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Iqbal – Revisiting His Era (Part 2)

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Amir Suhail Wani

“The life-history of nations shows that when the tide of life in a people begins to ebb, decadence itself becomes a source of inspiration, inspiring their poets, philosophers, saints, statesman and turning them into a class of apostles whose sole ministry is to glorify, by the force of a deductive art of logic, all that is ignoble and ugly in the life of their people “

       (Iqbal, Letter to Pt. Nehru)


“In Egypt, the contact with the French who had invaded the country under Bonaparte, and who held there important positions throughout the following century, had opened the eyes to some Liberal minded Muslims to start – albeit with insufficient methods – to incorporate Western civilisation into the Islamic system of thought “. This is how Annemarie Schinmel, a noted scholar of Iqbaliyat and Comparative Studies characterises the Muslim world around the latter half of the nineteenth century . Modern world and its ideological tenets, as they crystallised in the later part of the nineteenth century awakened the Muslim intelligentsia to the multiple challenges of modernity and simultaneously pushed them to revisit the established paradigms of thought and age old canonical structures of religious hermeneutics. For ages, Muslims had maintained the sanctity of their religious institutions and vested them with the authority to define the trajectory and weltanschauung of their individual and collective lives. The lines between subjective, individual preferences and objective demands of the religion were yet to sharpen and despite all moral shortcomings, Individual was still identifiable and inseparable from the whole, religious whole to be precise. In an identity matrix like this, where the individual and group were inextricably entwined, the possibility of any larger clash between subjective and objective was out of question. But this organicity was soon disturbed on arrival of new ideological challenges and identity issues. A definitive feature of newly enthroned rationally oriented worldview, imported from West, was to scale individuality and subjectivity to new heights, while at the same time subjecting binding Islamic /religious metanarrative to diminution. The call for subjectivity and individuality as is witnessed in the writings of Kierkegaard actually reflected the same trends as were taking place in East and the West. Russell has, at one place, taken note of the fact that religion stands for cohesion and unified system of thought, whereas science favours liberty and greater individualism. It was this disturbed equation between liberty and discipline, subjective and the objective, religious and the secular which reigned high in Islamic world in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Further, this nascent modernism as it existed then had few axioms at its core , the most important being primacy of reason, faith in progress and decline of authority – political as well as religious. Pressed against the challenge of this unprecedented nature and magnitude, reformers, progressives and modernists across the Muslim world tried to respond to it in ways, specific to each reformer or each school of thought. Before proceeding to Sialkot, the place where Muhammad Iqbal was born, an aerial survey of ideological currents, as were emerging in various parts of the Muslim world in this era becomes inevitable.

Perhaps the first to wake up to the challenges thrown up by modern world against Islam was Jamaluddin Afghani, whom Albert Hourani describes as “Islamic Luther”. He primarily concerned himself with purgating Islam of latter day accretions, unfounded exegetical interpretations and a mass of ancillary and redundant literature that was obtruded against common masses. Of special interest to Afghani was the issue of freewill and predestination, in which he discovered the primary reason of decay of Islamic world. It may be noted here that the doctrine of predestination gained currency in Islamic world particularly after Mongol invasion in 13th century. Finding themselves helpless against the invading Mongols, Muslims outsourced their problems, misgivings and personal failures to the overreaching notion of Taqdeer / Qismat or destiny. In line with the same spirit, Muslims in the nineteenth century, who were held under the fetters of imperialism and colonialism,once again shifted the pendulum in the direction of predestinarianism, in which they discovered a scape goat of unmatched utility. Afghani argued, and this argument was reiterated by Muhammad Iqbal later that, this transferece of responsibility and undue reliance on misappropriated concept of Taqdeer had forced Muslims into inaction and sedated their instruments of activity. Thus Afghani launched a full-scale war against this misplaced Taqdeer and invited Muslims to the field of action and critical thinking.

  In India itself, the colonial oppression, loss of empire and disintegration of cultural and social fabric had disarrayed Muslims both over ideological and cultural maze. The ideals, as reflected in their art and literature, were testimonials of unforeseen decadence and lack of well meaning weltanschuaang. It was Sir Syed, who gauged the depth which Muslims had sunk into and woke up to the task of their social reformation. His emphasis on modern education and advocacy of cordial relations between British and Muslims, made him susceptible to criticism from various quarters. But this couldn’t deter him and he went on to establish Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University, a nursery of Muslim intellectuals. His urge to reconcile Quran with modern findings made him to stretch the Quranic verses beyond their original hermeneutic Ken and he thus fell prey to unnecessary exegetic gymnastics. With due share of disagreements with few of his methods and conclusions, his pioneering role in Muslim awakening can’t be ignored.

Closely associated with Sir Syed was a literary reformer, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali. Before bringing Hali into picture, it needs a special mention that art and literature, as they emerge at any stage of civilisation’s life, characterise the ideals, vision and dynamics of culture and civilization. It can thus be said that art reflects the innermost dreams and yearnings of nation and civilization. When we look at the literary landscape of Urdu of nineteenth century with this particular perspective in mind , what we realise is that Muslims had given up the creative endeavours, pursuit of higher ideals and Keeping pace with the elan of life. They were rather hung by the hair of classical beloved and used all their literary potential to praise eyebrows and cheeks of feminine counterparts. With literature, and poetry in particular getting so awry, it was but indispensable to reform this field of human activity and this is exactly what Hali did. He scolded his contemporary poets for losing touch with the flow of life, for not awakening people to the issues at hand and for straying in what Quran describes as “imaginal vales”. Though Ghalib had freed himself of this longstanding paralysed tradition, but he couldn’t lay down a road map nor could he theorise for his fellow poets as to which lines may be followed in poetry for the welfare of art as well as community at large. Hali did so and clearly laid down the charter of instrumentalist or utilitarianist type poetry in his Muqaddama. Though later ages have shown that propagandist literature is self defeating, but the era Hali was living in stood in dire need of literature that carried ethical message and had moral purport. All this was taking place in Iqbal’s milieu and all these trends in art and literature, philosophy and science, religion and culture had a deep impact on the evolution of Iqbal’s thought and his philosophy at large. As light awaits at the end of dark tunnel, so did Iqbal emerge like a shinning star, to enlighten his era and beyond, at a time when darkness was at its zenith. What made this child, who was born somewhere in Sialkot in a home of humble belongings, the poet of East and Hakeem Ul Ummat. The story shall unfold in next write ups of this series.

(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])