On Iqbal And Who Gets To Appropriate Him

On Iqbal And Who Gets To Appropriate Him
The whole 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were characterised by the battle of ideas raging in Europe. Those ideas paved the way for the emergence of a civilisation where machinery and technology would alter the world outside and society inside respectively. It was precisely at that juncture of history and intellectual foment that the region of the Subcontinent came into contact with the ideas of modern philosophy in the West. This was the age of modernity when the West witnessed demagification of its societies from all the metaphysical verities on the one hand, and Muslim society saw the dominance of Europe in military affairs as well as production of knowledge. The combination of military power with epistemic prowess enabled the West to emboss their will of power physically on the ground and their ideas on the soul and mind as well. The exposure of Muslim intelligentsia of the Subcontinent to modern Western philosophy shook the very foundation of outlook on which it was based. The geography of the mind was changed under the influence of philosophical cataclysms produced by the iconoclastic ideas of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin and Spengler. Before that Copernican revolution brought about a shift in human understanding from a geocentric view of the universe to a heliocentric understanding centred around the sun. With this, the human’s place from the centre of the universe was unhinged. Thereafter, Charles Darwin shocked human pride by showing that the human is not something fallen from the heavens into Earth but a creature who evolved from the womb of the Earth. As if it was not enough, Sigmund Freud emerged on the intellectual scene to reveal that it is not rational but irrational forces that inform human behaviour. Thus, he destroyed whatever hopes modern Sapiens pinned on human rationality.

Dr. Muhammed Iqbal is one of the seminal figures in modern India who appeared on intellectual scene of the Indian Subcontinent in the context described above. Since he was breathing in the time of modernity, it was natural to inhale some of the ideas prevailing in the air of that time. Hence, we can see him appropriating and assimilating diverse and sometimes opposite ideas in his framework and expressing them through metaphors shared by his cultural and religious milieu. If Islamic philosophy was Iqbal’s first nature, then Western thought became second nature to Iqbal. He himself accepted the huge influence of Western thought upon his own thinking. Dr. Iqbal expresses these influences in one of his exquisite Persian couplets. He says:

May az mekhana magrib, chushidam,

Bejaan-e-man kay dard sar kharidam,

Nishistam banko yaan firangi,

Azaan bay soz rozi mazeedam.

(I draw my wine from the tavern of the West

I purchase a headache for myself

I have sat with the good men of the West

But I have not seen a day more futile than that)

Iqbal succeeds in assimilating apparently alien ideas within the contested terrain of Muslim intellectual thought. He does not do so by importing them in their pristine shape, but by infusing meaning that is more germane to the soil of the Islamicate. Unlike the West, God was omnipresent in the lifeworld of common Islamdom. Therefore, like Zarathustra of Nietzsche, one does not need to search for him at the marketplace with a lantern during daytime. The divine has a palpable presence in public and private alike. However, because of the ossified mind of many Muslims, the very meaning of the divine became fixed. Thus, reducing the status of God into juridical formulas of jurists and theological clichés of the clergy. It is to break free the concept of religion and its attendant vocabulary from the clutches of orthodoxies and closed minds that Iqbal infused new meaning into the dead metaphors. While doing so, he takes intellectual inspiration more from the way of thinking of Hegel, Goethe, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergeson, Spengler and Heidegger. Iqbal tends to take words from Muslim intellectual tradition but infuses meaning inspired from Western philosophy. This can only be done by inverting the fixed association of metaphors and ideas with a certain tradition to the exclusion of others. This is evident in his ideas of mard-e-momin, khudi (self) and Fard-e-Musaddiqa (the authentic being). Iqbal inverted the whole semantics of the Islamic scholarly corpus by allowing non-Muslim and profane thought to explicate sacred notions of Islam. This is in line with the Malamati Sufi and Bhagti tradition of Hinduism. Kabir Bani is a famous Bhagti poet of India. We can easily see multiple sources of ideas in his poetry. Kabir appears to be a Sufi who speaks the language of Hindu Bhagti. He used to wear Hindu dress and tilak but had the courage to mock Brahmins by asserting his identity of a low-caste weaver. Similarly, Dr. Iqbal confesses his Brahmic ancestry from Kashmir. His appropriation of non-Muslim elements invited wrath from puritans within Islam. However, like Kabir he remained adamant despite the fact that the closed mind cleric thought him of an infidel and infidel deemed him Muslim (Zahid tang nazr nay mujhay kafir jana, or kafir yay samajhta hay musalman hoon may). It is such fusion and blurring of boundaries that sow the seedlings for new thought and identity in his works.

In Western philosophy, Nietzsche posed his idea of Übermensch (super or higher man) as a new ideal to fill the vacuum after the decline of the divine in society. Iqbal kept the divine in its position but proposed an idea that embodies all the lofty ideals and ideas that enable him to overcome his mundane being and to achieve selfhood. Here the divine does not descend among the commons to manifest itself, but it is the individual through which divine manifest himself. His metaphor of mard-e-momin is a bridge between man and divine. It is not an alien ideal that Iqbal introduced to Muslim thought. In Muslim philosophy the ideal of “Insan Kamil (perfect human)” has a long tradition. For example, Abd al-Karim al-Jīlī proposes insan kamil as a person who embodies traits of the complete person. This is one who is the protype human being manifesting authentic traits of perfect man. Similarly, Hakim Nasir Khusraw introduced the concept of a best being among other beings. Nasir Khusraw says that there is always the best specimen among all the beings in the world. For example, the Kaabah is the best among all the buildings. Similarly, the diamond is the best among the mineral world, the eagle the best among birds and the lion best among the animal kingdom. So ideally, there should be the best human among humans. There is a deep affinity between the qualities of the higher man adumbrated by Nietzsche and elucidated by Iqbal. Like Nietzsche, there is a reason why the eagle (shaheen) appears as a powerful symbol in Dr. Iqbal’s poetry.

In his works, Dr. Muhammed Iqbal introduced momin in non-religious terms. However, his Muslim votaries have reduced his ideas including mard-momin into the narrow confines of Muslims. To invest ‘momin’ with new and relevant meaning, Iqbal relies on the philosophy of authenticity that informs the ideas of Kierkegaard, Ghalib, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Philosophically speaking, we attain authenticity when we save our selfhood from the dominance of externalities that try to capture our soul and mind to coerce us to conform to impersonal structures and collective values. Authenticity tries to save the person from losing themselves. Thus, it can be said that the sources for the creation of self stem from internalities. When externalities take up more space within us, we start to transform our life into inauthentic mode, which leads to self-loss and self-deception. Soren Kierkegaard foresaw the threats to the authenticity of individual in the modernity because its urge for massification swallows up the individual to make him/her part of the crowd. The tragic part of inauthentic existence is that we are even not aware of the loss of our selfhood. It is because our very conception of loss is defined by externalities. With external losses we shout and moan but remain unaware of the death of self. Thus, it becomes a death without mourning. Kierkegaard provides peep into the process of the death of authentic self and our ignorance about it. He writes “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.” Iqbal applies the notion of authenticity of individual at collective level. He thinks that the loss of authentic existence is a tragic event, but the greatest tragedy is the obliviousness towards this loss. That is why he laments:

Waye nakami matta-e-karwan jata raha

Karwan ke dil se ehsas-e-ziyan jata raha

(How disappointing! The caravan’s wealth is gone,

The feeling of loss from caravan’s heart is gone)

Iqbal wanted to create an authentic self through metaphors that are germane to the culture and part of the collective imagination. The ideas of mard-e-momin, khudi (self), Fard-i-Musaddiqa refers to concept of authentic beings. So, we can say that a person who is authentic without being Muslim can become a momin. By doing so he destroyed the monopoly of Muslims on momin-hood. It’s not that Iqbal was implanting an exogenous seed in an alien soil. Authenticity is very much in debate in Muslim philosophy and Urdu literature. For example, Mirza Ghalib considers the authenticity as the real essence of self. The words are just labels. They loss their essence when they are shorn of from the anchor of authenticity. That is why Ghalib said:

Wafa-dari ba-shart-e-ustuwari asl iman hai

Mare but-Khaane mein to kabe mein gaado birhman ko

(Consistent and sincere faithfulness is the essence of faith

If he dies in the temple, bury the Brahmin in the Ka’bah)

Though Iqbal tried to create a new idea of Muslim self in the disenchanted world of modernity, he opened the floodgates for the primordial passions and instincts among modern Muslims. The corrupt metamorphosis of the philosophical idea of mard-e-momin can be seen when this epithet is applied to General Zia-ul-Haq as “mard-e-momin mard-e-haq, Zia-ul-Haq.”

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

The debate about civilisation was at the heart of debate about philosophy of history in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, the whole process of colonisation was underpinned by the idea of a superiority of Western civilisation. Being superior, it was the duty of the Western civilisation to bring the light of civilisation to the dark spaces and dark races of the world. Among the Muslims of India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was already engaged in dialogue with the Western civilisation. His journal Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq is not only about refinement of character but also about explaining to the West about Islamicate civilisation through commentaries, biography, history, rituals and culture. With the publication of Payam-e-Mashriq. in Persian, Dr. Iqbal was engaged in a civilisational conversation with German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote an answer to the Diwan-e-Hafiz in his poetical work West–östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Diwan”. It is in such an ambiance that in 1918, Oswald Spengler published his famous book The Decline of the West. In this book, he sought to explain the process of rise and decay of civilisations. He claims that like other organisms, civilisations also go through the phases of birth, maturity and death. Spengler divides the life of a civilisation into four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter. He claims that culture springs organically through characteristics that are raw and passionate. It is with the belligerent urge; the foundation of culture is laid. In summer, the culture reaches to its acme laying the foundations for civilization. That is why Spengler thinks that the ultimate destiny of culture is civilisation. With civilization, city and artificial life emerge. Posterity relishes in the fruits of culture and prosperity bequeathed by the harvest of civilisational summer. Amidst the opulence, comfort and luxury, the society forgets the spirit that drives it forward. Thus, it loses its creative élan. Its indulgence in beauty and music dampens the soul. Ultimately, the civilisation dies its own natural death. In short, civilisation starts in the uncivilised state of barbarism and ends in rotting luxury and decadent arts. Remember, unlike his ancestors, the last Emperor of India Bahadur Shah Zafar was surrounded by sedentary dancers, poets and musicians – not nomadic and rough Turks.

What Iqbal is doing is to bring the long-term perspective of history into his philosophical discourse. But the reductionist mentality of Islamists and progressives reduces the longue durée perspective into their own dogmatic enclosures. Thus, they fail to attain a broader perspective of the world. Like every poetry, the poetry of Iqbal has the quality of polysemy. However, the biggest enemies of Iqbal appear to be those who claim to be his ardent votaries. In the context of Pakistan, the greatest disservice to Iqbal was done by the state of Pakistan, that provided a version of Iqbal who now appears closer to Osama bin Laden then to Goethe or Nietzsche.

After the creation of Pakistan, the liberal class abandoned Iqbal, for it deems him too religious a person for their liberal mind. This provided an opportunity for religious segments to appropriate Iqbal. The rejectionist attitude of liberal intelligentsia has left the re/interpretation of Iqbal at the mercy of narrow Islamism. The tragedy is that even liberal intelligentsia have internalised the Islamists’ version of Iqbal. Instead of reading from their own perspective, they borrowed lens from religious extremists to see Iqbal in the same colours. Pakistani progressives also surrendered their imagination to religious interpretation of such ideas by proponents of Islamism. Hence, their agreement with mullahs. For example, progressive intellectuals in Pakistan often quote these famous lines of Iqbal from his poetic collection Bal-e-Jibril in a very narrow interpretative lens:

Main tujh ko batata hun, taqdeer-e-umam kya hai,

Shamsheer-o-Sanaa awwal, taoos-o-rabab akhir.

(I will explicate the path of the destiny of nations,

Sword and spear appear first, the zither and lute in the end)

Here Iqbal presents his philosophy about rise and decline of civilisations. Unfortunately, the philosophic view of the rise and fall of civilisation remains badly understood – for both of those Siamese twins of thought, the progressives and the religious conservatives.

When Iqbal speaks about the sword, he is not speaking about some intimate connection between coercion and expansion of Islam. His employment of the word Umam is not the ummah of Islamicate in particular but about civilisations in general. There is a marked qualitative and intellectual difference between Maulana Khadim Rizvi quoting Iqbal and Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakeem writing about Dr. Muhammed Iqbal.

It is a part of our cultural psyche that when we like someone, we raise him/her into the position of a saint. In case of opposition, we paint him or her into absolute evil. This uncritical acceptance and rejection tends to blunt our faculty of critical thinking.

Iqbal cannot be a perfect answer to every question. Therefore, it is important to critically engage with him. If the rejectionist and puritanical attitude of progressives towards certain pieces of literature and thoughts continues, the day is near when Islamists will appropriate Faiz Ahmed Faiz and chant “ham deikhain gay” because it contains references to the Quran. On the other hand, under the puritanical zeal progressives will abandon Faiz for his poetry contains religious elements and symbolism.

The Pakistani progressives have to understand that we cannot illumine our society with knowledge by identifying darkness in others but by realising the darkness within.


Note: The next article will try to explore the habitus and its relationship to the creation of self in Pakistan.

The writer has a background in social philosophy with a focus on the history of ideas and the sociology of margins.