How to Read Iqbal?

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  • How to Read Iqbal?By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi(Draft of paper to be presented at the Iqbal Academy, Pakistan, Lahore: April, 2004)

    Given a small twist of inflection, the question may veryeasily be understood to mean: How can one read Iqbal? Theimplication would be that he is such an uninteresting poet, howcould one read him by choice? It is true that such a questionwould not be asked by someone who has the slightest feel forthe Urdu language and the rhythms of its poetry. For even thedullest of Iqbals poems rings and reverberates not just in theouter ear but deep in ones psyche and sets up vibrations ofpleasure in ones soul. But the problem arises when one is madeto read Iqbal not for pleasure, but for profit. For Iqbal is also apoliticians poet, a religious thinkers poet, and a philosopherspoet and much more besides. Iqbal has earned a lot of praiseand not a little blame as well, for being one other of the thingsmentioned by me above.

    It is an interesting, though sad fact of literary criticismthat politics seems never to have left poetry to its own devices.Politicians love to make use of poetry, but are wise enough toleave alone poets like Shakespeare and Goethe whom they cantexploit for their own purposes. Literary critics are less wise. Theytry to read politics in poets like Shakespeare and Keats evenwho did their best not to profess any political creed and whomade their poems apparently incapable of yieldinginterpretations that could be converted into political currency.

    That Iqbal should have aroused interest and evendevotion among politicians and political and religious thinkersall over the Muslim world, and particularly in those Muslimcountries that were trying to come to terms with the modern ageand had been under colonial domination for many long years, is

  • How to Read Iqbal?By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

    quite natural. For Iqbals poetry has strong overtones ofmodernity and makes serious efforts to find ways of fruitfullynegotiating the postcolonial landscape in society and politicswithout losing what he regarded as fundamental elements ofIslamic religious thought and sociopolitical identity. He was alsopassionately concerned with the historic reality of Islam and itslost effects could be revived and perpetuated in the modernworld. Such a project was bound to appeal to, and have uses forthe Muslim politician as well as the Muslim social politicalreformer and activist.

    In the Urdu world, Iqbal was and even now is oftenknown by two appellatives: shair-e mashriq (Poet of the East),and hakimul ummat (Physician of the [Muslim] People, or,Philosopher of the [Muslim] People.) It might interesting to notehere that the later appellative (hakimul ummat ) used to be and stillis also applied for Maulana Shah Ashraf Ali Thanavi (1863/4-1943) one of the two most influential Sufis and religiousreformers and mentors of the Muslim community in South Asiaduring the first half of the twentieth century. Thanavi was notmuch interested in politics (though he favoured Jinnah and theMuslim League) but his influence can bee seen and felt in thesocial and religious life of South Asian Muslims even today. Eventhe political life of Muslims especially in Pakistan, showsThanavis influence through the ulema of that country,particularly those of the Deobandi School who have a strongpresence in Pakistan today.

    A few more points are worth noting here about theseappellatives:

    Iqbal, the philosopher-activist, political and religiousthinker, active in politics though not a full-time politician, wasseen by the Muslim community of South Asia as performing anongoing, meliorist role in the Muslim society of his time whichwas qualitatively the same role that was being discharged byAshraf Ali Thanavi, practicing Sufi-intellectual, and religious andsocial reformer. That is to say, his status as poet notwithstanding,Iqbal had another niche, or many other niches, in the politicallife and society of the subcontinent. But what was lost in thisassessment was the fact that whatever other status Iqbal enjoyedhad been conferred on him because of his status as poet. So anyliterary consideration of Iqbal could ignore, so far as such aproceeding was possible, the philosophical or political contentof his poetry but could not ignore its literary content.

    To be sure, both shair-e mashriq and hakimul ummat arenow falling into desuetude, more in India than in Pakistan. Thatis, literary and even nonexpert circles do not now use theseappellatives freely. But the reason for this seems to be Iqbalcriticism perhaps believes itself to have grown in sophisticationand subtlety, and these appellatives do seem simplistic if not


  • How to Read Iqbal?By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

    nave. But a reason for their declining popularity with thecommon reader could be that he is not all that excited withIqbals role as hakim, and mashriq also has grown now in commonperception to mean more than what it did five or six decadesago.

    The East in shair-e mashriq (Poet of the East) was notseen as subsuming anything more than the subcontinent andmaybe Afghanistan and Iran. Similarly, the Poet here didntmean something like a Poet par excellence. It rather signified apoet whose poetry presented and represented the political,intellectual and maybe even spiritual aspirations of the East.Yet, in some sense Iqbal was also seen as the Poet of the GreaterEast, that is Asia. Perhaps Iqbal also saw himself as the Poet ofthe East and shair-e mashriq seemed to see in Goethe the Poet ofthe West (shair-e maghrib), that is, Europe. It was for this latterreason that Iqbal composed Payam-e Mashriq ( Message From theEast, 1923) just as Goethe had sent his greetings to the East(Iran, in this case) through his West-ostlicher Divan (Divan of theEast and West, 1819). Iqbal described his book on its title pageas Response to the German Poet Goethe and wrote in thePreface:

    The purpose of Payam-e Mashriq is to present beforethe [peoples] eyes those moral, religious and religio-national truths which relate to the inner education of theindividuals and peoples.1 Thus Iqbal gave advance intimation of his poetic

    intention to the reader and desired the poems of Payam-e Mashriqto be read principally if not solely as didactic-philosophicaldocuments. This did not help the cause of Iqbal the poet and ledthe uninitiated student to believe that the poems were somethinglike Sanai Ghaznavis Hadiqah, which Browne characterized(wrongly, in my opinion) as the dullest poem ever written. Thusthe title Poet of the East easily flowed intoPhysician/Philosopher of the [Muslim] People. It would bewrong to say that Iqbal connived at this result, but it is quite rightto say that Iqbal often professed a lack of interest in his poetryqua poetry and this encouraged misreadings of his poetryinasmuch as attention was concentrated on Iqbals philosophicaland religio-political message so as to result in a near exclusion byliterary critics of his poetic content and practical suppression ofhis claim to be treated as poet, a claim, one might say that isembedded almost everywhere in his poetry.

    The detrimental effects of this suppression on Iqbal thepoet can be demonstrated by quoting from two important worksof literary criticism on Iqbal, both written from nearly opposingpoints of view. A period of a little more than four decades

    1 Payam-e Mashriq, 5th printing, Lahore, 1944, page kaf (=11).


  • How to Read Iqbal?By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

    separates the two. The following is from Majnun Gorakhpuri(1904-1988), a leading Progressive critic of his time who was alsowell known for his expertise in Classical Urdu and Persianpoetry:

    Iqbal, despite his occasional reactionariness, ancestor-worship, and occasionally taking a turn in the wrongdirection, seems to be to be a poet of Life, Revolutionand Progress.2Salim Ahmad (1927-1983) whom I hold in the greatest

    respect and affection was a major modern poet and critic notedas much for erudition as his brilliant wit. He wrote his book onIqbal with the avowed purpose of rehabilitating the status ofIqbal as a poet. He summed up Iqbal the poet in the followingwords:

    The central problem in Iqbal is nor Self-hood (khudi),nor love (ishq ), nor Action ( amal ), nor yet Power andDynamism (quvvat o harakat ), but rather as opposed to allthese, Death is Iqbals central problem. This is theproblem that acquaints his being with a tremor andupheaval that shakes his whole being. Here lies thefoundation of that poetic experience which generates thepoetic world that is peculiar to Iqbal.3Needless to say, neither critic does justice to Iqbal but

    the main point is that both critics judge Iqbal in nonliteraryterms. Poets of an earlier age are almost always at risk frommisreading. This is true particularly in the case of Urdu whosehistory suffered a major literary cultural discontinuity in themiddle of the nineteenth century. Contemporary or nearcontemporary poets are rarely misread. More often than notthey provoke bafflement if not resentment. he great Progressivecritic Ehtesham Husain (1912-1972) once described Iqbal as abaffling figure because he found unrecocilable differences in thephilosophical or political positions taken by Iqbal. ButEhtesham Husains bafflement is nothing compared to thesystematic misreadings of Iqbal that have resulted from his artbeing studied separately, if at all, from his thought. MajnunGorakhpuri made no pretence of judging Iqbal on literary merits.He sat in judgment on Iqbal as a fellow dialectician and apolitically committed student of life and literature. In the spaceof the space of the ten or twelve short pages that he devotes tostudying western influences on Iqbal, Majnun Gorakhpurimentions Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, Bergson, Wordsworth,Heine, Browning, Emerson, Idealism, Voluntarism, Activism,Leibnitz, Theory of monads, Diale