Op-ed

ALLAMA MUHAMMAD IQBAL: The Poet of the East

 

MIAN SAJID ALI

 

Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) is the only poet and thinker in the history of world literature who has been credited with the birth of a new nation and a new state.

 

Muhammad Iqbal was born on November 9, 1877 in the Punjab city of Sialkot in British-ruled India. His father was pious Muslim tailor, and his mother a wise and generous woman who quietly gave financial help to the poor and arbitrated neighbour’s disputes. Iqbal was a happy child who excelled early at learning the Quran by heart. When he was four, a teacher and social reformer impressed by the boy’s intellect persuaded his father to enroll him in a local Scottish mission school.

 

Young Muhammad Iqbal was drawn to music and poetry. He delighted in bringing home popular ballads from the marketplace, which he then parodied in impromptu shows. In high school, he mastered the classical skills of the craft of poetry, such as arooz (the science of meter) and abjad (numerology of verses). He wrote chronograms (specific letters stand for a particular date when rearranged), composed ghazals (rhyming couplets) and learned to play the sitar.

 

At 18, he moved to Lahore to study philosophy, English literature and Arabic at Government College. Lahore at the time was a multicultural city of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Mushairas (open poetry readings), held at Bhati Gate, attracted budding poets and poetry lovers of all descriptions, even those who couldn’t read or write. This was where Iqbal first gained a following. He wrote in Urdu and Indic language, mutually intelligible with Hindi, that developed centuries ago as a lingua franca between the Turkic and Persian invaders of India and those they conquered. By the time Iqbal obtained his bachelor’s degree, he knew six languages; Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, English and Sanskrit; three of them well enough to write world-class literature in.

 

In 1905, Iqbal left India for England to study modern philosophy at Trinity College Cambridge and law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. The 28-year-old Iqbal was astounded by the riches in the libraries and museums of Europe. He read rare manuscripts of classical Muslim thought, which inspired him to write his dissertation on the development of metaphysics in Persia. It traced the logical continuity of Persian thought from the time of Zoroaster to the founder of the Baha’i faith in the 19th century, and earned him a doctorate from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

 

In 1908, he returned to Lahore and began teaching philosophy and English literature at Government College and practicing law at the High Court. From then on, he earned his living by the practice of law and his fame from his philosophy and poetry. Iqbal had begun writing his philosophical works in Persian to gain a wider audience. He continued with Asrar-i-Khudi (Secrets of Self) in 1915 and Rumooz-e-Bekhudi (The Mysteries of Selflessness) in 1918, which combine Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the superman with the poetry and philosophy of Jalal-ud-Din Rumi. In these works, he formulated his concept of the self, the divine spark present in every human being since Adam. Man’s legitimate goal, he believed, is to strengthen the self; any behavior that makes for the debasement and perversion of human personality weakens the self. Success doesn’t come from invading the space of others; it comes from growing stronger in oneself. The two works earned him a knighthood in 1923, but the honorific that most attaches to Iqbal’s name in our day is not “Sir” but Allama, literally “great scholar”.

 

In his collection of Urdu poetry Bang-e-Dara in 1924, Iqbal stressed that God had created the universe for man, not the other way around. So, Iqbal reasoned, man should not be the slave of the universe, but its master. Therefore, the duty of a Muslim was to discover the laws of nature by observation and experiment, and to strive to understand all things on earth. Whatever knowledge the senses of man discovered about nature would certainly be fully compatible with the will of God. This led Iqbal to conclude that there was no conflict between European science and Islam.

 

Iqbal’s writings frequently dwell on the past glories of Islamic civilization, but this theme never prevented him from considering the wisdom and ideas of other cultures and societies. No other Muslim thinker was a familiar with western writers and philosophers as he was. Iqbal displayed a remarkably international perspective when delineating the literary constellations to whom he was personally indebted:

 

“I owe a great deal to Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil and Wordsworth. The first two led me into the “inside” of things; the third and fourth taught me how to remain oriental in spirit and expression after having assimilated foreign ideals of poetry, and the last saved me from atheism in my student days.”

(Stray Reflections)

 

 

Goethe bemoans that the West had become too materialistic and calls on the East to provide a message of hope to resuscitate spiritual values. Iqbal’s answer to Goethe was his Piyam-e-Mashriq, Persian and Urdu poems published in 1923 and 1924.

 

Iqbal became increasingly concerned about the status of The Muslim minority in a soon to be independent India. He entered politics and was elected to the Punjab Legislative Council in 1926. In 1930, he became president of the All India Muslim League at its session in Allahabad and outlined his vision for India’s Muslim majority areas in his presidential address on December 29, 1930:

“The principle of European democracy cannot be applied to India without recognizing the fact of communal groups. The Muslim demand for the creation of a Muslim India within India is, therefore, perfectly justified. I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a separate state. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North West Indian Muslim State appears to me the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India”.

This speech is seen as the birth of the idea of Pakistan. He thus became the first politician to articulate that Muslims are a distinct nation and thus deserve political independence from other regions and communities of India. In 1931 and 1932, Iqbal represented Indian Muslims at the London Anglo-Indian Round Table Conferences on the political future of India. After leaving England in 1932, he went on to Spain to pray at the former Great Mosque of Cordoba and to Afghanistan to attend meetings marking the establishment of Kabul University. Upon his return home, he began suffering from a mysterious throat ailment. By the mid-1930’s, his health had deteriorated so much that he had to decline to give a series of Rhodes lectures at Oxford.

 

Iqbal was of the view that only Muhammad Ali Jinnah was political leader, capable of preserving Muslim unity and fulfilling the League’s objectives on Muslim political empowerment. Iqbal was an influential force on convincing Jinnah to end his self-impossed exile in London, return to India and take charge of the League with a new agenda – the establishment of Pakistan.

 

But still he did not put down his pen, composing these lines a few days before his death:

Iqbal died in Lahore in the early hours of April 21, 1938, promoting an outpouring of grief throughout the subcontinent. Within hours, Indians of all faiths swarmed to his house. A gravesite was quickly identified for him on hallowed ground between the Mughal-era Imperial Mosque and Lahore Fort. That afternoon, newspaper supplements about his life began to appear. In the evening, a funeral procession of 20,000 people snaked through the streets of Lahore. As it passed an orphanage, the children lowered black flags they held in their hands as a sign of respect: The Cry of the Orphan had been Iqbal’s first successful long poem, written nearly 40 years before. At 9:45 p.m., 50,000 people stood in silence as his body was lowered into the grave.

Iqbal encouraged and worked closely with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and he is known as Muffakir-e-Pakistan (The Thinker of Pakistan), Shaiyer-e-Mashriq (The Poet of the East), and Hakeem-ul-Ummat (The Sage of Ummah). He is officially recognized as the ‘National Poet’ in Pakistan.

 

 

 

Name of Books Year Language
Ilm-ul-Iqtisad 1904 Urdu
The Development of Metaphysics in Persia 1908 English
Asrar-i-Khudi 1915 Persian
Rumooz-e-Bekhudi 1918 Persian
Piyam-e-Mashriq 1923 Persian
Bang-e-Dara 1924 Urdu
Zaboor-e-Ajam 1927 Persian
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 1930 English
Javidnama 1932 Persian
Musafir 1934 Persian
Bal-e-Jabreel 1935 Urdu
Zarb-i-Kaleem 1936 Urdu
Pas Cheh Bayad Kard Aye Aqwam-i-Sharq 1936 Persian
Armaghan-e-Hijaz 1938 Urdu/Persian
Stray Reflections 1961 English

 

*Ilm-ul-Iqtisad (Political Economy) was Iqbal’s first published book, he developed an interest in economics partially because he had to teach the subject in the Oriental College, Lahore.

 

*Iqbal submitted a revised draft of his graduation thesis for a doctorate at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, with a letter of recommendation from Thomas Arnold. The thesis on which he had earned a graduation from Cambridge and a doctorate from Munich was finally published by Luzac & Co., London, in July 1908 as The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.

 

*The First edition of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam published from Lahore in 1930 while the second edition was published by Oxford University Press, London in 1934. The text was slightly revised by Iqbal and the seventh lecture was added.

 

*The collected edition of Asrar-i-Khudi and Ramooz-e-Bekhudi, published in 1923 as Asrar-o-Rumooz.

 

*Pas Cheh Bayad Kard Aye Aqwam-i-Sharq published coupled with previously published Musafir’s second edition.

 

*In 1910 Iqbal started noting his private thoughts in a notebook called Stray Reflections; edited and published by Javid Iqbal in 1961.

 

 

Mian Sajid Ali

Chairman – Allama Iqbal Stamps Society

allamaiqbalstamps@gmail.com

www.allamaiqbalstamps.blogspot.com

www.facebook.com/allamaiqbalstamps

 

About the author

Mian Bilal