Dr Muhammad Iqbal wrote the national song of India, has been declared the national poet of Pakistan, and served as one of the intellectual influences for Iran’s revolutionaries. However, over the last few years, there has been an ever-growing allergy towards Iqbal among the liberal sections of Pakistan
Iqbal is presently claimed by the right; in the past he was also strongly claimed by the left. Now, since there is no left left in Pakistan, the right gets Iqbal all to itself (the liberals, predictably, either despise him or are indifferent towards him). However, the prevailing models of Iqbal are unjustified. They rely on, as do all models, abstractions, but his modelers have chosen to abstract away sides of Iqbal that are crucial to him.
Why is Iqbal important? Mainly because he lived under imperialism and understood it; he saw the decline of Muslim society and wanted to reform it. Both these concerns are still pressingly relevant. Iqbal’s pains and fears and disillusionment and hopes are the same as ours, living as we are in these neo-colonial times, ‘spiced up’ by religious fanaticism.
On the one hand, he admires the ‘west’ a lot; so much so that he utters the following ‘blasphemous’ lines while addressing God (translations follow all couplets)
فردوس جو تیرا ہے، کسی نے نہیں دیکھا
ہم مشرق کے مسکینوں کا دل مغرب میں جا اٹکا ہے
We easterners, our hearts are stuck in the west
They have these shiny dispensers; all we have is an old pot
At the same time, however, witnessing the naked greed and brutality of the ‘west’, he utters the following lines:
East’s gods are Europe’s white people
(While) Europeʹs gods are her glittering metals
یہ علم، یہ حکمت، یہ تدّ بر، یہ حکومت
Their science, philosophy, scholarship, government
Preach manʹs equality (but) drink manʹs blood
Regarding religious dogmatism, though he didn’t live to see Taliban style fanaticism, he could already see the germs in Mullah-ism and his poetry is full of anti-Mullah sentiments. For example, consider the poem titled, Mullah and Heaven:
When in a vision I saw, a Mullah ordered to paradise,
Unable to hold my tongue, I said something in this wise:
‘Pardon me, O God, for these bold words of mine,
But he will not be pleased, with the Houris and the wine.
He loves to dispute and fight, and furiously wrangle,
But paradise is no place, for this kind of jangle.
His task is to disunite, and leave people in the lurch,
But paradise has no temple, no mosque and no church’.
Did Iqbal advocate Pan Islamism? Observe the following couplet, which is one of many such:
Muslims should unite for the protection of the Haram
From the coast of the Nile, to the land of Kashgar
Now, these and other such couplets are the kind of ‘slogans’ that send spiders crawling up our liberals’ backs. At the same time it is due to such couplets that the right-wing idealizes Iqbal, and for which the state of Pakistan honors him.
One has to realize that Iqbal saw Pan-Islamism as a potent weapon against imperialism. What other avenue was left for someone who was living under British rule, wanted to rebel against it, and yet could not completely ally himself with communists despite being sympathetic towards them? And how else do you talk to people who are deeply imbued in religion? Like this? “O jolly good fellow, here’s a book by David Hume. You shall discover conclusively that faith is groundless. Do consult me if you have any trouble assimilating this simple text, all right love?” To put things into perspective, we should remember that Gandhi too had to depend on the use of Hindu Mythology for connecting with the masses.
Both the right wing’s attitude, and the liberals’ attitude towards Iqbal have deep implications for Pakistan post 9/11 (the left being unfortunately dead, doesn’t enter the debate): One venerates him; the other is sick of him. One wants to mainly criticize the US imperialists, while the other is tired of such criticism and seeks to invest in rationality and science, and criticize religious fanaticism. I have often wondered, why can’t it be both? Why can’t we criticize US imperialism and religious fanaticism at the same time? Why do we have to fall prey to this either/or game?
I remember back in 2001, as a twenty-one years old, writing an angry email to a prominent Pakistani liberal asking him why he was supporting the war against Afghanistan. He had replied that he was supporting it because the war was a golden opportunity for Pakistan to get rid of religious fanaticism. Say what?
Well, how’s that working out for ya? Any luck? O, the Afghanistan war worsened the situation? You don’t say!
Unfortunately, as years have passed, the intellectual dim-wittedness of Pakistani liberals has remained high as ever. The right-wing in Pakistan was always a bunch of short-sighted, dogmatic fools and the less said about them, the better.
Iqbal, in his own peculiar way, addressed both these segments of society thus:
I only say that which I think is true
I am neither a child of the mosque nor of modern culture
What should be remembered is that just because Iqbal has been made into a hero, into a two-dimensional, perfect, cardboard human being in this godforsaken Islamic Republic of Pakistan, we should not take the opposite route of dismissing him. Granted, it is quite easy to dismiss him. After all, despite all his hatred of imperialism, he did happily accept knighthood from the British Empire. An embarrassing anecdote that Dr Mubarak Ali narrates is that Iqbal became very excited on hearing that Stalin had converted to Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Stalin. If that’s not emotional naivete then one doesn’t know what is. There is much else to criticize. But so what? The problem only stems from the fact that we have a bad habit of making heros out of others. No one is a hero! We admire Faiz, but if one wanted, criticizing Faiz would be as easy as criticizing Iqbal. We can and should admire people for their brilliant qualities without turning them into heroes.
This is what Jaun Elia, the iconoclast, and brutally honest poet said about Iqbal: “There is a strong disagreement between our world-views, but it can’t be denied that the world hasn’t seen a poet such as Iqbal in the last five hundred years!”
And indeed, with all his contradictions; his sometimes brilliant, sometimes clumsy journeys between rationality and irrationality; his heroic jousts and naive circumambulations at the doors of reason and emotion; his flirtations with both communism and Islamism; his love-hate relationship with the ‘west’; Iqbal remains relevant and vital as ever!
The only provision is that he should be modeled as a thinking human being and an unmatched poet, who contemplated upon some of the most important political and social themes of our lives. He should be regarded neither as a hero (right-wing interpretation) nor as an emotional sloganeer (liberal interpretation).
The last words belong to Iqbal. He narrates what a Mullah said about him:
He is not Iqbal, but a collection of contradictions
His heart crammed with learning; his temperament impulsive
To which Iqbal replied:
I too am unaware of my own nature
The sea of my thoughts is deep!