by Rahil Khan

Iqbal remains in India both a controversial and revered figure. To nationalists he is the misguided intellectual progenitor of Pakistan; but to many lovers of poetry he is one of India’s greatest 20th century poets, perhaps next only to Rabindranath Tagore. Iqbal is sometimes labeled as a pan-Islamist and, hence, un-Indian given that his intellectual inspiration seemingly came from sources other than Indian. Indeed, some of his statements give the impression that he forgot his Indian intellectual and aesthetic heritage in his earnestness to be regarded as a poet of Islam. A closer examination of his poetry, however, has revealed that he used pan-Islam mainly with reference to those essential Islamic values that were of universal significance; and he felt that it was these universal values that should “conquer” the world. While he expressed a particular Islamic vision through his poetry, he was regarded by the outside world as an Indian poet; and though he wrote in both Urdu and Persian, it is mainly upon his Urdu poetry that his fame rests.

Shaikh Muhammed Iqbal was born in Sialkot in North-Western Punjab in 1873. His parents were originally from Kashmir. Having pursued higher studies in Lahore, by 1905 he was off to England; and it is in Munich that he wrote a doctoral thesis on Persian metaphysical thought. Prior to his departure, he had already become famous as a poet for such nationalist poems as Naya Shivala– ‘The New Temple’ and Tarana-i-Hindi– ‘The Song of India.’ Western society and German vitalist philosophy had a major impact on him, though, and altered his intellectual direction. He very much admired the West’s vitality and self-assertion, but greatly disliked its materialism, competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness. He felt that the East, in contrast, could renew itself by taking the best cultural values of the east and west and use this as a foundation to construct a new society. He further concluded that Islam in its earliest form offered this combination of dynamism and preservation of spiritual and moral values. Therefore, if Muslims could recreate this Islam for modern-times, they could offer a model for the East and to the world in general. The general modular form of such thinking was, of course, extremely pervasive, and Iqbal was scarcely alone in desiring to wed Indian – or more specifically Islamic – spirituality to Western material and political achievements.

Upon his return to India his writings took on a different tenor. Henceforth his poetry was expressed in a prophetic manner and emphasized themes such as the personality-strengthening role of Islam or the love for God as a conquering power, as in his first two major Urdu poems, ‘Complaint and Answer.’ The most elaborate expression of his philosophy, however, occurs in his Persian poem, ‘Secrets of the Self.’ His philosophy of the Self, or Khudi, combines both the Nietzchean concept of the Superman with Jalaluddin Rumi’s concept of the Perfect Man. Contrary to most Sufi and Bhakti poets, Iqbal believed that spiritual emancipation did not involve dissolution of the Self in the Absolute, but, rather, an increasing defining of the limits of the Self in relation to the Absolute. His philosophy of the Self reminds one of the glorification of the Atman as expressed in the Upanishads and the statements of Swami Vivekananda. Like Vivekananda, as well, Iqbal espoused a philosophy of strength and vigour that was mediated by love.

As one comes down from high philosophy to the practical level, the self and mankind translated into Muslims and the Muslim community for him. Both Iqbal and Abul Kalam Azad tried in their own time to highlight the universal aspects of their faith, and both felt that the universal concerns underlying human society were represented in Islam. Yet both radically differed on how this universalism was supposed to manifest itself politically. Azad, for instance, envisioned a religiously diverse community bound together by commonly held rules of righteous conduct. Iqbal, on the other hand, felt that a universal brotherhood had to be first achieved via the consolidation and development of the Muslim communal identity within India. While he deeply believed in the brotherhood of man, Iqbal did not feel that language, ethnicity, or geography were sufficient to unite Indians. Therefore, in opposition to Azad, he saw separate statehood as a practical way to realize his Khudi philosophy and to deal with the communalism rampant in his time. What is evident, though, is that Iqbal was never motivated by an enmity towards Hindus; he envisioned this state as a group of self-governing territories operating within an Indian federation — not of the fully independent Pakistan that eventually emerged. He believed that a polity created by Muslims in India could serve as a rallying point for Muslims throughout the world and the beginning step towards a global brotherhood. This is the background to his 1930 speech at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League where the first geographic outlines of this state were demarcated.

Largely due to the course of the political events that ensued, Iqbal has ended up becoming the poet-patriot of Pakistan. Yet he remains a revered artistic figure in India, despite having contributed to certain political outcomes. One finds remarkable philosophical similarities between Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore, both of whom were knighted for their artistic contributions. For instance, Iqbal and Tagore saw Ultimate Reality as being something dynamic, which translated for them into activist approaches to life. Both shared a humanistic world-outlook out of which their respective philosophic beliefs were derived. And both shared a belief in the value of the individual Self in relation to the Infinite, with Iqbal ultimately deriving his belief from Ibn Arabi and Tagore from Ramanuja. Such was the universality of his message that in spite of some of its particularistic results, Muslims and non-Muslims grieved over Iqbal’s death in 1938. Tagore warmly acknowledged a philosophical kinship with the Indian Muslim poet and declared that “Iqbal’s death creates a void in literature that like a mortal wound will take a long time to heal.”

Further Reading:

Burney, S.M.H. Iqbal: Poet-Patriot of India. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1987.

Hasan, Mushirul, ed. Islam and Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1992.

Navarane, V.S. Modern Indian Thought. Bombay: Asian Publishing House, 1967.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Gabriel’s Wing: Study Into the Religious Ideas of Sir

Muhammad Iqbal. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1963.