Footprints: Finding Iqbal in Germany

Published November 9, 2015
A plaque commemorating Allama Iqbal’s stay at Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907.—Photo by writer
A plaque commemorating Allama Iqbal’s stay at Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907.—Photo by writer

IF you can escape the panoramic view of the majestic Heidelberg Castle, you may notice the plaque on a nondescript old building in Neuenheim that reads: “Dr Mohammad Iqbal, national philosopher, poet, spiritual father of Pakistan, lived here in 1907.” Iqbal stayed in Heidelberg for six months to learn German for his PhD thesis.

As if living in his poem Aik Sham (Darya-e-Neckar, Heidelberg, ke kinare par) that was penned here in Heidelberg, I take an evening stroll along the Iqbla Ufer, a street named after him on the bank of the River Neckar. Autumn leaves rustle ahead to reveal a bush-covered German inscription of this poem in a park nearby.

I imagine Dr Mohammad Iqbal sitting with his German tutor Emma Wegenast, who is reciting the legend of Faust. As a student of philosophy and German, I wish to know if Iqbal too fumbled for German articles. How did he express his desire to stay in touch with Frau Wegenast? How to get theses answers when all the textbook essays on Iqbal merely chronicle his life as an allama while overlooking the person?

Known for its Romantics and as being a centre of intellectual activity, Heidelberg influenced Iqbal to the extent that in one of the dozens of letters written to Emma, he termed his stay there as “a beautiful dream” which he yearned to repeat. This is the place where he, according to Atiya Faizee, danced to a German folk tune and sang aloud with the mirth of a chirpy young scholar that was completely different from the egocentric cynic of the London days.

But what impact did Herr Professor Iqbal leave on German academia in Heidelberg or Munich? Students in Heidelberg University have keine ahnung (no idea) about Pakistan’s national philosopher-poet. Thanks to his name they think this ‘poet of the East’ might be a subject of interest for the South Asia Institute.

Dr Bettina Robotka, a professor at Humboldt University’s Department of South Asia Studies, doubts that any student of philosophy in Germany knows Iqbal. His emphasis on reviving Islamic jurisprudence and his confrontation with the European system puts him at odds with the West, she says.

During my quest to find Iqbal in Germany I bump into Fabian, a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies, Bonn. He says he read Iqbal out of curiosity while studying Indology but found his poetry and political thought too confusing.

Oriental scholar and author of the essay ‘How to Carve a Saqi out of Nietzsche’, Dr Stephan Popp thinks that Iqbal’s philosophy is mostly based on poetry whereas poetry does not intrigue the European mind. For liberal Muslim scholars the poet offers a modern interpretation of Islam, and thus remains an illuminating figure for spirituality or moral philosophy. From a positivist point of view, according to Popp, he lacks lustre. And while traditional biographers shun accounts of Dr Iqbal’s friendship with Emma, he says, she is an essential reference point to understand the influence of German literature on Iqbal’s formative years. Zafar Anjum, in his book on Iqbal, mentions that most of Iqbal’s love poems were written during his association with Emma in Heidelberg.

Robotka points out that Iqbal admired German culture but did not really assimilate it into his life. For instance, he arranged for a German governess for his children but they were raised in an orthodox fashion. Both Robotka and Popp agree that Iqbal’s knowledge of German literature and culture too is overrated. According to the latter, owing to his tutor’s conservatism, he gleans more from the Romantics of his era and extols the virtues of Heinrich Heine while completely leaving out the ‘obscene’ Goethe.

According to Popp, although Iqbal defends himself for drawing heavily on Nietzsche’s Übermensch or Bergson’s elan, his concept ofkhudi (individuality) shows how Western philosophy left its mark on him. His Payam-e-Mashriq is regarded an obvious response to Goethe’s West-östlischer Divan.

In Popp’s view, Iqbal did not plagiarise Nietzsche or Schopenhauer as some accuse him of doing, but the scholarly exchange with Emma Wegenast influenced him subconsciously. “What is original about him, as with everybody, is not the ingredients but the mixture,” the academic says.

Robotka laments that Iqbal is studied too superficially and is exploited as state apparatus in Pakistan notwithstanding his Indian nationalism. “I asked my students in Karachi to critically re-examine the famous Allahabad address of Iqbal and they were convinced that the Tarana-e-Hind’s creator did not want to divide India,” she adds.

Was Iqbal was a great philosopher or a poet? Smiling sheepishly, the teacher says: “Iqbal is an enigma, you have to discover him.”

Nov 9 marks the 138th birth anniversary of Allama Iqbal.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2015

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