Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006/2010) by Khurram Ali Shafique


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Chapter 4

Unsuspected Harmonies

‘The Dawn of Islam’

On January 1, 1923, Shiekh Muhammad Iqbal of Lahore, formerly of Sialkot, officially became ‘Sir Muhammad Iqbal’ through the announcement of his Knighthood by His Majesty’s Government of India. This was the second time within eight years that he outraged his people, the first time being his censure of Hafiz and conventional mysticism in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’. The nationalist press denounced him and the most powerful attack came from one Abdul Majid Salik, a young journalist who had been in the inner circle of Iqbal for ten years: “Sirkar ki dehleez pay Sir ho gaye Iqbal!” The line could be roughly translated as “Iqbal was overcome at the threshold of the government”, with a robust pun on the noun “Sir,” which in Urdu is also a verb carrying the meaning of being overcome by an adversary, and the line became famous overnight. Salik could not face Iqbal for quite a while afterwards but when a meeting eventually happened he was amazed to find no change in the warmth and affection of his former mentor.

Iqbal must have anticipated the adverse reaction (as well as prestigious receptions now being held in his honor by the loyalists) but he was not a man to care for the opinion of the selected few. He must have also known, unlike his reactionary critics, that he was not taking a favor from the government but giving one; this was a time when the British regime of India was being criticized even by its own people, who were too weary after the Great War. It was a timely gesture for the Anglo-Indian rulers to save their face back home by having a sign of cooperation from a great poet of the sub-continent whose songs of liberation were by that time well-known among the informed circles of England. On his own part Iqbal had shown the British Government that the non-cooperation movement was an essentially Hindu affair and he, as a prominent spokesperson of the Muslim nation, was willing to defy it. In other words, as far as Iqbal was concerned, the Hindus and the Muslims were two separate nations despite the Ali Brothers.

Other things had been happening around the world, such as the victory of the Turks at Smyrna on September 9, 1922. Apparently, the Allied had overlooked one small detail while meticulously charting their division of Turkey after the Great War; and that small detail was a relatively little known soldier Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who now turned the tables.

The Turks had won temporary victories even in the wars of Tripoli and Balkan, and also throughout the Great War, and the Muslim newspapers of the sub-continent had celebrated each success like a final triumph. Iqbal, who remained unmoved by those was now roused by the victory at Smyrna to prophetically announce the birth of a new age in his next poem, ‘The Dawn of Islam.’ This could have been the greatest Urdu poem if he had stopped writing after that. No other Urdu poem, by him or anyone else, has such high concentration of verses that have become proverbial even beyond the poet’s admirers: “The nargis weeps over her blindness for thousands of years for it is not every day that a seer is born in the orchid” (Hazaroan saal nargis apni baynoori pay roati hai, etc), is well-known even to those who do not know that the subject of these lines was Ataturk. Likewise, “Neither strategem nor swrods come to avail in slavery but the chains can be broken with the ecstasy of belief” (...Jo ho zauq-i-yaqeen paida, etc) is not only well-remembered but also very often misinterpreted.

The Message of the East


In March, 1923, just after reciting ‘The Dawn of Islam’ he received a book from an admirer that set him on a new course of thought. It was an American publication on Muslim financial laws and it mentioned that according to some Muslim jurisprudents even the clear sanctions of the Quran could be overruled with the consensus of the Muslims. Was that so? This was a question Iqbal tried to answer substantially, and honestly, over the next few years.

Meanwhile, he had completed The Message of the East (or Payam-i-Mashriq), which came out in May 1923. An anthology of his poems was long overdue, and until a few years ago he was thinking of compiling his Urdu and Persian poems together but the newfound motivation to address the issue of Western art and literature inspired a different plan: the book should have a character to it, just like Goethe’s Divan. It is significant that he chose Goethe as comrade from the other side. Goethe was not only a herald of that Romantic Movement of which Iqbal was now the last remnant, but had also been peculiarly alive to the tradition of the Persian poetry. Iqbal could not be misunderstood as pleasing the white masters if he responded to one of their poets who himself imitated the Persians. Besides, the Germans had never ruled over India and were in fact an ally of the defeated Turks against the British in the recent war.

The book was dedicated to Amanullah, the king of Afghanistan, through a poem that was reminiscent of Urfi as far as the poet ventured to praise himself before a king. With due respect he also went ahead to offer some unsolicited advice, asking the despot to look inside, open up to the deeper meanings of life and remember his obligation towards his people. (Incidentally, King Amanullah was deposed by his people a few years later for doing these very sort of things and later received Iqbal in Rome in 1931 while still in exile).

This same book was also the first detailed exposé of a theme that dominated Iqbal’s poetry from this point onwards: the conflict between love (ishq) and reason (aql, or khirad).

He had lightly touched upon it earlier, and one couplet from 1904 was already proverbial by then: “The heart ought to be chaperoned by reason, but let it be abondoned too.” (Achha hai dil kay saath rahay pasban-i-aql/Leikin kabhi kabhi issay tanha bhi chhor day). However, the concept was not elaborated before in such detail as now appeared, for instance, in the poem ‘The Message,’ which opened the Western section of the book. Here, Iqbal invoked the Western philosopher to rise above the limitations of reductionist logic and become aware to the ever-living powers of love.

We can assume that Iqbal would have expected his audience in the East as well as the West to interpret his notion of ‘love’ in the light of ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (or its English translation) where several chapters were dedicated to its explanation. Love in that sense was not anti-reason, but rather a connectedness with one’s sense of life.

Reason is also divinely originated but it is a tool to be used. Also, it has a dubious tendency to be subdued by ‘the other’ and therefore the owner’s sense of life must keep a check on it, as he now proposed in ‘A Dialogue Between Knowledge and Love,’ where Love invokes upon Knowledge: “Come, just take a little of my sympathies and let’s create a lasting paradise on earth. We are comrades since the Day of Creation; we are the high and low notes of the same song.”

His fellow-philosophers of the West he addressed in a spirit of camaraderie and felicitated them on the advancement of science. “Springing forth from the solitude of love we turned humble dust into a mirror… and burnt the old world with the fire in our hearts,” he went on in the poem, ‘The Message’. “However, love turned into lust and breaking free of all bondage it preyed upon humanity.”

Elsewhere in the book he criticized the materialistic bias of the Western civilization and the injustices of the Western imperialism but balanced his censure with a remarkable tongue-in-cheek appreciation of the gifts the British had given to the sub-continent. The British should not complain about the unruly behavior of the Indians because it were none other than they themselves who taught volition to the worshippers of fate in this sub-continent (In an open letter to a British author in 1931 he would again emphasize the need for keeping the sense of humor alive if South Asia and Britain were to get over their grievances after independence).

“The inner turmoil of the nations, which we cannot fully comprehend since we, too, are subject to it, is precursor to some great spiritual and cultural change,” Iqbal wrote in the Preface of his book. “The Great War of Europe was an apocalypse,” he went on (he would always refer to the First World War as a ‘European’ war), “and it has annihilated the old world order in nearly every dimension. Nature is now creating a new Adam and a new world to suite him in the depths of life from the ashes of culture and civilization and we can see a vague glimpse of this in the writings of the philosophers Einstein and Bergson.” Iqbal then warned his European counterparts to pay attention to the ‘decline of the West,’ which, according to some Western statesmen, was already set in motion. “Looking from a purely literary point of view the debilitation of the forces of life in Europe after the ordeal of the Great War is unfavorable to the development of a correct and mature literary ideal. Indeed, the fear is that the minds of the nations may be gripped by that decadent and slow-pulsed Persianism, which runs away from the difficulties of life and cannot distinguish between the emotions of the heart and the thoughts of the brain. However, America seems to be a healthy element in Western civilization, the reason for which perhaps is that it is free from the trammels of old traditions and that its collective intuition is receptive to ideas and influences.”

He did not forget to have a word for his Eastern readers too at the end of his introduction to the book that was primarily addressed to the West. “The East, and especially the Islamic East, has opened its eyes after a centuries-long slumber,” he wrote. “But the nations of the East should realize that life can bring no change in its surroundings until a change takes place in its inner depths and that no new world can take shape externally until it is formed in the minds of the people.”

Nicholson was quick to respond with his usual lack of perception. Reviewing the book in a European journal, he reminded the English-speaking world that Iqbal had two voices of power. One appealed to the Indian patriot in Urdu while the other, “Which uses the beautiful and melodious language of Persia, sings to a Moslem audience…” Of course, Nicholson conveniently overlooked those poems that didn’t substantiate his view of Iqbal as a narrow-minded Muslim preacher. “A true lover makes no distinction between the Ka‘ba and the temple, for the Beloved meets openly in one place and privately in the other,” Iqbal had said in one of the many ghazals of The Message of the East that invoked upon the humanity to rise above petty differences. Such references could not prevent Nicholson from wondering, “Why membership of [Iqbal’s ideal society] should be a privilege reserved for Moslems?”

Chastised by Iqbal’s previous strong objection to the naming of Western philosophers as his mentors, the absent-minded professor was careful to recount that Iqbal’s spirit remained essentially Oriental although he “has been profoundly influenced by Western culture…” but complained that his criticism of the West, though never superficial was sometimes lacking in breadth. “With the Humanistic foundations of European culture he appears to be less intimately acquainted,” he wrote.

The truth was that Iqbal was as close to the Humanistic foundations of Europe as any living European author with such inclinations, but unfortunately there weren’t many who understood that creed in Europe itself. The mind of Europe was already in the grip of the very same pessimism which Iqbal was trying to warn it against; The Message of the East, went unattended by those to whom it was addressed and who were unfortunately more prepared to embrace poetry of boredom and the aesthetics of Dadaism than listening to the songs of human greatness.

It would be interesting to note that history corroborated Iqbal’s apprehensions. Almost fifty years later, the leading British historian A.J.P. Taylor, writing about the inter-war years, observed, “To judge from all leading writers, the barbarians were breaking in. The decline and fall of the Roman empire were being repeated. Civilized men could only lament and withdraw, as the writers did to their considerable profit. The writers were almost alone in feeling like this, and it is not easy to understand why they thus cut themselves off. By any more prosaic standard, this was the best time mankind, or at any rate Englishmen, had known.”

This comparison also helps us understand why Iqbal became a target for many liberals in his own region in the later part of the 20th Century. The elitist literature, whether in South Asia or elsewhere, could not forgive any man or woman for glorifying the human soul.

The Call of the Marching Bell

In 1924, a year after the publication of The Message of the East, came the Urdu anthology aptly titled Baang-i-Dara, or The Call of the Marching Bell (or The Caravan Bell), an expression used more than once in the poems included between the covers.

The poems were presented in a roughly chronological order and divided into the three phases of Iqbal’s life up to that point: (a) up to 1905, before he left for Europe; (b) from 1905 to 1908, while he was studying abroad; and (c) from 1908 to the present (1924), since his return home.

The early poems were thoroughly revised, abridged and polished, and nearly half of them were discarded – either because they were artistically deficient or because they represented that Eastern sentimentalism deplored in the preface of The Message of the East (written around the same time when The Call of the Marching Bell was being compiled).

Poems from the European period were so scant that some written in the same strain in the years following his return had to be smuggled into that section – this anachronism could only be deliberate, since it is unlikely that he could have forgotten the occasions of such poems as ‘On Seeing a Cat in Lap of ....’

The third section was obviously the longest, and although ‘The Complaint’ and ‘The Answer’ were usually seen as twin poems, they were separated here not only by smaller poems but also by the longer ‘The Candle and the Poet,’ as should have been the case chronologically as well as thematically.

On the whole the book was an enjoyable document of the poet’s mental odyssey and it was possible to trace the steps of his intellectual evolution from a careful reading of these poems. Most of them had explanatory prefaces and notes when they were published in Makhzan but this editorial material was now done away with.

The most fateful of such deletions was related to ‘The Sun,’ Iqbal’s translation of ‘Gayetri,’ a widely recited sacred mantra of the Hindus. “O Sun! Grant us a ray of awareness and illuminate our intellect with the splendors of the heart,” the poem concluded after addressing the star as parvardigar (a Persian expression – meaning the Sustainer – which was reserved for God among the Muslims). Iqbal had explained in the prefatory note in Makhzan that the ‘Sun’ metaphorically addressed there was the Divine Illumination from which the celestial body received its light. The omission of this explanation earned him a formal denunciation by the mufti of the second largest mosque in Lahore within a year of the publication of The Call of the Marching Bell (the fatwa appeared in 1925, and was not a reaction to ‘The Complaint,’ as is commonly believed).

It was a common practice in live recitals those days to precede a long poem with some ghazal, quatrain or qat‘a (a brief poem, usually not longer than a stanza). Iqbal himself followed this practice while reciting his poems in such public gatherings as the annual sessions of Anjuman Himayat-i-Islam. In his Urdu anthology he was probably aiming to provide a similar experience to his readers when he preceded each long poem with some shorter curtain-raisers.

There was only one exception to this rule: ‘The Khizr of the Way’ was followed without interval by ‘The Dawn of Islam,’ and this exception highlighted how the prophecy made at the end of one poem came true before the next one was written.

It is a pity that Iqbal’s anthologies are seldom studied in their entirety and therefore the relationship between various poems, the significance of their sequencing, transitions from one piece to another and the rich subtexts are lost upon the general readers as well as the specialized scholars. This is mainly because most readers become so partial to some famous poems through textbooks and media that when they open a volume of Iqbal for the first time they dive right away for favorite poems. The overall scheme of the book is usually ignored. Also, because Iqbal is portrayed as heavily biased towards the seriousness of his task it is not expected of him to bother about subtext and subtleties. That is a grave error. Iqbal was a meticulous editor of his own work and a shrewd creator of subtexts – as should have been expected from a man of his wit and sensitivity.

There is ample reward for those who may take the trouble of reading between the lines in his books. For instance, in The Call of the Marching Bell, the poem ‘Imprisonment,’ in which the Ali Brothers are felicitated on their release from the house arrest, is immediately followed by ‘The Beggars of Caliphate.’ Both poems together with an elegy form a sort of curtain raiser to ‘The Khizr of the Way.’


The question arising from the American publication eventually led to a renewed interest in ijtehad (interpretation), one of the four sources of jurisprudence in Islam.

The religious scholars whose opinion was sought on the American author’s statement all replied in the negative; no Muslim jurisprudent of the past or present was known to have said that the sanctions of the Quran could be overruled. Iqbal accepted that position. However, within the carefully defined boundaries of the Muslim law there was enormous scope for reinterpretation, and this he wanted to emphasize for the empowerment of his people. Traditional Muslim scholars by his times had come to hold that only the Quran, hadith and consensus of the previous lawgivers were active sources of the Muslim law while ijtehad must be held in abeyance.

Iqbal, despite his passion for change and emancipation, had maintained in ‘Rumooz-i-Bekhudi’ that in an age of decadence it was more prudent to follow the codes laid down in a healthy past than trying to invent new ones that might be carrying the inherent evils of decadence within them. The resurgence of Turkey must have marked the end of the period of decadence of the Muslim world for him, because just a few years later he would state in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, “If the renaissance of Islam is a fact, and I believe it is a fact, we too one day, like the Turks, will have to re-evaluate our intellectual inheritance. And if we cannot make any original contribution to the general thought of Islam, we may, by healthy conservative criticism, serve at least as a check on the rapid movement of liberalism in the world of Islam.”

He was referring to the innovations of Kemal Ataturk when he made this statement in 1929, but back in 1924 those innovations had not taken place although the banishment of the Caliph occurred that year. Iqbal, however, insisted on the restoration of the right to ijtehad, since in his mind, the argument was based on the finality of the prophet-hood of Muhammad – out of many prophets only he claimed to be the last one and insisted that there would be no other after him. To Iqbal, this was nothing less than a declaration of freedom for the human intellect.

“The birth of Islam… is the birth of inductive intellect,” he was going to write in the Reconstruction. “In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition. This involves the keen perception that life cannot forever be kept in strings; that, in order to achieve full self-consciousness, man must finally be thrown back on his own resources.” Mystic experience, according to Iqbal, was possible and God may still speak to individuals in whatever manner He chose by His divine grace. However, such intuition could not be binding upon another individual: “the abolition of priesthood and hereditary kingship in Islam, the constant appeal to reason and experience in the Quran, and the emphasis it lays on Nature and History as sources of human knowledge, are all different aspects of the same idea of finality.” Everyone was one’s own guide now; the last revelation of God was there to stay and must be obeyed but since there were going to be no more prophets it was the privilege and responsibility of every human being to understand the word of God on their own. The right to interpret religion was inviolable.

Iqbal lectured on this issue to a wide audience in Lahore in 1924 and ended up offending some of the elite once again. He then tried to pen that long overdue final sequel to ‘Asrar’ and ‘Rumooz’ but his mind went metaphysical. “O You Who Sustain My Life!” He addressed the Almighty in Persian verse, “Where is your sign? The world and hereafter are but ripples of my existence, where is your world?” Soon afterwards he informed his friends that he was writing a book of verse in Persian for which the working title was, ‘The Songs of a Modern David.’ It was finished and printed three years later as Zuboor-i-Ajam, or Persian Psalms. By that time he was also a member of the provincial legislative council and dabbling in politics.

Persian Psalms and The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Persian Psalms was written at the same time when he was putting down the first three lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam in English prose while the subject matter of the next three lectures was apparently there in his mind too. Together, the two books are a bold attempt to challenge the conventional notions about the nature of God in order to bring some radical changes in the course of human life.

On the surface his Persian poems seem as if he is being fresh with God, but it is important to understand his motive and reason. As he once jotted down in Stray Reflections, he held that the worth of things was through and through human although God created those things. A diamond, for instance, owed its price not so much to what God made it, as it did to the fact that the humans preferred it above other stones. The human being, according to Iqbal, was a creator too and God was willing to become “a co-worker”. “When attracted by the forces around him, man has the power to shape and direct them; when thwarted by them, he has the capacity to build a much vaster world in the depths of his own inner being,” he summarized the functions of outward and inward dimensions of human intelligence in his lecture on religious experience. “Hard his lot and frail is his being, like a rose-leaf, yet no form of reality is so powerful, so inspiring, and so beautiful as the spirit of man!”

Persian Psalms was a celebration of this creative relationship with the Divine. Many of its lyrical poems were prayers offered to the divine Beloved by a self-aware devotee: “From whence comes the burning desire in my bosom,” the second lyric started. “The cup is from me, but from whence comes the wine in it? I understand that the world is dust and I am a handful of it, but from whence comes the thirst for discovery in my every particle?” The other poems were aimed at explaining this relationship – forgotten in the East and ignored in the West. “It is the lot of man to share in the deeper aspirations of the universe around him,” Iqbal wrote in the lecture. “And to shape his own destiny as well as that of the universe, now by adjusting himself to its forces, now by putting the whole of his energy to mould its forces to his own ends and purposes. And in this process of progressive change God becomes a co-worker with him, provided man takes the initiative: ‘Verily God will not change the condition of men, till they change what is in themselves.’” The last was a quotation from the Quran.

Persian Psalms was indeed the psalms of a modern David; the world was not enough, and sometime during writing it the poet conceived the basis of his greatest masterpiece, which he started soon after his psalms were finished in 1927 and while his lectures were still in the process of being written. This other book would turn out to be Javid Nama, or The Book of Eternity, and in it he would portray the entire universe, even the paradise and the throne of God, from a novel perspective (that will be discussed in the next chapter).

From 1926 to 1929 he penned down his most famous six lectures, which were published from Lahore the next year, and reprinted by Oxford University Press from UK four years later, with the addition of a seventh lecture. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, as the collection was eventually called, aimed at presenting his philosophy in the light of the Quran on one hand, and contemporary philosophical and scientific thought on the other – “the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.”

“The demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge is only natural,” he wrote in the preface after explaining that the modern mind possessed habits of concrete thought, suspicious of that inner experience on which religious faith ultimately rests. He thought that the time was ripe for the fusion of religious philosophy with modern knowledge (he usually tried to align his undertakings with cosmic designs as perceived by him), since “Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations” (obviously a reference to the Theories of Relativity). “It must, however, be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking,” he reminded his readers with his characteristic frankness. “As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.”

Hence he trusted the future generations to update this picture, modify it and add to it whatever he may have missed; he would be happy, as long as everything were seen from a holistic human point of interest. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened so far – instead of adding to his vision, most scholars have been trying to take away from it whatever doesn’t suite their own limited understanding. Due to this reason, the lectures pose a basic problem to a modern general reader: beautiful, astonishing statements of Iqbal on life and universe are buried under quotations from other authors, many of whom are no longer very familiar to us and therefore appear cumbersome.

However, his key concepts can be salvaged from beneath the heap and a map of his universe can be drawn up. Brick by brick, he creates a well-knitted picture of the universe through redefining the essential constructs of the Eastern mind in these lectures: God, nature, time, reality, thought, destiny, death, resurrection, prayer, and so on. Iqbal ventures to tread where Kant had given up long ago. Religious experience can be tested rationally but thought must rise above its ordinary level in order to do so. Intuition is a higher form of intellect, and through a unity of intuition and thought it can be realized that “the ultimate nature of Reality is spiritual,” but it must also be “conceived as an ego.” According to him, God is “the Ultimate Ego,” and “a rationally directed creative life.”

The most divine element in the human being is, therefore, the ego, which unites us with God, so that one may become “a co-worker” with Him.

Another construct remarkably redefined here is “destiny.” Iqbal doesn’t see it as predetermined, but merely as an ever-changing cluster of possibilities in the heart of this universe. In Javid Nama, he would present a Martian who bursts out in anger against those who cling to pessimistic concepts of life: “Go and ask God to give you a good destiny – He is bountiful, so He must have plenty for you to choose from. If it is the destiny of glass to be broken, very well then, transform yourself into a stone, because humans can change. You change your destiny when you change yourself.”

Establishing God as a rationally directed creative life and the Ultimate Ego; the human being as an ego who is candidate to immortality and responsible for shaping its own destiny as well as the destiny of the universe; defining prayer as “a normal vital act by which the little island of our personality suddenly discovers its situation in a larger whole of life,” Iqbal finally moved to the subject that had created an uproar in Lahore when he touched upon it a few years ago. However, he still took the precaution of explaining the “spirit of the Muslim culture” in the fifth lecture before treading again upon ijtehad in the next. The spirit of the Quran is essentially anti-classical, he pointed out, and the Prophet of Islam was the person who lifted the ancient world out of its dogmatic cradle and placed it into the modern frame. “Man is primarily governed by passion and instinct,” Iqbal wrote. “Inductive reason, which alone makes man master of his environment, is an achievement; and when once born it must be reinforced…”

Moving on to the touchy subject of ijtehad finally in the sixth lecture, he stated, “As a cultural movement Islam rejects the old static view of the universe, and reaches a dynamic view. As an emotional system of unification it recognizes the worth of the individual as such, and rejects blood-relationship as a basis of human unity. Blood-relationship is earth-rootedness. The search for a purely psychological foundation of human life is spiritual in its origin. Such a perception is creative of fresh loyalties without any ceremonial to keep them alive, and makes it possible for man to emancipate himself from the earth…”

The idea of emancipating the human being from the earth found yet another exposition in the Allahabad Address, delivered at the annual session of the All India Muslim League in 1930, where he discussed the possibility of a Muslim state “within or without the British India.” Although he rendered various other services to the cause of the Muslim League, especially in the last two years of his life, the Allahabad Address of 1930 is the pivot on which rests his reputation as the ideological founding father of Pakistan.

Election 1926, and henceforth

The All-India Muslim League had mentioned the demand for separate electorates for the Muslim of the sub-continent as the reason for its existence when it was founded on December 31, 1906. The separate electorates had been incorporated into the constitutional reforms of 1919, since the Hindu majority of the sub-continent had conceded to them three years earlier. However, the first elections held under these reforms in 1922 were massively boycotted by Muslims as well as Hindus due to the non-cooperation movement.

Iqbal presented himself as a candidate for the provincial legislative council (provincial assembly) of Punjab when the elections were held again in 1926 (but he chose to stand as an independent candidate supported by the Khilafat Committee – “I lead no party. I follow no leader.”). The non-cooperation movement against the British had long subsided by then – and the only kind of non-cooperation still practiced by Hindus and Muslims was against each other. Both Hindus and Muslims participated in the elections, but the excitement among Muslims was especially noticeable since they had won their cherished goal of separate electorates. Iqbal got elected to the provincial assembly and completed his term of four years. He did not seek re-election but never retired from practical politics either.

“Where there is no vision, people perish,” he would indulgingly quote from Solomon in a public address a few years later, and point out the difference between a visionary and a politician. A visionary learns to take “a clean jump over the temporal limitations” while the politician’s craft was to tackle those very limitations and work through them. In that sense, a visionary could sometime look blind, foolish, crazy, or even treacherous, by overlooking certain problems facing her or his community. If those problems were of a temporal nature it would not befit her or him to give them the dignity of permanence. A visionary’s job was to discover the larger pattern, the universal laws governing history.

As a visionary, Iqbal claimed to be foreseeing the events of several centuries in future as well as being aware of their ultimate purpose. As a political guide, the most practical which he could propose to his contemporaries was probably embedded in the words he threw into his letter to Sir Francis Younghusband a few years later: “readjustments are commonplaces of history.” A hundred years ago, the British imperialism was on the rise in India and then the enlightened elite were looking at its blessings. Now, the British seemed to be on their way out and hence the masses were rising up to release the negative feelings that had been held back for so long. This was a changing situation and called upon the participants to readjust rather than react.

The British were leaving, of this he was sure. Even in the preface of The Message of the East in 1923 he had mentioned “the debilitation of the forces of life” in Europe after the Great War. He was right in his analysis, because the end of the Empire came from very similar reasons although it took a second World War. However, while the politicians and politically motivated historians would be looking at the temporal causes of the fall of the Empire, such as the casualties in the conflicts, Iqbal would look at how these temporal causes affected the inner life of the British nation. It were not the wars themselves but their effect on the “forces of life” that caused the decline – after all, the British imperialism had marched on unhampered by the great Napoleonic Wars in the previous century.

The people(s) of the sub-continent should be prepared for two periods of readjustment. Firstly, there was the situation at hand. Here, the “appearance of a revolt” was created because the Western mind was historical in its nature while the Eastern mind was not. “To the Western man things gradually become; they have a past, present and future,” he later stated in a public address. “The Eastern man’s world-consciousness is non-historical.” To the Eastern mind, things were immediately rounded off, timeless, purely present. The British as a Western people could not but conceive political reform in India as a systematic process of gradual evolution, whereas “Mahatma Gandhi as an Eastern man sees in this attitude nothing more than an ill-conceived unwillingness to part with power, and tries all sort of destructive negations to achieve immediate attainment. Both are elementally incapable of understanding each other. The result is the appearance of a revolt.”

The current hard feelings between Britain and the people of the sub-continent would pass, as long as everyone kept their sense of humor alive. Afterwards would come the second phase of readjustment. The nations of the independent South Asia would have to match their political independence with a change in their collective characters. On one hand they would have to recognize their new position as friends and comrades to the former British foes in the global community, and on the other hand they would have to decide what role they must play in the world.

Would this region become just another nation-state after its independence, a parody of the countries of Europe? Or would it discover something new from the inner depths of its conscience? Could it be that the unique cultures of the peoples of the sub-continent contained seeds of other types of political structures that never got a chance to sprout under the despots in the past?

Even as an Indian, let alone as a Muslim, he could not reconcile with the idea of his country aping the modern states of the West. Those states were programmed to compete against each other and enslave the weaker nations – whether politically or economically. He would not like to imagine his country as the imperial tyrant of the next century.

He might also have feared that the independent country could slide back into its backwardness of the pre-British period. Unlike the Hindu novelists of Bengal and some of their Muslim counterparts, he could not see the past as an unremitting succession of golden ages – whether Muslim gold or Hindu gold. He was perennially critical of the Arab imperialism of the early period although he accepted the psychological and academic need of acknowledging its achievements as a part of the history. Moreover, he believed that the true ideals of Islam were yet to be discovered. Conversion of his land into a nation-state practically ruled by the Hindus by the virtue of numerical majority meant that the last chance of trying out the hitherto undiscovered political humanism of Islam in that country was to be lost forever.

There was another hazard, more real and alarming. “In India, people are not at all used to learn about former times from the facts of history, nor from reading books,” Sir Syed had written with regret while addressing his people after the turmoil of 1857. “It is for this reason that you people are not familiar with the injustice and oppression that used to take place in the days of the past rulers.” It was indeed a dangerous sign that communal atrocities between the Hindus and the Muslims skyrocketed as the movement for Indian independence paced up in the 1920’s. Iqbal was justified in demanding some constitutional safeguards for the preservation of the cultural entity of his community in the future shape of things.

The demand for constitutional safeguards was distasteful to the Congress, apparently because the nationalists were driven by a historical fallacy. It was generally believed that the communities in India were living in mutual affection until the British came and applied a ‘divide and rule’ policy here. The fact was that every ruler, political contestant or even a game player tries to divide the opponents. Was there ever a conqueror, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Greek or Roman, who encouraged his adversaries to ‘unite’ against him?

The phrase “divide and rule,” whoever invented it, was a good joke at the expense of the British but it was nothing more than that – a joke. It should have been taken with a pinch of salt but unfortunately it became the proverbial grit in the eyes of the nationalists blocking their vision from seeing the reality under their noses. They did not see the Muslim demand for constitutional safeguards as a necessary “readjustment,” but only as a continuation of the divisionary process allegedly started by the British.

Critique of the Hindu nationalist leadership

Iqbal responded to at least three different strands in the Hindu leadership. The first comprised of the reactionary and militant movements aimed at annihilating the non-Hindu minorities, especially the Muslims. Such movements naturally inspired fear and insecurity among the Muslims, and Iqbal might have shared some of this anxiety.

The second strand of the Hindu leadership comprised of the educated middle class politicians, such as the Nehrus (Motilal and his son Jawaharlal) or the more broad-minded and conciliatory Gokhale before them. Iqbal saw them as politically displaced dreamers. “The modern Hindu is quite a phenomenon,” he had scribbled in his notebook in 1910. “To me his behavior is more a psychological than a political study. It seems that the ideal of political freedom which is an absolutely new experience to him has siezed his entire soul, turning the various streams of his energy from their wonted channels and bringing them to pour forth their whole force into this new channel of activity.” Iqbal suspected that this path would eventually estrange the Hindu to “the ethical ideals of his ancestors,” just as the political life of the medieval Christians lost touch with the ideals of Christianity once they accepted the principle of nation-states. However, that was perhaps their own business and Iqbal’s attitude towards this class of the Hindu politicians was courteous, and sometimes even affectionate: Javid Nama (1932) contained praise of the Nehrus, apparently inspired by the Swaraj speech of Jawaharlal.

How far were these modern politicians in touch with the pulse of the masses? Intoxicated with Indian patriotism they wanted to throw the British out of their country but was there any guarantee that once the British were gone and India was left to the Indians the multitudes in the streets, villages and fields would be under the sway of these politicians and not give in to the more popular outcry of the militants? After all, the unschooled masses did not have Western ideologies in their heads which had shaped the mindsets of the Nehru-type politicians. The ideals of patriotism learnt from the West needed to be modified to the situation on the ground but these noble minds seemed to be carried too far in their imitation of the heroes of the European liberation movements. Iqbal persistently complained that the Indian nationalists had lost touch with reality.

The third strand of the Hindu leadership was represented by Gandhi. He was the heir to such extremists as Gangadhar Tilak as well as such self-proclaimed prophets as Ramakrishna of Bengal. Gandhi could be seen as the philosophical face of the same system that had spurned out the Hindu militants in the sense that he was an incarnation of the wisdom of the East – as well as its elemental shortcomings (which does not mean that he shared the views of the militants, just as Darwin could not be called a Nazi despite the common origins of European racism and the Theory of Evolution). Working with a non-historical premise, Gandhi may also have been unable to see that the war he had waged so gloriously was not, in reality, a revolt against the British at all. It was a war against the minorities of India.

The real parties to the contemporary struggle in South Asia were not England and India, “but the majority community and the minorities of India which [could] ill-afford to accept the principle of Western democracy until it [was] properly modified to suit the actual conditions of life in India.”

The Allahabad Address

The Muslim League suffered badly from a split over the issue of the Simon Commission in 1927. That split also reflected the same conflict between the Eastern and the Western minds, as Iqbal might have wanted to say. The British had not appointed any Indian to the Commission because, firstly, it was a Royal Commission, and secondly, the political situation in India was not yet ready for such a nomination although more conducive conditions could come into being in the near future. Iqbal and his political leader Sir Muhammad Shafi therefore took away a faction of the Muslim League to cooperate with the commission while the volatile Jinnah, acting more closely to the Eastern conscience of the Congress, held back the majority of the League from cooperating. The League could not even hold its annual session in 1929 and its survival remained doubtful even after the reconciliation between the two factions. It was around this time that Jinnah started his plans to retire from the Indian politics after a last bow in the forthcoming Round Table Conference.

In that fateful summer of 1930 when the country was ringing with the Congressional cries of swaraj, the half-abandoned Muslim League desperately maneuvered a comeback. Celebrity presence was needed, and who could be a bigger star than the poet-philosopher who had by now been hailed as “Allama” Iqbal. He dispatched his approval after some initial delay but the annual session originally planned for mid-August in Lucknow had to be unceremoniously postponed twice and it was sheer good luck that it took place even at the very end of the year, and in a forlorn haveli in Allahabad.

“At the present moment the national idea is racializing the outlook of Muslims, and thus materially counteracting the humanizing work of Islam,” he addressed a handful of Muslims in that poorly attended meeting. “And the growth of racial consciousness may mean the growth of standards different and even opposed to the standards of Islam.”

Apparently he was equipped to use this occasion for the promotion of his lifelong dream, the attainment of global prosperity through maximizing the moral capabilities of humanity, as well as sharing an insight into the future destiny of the region. “Is it possible to retain Islam as an ethical ideal and to reject it as a polity in favor of national politics in which religious attitude is not permitted to play any part?” He asked his listeners, and explained that the separation of the Church and the state in Europe had led to exploitative political systems. Fortunately, there was no Church in Islam and the Muslims should grasp the freedom and responsibility bestowed upon each individual by this great liberating religious idea.

Hence he proposed that the Muslim majority provinces in India should be turned into testing grounds for it. “I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single state,” the words, which have become well-known since then, had been italicized in the printed copy circulated by him on the occasion. “Self-Government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim state appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims at least of the North-West India.”

By his own admission he was not the inventor of this idea, which had a long history of its genesis – a British gentleman had suggested such regrouping of provinces even in 1877, the year Iqbal was born. Pakistan, the state that came into being seventeen years after Iqbal’s address, claims to be the brainchild of Iqbal on three counts. Firstly, through his writings, Iqbal had already reinforced the socio-psychological factors that eventually mobilized the Muslim community of the region for creating Pakistan. Secondly, Iqbal gave a deeper meaning to the idea, making it something more than what it was before him (and it must be remembered that the Hindu newspapers at immediately started associating it with his name, giving it more attention – although negative – than before). To this may be added the observation that Iqbal presented it as a proposition as well as a prediction about “the final destiny of the Muslims at least of the North-West India.” Thirdly, till his very death he remained actively involved in the effort to politically organize the Muslim community along the lines that would make the birth of Pakistan soon after his death.

It is not historically correct to say that he specifically demanded a regrouping of provinces within the Indian federation and not without – in his Presidential Address he said “within or without”. However, he might not have liked the two (or more) resulting states to turn bitter enemies against each other, nor might have desired an iron curtain between them. Most probably he would have wanted some cultural spilling over at least between the Muslim communities in the two states.

He explained why he wanted the new state: “For India it means security and peace resulting from the internal balance of power; for Islam an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian Imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilize its law, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.”

He did not end his address without a characteristic masterstroke of his bold mind: “One lesson I have learnt from the history of Muslims,” he said, “At critical moments in their history it is Islam that has saved Muslims and not vice versa.” He thus proposed to change the Muslim outlook towards religion. The confidence that Islam could never be endangered should give more freedom to the Muslims for choosing their course in life; they should approach religion for solutions of their problems and not as a fossilized artifact of the past to which devotion should be shown through suspension of rational faculties. Religion was a gift from the Almighty, and not a fetter placed upon the neck of the humanity. Likewise, it should bring happiness, prosperity and peace.

It may be debated whether Iqbal was aware how his words would affect the course of history in the region and whether he could foresee that the state he prophesied would come into existence soon after his death, and then remain alien to the important aspects of his broader vision at least for six decades. Anyone who compares the first sixty years of Pakistan with Iqbal’s vision is likely to be dismayed but sixty years, or even a century, is a small fraction of time in the life of a great literary monument. Iqbal’s ideal of global human prosperity is alive in his masterpieces. We must remember that Iliad and Odyssey remain alive long after their civilization is dead and gone, and Aeniad is fresh long after its language has died away. The lifeblood of Iqbal, too, is alive in his works that remain eternally fresh. They can come back to life whenever there is a critical mass of people willing to receive guidance.

“Nations are born in the hearts of poets,” he had written in his notebook long ago. “They prosper and die in the hands of politicians.”

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