In the Great Trinity of Urdu poetry, that is, of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal forms a crucial link between the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz. This is both at the level of time as well as in the space of ideas, that is, from the mysticism of Ghalib to the thundering declaration of communism in the verse of Faiz.
The book under review is one of the latest to be published after the celebration of Iqbal’s birth centenary in 1977. Though largely still largely ignored in this country, some of the books on Iqbal to hit the market in recent years have been Khushwant Singh’s translation of Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Rafiq Zakaria’s Iqbal: Poet and the Politician and Ish Kumar’s Ghalib and Iqbal. Iqbal Singh’s revised edition of the book he wrote in 1951 comes as a welcome addition to the contemporary literature on Iqbal.
The strength of the present work lies in the tracing of the philosophical ideas of Iqbal. The son of a tailor, Iqbal won fame early in life while still a student of Government College, Lahore. At this stage his poetry was under the heavy influence of Sufi mysticism. It was only when he travelled abroad later in life to study at London and Heidelberg that he underwent a metamorphosis. Specially in Germany, he was thunderstruck, as it were by the considerable body of philosophical thought he encountered. Specially notable is the impact of Hegel, Bergson and Nietzche. Later in life he was to spurn the entire idealist tradition in Western philosophy. It was in London, too, that he started writing in Persian, which afforded him a more versatile form as well as sophistication for his ideas to find expression. Indeed, all the great writers in Urdu, have like Ghalib, either written extensively in Persian or like Faiz, made extensive use of Persian expressions. In the case of Iqbal, however, this switchover to Persian for some of his most mature poetry was to be a great loss for the development of the Urdu language.
It was at this crucial period of his stay in Germany that Iqbal was to be faced with serious misgivings regarding nationalism. It was the decade before the First Word War and the undercurrent of the conflicts between the European nations were already present. These rivalries were based on greed- and Iqbal was repulsed by these developments. The culmination of these into the First World War was to confirm his misgivings. Iqbal’s response to come to terms with the question of nationalism led him not towards socialist internationalism, but, on account of his psychological make up and instinct, towards early Islam, which for him had subsumed various tribal loyalties into a powerful spiritual movement. The Bolshevik Revolution was yet to take place and the ideas inspired by Bolshevism were yet to sway the intelligentsia.
He quoted with proud approval the well known remark of the famous Arab conqueror, Tarik, who, when he led his forces from Africa across to the coast of Andalusia, asked his soldiers to burn the boats in which they had crossed and cheered his homesick followers with the declaration:
Every country is our country because it is the country of our God.
Iqbals’ self perception as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism was beginning to show its contours. His entire life subsequently, and his poetry too, was to be directed towards this goal.
The militant mood of the young Muslim intelligentsia that was asserting itself at the time of the Khilafat movement was reflected in the Al Hilal, the paper edited by Maulana Azad. Iqbal remained politically unmoved, but his writings now began to have a definite and pronounced anti- modern and anti- Western bias.
The alternative that Iqbal now started espousing was that of pan- Islamism, and in the development of this doctrine, he was considerably influenced by the ideas of Saiyad Jamal-ud- din Afgani whose lectures and travels in the 19th century across the Muslim world had deeply influenced the intelligentsia in the respective countries. This positive ideal, as opposed to Iqbal’s denouement of nationalism, became his leit motif and became the cornerstone of his poetry.
This was also the time of the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman hegemony and it was soon after Italy grabbed Tripoli from the Turks that Iqbal’s anger found its vent in Shikwa where he blamed Allah for the misfortunes of the Muslims on earth. The poem was read and recited all over the country. In it the Muslim intelligentsia found its words. Iqbal now attained popularity and above all came to be recognised as the most eloquent voice of Muslims in the country. With his brilliant academic background- in philosophy (Cambridge), philosophy and poetics (Heidelberg) and a bar at law , also from England, his firm grounding in Arabic and Persian, his inborn gift as a poet and finally his insatiable intellectual thirst and prowess all ensured that he would be among the towering and most eloquent personalities that modern India was to throw up in the first half of this century. He was the poet- philosopher, if ever there was one in this country.
Iqbal now went through a process of catharsis and self- purification starting with Asrar-e- Khudi . Influenced by Rumi, he turned away from the Sufi mysticism of Hafiz and western idealist influences, essentially the Greek influences on Islamic thought between 9th and 13th century. This logically led to his repudiating Sufism in general and the Hafiz tradition in particular.
As part of his critique of Sufism, he began to stress on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasised the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposed stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:
Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam
(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)
In tracing the evolution of Iqbal’s thought, Singh also devotes considerable space to link his evolution to the specific social, political and cultural development in the early twentieth century. Peppered with insights and keen observations accumulated over half a century, Singh is at the very best, his treatment of the subject scholarly and his critical faculty acute. His zest for the subject finds expression in the book- which is impassioned and dispassionate at the same time.
This said, there is at least one point that the present reviewer feels that Singh falls short of “brimming over”. In th enature of things, the philosophy of Iqbal overwhelmingly overshadows his poetry and the author too has concentrated more on the philosophy of Iqbal at the expense of his poetry .
This leads to two problems. One, the poetic milieu in which Iqbal’s poetry arose is at best understated, and at worst ignored. Specially, Iqbal’s inheritance from Ghalib is completely left unmentioned- besides that of contemporary poets. The second result is that while Iqbal emerges as a poet of Islamic Revivalism (which undoubtedly he was, just as Vivekanand was for Hindu Revivalism), he was also the poet who captured the hearts and minds of the non- Muslim intelligentsia as well, specially after the strongly leftward turn that came over in the 1930s. The intrinsic humanistic appeal, specially relevant for the “awakening Asia” , and which transcended Islam, fails to emerge.
That, unfortunately, continues to be a major cause for Iqbal’s relative ignorance this side of the border. This ignorance also reflects what MN Roy had in 1939 in his small but illuminating book The Historical Role of Islam had observed- the Hindus are perhaps the only people, who despite the advent of Muslims in India, never tried to understand and learn from the revolution of Islam, unlike the Europeans, whose Renaissance was borne from the encounter with Islam.
Published: The Tribune July 1997