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Iqbal – Revisiting His Era (Part 1)

By Amir Suhail Wani —

“In Kaaba and Temple long, long years The deep lament arose,

Till from Love’s banquet now appears One Man who the Secret knows” (Psalms of the East)

History, as a shared field of human activity, has time and again pushed thinking minds into deep contemplation. The primary question that concerns any philosopher of history is whether history is purely man-made or are there invisible forces present in history that direct its course now and then. Corollary to same question is the issue of historical teleology which investigates if there are any goals or ideals which history longs to achieve as it unfolds on the canvas of time.

The scriptural perspective on history is purely teleological and Semitic scriptures are very emphatic in drawing out teleological elements of history and decipher historical events in the backdrop of larger metaphysical context.

Thus to scriptures, history isn’t constrained to time and therefore left meaningless, it is rather situated in a metaphysical paradigm of higher order, which imbues history with meaning and telos. Notwithstanding the fact that recent philosophies of history, as have emerged in the works of Marx, Hegel, Kroeber and others have mostly deprived history of its metaphysical content, but that shall not deter the belief of those who dare to interpret history in scriptural and teleological phraseology.

The paradigm which envisages history full of meaning and purpose, can’t but account for the birth and death of great figures in world history in same teleological context. Thus in this ideological framework, historical incidents aren’t seen in Isolation, bereft of any meaning, they are rather seen as parts of cosmological whole, complementing each other and adding to the meaning of this historical whole.

It is this line of thought that made Abul Hassan Ali Miya Nadvi to state in his book “The Saviours Of Islam” that various reformers, saviours and seers which rose to occasion at various times and at various places in Islamic history were in fact part of the larger cosmological scheme, the will of God and unfolding of historical teleology.

The birth of Muhammad Iqbal towards the end of the nineteenth century is by no means an incident of minor significance. To fully understand and appreciate the importance of this event and to locate it properly in ever evolving teleological trajectory of history , it seems pertinent to take stock of the milieu which Iqbal was born in. Before we can appraise Iqbal’s contribution to art and thought, it becomes necessary to ascertain the ouvre and historicity which characterised his era.

It is possible only then to understand his greatness once we have discovered the ebbs to which human civilisation and culture has sunk into at the time of his birth. There is another and more immediate reason to investigate Iqbal’s era and this immediacy arises from the literary theory known as Cultural Studies or Cultural Ctistism, which Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin also describes as “Cultural Prosaics”. Cultural study upholds the belief that Culture is the ground and source of art and literature.

Thus any attempt that aims investigation of art and literature must take the milieu of artist into account. Cultural criticism sees literature and literary meaning as part of a larger context that includes the ideological context of prevailing beliefs, and broad political issues of class, race, and gender and the operations of power.

One may not consent fully to these sweeping claims made by cultural theorists, but one can’t deny the fact that practising cultural criticism does open new vistas of meaning and understanding and it is with this hope in mind that we proceed to examine the social and historical context which Allama Muhammad Iqbal belonged to.

Muhammad Iqbal was born in an era characterised by political instability, social chaos, religious superstitiousness, moral decadence and loss of traditional values and established paradigms of thought. A cursory look at the globe reveals that despite its apparent military calm, the era was brewing with rebellious and revolutionary tendencies. While as East was struggling with issues particular to its cultural continuity, West was awakening to the existential challenges, as evidenced by the writings of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others.

Almost all domains of human thought and action were in a state of flux. New scientific revelations were pressing the western thinkers to revisit their understanding of man, God and Universe. With philosophy and science marching ahead, art was not willing to stay behind and a spectrum of experimentation was being conducted in the field of art in terms of both form and the content. The scientific materialism, which had been west’s guiding principle for ages was showing internal fractures as it wasn’t in a position to address humanitarian, existential and aesthetic aspects of human life. Thus, a parallel model of human understanding was seriously being searched for and it was in these times that philosophical schools of phenomenology, pragmatism and idealism rose to occasion.

The clash between science and church or reason and revelation which had its roots in post-renaissance era had attained its crest towards the end of the nineteenth century. Thus it seems that this era, which Iqbal was born to was one of flux, revolution, ideological churning and emergence of new paradigms of thought in almost all domains of human existence. But there was something very special about this era and that is the abundance of men of merit in fields across the spectrum. Einstein, Bohr, Plank and others in science. William James, Nietzsche, Bergson and others in philosophy. Eliot, Sri Aurobindo, Kahlil Gibran and others in the field of art and literature were some of the prominent figures of this era. Thus we see this era unique in terms of the challenges it threw open and the opportunities it offered.

So much so about West and World in general, the changes taking place in Muslim world were far more consequential and ground shaking. Standing at the crossroads between waning tradition and emerging modernity, Muslim world in general and subcontinent in particular was in a state of utter ideological confusion. In this ideological tug of war, the modernists and traditionals stood radially opposite to one another. It is true that the issues which modernity had posed were irreconcilable within traditional framework, but Muslim world’s suspicion and disregard for modern epistemological and sociological trends posited them against a state of prolonged indefinitedness. The reformers like Sir Syed, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida were making efforts to reconcile tradition with modernity, but they were ill received in their countries and the spirit of their call stayed muzzled…

(To be continued)

(Amir Suhail Wani is a Kashmir based freelancer, Comparative Studies scholar and R&D Engineer with SA Power Utilities Private Ltd. Mail at: [email protected])