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The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam – Muhammad Iqbal

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Muhammad Iqbal: A Life Sketch

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) is one of the preeminent writers of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Indeed, the attention he has received from numerous writers, translators, and critics from Western as well as Islamic countries testifies to his stature as a world literary figure. While his primary reputation is that of a poet, Iqbal has not lacked admirers for his philosophical thought. He has in fact been called “the most serious Muslim philosophical thinker of modem times.” The frequently used appellation of “poet-philosopher” is thus well deserved. The hyphen in the phrase is all-important: Iqbal’s poetry and philosophy do not exist in isolation from each other; they are integrally related, his poetry serving as a vehicle for his thought. Iqbal wrote poetry in Urdu and Persian, and several collections in each language exist. In the following page a life-sketch of Iqbal is followed by a brief treatment of some of the major themes and literary features of his poetry.


Iqbal was born in Sialkot, in the present-day province of the Punjab in Pakistan, in 1877. He received his early education in that city, where one of his teachers was Mir Hasan, an accomplished scholar who commanded a knowledge of several Islamic languages. Mir Hasan gave Iqbal a thorough training in the rich Islamic literary tradition. His influence on Iqbal was formative. Many years later (1922), when the English governor of the Punjab proposed to the British Crown that Iqbal be knighted in acknowledgment of his literary accomplishments, Iqbal asked that Mir Hasan also be awarded a title. To the governor’s remark that Mir Hasan had not authored any books, Iqbal responded that he, Iqbal, was the book Mir Hasan had produced. Mir Hasan received the title of Shams al-’Ulama’ (“Sun of Scholars”).
For higher education Iqbal went to Lahore (1895), where he enrolled in Government College, getting, in 1899, an MA in philosophy; he had already obtained a degree in law (1898). In Lahore, a major center of academic and literary activity, Iqbal soon made a name for himself as a poet. One of the teachers of Government College Iqbal admired most was Sir Thomas Arnold. Arnold, too, had great affection for Iqbal, he helped Iqbal in his career as a teacher and also encouraged him to undertake several research projects. When Arnold returned to England in 1904, Iqbal wrote a touching poem in which he expressed his resolve to follow Arnold to England. The very next year, in fact, Iqbal left for study at Cambridge. His choice of Cambridge was probably dictated by the fact that Cambridge was reputed for the study not only of European philosophy but also of Arabic and Persian. In his three years of stay abroad, Iqbal obtained a BA from Cambridge (1906), qualified as a barrister at London’s Middle Temple (1906), and earned a PhD from Munich University (1908).
After returning to Lahore in 1908, Iqbal taught philosophy at Government College for a few years. In 1911 he resigned from government service and set up legal practice. Meanwhile he continued to write poetry in Urdu and Persian, Asrar-i Khudi (Persian) was published in 1915. Translated into English as The Secrets of the Self(1920) by Professor Reynold Nicholson of Cambridge, the book introduced Iqbal to the West. Asrar-i Khudi was followed by several other volumes: Rumuz-i Bikhudi (1918), Payam-i Mashriq (1923), Bang-i Dara (1924), Zabur-i ‘Ajam (1927), Javid Namah (1932), Musafir(1936), Zarb-i Kalim (1937), and Armaghan-i Hijaz (1938, posthumously). Iqbal wrote prose also. His doctoral thesis, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, was published in 1908, and hisReconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (with a 7th chapter added to the original set of six lectures, first published in 1930), in 1934. Many of Iqbal’s poetical works have been rendered into foreign languages, including English, German, Italian, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Arabic, and Turkish. His works have also spawned a vast amount of critical literature in many languages.
Although his main interests were scholarly, Iqbal was not unconcerned with the political situation of the, country and the political fortunes of the Muslim community of India. Already in 1908, while in England, he had been chosen as a member of the executive council of the newly established British branch of the Indian Muslim League. In 1931 and 1932 he represented the Muslims of India in the Round Table Conferences held in England to discuss the issue of the political future of India. And in a 1930 lecture Iqbal suggested the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Iqbal died (1938) before the creation of Pakistan (1947), but it was his teaching that “spiritually … has been the chief force behind the creation of Pakistan.” He is the national poet of Pakistan.


A detailed discussion of the thematic and literary features of Iqbal’s poetry is not be undertaken here. A few general points may, however, be made.
A reader of Iqbal’s poetry is struck by its sheer thematic variety. Iqbal was deeply interested in the issues that have exercised the best minds of the human race—the issues of the meaning of life, change and constancy, freedom and determinism, survival and progress, the relation between the body and the soul, the conflict between reason and emotion, evil and suffering, the position and role of human beings in the universe—and in his poetry he deals with these and other issues. He had also read widely in history, philosophy, literature, mysticism, and politics, and, again, his catholic interests are reflected in his poetry.
Iqbal celebrates humanity, in more than one sense. On one level he shows broad acceptance for humanity. In “The Story of Adam”, the protagonist, Adam, plays a variety of roles-those of prophet, thinker, reformer, scientist, inventor, astronomer, martyr, and iconoclast. Adam in this poem is not simply a religious figure belonging to a certain tradition, but represents the whole of humankind. On another level, Iqbal takes pride in being human and has no desire to partake of the godhead of God. To be God is to have concerns and worries that would give one a headache, but to be human is to have that sweet pain called heartache. Humans can hold their heads high in view of their achievements in the world to which they were banished from paradise: if God has made the night, then humans have made the lamp, and if God has made deserts and mountains, then humans have made parks and meadows (“A Dialogue Between God and Man,”). Humans must, therefore, strive to be perfect qua humans, and that is a goal yet to be achieved.
The theme of humanity is closely linked in Iqbal with that of khudi(literally, “selfhood”). Khudi is a complex thought in Iqbal. Broadly speaking, it represents the principle of the inner self with an urge to manifest itself Societies as well as individuals have khudi, and it is on the development or suppression of one’s or failure in the world depends,khudi that one’s success   the khudi of slaves, for example, is moribund.
Recognition, discovery, cultivation, and assertion of their khudi should, therefore, be the aim of humans. Iqbal’s critique of Muslim societies is predicated on the assumption that these societies have lost their khudi or have allowed it to become seriously impaired. The best way to understand Iqbal’s concept of khudi is by reading poems in which he discusses the subject.
Perfection, or rather limitless perfection, is a frequently occurring motif in Iqbal’s poetry. “I seek the end of that which has no end,” says Iqbal in “The Houri and the Poet”, and, in the same poem: “From the spark I seek a star, from the star a sun.” Iqbal sees no end to human potentialities. He wishes humans to embark on a never-ending journey of discovery, and to this end emphasizes the importance of action. Constant action and perpetual movement are in fact the only guarantee of survival in the world. Nations fall behind when they cease to be dynamic and start preferring a life of idle speculation over one of purposive action.
But the quest for perfection can give rise to irony. Irony, in fact, fills human life, for while they have been imbued with the desire to achieve perfection, humans have been denied the ability to achieve it in practice. The poems “Man”, “Solitude”, and “The Dew and the Stars” discuss several aspects of the irony of human life. The poem, “The Story of Adam,” though it ends on a more optimistic note, yet implies that it takes humans a long time to discover the most important secret of existence.
“The heart has its reasons, of which reason is ignorant,” says Pascal. Iqbal, who frequently speaks of the conflict of the head and the heart, would agree, though he would add that while the conflict exists, it does not have to. More often than not it is reason (or the intellect) that belittles the heart (or intuition), but both are essential to a harmonious life; ideally, then, reason and the heart should cooperate rather than clash.
Although he has wide-ranging interests, Iqbal essentially belongs to, and speaks from within, the Islamic tradition, employing, for his purposes, the historical, religious, philosophical, and literary resources of that tradition. A full appreciation of Iqbal requires an understanding of these resources, and the notes and commentaries in this volume elucidate Iqbal’s use of them.
Iqbal held to the doctrine of art for life’s sake. Acutely aware of the problems of Muslim decadence and backwardness, Iqbal takes it upon himself to shake the Muslims of India and other countries out of their lethargy, urging them to take the path of progress, so that they can gain an honorable position in the polity of nations, He uses the medium of poetry to arouse socio-religious consciousness among Muslims. As a result, Islamic religious and social themes predominate in his poetry. But Iqbal’s vision of a revived religion is far from conservative. He is sharply critical of many of the institutions of historic Islam (of the institution of monarchy, for example), and his vision of a new world derives from the Islamic notions of egalitarianism and social justice. He rejects dogmatism in religion, advocates rethinking of the Islamic intellectual heritage, and stands for the establishment of a forward-looking community. But the conviction of art for life’s sake never allows Iqbal’s poetry to degenerate into bland or crass propaganda. The worldwide acclamation he has won is proof that Iqbal’s strength consists in writing purpose poetry of the highest artistic standards.
Ultimately, however, the secret of the appeal of Iqbal’s poetry lies in the personality behind that poetry. Whether he is dealing with a broadly humanistic or a specifically Islamic theme, Iqbal views it from a unique perspective. Consider his boldly critical attitude toward certain aspects of the received tradition, an attitude reflected, for example, in the poems referred above. Unlike almost any other poet in the Islamic tradition, Iqbal enters into a dialogue with God, raising issues the orthodox would consider disturbing. He asks whether Adam’s expulsion from heaven has turned out to be Adam’s loss or God’s own; he challenges God to speak to him face to face rather than through messengers, and, noting the discrepancy between the boundlessness of human ambition and the limitedness of the resources put at humans’ disposal, he asks God whether His experiment involving Adam is to be taken seriously. Iqbal’s view of the role of Satan in the world is also highly intriguing and, as one would expect, highly unconventional (see “Conquest of Nature” and “Gabriel and Iblis”).
A notable thing about Iqbal’s perspective is ambiguity, a typical modem quality. Especially when he is talking about metaphysical issues, Iqbal raises some difficult questions, without providing a single “valid” answer. In “Paradise Lost and Regained” the question whether Adam should have sinned or not (each scenario being theoretically defensible) is not answered by Iqbal. In “Gabriel and Iblis” we are left to wonder about Iqbal’s own view of Iblis’ self-justification. And in “Solitude” we cannot be certain why God smiles.
In several places Iqbal talks about himself about his Eastern background and Western education, and the contradictions of his own personality; his conviction that his study of historic Islam had furnished him with certain valuable insights which he must share with his people; his hope that his message will spread across the Muslim world, and his apprehension that he will be misunderstood or appreciated for the wrong reasons. Here it may be added that the various attempts made to identify (or label) Iqbal as a Sufi or an orthodox Muslim, as a radical or a reactionary are wide of the mark because Iqbal is too large a figure to fit any narrow, procrustean category; he demands and deserves attention on his own terms.


Iqbal had a fine sense of the dramatic, and in his poetry he frequently employs dramatic techniques. Many of his poems are structured like a play, with the first half of the poem building a tension or conflict that is resolved, or raising a question that is answered, in the second half Examples are “Gabriel and Iblis”, “The Dew and the Stars”, “The Houri and the Poet” and “Fatimah bint ‘Abdullah”. Many poems are dialogues, with well-argued positions taken by the interlocutors (“A Dialogue Between God and Man”, “The Dew and the Stars”, “Reason and Heart” and “A Dialogue Between Knowledge and Love”; also the fables). Some poems are one-sided dialogues or monologues (“Give Me Another Adversary”, “The Falcon’s Advice to Its Youngster”). Again, Iqbal carefully weaves the “plot” of a poem, arousing the reader’s curiosity, dropping seemingly casual hints that turn out to be prophetic, providing flashback, and saving his masterstroke for the end. Two excellent examples are “The Night and the Poet” and “The Houri and the Poet”.
Iqbal has some favorite images and motifs. The eagle is Iqbal’s favorite bird, and the tulip his favorite flower. We will here say a few words about the tulip. The tulip is a pretty flower, but, when it grows in the desert (Lala’-i sahra’), it combines strength with beauty, for it then represents the assertion of one’s self (khudi) in the face of hostile circumstances. The tulip owes its splendor not to an outside source but to the “scar” inside its heart, its glow being indigenous to it, as befits a flower with a khudi of its own. The tulip is thus a “model” for individuals and nations to follow. In one of his quatrains (“Freedom and Determinism and Philosophy of History”), speaking of the difficult circumstances that alone give birth to new nations, Iqbal says: “From mountains and deserts do nations arise.” Although Iqbal does not mention the tulip in this quatrain, it would not be far-fetched to suggest that, conceptually, Iqbal here has the desert tulip in mind. The cup-shaped flower suggests to Iqbal’s mind several analogies, and in one piece (“Locke, Kant, and Bergson,”) Iqbal, makes consistent use of the tulip image to describe and analyze complex philosophical ideas. It is in view of the deep significance of the flower in Iqbal’s poetry that I have chosen Tulip in the Desert as the title of my volume of translations (Mustansir Mir, Tulip in the Desert, Hurst and Company, London, 2000). The images of the eagle and the tulip illustrate how Iqbal adds to the native literary tradition or makes an innovative use of that tradition (the tulip). Another example in this connection is that of the moth. In Persian and Urdu poetry the moth represents the devoted and self-immolating lover. Like the moth, which keeps circling the light, the lover (a male) desires to stay close to the beloved (a female). But in Iqbal, typically, the moth often represent a reprehensible rather than a praiseworthy quality: the shining light it is in love with is not its own. The moth is to be contrasted with another, the firefly, which, though it has a weak light, can at least call this light its own. The firefly, in other words, is possessed of khudi, but the moth has no khudi. Iqbal often uses a series of images to convey a thought, producing a cumulative effect. In “Fatimah bint -Abdullah,” for example, he uses no fewer than four images to express the idea that, even in its present age of decadence, the Muslim Community can produce individuals of exceptional caliber:

O that our autumn-stricken garden had 

A flower-bud like this! 
O that in our ashes would be found, O Lord, 
A spark like this! 
In our desert is hidden many a deer still. 
In the spent clouds lies dormant still 
Many a flash of lightning.

Iqbal is capable of writing biting satire. Two examples are: “Give Me Another Adversary”, in which Satan argues that he deserves a better rival than Adam, and “Scorpion Land,” which criticizes slave mentality.

Mustansir Mir