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Revisiting Iqbal (Part 14) – Poet and politics


By Amir Suhail Wani

Iqbal had imbibed deep influence from the German poet Goethe, and as mentioned before, described him as a source of spiritual solace. Goethe was himself well learned in Islamic tradition and held Islam and the Prophet of Islam (Peace be upon him) in high esteem. His Divan was reckoned as a milestone in German poetry and no wonder it earned Iqbal’s awe and fascination. Under the influence of these cumulative impulses, Iqbal went on to write his Payam-I-Mashriq as an Eastern response to Goethe’s Divan. This book, in which Iqbal expressed himself on issues perennially confronting mankind, was simultaneously an exemplar of Iqbal’s poetic genius. Mustansir Mir writes that “Payam I Mashriq deals with a variety of philosophical, political, and literary themes and subjects, and represents some of the highest points of Iqbal’s poetic art”. Though he went on to state, in one of his letters, that his primary intent in writing this book was to address issues at hand and not to display his poetic abilities. But this statement has not deprived the book of its literary excellence. Iqbal continued to work out the contours of this book throughout 1922. Gouty arthritis took Iqbal under its spell which forced him to abandon many activities and minimise his itinerary. The socio-political changes taking place in subcontinent have already been discussed. It was in this backdrop that in a letter to Muhammad Akbar Muneer, Iqbal went on to emphasise the importance of unity among Muslims and suggested that is the only option for their survival, failing which, they might have to face harsh conditions. It was during this time, possibly inspired by the conditions around, that Iqbal wrote an essay titled “The idea of ijtehad in the law of Islam” that he went on to read at Habibia hall. The heterodox nature of the lecture stirred a cascade of criticism. Later the lecture went on to become a part of his famous Reconstruction.

Among the contradictions one encounters in the life and thought of Iqbal, the acceptance of the title of “Sir” from British imperial powers in 1923 is one such episode in the life of Iqbal which is difficult to reconcile with his outlook on life, politics, truth and justice. Later day sympaths have tried to maintain that in those days, incidents like these were in vogue, and weren’t evaluated in the paradigm of oppression and justice, as we tend to do in retrospect. But this seems a naivete claim in the face of the fact that many people either refused this title or returned it to British as a mark of protest and as a symbol of unity with the oppressed and a reaction against the machinations of power and imperialism. On January 1, 1923, the British crown conferred knighthood upon Iqbal and his lifelong teacher and mentor Mir Hassan was entitled with Shamsul Ulema. It needs to be borne in mind that as against the simplistic opinion which sees this event as of no bigger meaning, this was the time when titles and favours from the English government were received with disdain and disrespect. No wonder that some friends of Iqbal, Abdul Majid Salik being of prime importance among them, went on to ridicule Iqbal for this act. Moreover, the description of reception ceremony, Iqbal’s speech on this event, as recorded by newspapers and other sources make evident that this award wasn’t purely driven by academic ideals, as claimed by Iqbal, in few of his letters, but harboured coveted political ideals.


The history of Hindu-Muslim schism in India has a longstanding history which goes back to the arrival of Islam on Indian subcontinent itself. The era of early twenties and thirties of the twentieth century saw a fueled resurgence of this age old tiff and religio-centric violence. There was hardly any province which was spared of these flames and despite Iqbal’s firm belief in universalism and and Ideals of coexistence, the incidents pressed against him the impossiblity of reconciling Hindus and Muslims into a unified nationhood. He maintained his loyalty to the larger ideological paradigm of Ummah and it was in this context that in 1923’s session of Anjuman I Himayat I Islam that he recited his Tuloo I Islam, which was written in the backdrop of Turkish victory over Greeks and sparked hope and optimism in an otherwise dark era of Muslims. In his letters written around this time to friends, Iqbal repeatedly spoke of the progress he had made in Payam I Mashriq and finally in May 1923, the book came out. Whereas Iqbal had explicitly stated the content of the book delibrates upon moral, religious and spiritual issues confronting mankind, there was a series of poems in the book that tilted too much towards socialism and rendered themselves open to Marxistic interpretations – and indeed it so happened that a Columnist by the name of Shams UD Din Hassan went out to make socialist out of Iqbal. Iqbal promptly responded to the claim and restated his firm belief in Quranic exemplars as panacea to the economic issues faced by mankind. Dr. Ghulam Hussain Zulfikar remarks that this single essay by Shams UD Din Hassan became the reference point for later day socialist Iqbalists and all those readings that tried to interpret Iqbal’s poetry as an echo of socialism.

It is worth noting that Iqbal expressed himself explicitly on reinterpreting Islamic thought in modern times in one of his letters. The letter written by Iqbal acknowledged the intellectual services rendered by classical exegites and scholars for the cause of Islam, but he simultaneously earmarked that this classical scholarship was inadequate to address the challenges raised by modern day epistemology. In the same letter, he informed his addressee, Muhammad Saeed UD Din Jafferi that he was himself engaged in this activity of reinterpreting Islamic thought in the light of modern knowledge. The attempt later assumed the shape of a milestone work “The reconstruction of religious thought in Islam”. Iqbal also expressed his concern about the wave of nationalism which was coming from West and which was fastening the process of replacing God as the Ontological essence of humans by the modern limiting and chauvinistic concept of nation. Iqbal, who once sang the songs of nation, had by now matured enough to see through the pitfalls of nationalism as an alternative to religion and nation as substitute for God. He had witnessed the bloodbath inspired by the demonic notion of Western nationalism and feared that East, in its imitation of the West may repeat this orgy of violence. His ideas on politics and nationalism were later to play an important role in his adventure in practical politics. It was also a consequence of Iqbal’s political consciousness which according to few, gave birth to the idea of modern Muslim majority state of Pakistan.

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