Dr. Muhammad Iqbal – Poet/philosopher/politician


Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) PHOTO/Wikipedia

It is an honor to have been invited to deliver this keynote address to this august assembly. Truthfully, I feel a little incompetent as my knowledge of Iqbal risks being perceived as superficial and pedestrian, but I will do my best to do justice to the subject. Justice Javaid Iqbal, Dr. Iqbal’s son, couldn’t make it; his presence would have made my assignment all the more difficult as I come nowhere near his intimate knowledge of Iqbal. The very thought of talking about a colossus named Iqbal is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine, and mine is a female spine, not strong enough to bear the burden. Most talked about and written about, Iqbal stands out as a towering personality who published 14 or 15 books of poetry and prose in his lifetime, but has had more than 5000 books written about him. I am overawed, to say the least.

Dr. Iqbal was not just a poet in the galaxy of poets that the Indian subcontinent has produced. Shining through the centuries over the Indo-Pakistan horizon and beyond, Iqbal was a philosopher, a thinker, a visionary, and one who could lay down a road map all his own. Poetry may just have been his chosen vehicle of expression.

Iqbal argued for a rational Islam and sought to make the Quran speak to modern minds. He tried to combine the concept of an Islamic state with the principles of a socialist state, advocating social equality and economic and political democratization. Explicitly and fiercely proud of his Kashmiri heritage like I am, Iqbal was, however, immensely pained by the plight of the sweating and toiling peasant who was made to work to death in the blazing sun to enrich his feudal and absentee landlord. Iqbal’s articulation of the plight of poor Kashmiri peasants, I strongly feel, may have led to the historical land reforms in Jammu and Kashmir state in 1950, implemented by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, in his tenure as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, which eliminated the feudal class, without compensation. Land reforms were not as rigorously enforced in any other part of the Indian subcontinent. In other parts of the subcontinent, huge tracts of agricultural land continued to be owned by feudal lords, who forayed into politics, thus further tightening their grip on the marginalized populace. Land being one of the major issues for the mass of economically oppressed and exploited peasantry, the politics of land reform had a definite impact on the psyche of the people. The demand for responsible government that emphasized the necessity of abolishing exploitative landlordism, addressed issues of gender, and instituted educational and social schemes, thus helping in the evolution of the idea of a Kashmiri nationalism. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was, clearly, under the all-encompassing spell of Iqbal. In his autobiography, he writes,

Lahore boasted Sir Mohammad Iqbal, the acclaimed poet. I had already read his poetry, some of which I remembered by heart. Some Kashmiri friends in Lahore told me that the Allama took keen interest in affairs relating to Kashmir, and that the plight of Kashmiri Muslims caused him great mental and spiritual agony. The first time I saw him was at a gathering organized by Anjuman-e-Himayat-ul-Islam, where he recited a poem in his magical voice. Imagine the profundity of the poem’s theme coupled with the poet’s incantatory voice. Later, accompanied by friends, I started visiting the poet. We were so much in awe of him that for many days we only listened to him and dared not utter a word in his presence. But as he himself says, Karte hain khitab aakhir, aate hain jawab aakhir (When he speaks, people respond). Our intimacy grew by and by.

Iqbal, in his poetry and prose, addressed humanity and everything else in the cosmos related to it. The dominant subject in his work, however, was the character and conscience of a person. Given the scope and depth of Iqbal’s work, it is difficult to pin him down and make the claim that governance was the most important arena of his work. But governance being of the utmost importance, we strive to find a perfect model of it and, perhaps, we are yet to find one. As the wise remind us, “Have no fear of perfection; you will never reach it,” and Iqbal is not far off the mark when he says,

“Teray Ishq ki intiha chahata Hoon
Meri Sadgi dekh kya Chahata Hoon,”

roughly translated as, “Look, O God, at my naiveté, In seeking the limit of your love.” I cannot claim to be an expert on Iqbal, let alone an authority. Considering Iqbal’s confession, “Iqbal bhi Iqbal se agah nahin hai,” I wouldn’t dare make that claim.

Humankind has strived over the millennia to perfect a system of governance, which is still a work in progress. Tribal systems of governance led to internecine wars and tribal chiefs graduated to warlords and mercenaries, shredding to bits whatever little socioeconomic order there was, bringing chaos to the fore. Monarchy, which followed in regal attire in the wake of the destruction caused by tribal warfare, was anathema to Iqbal. Iqbal explains that monarchy was in dire contravention of the Islamic spirit,

“Gulamay Fuqr-e-aan geeti panaham
Ki dhar deenash mulukiat haram ast.”

He was of the firm opinion that this system had enslaved peoples wherever it existed. Although forbidden or delegitimized in Islam, monarchy still exists in the Muslim world. We had the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Chinese, etc., all with their systems of governance. The first modern country in which democracy blossomed was the United States of America. As we are well-aware, the founding fathers of this nation learned from the mistakes of others, drafted a constitution, and created a well-knit federal state through adult franchise. Looking at the ruthless and tyrannical dictatorships that people had lived through for eons, democracy had become a necessity. It cannot, however, be said that democracy was universal in its appeal and acceptance as quite a few variants of it were devised by certain groups to suit their calling. Adult franchise, as practiced in the United States, was thrown to the winds, elections manipulated and rigged, and at times, the public verdict was contemptuously thrown into the trash can. The absolute limit is when tin-pot dictators in our living memory have brazenly called their autocratic systems democratic, the last of them witnessed in the Indian subcontinent.

What was Iqbal’s concept of democracy? He seems to have been somewhat averse to electoral democracy and is highly skeptical of political decisions made by elected legislators,

“Gurez as tarz-e-jamhoori, Ghulam-e-pukhta-kaarey shaow
Ki az magzay du sad khar, fiqri-e-insani nami ayad.”

In another place, Iqbal has an aide of Iblis (satan) tell him,

“Hum nay khud shahi ko pahnaya hain jamhoori libaas
Jub zara adam hua hai khud shinaso-khud nigar,”

which can be translated as, “No sooner did man get education and recognize his worth that we dressed the autocrat in democratic garb.”

Clearly, Iqbal’s concept of democracy was much deeper and meaningful than an ordinary mortal like me can comprehend, a concept that emphasized according equal rights to education and social justice to both women and men. The fuqr of the ruler and the fiqr of the scholar seem to have been the hallmarks of his concept. I must admit that I am rather intrigued by the essence of these two words as they occur, often, in Iqbal’s poetry. It is challenging for me to translate these two words into the English language without detracting from the essence. In writing about fuqr and fiqr, could he be referring to Caliph Omar’s poverty of the ruler and Caliph Ali’s knowledge, respectively? I shall rely on the panel to help me out with comprehending these notions. Iqbal’s notion of democracy underscores empowerment at the grassroots level and rising anew as is substantiated by his revolutionary words,

“Utho meri dunya kay gariboon ko jaga do
kakh-e-umra ke daro devar hila do
Sultan-e-jumhoor ka aataa hai zamana
jo naqshay kohan tumko nazar aye mita do”

(Rise, you poor of the world and shake the rich out of their palaces, Demolish the past and hail Emperor Democracy). Iqbal uses the word “Sultan” in this verse, which is a reference to the Turkish Caliphate, and he advocates a democracy that is as universal as the Sultan or emperor.

Iqbal’s concept of democracy does not limit itself to numbers or majoritarian rule, but to substance. He was critical of the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state. His notion discourages self-promotion in the name of democracy, which is a given in autocratic and oligarchic forms of government. In the developing world, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, democracy had been brazenly deployed to promote political dynasties to the detriment of democratic growth and evolution. Democracy, as Abraham Lincoln underlined, is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” A government that protects and promotes vested interests while marginalizing the general populace is, by no means, democratic.

In Iqbal’s lifetime, suppression of public opinion and tyrannical oppression were rampant in the subcontinent. Reeling under autocratic rule, Iqbal’s pride and my motherland, Kashmir, was in terrible agony. Presiding over the Kashmir Committee set-up in Lahore, Iqbal, a deeply religious man, asked for divine intervention in favor of Kashmiris. In his proverbial humility, he prayed,

“Tode us dast-e-jafa qaesh ko ya rab
jis nay roohe azaadi Kashmir ko pamal kiya.”

The Indian subcontinent, where a bunch of legislators can be bought over to send packing a duly elected government, betraying and abusing the electorate in the process, could, perhaps, learn a lesson or two from American democracy. Here a vote is valued, and there it is priced—avaricious and power hungry legislators flaunt their victory with aplomb, drum beating, and with high pitched music in the streets, making life unbearable. Independent candidates in that part of the world are a party unto themselves, thus adding more parties to the already numerous ones recognized by their election commissions. It is an irony that the originator of the parliamentary system, Britain, has reduced its system to a two-party one, where-as the subcontinent is generously loaded with a multiparty system. Here in the States, a billionaire ran for office as a liberal not very long ago, and was defeated. It would be difficult to imagine that happening in the subcontinent. With this plethora of political parties and an army of so-called independent candidates, coalition politics is now a reality in the subcontinent, a formation in which independent candidates have a field day, where they can demand their price including a ministerial berth with a plum portfolio. Coalition partners are a thorn in each other’s side, needling each other through the tenure of the government. The head of such a government feels obligated to pander to every legislator because he fears the rug being pulled from under his feet, and poor poor democracy finds itself in a slaughterhouse. Would Iqbal have tolerated this farce? If I have understood him to whatever little extent I can boast of, certainly not. Iqbal’s ideal democratic ruler has to be a person of moral strength, mental aptitude, truthfulness, uprightness, concern for the weak and poor, and above all, a person of faith,

“Sabaq phir padh sadaqat ka, adalat ka shujaat ka
Liya jae ga tuj se kaam duniya ki imamat ka”

(Be truthful, efficient, and brave, You may well lead the world);

“Yaqin Muhkam, amal payhum, Muhabat faatiha alam
Jihad-e-zindagaani main hain yeh mardon ki shamshirain”

(Firm faith, consistent action and love can help you win the world. These weapons can help you overcome the struggles and difficulties of life).

While Iqbal laments the apathy of the youth, he still pins his hopes on them. In a democratic set up, however flawed it might be, the will and aspirations of the electorate are ignored by politicians at their own peril. He counts on the youth to clamour for democratic rights, efficient governance, a stable infrastructure, and a much less fractious polity. The electoral principle is discussion, not autocratic decisions. Iqbal even endows the leader of the caravan with far-sightedness and a heart full of concern as her/his baggage.

Iqbal’s political philosophy has been questioned now and then depending on how you interpret his poetry. Was he a communist? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. He was a deeply religious and God fearing person,

“Mazhab Nahin Sikhata apas Main Bair Rakhna,”

(Religion is above communal conflict). A sociologist? Yet again, an emphatic “no.” Equality before law, and in economy, politics, and society is in perfect consonance with Iqbal’s Islamic thought. The priest, or the Mullah, or the Indian God man is his bête noir. Iqbal is at odds with the priestly class. The Genghis Khans, Caesars, and Stalins of the world are nauseating to him, to say the least. So we are left with democracy, clean and transparent elections being the only route to it. It is essential to create political and sociocultural discourses in which the young people of today would be energized and persuaded to actively participate. Iqbal’s Akle Halaal and his guide Rumi’s Nane Halal may help here, but elected representatives must then develop a taste for an honestly earned loaf of bread. The question that pops up is where and how does one find that ideal ruler. Rest assured, he isn’t going to drop down from the skies. She or he is among you and may well be the person sitting next to you. Democracy, as advocated by Iqbal, is not a panacea, but promises self-determination, rule of law, a return to the process of internal political dialogue, negotiations, and, in this day and age, political accommodation.

I would like to conclude with a stanza from the anthem of Kashmir, which echoes Iqbal’s aspiration for his homeland.

Lehra aye kashmir key jhanday, tifaloo, jawanoon
pir key jhanday, bazooae beshamsheer key jhanday
Hal walay dilgeer key jhanday, har soo Lehra
her dam lehra Taba Kayaamat paiham Lehr

Dr. Khan can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com

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