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The ‘Real’ Allama Iqbal

In a recent book, Pervez Hoodbhoy examines the differences between Iqbal’s writings and views from before and after his sojourn to the West

by Khaled Ahmed

In Pakistan: Origin, Identity and Future, Pervez Hoodbhoy has made a secular, non-ideological assessment of its national poet, Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Reverentially known as Allama Iqbal, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) was aware of his destiny as an icon of worship fairly early. In a 1909 letter to Atiya Faizee, he predicted that all criticisms against him—foibles and inconsistencies included—would eventually be washed away. He was spot on. But what may have surprised, and doubtless pleased him, is the size and fervor of his following.

If you enter any government office in Pakistan today, you will find three portraits on display: a picture of the current president that is tossed upon their exit and two that remain on permanent display—that of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Iqbal, now on par with the Quaid-e-Azam. Iqbal looms large in all aspects of Pakistan, from school textbooks to military recruitment centers; from schools to literary societies. Countless schools, hospitals, literary societies and even Lahore’s airport are named after him; he is everywhere. Though quintessentially Punjabi, he has become Pakistan personified.

Prophet of Renaissance?

Variously called the Prophet of Muslim Renaissance, Sha’ir-e-Mashriq (Poet of the East), Mufakkir-e-Pakistan (Savant of Pakistan), Hakeem-ul-Ummat (Sage of the Ummah), Iqbal is officially designated as Pakistan’s national poet, even as the Iqbal Academy’s website also recalls his status as philosopher. Some universities have departments of ‘Iqbaliat’ offering degrees, while his birthday is a national holiday. The rise to prominence of Iqbal came during the 1980s under the rapid Islamization of Gen. Ziaul Haq. His portrayal in popular imagination shifted from one of the ideological forces behind Pakistan to a co-founder of the country alongside Jinnah.

This portrayal has been bolstered by numerous local authors who described Iqbal in hagiographic terms: great poet, great philosopher, great thinker, great Muslim, great visionary. Yet, some Urdu authors—Sibte Hassan, Mubarak Ali, and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri—have dared to examine him in light of facts. A recent book by Mahboob Tabish also seeks to correct common misperceptions surrounding Iqbal.

Cult of Allama Iqbal

Iqbal’s genius lay in his exquisite poetic compositions. He said what people in his community wanted to hear, allowing for cherry-picking of his remarks to suit multiple purposes. The authenticity of many remarks attributed to him have been lost to history, allowing for “cult followers” to let go accepted logic and good judgment to eagerly embrace his contradictions and zigzags. Rather, these conflicts are often hailed as a sign of deep wisdom. No one can expect perfect consistency from any human—in fact, mild contradictions can be welcome as the suggest an ability to shift one’s views based on available information. But when examining Iqbal, one comes across ideals and views that suggest the presence of two men: Iqbal-A, relatively unknown but high-minded, who existed prior to his departure for London in 1905 to study philosophy; and Iqbal-B, who returned to India. Because his followers insist upon merging the two into a single individual, they fall into a pit of self-deception while imagining they have developed a new, profound, and “multidimensional” insight into the man they worship.

Genius in the Qutb tradition

That Iqbal was a man of genius is beyond doubt. His Urdu and Persian diction, richness of imagery, and strong sense of purpose have immortalized him. But esthetics aside, hard questions must be asked about his intellectual contributions: What did he add to philosophy, was he equipped to comment on matters that relate to the intersection of science and philosophy? In matters of society and politics, questions arise over Iqbal’s views on groups like the Taliban. Would he have supported or rejected them, and on what basis? Would he have supported or opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws? Would he have justified or condemned the persecution of religious minorities? Essentially, there is need to examine calls to fulfill Iqbal’s vision for Pakistan, as they seek the implementation of decades-old beliefs.

It is tempting to compare Iqbal with Syed Qutb (1906-1966), the Egyptian Islamic theorist who left an enduring legacy in the Islamic world. For Qutb, as with Iqbal, living in the West turned out to be transformational. His two years (1948-1950) on scholarship in the U.S. led to him returning convinced that the dazzling lights of the materialist West had blinded people to what was sacred and true. He argued that the apex of human civilization was created by Islam’s Prophet (PBUH) and his subsequent four caliphs. He then called on Muslims to “cleanse” their lands of infidels and their theology through jihad. Modernity, he argued, was not progress, for it enslaved man and left him numb to “faith in religion, faith in art and faith in spiritual values together.” Qutb was executed to death after being found guilty plotting to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser, with his books and writings inspiring millions, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.

Iqbal and the West

Iqbal had greater intellectual depth than Qutb and recognized that the West had huge achievements in every field—scientific, philosophical, and cultural. But as his own world appeared inferior and British rule hung heavy over India, his poetry took an increasingly more strident anti-West tone. Like Qutb, Iqbal had eventually concluded that European civilization needed to be rejected in its totality, both culturally and philosophically. It was naught but the glitter of fake jewels, a phony construction built upon shifting sands.

Iqbal set up a law practice after returning to Lahore in 1908, but his heart had already turned to using his poetry in the service of India’s Muslims who, he felt, had to be whipped into action to recover their lost heritage through revival of the concepts of ijtehad (reinterpreting Islamic doctrines according to current needs) and ijma (consensus of the community). Declaring that secular democracy was anathema to Islam, he said Muslims must live in a state guided by Islamic principles. He attempts to elaborate upon these principles in his English writings but not in Urdu prose.

This shifting stance was reflected in his poetry, which went from alternately praising monarchy, fascism and communism to decrying these systems as materialist and soulless. Nevertheless, long after he stopped writing such erratic and contradictory paeans, his inspirational poetry continued to mesmerize leftists, Ahmadis, and women.

The flirtation of communists and socialists with Iqbal is particularly interesting. Progressives would often claim him as one of their own, as in the case of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who saw in Iqbal an ally for building a theistic case against capitalism. Like other leftists, he took seriously the odes to communism written in Iqbal’s earlier days. Several have titles that speak for themselves: Karl Marx Ki Awaz (Voice of Karl Marx), Bolshevik Roos (Bolshevik Russia), Lenin Khuda Ke Huzoor Mein (When Lenin Was Summoned by God), and Sarmaya-o-Mehnat (Capital and Labor). Iqbal also wrote a poem urging peasants to revolt against their landlords and burn down their fields—before he joined with big landlords of the Punjab Muslim League and was elected president of the All India Muslim League.

Iqbal and Communism

Responding to criticism of his support for Bolshevism, Iqbal said as a Muslim he believed the holy Quran offered the best cure for humanity’s economic maladies. Describing European capitalism and Russian Bolshevism as two extremes, he said the “happy middle path” lies in the Quran. “The equitable Shariah aims at protecting one class from the economic domination of the other, and in my belief, the path chosen by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is the one best suited for this purpose,” he added.

The end of Iqbal’s progressive phase saw him become more religiously conservative and increasingly eager to deny his earlier advocacy of socialism and communism, which he often conflated with atheism. In a letter to Jinnah, he warned against Congress’ growing influence among Muslims and their willingness to support what he described as the “atheistic socialism” of Nehru. After being elected from his Lahore constituency to the Punjab legislative Assembly, Iqbal wrote another letter recommending that one of Punjab’s largest landlords, the Nawab of lamdot, be invited to join the Punjab Muslim League. His leftist poetry, however, continued to draw support for him from some leftist progressives.

Curiously, those who eventually received the roughest treatment from Iqbal’s pen also continued to inspire themselves and others with his verses. Ahmadis, by far Pakistan’s most persecuted religious minority, still quote the prose and poetry of Iqbal’s early days, proudly noting his father and elder brother had taken the Ahmadiyya bay’t (pledge). Women also idealize Iqbal despite his unapologetic patriarchal views; they either do not know, or perhaps prefer not to know how differently he related to western women as compared to eastern women, including his own wives and daughter.

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