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Iqbal: poor philosophy, rich poetry

Capture 13

By Salma Khalid

The state and its propaganda apparatus have been a great hindrance in the development of an objective approach or objective approaches to Iqbal. Yet, one can ask whether Iqbal didn’t really come handy to a regressive state.


Letting Iqbal entirely off the hook and attributing the problem mostly to the state has been the tendency in influential segments of the liberal intellectuals and in the Marxist left in Pakistan, which suddenly discovered in Iqbal a philosophical genius that they had failed to spot before – when they were condemning him for what was seen as fascism and fascistic symbols adorning his poetry. All that changed after some Soviet scholars, perhaps working under Soviet state guidelines, saw in Iqbal a great anti-imperialist and ‘anti-capitalist humanist’.

An acute sense of social injustice is indeed powerfully present in parts of Iqbal’s poetry. What should be noted is that, despite using Marxist insights in those parts, Iqbal has no place for even a tinge of Marxism in his serious ‘philosophical’ efforts, as is evident from his ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’. In fact what these lectures make clear in places is that a fear of the spread of socialism is one of the factors driving Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction’.

His reactionary idealism is positively at odds with Marxism. Our leftists confuse his poetic devices and a few romantic, and no doubt powerful, invocations by him of Marx and Lenin with what they call his philosophy. Often, these invocations serve to attack colonialism and fascism as evil fruits of secularism, nationalism, democracy, liberalism and reason.

What has been lacking in most of Iqbal’s admirers on both the Right and the Left is an intellectual commitment to the plain truth. Instead, what has proved irresistible is the desire to use Iqbal’s name to be acceptable to the people among whom Iqbal came to enjoy great ‘intellectual’ influence and popularity. As a result, with very few exceptions, little honest discussion on Iqbal’s lectures has taken place here.

Iqbal attacked reason, science, philosophy, literature, art and free thought at a very crucial stage of our social and political history. Which state using religion as ideology would hesitate in owning and using someone who proclaims that freedom of thought is an invention of the devil or that Muslims have no use for philosophy, literature and theoretical sciences or that Muslims should avoid studying astronomy for it renders men without courage? How far should our knowledge and understanding of the dynamics of progress and history have advanced in the 20th century for the Cambridge and Munich-educated Iqbal to know that these were dangerous utterings, of great disservice to Muslims?

Iqbal himself was candid about the fact that he was no philosopher. Still, that has not prevented us from taking him seriously as a ‘philosopher’. That also did not prevent Iqbal himself from using and abusing philosophy to demolish philosophy itself with unrestrained self-congratulation. He had the same self-defeating attitude to reason as all those before and after him who would demolish reason and philosophy but rely on reason and philosophy to do so, thus making a strange spectacle where philosophy does not remain philosophy but becomes unintelligible gobbledygook carrying little meaning and religion does not remain religion but becomes a caricature of itself.

Some commentators and critics note a multiplicity of meanings in Iqbal, rooting the presence in Iqbal of many thinkers, philosophers and mystics from different traditions in this alleged multiplicity. Quite apart from the question whether just any (if at all) sort of multiplicity of meanings should become philosophical text, such an approach gives Iqbal what does not belong to him. Multiplicity of meanings may exist where each individual layer of meaning is at least consistent within itself. With Iqbal, the situation is simply chaos in the pages of the ‘Reconstruction’ with great names being dropped without restraint, to no effect except muddying the waters and overawing the readers into submissive silence and dullness of mind.

Iqbal is not without a few flashes of brilliance, vision and insight into the human condition, but they are only a few and do not jell well in the gigantic chaos he causes on the whole. And they remain mere flashes. What he gives with one hand in those flashes, he very effectively and elaborately takes away with the other.

In the ‘Reconstruction’ Iqbal uses Quranic verses extremely irresponsibly to prove his points on history, biology, physics, mathematics and what not. He was the modern originator of the harmful attitude that Muslims have since badly suffered from – their tendency to ‘discover’ everything in the Holy Quran while the rest of the world works its brains off day and night trying to unravel the workings of the universe.

Iqbal’s thinking is characterised by a lack of historical sense and almost compulsive distortion of basic historical facts. One of the most fundamental assertions – also one of most absurd in the history of ideas – made by Iqbal is that ‘Semitic’ Islam gave birth to modern science by revolting against the Aryan (the Greek legacy and the Iranian heritage influenced by it) Islam, which to him is no Islam but a movement against it. (To follow the movement of Iqbal’s thought here calls for a serious and careful study of both his doctoral thesis that he ‘disowned’ and his magnum opus ‘The Reconstruction’ which many regard as a great achievement.)

The difference between Semitic Islam and the ‘Aryan/Greek/Iranian distortion of it’ is one of the central planks of the mythology that Iqbal – the advocate of a universal Islam – created and became obsessed by. All the same, this is elaborate and intricate nothingness, made interesting only by the fact that Iqbal ends up building the whole edifice of his ‘Reconstruction’ not on Semitic Islam but on immanentist/neo-platonic/Aryan foundations.

The quality of Iqbal’s scholarship is suspect. His apparently quite deliberate misuse of Louis Massignon’s great work on Hallaj is only one example of this. His use of Rumi in the ‘Reconstruction’ to equate his (Rumi’s) neo-platonic, absolutely Aryan and entirely non-Semitic idea of the soul with the modern discovery of (biological) evolution is nothing but one of many instances of the mental gymnastics that Iqbal performs. But to what end?

Iqbal the poet is and should be a different story – not without its own tragedy though. I agree with the spirit of Marx’s comments on poets that they are strange creatures and liberties should be extended to them that we would not permit to philosophers and scientists. That is an important distinction that we often lose sight of while discussing Iqbal. A multiplicity (whether projected by the reader or actually and originally present) of meanings in poetry is not only permissible but a requisite to great poetry which, like music, can rise above its immediate context and encompass, in its own mysterious ways, facets of the human experience which calls not only for objective understanding but for a level of subjective and emotional involvement that can help us withstand the ravages of time and life.

Friedrich Engels, sharply attacking Professor Duhring’s conception of aesthetic education, wrote: “…it goes without saying that the “mythological or other religious trimmings” characteristic of poets up to now cannot be tolerated in this school. ‘Poetic mysticism’ too … is to be condemned. Herr Dühring will therefore have to make up his mind to produce for us those poetic masterpieces which “are in accord with the higher claims of an imagination reconciled with reason”, and represent the genuine ideal, which “denotes the perfection of the world.”

The best of Iqbal’s poetry surpasses any narrow confines and boundaries. Whether he is aware or of it or not is of no poetic and aesthetic consequence. That is why and how his poetry, or any great poetry, moves us. One need not be a Christian, or ‘religiously’ inclined in any other way, to be moved and inspired by Dante or Milton.

One only needs to be aesthetically sensitive and alive to the best yearnings of humanity in an imperfect world to experience one’s soul being shaken. Iqbal was perhaps the greatest Romantic poet we produced. His religious zeal got the better of him and he went on to massacre much of his own Romanticism in poetry. But it never entirely died, and left us gems that can rival any in the world. What can make poetry powerfully effective can ruin philosophy and that is what Iqbal’s legacy represents.

(Courtesy: The News, Islamabad)