Iqbal: The man, and the existential quest

Iqbal raised many a magnificent existential question: Who am I? What am I here to do?
Published November 9, 2014

By Murtaza Razvi

An existential quest

In his poetry, which was by his own admission only a tool to convey his ever evolving thought, Iqbal raised many a magnificent existential question: Who am I? What am I here to do? What is my role, for myself, my community, my people, and humanity as a whole, in the great scheme of the cosmos?

These are some of the fundamental questions with regard to the human condition that Iqbal struggled to answer. His peculiar existentialism predates the mid-20th century preoccupation of western thinkers like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus; it is also a far cry from the inherently selfish strain of a very individualism-centric thought that we see in the 19th century Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; or the alienation witnessed in the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka right after them.

While European modern thought, a pre-cursor of post-modernist thinking, developed in industrialising societies, Iqbal’s thinking took shape under a dual influence exerted on him by his European education and travels and his experience of the human condition in a pluralistic India under the Raj, a pluralism which was historically ill at ease with itself.

The Historical Context

In recorded human history, India was a place where the nobility, whether home grown or of foreign origins, practically enslaved the vast majority and their resources. Only a strong central authority gave India a semblance of being one, albeit a diverse, whole.

Democracy did not come naturally to the Indian soul; British colonial rule, despite its modernity, remained just that. The British not only refused to Indianise themselves, they also could not bring themselves up to calling India home.

This was very unlike the Muslim rulers who had ruled from Delhi or the Deccan before they were ousted.

Iqbal’s identification with and his concern over the fate of all colonised nations of the East—not India alone—by mighty powers of the West called for a wider shift in the entire power paradigm that was in place in his time. This he sought by transcending the relatively smaller canvas of India, which had historically shown itself to have been intellectually and militarily docile in the face of foreign aggression century after century.

With the entire Muslim world under virtual colonisation of the West after the debacle of the Turkish caliphate, and considerable weakening of the Persian Empire that struggled between Russian pressure exerted from the north and British protectorates to the south, it was the Muslim East—once a formidable power and a civilization—with a history and idiom of its own, that Iqbal invoked as a counterweight to western hegemony.

He did this for two reasons: one, better the devil you know, and two, in a bid to weave a parallel but indigenously sourced modern thinking, the wherewithal of which some from his generation had acquired through their western education, and by rebelling against the West’s Orientalism.

He was ready to travel further on the road that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had taken before him.

This was because the Indian National Congress’s Swadeshi politics and Bande Mataram-like trappings reeked too much of an idiom that increasingly became exclusionist of non-Hindus; likewise, the social change-centric Arya Samaj movement’s belief in the supremacy of a Hindutva-based mechanism (albeit in a milder form than the ideology later espoused by the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh and the like) as a counterweight to colonialism, left a Muslim thinker who was well versed in his own tradition and secular, western education with little choice.

A Troubled Pluralism

This was the troubled pluralism of India that Iqbal grew up in, and which practised communal segregation often bordering on apartheid: upper caste versus lower caste; 'untouchability' of the other in its many forms; food segregation; Persian, Arabic and Urdu education for Muslims, the fallen nobility; Sanskrit and Hindi for Hindus; Gurmukhi and Khalsa educational institutions for Sikhs; missionary schools for the Christian converts and modern natives, etc.

Then there was the caste/ biradari system that divided both Hindus and Muslims equally within their own respective creeds, virtually barring any meaningful social interaction, sharing of rituals, intermarriages even among the many sub-communities within the larger communities.

Secondly, Iqbal could only communicate in the languages and the idiom that he was comfortable with; he chose Urdu and Farsi for poetry and English for prose, but kept his idiom firmly rooted in the Muslim tradition of knowledge and philosophy, which despite being Islamic was secular enough to embrace non-Muslims.

It had a heart big enough to historically take in a very diverse cross section of humanity, from the desert Bedouin to the culturally refined Arab of the Fertile Crescent, to the sophisticated Persian to the warrior Turk, to the diverse North Africa of many tribes and tongues, to the Spanish, on the one hand, and the diverse peoples of the Far East on the other side of the spectrum.

This was Iqbal’s universe of the humanity, including India, that suffered either under direct colonial rule or its debilitating influence over their affairs, and which he tried to address.

A Wider Outreach

As for the outreach of secular Muslim learning as it developed in India despite the segregation and apartheid practised in society, Urdu and Farsi, as opposed to Hindi, appealed to a wider informed audience interested in the arts and literature.

It is a great historical contradiction that can only be resolved by taking into account the fact that the Muslim learning tradition and its cultural manifestations became secular under the great Mughals. The trend continued despite Aurangzeb’s half a century of intolerant rule which decisively weakened the latter day Mughals.

In Iqbal’s time it stood revived first through the Aligarh movement and later under a modern, secular, Fort William College, Kolkata, Oriental College, Lahore, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Jamia Millia, Delhi and many Anglo-Mohammadan colleges across the empire, to continue even after independence.

India churned out some of the finest non-Muslim Urdu writers and poets from across northern India, particularly from Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and Punjab, whose idiom, like Iqbal’s (and even Pandit Nehru’s), remained very Muslim, if you like, in its cultural context.

One need only look at the works of the likes of Ratan Nath Sarshar, Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Azad (an Iqbal scholar of authoritative standing in his own right) and his father, Tilakchand Mehroom, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Firaq Gorakhpuri, etc.

In our own time there are ace critic/scholars like Gopi Chand Narang and the inimitable Bollywood lyricist, poet and writer (Sampooran Singh) Gulzar, along with the nearly entire pre-1990s Bollywood industry; even the prolific and much anglicised Khushwat Singh is Urdu-Farsi literate, for it stemmed naturally from their native cultural and learning milieu.

Iqbal’s Context

Then and now thus, Iqbal, by using a so-called Muslim idiom and symbolism, is by no means the poet/ thinker of Islam or of Muslims alone, although his idiom remains firmly rooted in Muslim lore via Urdu and Farsi sensibilities.

The appeal of his social thought, which takes precedence over his so-called religious thought, which was anathema to many of his contemporary Muslim ulema/ scholars, found ready admirers from among the progressive literati, including Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This was because Faiz never read Iqbal out of the context from which his thoughts flowed—and those thoughts are quite diverse when seen in their entirety as they progressed over the years.

It must also be noted that Iqbal was a poet and a thinker, and not a politician, much less a crystal ball gazer. The possibility of the miracle of democracy taking root in a post-independence India, which Nehru and Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad getting the pride of place, managed to pull off, eluded him.

It eluded him by what was to be the turn of events as they unfolded, and not because of a lack of vision on his part. Iqbal died in 1938, long before Britain would be exhausted of its military power in the Second World War to be able to hold on to India by the end of 1945, and seek rather hurriedly to pull out of India.

In the years that followed, India’s troubled pluralism decisively settled for a majoritarian and market-oriented socioeconomic paradigm; in the process of democracy taking root, Urdu was gradually but virtually wiped out from the place of its birth, and with it also died the all-inclusive Muslim secular sensibility.

The saving grace may be that secularism of the state, despite being under threat from the now electorally popular and now rejected Hindutva, has managed to survive, but it has extracted a heavy toll all the same: no Iqbal, not even an Abul Kalam Azad, will henceforth sprout from the Indian soil, because the Muslim sensibility in India that groomed such stalwarts has died an unsung death.

Only the likes of Darul Uloom or the integrated mainstream citizen, for whom being Muslim is just a personal statistic, and not an entire way of life and thought, remain.

His Peculiar Existentialism

While Iqbal rejected Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s self-serving individualism, he, like them, prodded one to rethink the human condition to seek answers that would serve the individual, thence a growing number of individuals and on to the collective whole of humanity.

Only such a growing and all-inclusive human chain of thought, of consciousness, to him, could lead to true intellectual freedom that would not be subservient to a colonial or any hegemonic mindset in any of its manifestations, be it under the garb of religion, western academia or military muscle, three forces which have now appropriated all power at the expense of humanity at large.

Falsafi se hai gharz mujh ko aur na mullah se/ Yeh dil ki maut, woh aqeeda-o-nazar ka fasaad (Neither the philosopher nor the priest I contend with/ One spells death for the heart, the other runs riot with his conflict of conviction and vision), he wrote.

Religion to Iqbal is morality and social justice that it ensures, as forming the basis of a humane society, a living spirit imbued with ‘Love’ for that elusive human ideal.

Religion is certainly not a bunch of rituals or a set of archaic tribal Arab customs that should be implanted in a soil where they do not belong; any morality thus implanted will never take root let alone bring peoples and cultures together under a set of values that apply universally.

Iqbal knew this well enough. ‘And what is that one value based in the refined realm of the human experience that can deliver humanity?’ he seemed to ask himself repeatedly; until he found the answer in Love, and cried out loud and clear:

Bande-ye-azaadam, ishq ast imam-e-man/ Ishq ast imam-e-man, aql ast ghulaam-e-man (I am a free man; Love leads me on/ Love leads me on; reason is my slave).

Here was a clear bid to alter the Nietzschean recipe for putting meaning in individual life through acquisition of sheer power, power of the ruthless variety, if it be so, by replacing it with Love as a natural, positive human sentiment and value that can empower the individual and through him more individuals until the fraternity grows into one vast sea of humanity.

Powered by Love that is so intrinsic in human nature, Iqbal then spoke of the individual regaining his self-esteem (khudi), which then widens its appeal to include the collective humanity, thus leading to temporal and spiritual fulfillment.

Likewise, Iqbal sees man’s Biblical fall from Paradise not through Milton’s lament of Paradise Lost; on the contrary, he considers it man’s call to action on Earth.

The ‘fall’ from Paradise is a descent on Earth, not man’s disgrace but his rightful and earned opportunity to exercise freedom of choice and of will, and do so responsibly, by which he proves his mettle and builds his self-esteem, individually and collectively. Then, he can even confront God:

Mujh ko jiddat ki talab hai, daal tarh-e-nau koi/ kyun mujhe sagashta-e-imroz-o-farda kardiya (Innovation I seek, start a new order/ Don’t let me be caught up between yesterday and tomorrow—Faiz’s translation from the Persian).

This is the renewed human spirit in action in Iqbal, of looking God (or the powers that be) in the eye as did the classical Greek heroes, with the difference that Iqbal is not into writing tragedies, but stories of triumph of human endeavour and dignity and inspiring improvement in the human condition.

References in his poetry to Biblical and Quranic anecdotes and phraseology could be seen in their symbolic, allegorical context and not always literally.

In that Iqbal has improved tremendously on the 16-century existentialism of Mulla Sadra (in theological Muslim thought), who had argued that all and any existence precedes all and any essence of all matter and mind, thus acknowledging change as a constant running factor defining man’s interaction with the divine and the cosmos; this theory altered the course of medieval philosophical thought in Europe as well as in the Muslim world.

This Iqbal Day, here’s some more food for thought:

Yeh gumabad-e-meenai, yeh aalam-e-tanhai/ Mujh ko to daraati hai iss dasht ki pehnaai (This vast grey dome, this world of solitude/ Sacred I am of delving in its wilderness) Bhatka hua raahi tu, bhatka hua raahi mein/ Manzil hai kahan teri, aye Laala-e-sehrai? (Of course you are, traveller, of course I am / Tell, your destination, O flower of the wild) Tu shaakh se kyun phoota, mein shaakh se kyun toota/ Ik jazba-e-paidaai, ik lazzat-e-yaktaai (Why did you sprout? Why did I break loose?/ A passion to be born? A taste for being unique?)

By Murtaza Razvi (This article was first published here)

Iqbal’s Views on Khudi and Freedom

By Asad Shahzad

The idea of Khudi (I-amness) is central to Iqbal’s system of thought. Self or Khudi, to Iqbal, is not reason but amr (direction). He defines khudi as directive energy - energy that is directed by God.

Man is a part of the universe that is larger than the whole. As heaven is contained by the cornea in the eye so is khudi larger than the whole. Khudi is an ocean that is concentrated in a drop. All modern capitalist thinkers from Kant to Habermas hold that reason/rationality is self-interestedness. Iqbal renounces self-interested rationality. In his renunciation of self-interested rationality he does not renounce logicality.

For the strengthening of khudi Iqbal’s advice is: be hard. Coal and diamond are both made of carbon atoms. The difference is that coal is soft whereas diamond is hard. Therefore, coal is ruthlessly burnt and turned into ashes whereas diamond is highly valued and survives. Being hard does not imply callousness.

It implies protecting oneself from the forces that disintegrate and destroy khudi. Individuals and nations that do not harden their khudi at the individual and collective levels fall easy victim to power hunger of others.

With the absence of khudi, life is merely biological existence - breathing, circulation of blood, reproduction and the such. Iqbal’s perfect man is not a biological product; it is the product of moral and spiritual forces. Life is not self-indulgence and pleasure seeking. There are no pain-giving and pleasure giving acts but only khudi-strengthening and khudi-weakening acts.

It is the forces of grief and fear that attack and tend to destroy and disintegrate khudi.

One cannot protect one’s khudi from the shocks of grief and fear without surrendering oneself to the Divine Law. One needs to pass through three stages to strengthen one’s khudi and to protect it from disintegration. These stages are: complete surrender to Divine Law, self-control and vicegerency of God.

Iqbal’s three stages bear some superficial similarity with Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses: camel, lion and child. The idea of a perfect man was given by sufi saint Al-Jili long before Nietzsche conceived 'overman'. Al-Jili’s overman passes through three stages as well. At the first stage one assimilates the names of God, at the second stage the attributes of God, and at the final stage the essence of God. Iqbal has not drawn the idea of khudi from Nietzsche.

Iqbal holds that it is likely that Nietzsche took his idea of overman from eastern literature and degraded it by his materialism.

Iqbal’s perfect man is a spiritual and moral force whereas Nietzsche’s overman is a biological product.

“Ethically the word “khudi” means self-reliance, self-respect, self-confidence, self-preservation, even self-assertion when such a thing is necessary, in the interests of life and the power to stick to the cause of truth and justice even in the face of death,” as Riffat Hassan says in her piece on Iqbal.

Iqbal holds that he drew his idea of khudi from the Holy Quran:

O ye who believe! Ye have charge of your own souls. He who erreth cannot injure you if ye are rightly guided. (Al-Ma’idah: 105). And be not ye as those who forgot Allah, therefore He caused them to forget their souls. Such are the evil-doers. (Al-Hashr: 19).

Khudi demands self-control. In other words, self-control precedes self-possession. Strengthening of khudi is not possible without restraining of animal passions and instincts. One should not seek maximisation of freedom but strengthening of I-amness.

It is perhaps here that we can distinguish between capitalist liberty and Iqbal’s spiritual liberty.

For Iqbal, liberty is not negative or positive liberty as argued by Isaiah Berlin.

Liberty or freedom is attained by discovering the laws of God in one’s self. This signifies the fusion of the will of God and that of man. A radical form of capitalist liberty is argued and supported by Deleuze, a twentieth-century postmodernist French philosopher.

From Aristotle to Darwin to Deleuze many western philosophers view man essentially as an animal.

There is an interesting similarity as well as contrast between the views of Iqbal and Deleuze on freedom of expression. Deleuze suggests that man should seek to transform himself into what he originally is: animal.

According to Deleuze, an important tool that can help man to return to his so-called originality is freedom of expression.

According to Iqbal, freedom of expression without moral restrictions is the invention of the Satan which turns man into an animal. Both agree that man is turned into an animal through unbridled freedom of expression. The difference is that Iqbal rejects this metamorphosis of man into animal whereas Deleuze idealises it.

Capitalist liberty, to Iqbal, restrains the growth, expansion and fulfillment of khudi. It does not liberate but enslaves man. He becomes slave of his animal passions.

Capitalist liberty unleashes animal passions such as greed and aggressiveness whereas Iqbalian spiritual liberty promotes the values of love, mercy and sacrifice.

By Asad Shahzad

The author is an assistant professor of Philosophy at an educational institute in Karachi

The images used in this feature were made possible from the material obtained from The Citizens Archive of Pakistan