasan played in Iqbal’s spiritual upbringing was evident when many years later Iqbal accepted the honor of knighthood from the Punjab government only on the condition that his teacher be venerated with the title of Shams ul Ulema (Sun of Scholars). Thus canonized, Syed Mir Hasan was, later, to take under his tutelage, the eminent Faiz Ahmad Faiz- in many ways the heir to Iqbal’s own poetic legacy-at the Scotch Mission School.
Completing his Bachelors (1897) and Masters Degrees (1899) in English, Arabic and Philosophy from Government College, Lahore, Iqbal went on to serve as a lecturer in History, Philosophy and English at Lahore’s Oriental College (Punjab University) till 1905. He had already started writing by this time- his first ever forays into the world of poetry being during his childhood when he used to send his poems for correction to Nawab Mirza Khan “Dagh Dehlvi”, the leading Urdu poet of the time. Dagh would return them with the comment “that they were so perfect that they did not need any corrections.” (Rizwana Zahid Ahmad: Pakistan- The Real Picture)
In 1905, encouraged by the advice of his teacher at Government College, renowned Orientalist Sir Thomas Arnold, Iqbal decided to travel to Europe for advanced studies. He spent three years abroad, enrolling in Trinity College, Cambridge (1906) for his Bachelors and later in Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich for his PhD (1908), also qualifying as a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, London in 1906. His stay in England also saw his initiation into politics when he joined the British Committee of the All India Muslim League. He continued to dabble in politics even after his return to India, ultimately being elected as a member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly in 1927, remaining a consistent supporter of provincial autonomy and separate electorates for the Muslims of India.
It was also during his stay in Europe that he sojourned into the realm of love. He had already been through an unhappy marriage, which bore him two children, Aftab and Meraj. His European romances with a beautiful Muslim girl in London, Atiya Faizee and later with his German Philosophy teacher, Emma Wegenast, unfortunately also met the same fate. He married twice afterwards, his second marriage bearing him his son, Javed and daughter, Munira. He was to later advise one of his most brilliant students, Mohammad Din Taseer to marry a European girl thus setting into motion the chain of events that would see Taseer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz marry two sisters from England.
[quote]His European romances with a beautiful Muslim girl in London and later with his German Philosophy teacher ended unhappily[/quote]
Iqbal returned to India in 1908, now joining Government College, Lahore as a Professor of Philosophy and English Literature besides starting up a legal practice. He resigned three years later since it was poetry that was destined to occupy his days and nights ahead. While earlier his imagination had wandered over objects of nature- the sun, the stars, the sting of solitude, the pinch of adolescent melancholy- his poetry during the period immediately after his return to India focused on wider, sociopolitical themes, brimming with passionate rhetoric about the lost glory of Islam and taking on the exhortative tone meant to urge Muslims into action.
It is perhaps contradictory that Iqbal should write so scathingly of the West and its ideals despite his extensive Western education and the richness its philosophical ideals and poetic influences imbued his world-vision with. Nevertheless he viewed with contempt the West’s moral and religious degeneration, its capitalist usurpers, its “frankish glassblowers”. He writes,
“Have a spark from my innermost heart
For my heart is as fiery as Rumi’s
Otherwise get fire from the new culture of the West
Adorn your exterior and bring spiritual death on you.”
(Zaboor e Ajam. Translation by Bashir Ahmad Dar)
Ultimately, no poet is an island and the pen cannot be isolated from the circumstances that surround it. Iqbal witnessed the carnage that accompanied World War I and the consequent dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire- the centuries old seat of the Muslim Caliphate. The embarrassingly public failure of the Khilafat Movement, the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the establishment of the first workers’ government in Russia and the general social and economic decline of Muslims at home and abroad resonated with him on an emotional level, giving birth to his much contested ideal of Pan-Islamism. The contradictions in his philosophical stance, as Faiz notes, “reflected all the inner intellectual contradictions, all the conflicting impulses, all the confused dreams and aspirations of the middle strata of Indo-Pak Muslims…and it is precisely because of this that his work is popular among progressive and reactionaries alike and makes for his title as the national poet of Pakistan.” (The Poet:. Culture and Identity. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 2005)
It was the last phase of Iqbal’s poetry however, which explored the “the twin theme of Man’s grandeur and his loneliness”, which was thematically the richest and most mature of all his works. It was almost as if after trying- and perfecting- his hand at various themes and objects of interest, he finally found one that was “grand enough to suit the magnitude of his poetic genius.” It was in this phase that his favorite concept, “Khudi” (Self) revealed itself in its entire splendor. It was now that the deceptively simple objects of nature he had used earlier morphed from the mundane into the magnificent: the sun, the moon, the flowers all metamorphosed from being simple objects of natural beauty to serving a grander purpose: that of showing Man the meaning of his life, his place in the Universe. It is perhaps no coincidence that Iqbal’s Shaheen- the falcon- was also a symbol of the Egyptian god Horus, symbolizing the link between the known and the unknown. It is a reflection of Iqbal’s faith in man, “the pinch of dust”, that he shows him embroiled in constant strife to find Meaning in an indifferent Universe, pitted against his circumstances- and sometimes even God Himself:
“You created the night, I the lamp
You created clay and I the cup
You- desert, mountain peak and valley
I-flower bed, park and orchard
It is I who grind a mirror out of stone
And brew elixir from poison.” 4
(Payaam-e Mashriq. Translation by VG Kiernan)
Iqbal’s last years included great personal bereavement. He lost his wife in 1935, his financial situation was in disarray and towards the end, he succumbed to a serious throat infection, which ultimately resulted in a complete loss of his voice. The poet breathed his last on the morning of April 21, 1938, leaving unfinished the work he’d started on an English book called The Book of An Unknown Prophet as well as a translation of the Hindu scripture Ramayana.
It is true what they say about cherries. Everyone picks their own. So it is with Iqbal. Each one of his readers, regardless of his religious, political or communal affiliations finds something after his own heart in Iqbal’s words. It is true that Iqbal’s poetry speaks grandiloquently of the bygone golden age of Islam. He is emphatic in his definition of the ‘Mard e Momin’ (the True Believer) and his support of Pan-Islamism. Yet he is simultaneously unforgiving in his reproach of the “deceptively benign Mullah whose sole sustenance is the Divine promise of houris.” Iqbal’s poetry frequently transcends the protocols of Adab or reverence. His Shikwa (complaint) to God is unembellished and bold, his Satan in ‘Jibreel o Iblees’ irreverent in his witty rejoinders to Gabriel. At the same time “while Iqbal’s poetry has some wonderful exhortations to action, it is also deeply imbued with Idealistic themes and in many instances the calls to action flounder on the shores of appealing to the heavens to help.” (VG Kiernan. Preface, Poems from Iqbal. 1955)
And so it would be unjust to Iqbal the Poet and to us, to try to downplay his contradictions in favor of relegating him to a single niche. We must allow him and his poetry the inherent human complexity that we so take for granted in ourselves. It is foolish to confine him to being only a Religious Thinker’s poet or the Progressive Liberal’s poet.
The Scotsman Victor Kiernan wrote: “Among those numerous Hindus and Muslims who in the nightmare days of 1947 saved the lives of members of the other community at the risk to their own there must have been many who had breathed Iqbal’s verses with their native air. It was, after all, his lifelong teaching that the spirit is more than the letter, that religion must always be on its guard against the dogmatist and the charlatan, and that a people must go forward or die.” (ibid)
Faiza Hameed is a final year medical student at King Edward Medical University, Lahore
Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Psychiatrist and a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at email@example.com