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COLUMN: Iqbal’s polarised legacy

Updated April 23, 2017


Just two days ago, on April 21, began the eighth decade since the death of Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Muhammad Iqbal. On the larger historical plane this is a short period of time, but already two obscuring treatments have been wrought on this personage, wrought chronically and even ruthlessly. One of them is idealisation — raising Iqbal from the domain of human history into the pure and timeless domain of metaphysics. The other treatment can be named by a neologism — ideologisation.

In the furnace of idealisation, then, all the gross elements, all impurities of historical existence, all handicaps of human frailties, have been burnt away — so we have a pure Iqbal, pure in the absolute sense. Having been turned into an idea, a mental entity, this blemish-free Iqbal is good through and through; there can be nothing whatsoever bad about him. Here we have a hero, an idol, transcending space and time in a manufactured cosmology.

In the glare of this idealisation, Iqbal’s existential being falls into a blind spot. This process has continued with such vigour over the past 80 years or so that many humanising, and therefore endearing, features of this state-owned figure have remained invisible. If someone somewhere talks about them, the Iqbal industry deafens its ears. So hardly anyone dares talk about the existential fact that this colossus of history in his real flesh-and-blood life had an interest in rearing pigeons and flying kites, or that he wanted his beloved son Javed Iqbal to be a fine Quran reciter and a fiery orator on the one hand, and a champion wrestler on the other. Moreover, we hardly hear that Iqbal had the ambition of becoming an extra assistant commissioner in the Punjab Civil Service; he took the required examinations and was rejected only on medical grounds, much to the good fortune of the world of poetry.

We hardly hear any of this because the purity of the ideal does not admit of these human tendencies. But more telltale is the unspoken fact that Iqbal had bitterly censured his own father for coercing him at the tender age of 15 into marriage with Karim Bibi: “[T]hey forced my wife upon me … [M]y father … had no right to arrange my marriage,” he wrote to Begum Atiya Fyzee in 1909 — Atiya Fyzee, that elegant lady of princely background whom Iqbal befriended in Europe. Massively sensational, too, is the neglected biographical truth that, upon his return home from Europe in 1908, a wilted and personally frustrated Iqbal contemplated taking refuge in alcohol, and, yes, even contemplated committing suicide. See how in the same letter he humanises himself: “As a human being, I have a right to happiness; if society or nature deny that to me, I defy both. The only cure is that I should leave this wretched country for ever, or take refuge in liquor, which makes suicide easier…”

We need to pause here — Iqbal speaks not only of defying society, but also of defying nature!

And we must recognise that every society, every community, every sociological group creates its heroes. Often, these idealised heroes are real historical figures, but they are elevated beyond history, whether it is George Washington, Lord Horatio Nelson, Tariq ibn Ziyad or Saladin. Pakistani society is no exception here. But then, the damage done in the case of the second treatment wrought on Iqbal, what I have called ‘ideologisation,’ is truly drastic.

Transmuting Iqbal into an ideologically-cast ingot is drastic because it veils the very fundamental identity of this real person: his identity as a poet. Yes, as I have written numerous times, Iqbal is many things — a statesman, a lawyer, a thinker, even an economist — but his essential overarching attribute is that he is a poet, a poet par excellence indeed. It is Iqbal the poet who rules over our hearts, who is carved in our literary consciousness, who lives in our memory. It is Iqbal the poet we sing and declaim and cherish. Subtract poetry from him and all his other stations become mundane.

Iqbal has been placed in an ideological bazaar with all kinds of vendors. Some are bent on proving him to be a philosopher, placing his The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam at the core; in fact, the only core. In my writings I have argued at length that considering The Reconstruction as a work of philosophy in the sense of Aristotle or Ibn Sina or Immanuel Kant gives rise to embarrassing problems. Rather, the work ought to be considered a well-meaning, creative piece of writing. Calling him a philosopher is effectively an ideological act.

There are other ideological vendors too. So we see many who speak of Iqbal’s “message”— a coherent, unique, rationally organised message. But here the point to ponder is that one can draw a multiplicity of messages from Iqbal, given that poetry yields a multiplicity of meanings; good poetry is never a monolith or an unidirectional discourse out of which one can extract a philosophical system. This is true of Asadullah Khan Ghalib as much as it is true of William Shakespeare and Iqbal. So there is no ground for us to single out any one particular thought from Iqbal and declare it ‘the’ message. What is more, sometimes these messages of Iqbal even clash with one another — fatal to rational logic, but a source of aesthetic bloom in poetry.

It is because of this multiplicity that there exist yet other ideological vendors who call Iqbal a socialist, quoting his poetry, say, in admiration of Karl Marx. On the other side of the aisle, we have those who identify him as an Islamic modernist and a pontiff of Islamic law. And then there are the ‘liberals’ who call Iqbal names — so abject is this vilification that I cannot even quote them, given my uncompromising love and deference for Iqbal. In all of this loud commotion, Iqbal’s verse is lost.

Hardly anyone now talks about Iqbal’s rhythms and rhymes and the glorious music of his poetry; of his sublime metaphors, imagery and his linguistic grandeur; of his superb art and its virtuosity; of the sheer range of the poetic expressions that he presents to us as a multicoloured brocade —

[This cloak purple, that one blue, this one yellow!]

The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2017