Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Reviewed by Raza Naeem

IN Pakistan, much of the national energies are spent to eulogise the great poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who is credited with being not only the ‘poet of the East’, but also the thinker who imagined, perhaps insufficiently, the birth of a new Muslim country from within undivided India.

Meanwhile in India, where Iqbal was born, lived and died while it was a British colony, without witnessing for himself the birth of Pakistan in 1947, the poet is now little-known save for one of the nationalistic poems he bequeathed, in his ‘nationalist’ phase, to his love for India: ‘Saare Jahan Say Achcha Hindustan Hamara’.

Zafar Anjum in his book Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician, sums up these predicaments as the two “tragedies” which have befallen Iqbal. He writes in the introduction to his book: “Iqbal’s first tragedy was that after his death, he was claimed as the national poet of Pakistan and was largely ignored in India. His second tragedy is that Pakistan, a country that was founded on the basis of religion … practically forgot its own national poet. Similarly, in India, Iqbal remains a pariah and the majority of people know little about his life or his work.”

So why is yet another book on Pakistan’s national poet needed? Especially when so many of the Indian subcontinent’s best-known intellectual and literary figures continue to be pilloried at the altars of Indian and Pakistani nationalism? (One has seen this treatment being meted out to Saadat Hasan Manto, Miraji and Noon Meem Rashid.)

I suspect Anjum has directed the book at an Indian rather than a Pakistani audience; the latter has been nourished on a rather indigestible diet of Iqbal’s motivational, often male-chauvinistic poetry ad nauseam in the national media, following a neat mummification by the country’s insecure postcolonial elite. His aims in writing the book are admittedly modest: “I don’t claim it to be a comprehensive account, for to write such a book would require a lot of time and research, and in the time that I was given, I have tried my best.”

In fact, my initial elation at perusing yet another book on Iqbal published from India was soon dissipated since there is little in this slim volume which is new or original. No doubt, in the hands of a devotee like Anjum, the well-worn details of Iqbal’s personal and public life are brought to life in an engaging narrative style for a newer and younger audience who may only have been introduced to the poet through a narrow, chauvinistic lens.

The book is written in a flowing, literary style; however, one is at a loss to understand why Anjum has not referenced earlier biographical works on Iqbal by Iqbal Singh and Mustansir Mir, or the nuanced work on Iqbal’s connections to postcolonialism by Javed Majeed. It is also disappointing to note that Anjum has not gone through the labours of primary or archival research, not even attempting to translate some of the verses he chooses to include in the book. He merely, rather lazily it seems, relies on existing online resources, despite the fact that Iqbal has been blessed with good translators like Victor Kiernan, Annemarie Schimmel and Khushwant Singh.

In addition, Anjum’s newer, younger readership would have benefitted immensely had he chosen to illustrate Iqbal’s varied literary prowess by adding a few of his famous poems such as ‘Naya Shivala’, ‘Khizar-e-Rah’, ‘Masjid-e-Qurtaba’, ‘Farman-e-Khuda’, ‘Saqi Nama’, ‘Shikwa’ and ‘Jawab-e-Shikwa’ in the appendices. The book could also have done with some more meticulous editing.

But these problems aside, how does one explain the enigma of Iqbal, regarded as one of the greatest poets of his generation, and possibly the last great Muslim thinker, who is also a na-tionalist poet whose shifting political and ideological loyalties defy categorisation? From singing paeans to the syncretism of Indian civilisation, to an anti-imperialist and later pan-Islamist poet-philosopher, before ending up as the dreamer of a Muslim homeland he was never to see in his own lifetime.

Iqbal, however, is not alone in embodying such contradictions. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats too made a torturous journey from being an ardent nationalist espousing armed struggle to one renouncing it; Iqbal’s great contemporary and literary rival — some say Iqbal vainly tried to emerge out of his shadow, regarding himself as the greater poet of the two — the Bengali bard, Rabindranath Tagore, the bête noire of nationalism, ended up giving three of his poems as national anthems to the post-colonial states of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Despite these contradictions, Iqbal has something to offer everybody. One wishes Anjum had spent more time on the poet’s ‘anti-imperialist’ phase when he wrote poems like ‘Lenin Khuda kay Huzoor Main’, ‘Naya Shivala’, ‘Khizar-e-Rah’ and ‘Farman-e-Khuda’, outlining his emancipator vision not only for India but also the Muslim world. This emancipatory vision also led to his famous series of lectures collected together as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and in a letter he wrote to Jinnah in May 1937 he outlined a blueprint for a social democratic Pakistan.

How would Iqbal have felt and fared had he survived to witness the country he envisioned? Anjum doesn’t spend much time in answering this question but one has enough evidence now to conclude that both he and his vision would have been swept aside by the nexus of clerics and the civil-military bureaucracy which have brought much ruin to Pakistan. In this context, Iqbal is little more than a failed poet.

What the book successfully does do is bring out the mass of contradictions Iqbal was in his personal life, something which is often ignored or understated in the hagiography surrounding Iqbal in Pakistan. His love affairs with Atiya Faizi and his German tutor Emma Wegenast were unrequited, while his three marriages survived long enough to yield the promise of a fulfilling family life.

In light of Pakistan’s evolution since Iqbal’s death, one is inclined to question the Pakistani state’s enthroning of Muhammad Iqbal as our national poet. After all, Iqbal wrote most of his poetry in Persian and not Urdu, one of the pillars of the new state born from the ashes of the old. Moreover, Iqbal never lived in the independent Muslim state he dreamed of. And as Saadat Hasan Manto presciently noted in his remarks on Iqbal Day sometime in the early 1950s, “there are two grievances which I must express. The first grievance occurred when a self-respecting poet like Iqbal had to write odes to fictional kings. Another is cropping up now when I see the [ascetic poetry of the] poet who declared, in ‘Rumuz-i-Bekhudi’, that the heavens, earth, air, rivers, moun-tains and valleys, the sun, moon and stars, fruits and flowers, in fact the whole universe, to be Man’s inheritance, being controlled by a few self-serving custodians.

“Iqbal had prayed to God, ‘Spread the light of my vision everywhere.’ This prayer, which issued from a humane heart, will indeed be granted; but upon seeing the name of this great poet af-filiated with soaps, oils, hotels and laundries, sometimes I feel that the light of his vision will keep wandering for a long time in the narrow and dark lanes of ignorance.

A diamond’s heart may be cut by a flower petal But a naïve man will be unmoved by verses soft and delicate.”

It is perhaps time to admit to ourselves the failure of both the pock-marked vision as well as the Kashmiri seer to whom this vision is infallibly attributed.

The reviewer is an academic and translator

Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician


By Zafar Anjum

Random House, India

ISBN 978-8184005868