Iqbal : Not Relevant Anymore


An airport, university, countless schools and roads – the list of places and institutions bearing the name of Allama Iqbal goes on and on. If Pakistan was a religion, Iqbal would be a prophet.

Iqbal came to prominence in a time when the Muslim World was in apparent decline. Spain was long gone. The Mughal Empire was dead. For Muslims in his native British India, Iqbal’s poetry was a rallying call to rise; extremely relevant for his times on a socio-political level. 76 years after his death, however, his relevance needs to revisited.

Iqbal was not a capitalist. He wasn’t a socialist. He criticised both systems, but unfortunately, did not provide any answer as to what the ideal system is. His literary work also reeks of a non-progressive attitude towards the standing of women in our society, where he advocates motherhood as a woman’s most important role. Also, some of his best literary work leaves one with more questions than answers. His ‘Mard-e-Momin’ advocates a return to the sword, but then he also talks about Khudi, a spiritual non-violent state of self-actualisation.

“Sar Shak-E-Chashm-E-Muslim Mein Hai Neesan Ka Asar Paida
Khalil-Allah Ke Darya Mein Hon Ge Phir Guhar Paida

(The effect of the spring‐rain is born in the tears of the Muslims.
Pearls will be born again in the sea of the Friend of God.)

Like many other pieces of Iqbal’s poetry, this Stanza too lends support to the incorrect singular world view where Muslims are the exalted ones. His concept of a virtually omnipotent Muslim has stark similarities to Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Superman’. He envisioned a Muslim world devoid of divisions, one where all components come together to form a powerful, indestructible force. In his poem ‘Shikwa’, Iqbal shapes the world in a classic clash of civilisations. The Islamic Mard-e-Momin strives to achieve martyrdom, thus reaching the pinnacle of human hierarchy. It is thus no wonder that verses by Iqbal have become synonymous with the Pakistan military’s academic and philosophical discourse.

The issues with Iqbal’s relevance today are the singular concepts of faith, progress and spirituality that he penned down in his lifetime. He was a product of his time, his soul-stirring poetry hitting home with the Muslims of pre-partition India. He wrote what the Muslims wanted to hear, and he did it brilliantly.

“Shan Ankhon Mein Na Jachti Thi Jahan Daron Ki
Kalima Parhte The Hum Chaon Mein Talwaron Ki”

(The pageantries of mighty kings to us were shows that mattered not,
Beneath the shade of blades unsheathed in Kalima we glory sought,)

This lends support to the angst-ridden reactionary version of Islam that has become synonymous with Pakistan. It was relevant before pre-partition since Muslims in the subcontinent needed an emotional boost and Iqbal did so very well, but this stanza, among a host of others, just doesn’t fit in the modern world. This is partly the problem with reading into and agreeing with what Iqbal wrote on a philosophical and socio-political level over three quarters of a century ago.

Singular concepts of faith, progress and spirituality do not hold water in the modern way. They have long been rubbished and replaced by pluralism and diversity. We live in a world where a singular world view, regardless of whether it is entrenched in hyper nationalism or overzealous religious identities, is a recipe for disaster. We have seen Pakistan go through this decade after decade. The singular approach which built up aggressive religious fuelled nationalism to counter the perceived threat by India, the singular approach which promoted national unity over provincial diversity both pre and post 1971 and the singular approach which sowed the seeds of anti-minority sentiments.

The Mard-e-Momin was relevant back when Muslims in the subcontinent were fighting for independence. His Falcon was relevant when Muslims in the subcontinent needed to rise and reach a stage of self-actualisation. Back then, Muslims were the minority in an area that welcomed Iqbal’s message with open arms.

In 2014, that is not the case. Times have changed. Socio-political dynamics have changed, and most importantly, the world around us has changed. The Mard-e-Momin of the post-modern world spews nothing but hate.

It is because of these factors that the celebration of Iqbal as a visionary is incorrect. His ideas have not stood the test of time and they lend some unfortunate support to the many evils facing Pakistan on a socio-political and economic level. A critical review of Iqbal is necessary in order to highlight not only the limitations of his ideological prowess, but also acknowledge that doing so does not downplay his talent as a wordsmith.

This post appeared on The Express Tribune Blog on  9 November, 2014

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