Iqbal’s ubiquity in the intellectual milieu of contemporary Pakistan punctuates the collective thought process and finds articulation most prominently in public discourse, textbooks and media. Along with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Iqbal is the person most commonly written about. Not only have some institutions been set up to foster research on various dimensions of his ‘multi-faceted personality and multi-layered thought’, but also a separate discipline by the name of Iqbaliat (Iqbal Studies) has been established in some of the country’s finest institutions.
Iqbal is indeed a towering figure and this hyper-real treatment has made him appear even bigger. The figures imbued with religious zeal as well as those privileging rationality over religion quote him with equal fervour and zest. Shaikh Muhammad Ikram, a renowned scholar of Muslim History in South Asia, underscores in his typical style: “Iqbal was a product of conflicting forces, and advanced Muslim socialists as well as reactionaries of the deepest dye can find verses in his works to support their conflicting ideologies”. This indeed reflects how divergent strands of thinking found confluence in Iqbal’s poetry and thought, making it incredibly rich and profound in its epistemic formulation.
Hence, Iqbal is relevant even today beyond the national border of Pakistan. Javed Majeed points to his popularity in Iran where the spiritual leader Khamenai has made Iqbal’s poem compulsory for young students. Similarly, Iqbal’s contributions as a Muslim thinker have made his thoughts and poetry a favoured subject of scholarly inquiry in France. All this attention is because in his thought, ideas from west and east are synthesised in such a way that one still feels in them a strong ring of originality.
Despite the many different phases in his evolution as a poet and a thinker, Iqbal spurned tassawwuf (mysticism) as he failed to find any solid historical foundation in original Islam. His long Persian poem ‘Israr-i-Khudi’ (Secrets of the Self), published in 1915, condemned tasawwuf as effete and enervating.
He, nevertheless, drew heavily on Fakharuddin Iraqi and Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi to build his own edifice of thought which featured quite prominently in his poetry as well as his prose.
One wonders, however, without tassawwuf, any worthwhile poetic expression is at all possible?
As a result of Lahore Mushairas (1874), organised by Muhammad Hussain Azad and Col. Holroyd, the era of Nazm (poem) was ushered in — in antagonism to the more traditional form of poetry epitomised by the genre of Ghazal. Nazm was subsequently perfected, particularly as a form of poetry deployed most effectively as a protest against political and social injustice. Thus Iqbal was amenable to the modernist trends in poetry and prose.
At the outset, he composed poems for the literary magazine Makhzan, which he occasionally read at the annual gatherings of Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam — an influential Lahore-based organisation which aimed, among other things, to spread modern education among Muslims. In the first phase of his poetry, he composed such poems as ‘Taswir-i-Dard’ (Picture of Grief), ‘Naya Shiwala’ (The New Temple) and ‘Tarana-i-Hindi’ (The Indian Anthem), the titles of which are suggestive of Iqbal’s infatuation with nationalism and pantheism which lasted until 1905 when he left to study at Cambridge.
Iqbal’s life, thought and work was continually evolving and did not stagnate. Dynamism, therefore, is the central postulate of his thought — something that we need to practically adopt as a nation.
Evolution in thought is the only recipe for sustenance and growth in the contemporary world, which is fast changing. And that is exactly what Iqbal emphasised forcefully in ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’, in a chapter titled, ‘The Spirit of Muslim Culture’.
S.M. Ikram alludes to this aspect of Iqbal by stating that “his was a vigorous mind, untrammelled by convention, and facing forwards rather than backwards”. He refers to a “fundamental fact” that had not been taken into account by many of “his so-called admirers”, which was his conception of Islam as “dynamic rather than static.”
Iqbal claimed quite decisively: “it would not be Islam if the truths it enunciated were not ‘living’ enough to be capable of adjustment to varying circumstances”. That probably was the reason Maulvi Deedar Ali Alori, the Khatib of Masjid Wazir Khan, Lahore and the founder of Markazi Anjuman-i-Hizb-i-Ahnaf issued a fatwa whereby he was denunciated as kafir.
Iqbal, in his thoughts, had tried with scholarly zeal to strike a balance between the traditional Islam advocated by Deoband, Darul-uloom Nadwatul Ulama and suchlike, and the Modernist Islam epitomised and projected by the Aligarh Movement of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The careful perusal of ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ which, according to Iqbal’s son Dr Javed Iqbal, is a far more important source for the study on Iqbal’s thoughts than his poetry, reveals not only the very strong imprints of Pan-Islamism but also a rigorous rationalist streak.
In his analysis of Muslim decline, Iqbal invoked the thoughts of Al Iraqi, Rumi and other luminaries of medieval Perso-Arabic background to underpin his own scholastic thoughts and then weld them together with Western philosophical traditions.
Apart from the rationality that he employed to appraise the state of contemporary Muslims, Iqbal did not overlook Jamaluddin Afghani. On the one hand, he lamented the deplorable plight of the Indian Muslims, on the other the whole Muslim community (umma) was his reference point, thus partaking in the Pan-Islamism of Afghani.
With the aid of modernist analytical tools, he aimed to understand those values of ‘tradition’ that did not correspond with the reigning political and social dispensation, with the primary aim of rejuvenating them. That probably is the reason that Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, in his book ‘Iqbal ka Ilm-i-Kalam’, calls him a mutakallim (scholar) rather than a philosopher, which runs contrary to his presentation as a poet-philosopher by the Pakistani state.
Irrespective of how Iqbal is perceived, the fact is he stands out in solitary splendour vis-à-vis his predecessors and contemporaries alike because he employed a modern philosophical idiom and problematised the condition of Muslims in the light of Whitehead, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche.
Thus Iqbal, with his unflinching belief in dynamism, was a progressive and forward-looking luminary. Remorsefully, he and his ideas, and particularly his poetry, have been taken hostage by the agents of regression, which is the most unfortunate thing that could ever happen to the legacy of Iqbal and his multi-faceted genius.
The writer is a noted Pakistani historian, currently the Iqbal Fellow at the University of Cambridge as professor in the Centre of South Asian Studies