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April 22, 2018


Yesterday, April 21, marked exactly 80 years since the death of Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Who is Iqbal? So many lofty epithets and attributive titles, many of them now hopelessly archaic, have wrapped him in the brocade of Pakistani pride. So he is the Hakeemul Ummat (Sage of the Ummah); he is the Mufakkir-i-Pakistan (Creator of Pakistan in Thought), Musawwir-i-Pakistan (Fashioner of Pakistan in Imagination) and Sha‘ir-i-Mashriq (Poet of the East). Then, he is also called the Allama (Supremely Learned) and Qaumi Sha‘ir (National Poet) — and these are only some of the stars studded on the brocade.

But the disconcerting irony is that Pakistanis still cannot offer a definitive answer to the question, ‘Who is Iqbal?’ The question recoils back. Is he a devout Muslim soaked in the anguish for the Islamic world’s passivity and surrender? An ideologue of pan-Islamism? A harbinger of a neo-Ummah that would efface the boundaries of ill-created and coercively carved out ‘nation-states’? Or is he a Marxism-imbued modernist championing the cause of critical scientific reasoning? Did he not nurture rational thought in articulating Islam as a function? Did he not write philosophy proper? Or, again, was he but a mere traditional mutakallim (speculative theologian), fixing his gaze on the past glories of the forefathers, providing much fuel to revisionist ideologies and violent activism? Was he not basking in what is dead and gone and over?

There is so much dust of controversy here. Indeed, all of these echoing questions embody a free-for-all sport, receiving at once affirmations and negations; or they are thrown back into the field by cultural goalkeepers — and the sport continues. The result is obscurity and confusion. How ironic: here is a personage who is an integral part of Pakistan’s national narrative, whose (clichéd) photograph — with his head resting in contemplation on his fist — adorns the walls of state officials and institutions, and yet he cannot be identified. He is displayed in Pakistani embassies, in schools, colleges and universities; his portraits hang in streets and alleys and airports and still one cannot tell who he really is. But then, what is worse than confusion and obscurity, there now seems to be a deepening abyss of indifference over Iqbal. The cardiac muscle that once throbbed is now a scar.

How does one explain this? There seem to be at least three large nodes of explanation. First, the contemporary phenomenon of the ever-widening distance between the bulk of Pakistanis and language — language in the generic sense, meaning any language. Yes, this may well be happening in the industrialised West too, but with a crucial difference. Western societies have landed at this juncture after many modern centuries of heavy investment in language cultivation and linguistic studies; in contrast, the modern Urdu world has simply bypassed this intervening phase. While in the Urdu world verbal communications do certainly continue, these are largely carried out now pragmatically in an anarchy — the anarchy of street parlance. So the ability to read Iqbal is evaporating fast and the judgements on his intellectual and poetic identity are based more and more on hearsay, gossip and on unregulated secondary sources. As for Iqbal’s Persian poetry, it has become the preoccupation only of an old, receding, grey generation.

There now seems to be a deepening abyss of indifference over Iqbal. The cardiac muscle that once throbbed is now a scar.

Turning to the second node, let’s note that, over the years, Iqbal has been surrendered to a multitude of vendors in a noisy ideological bazaar. In this bazaar, he is appropriated as a commodity. So, different vendors recast Iqbal in their own partisan image — from the image of a secularist-modernist thinker to that of an apostolic advocate whose dream was to revive the global Muslim community, harnessed with an Islamic way of life and possessing economic and political powers. The intriguing thing is that all of these ideological vendors present their own evidence and — viewed in isolation — the evidence seems authentic. Are we then to understand that Iqbal is full of contradictions?

Perhaps he is. But let’s pause here and take cognisance of the fact that the very defining characteristic of Iqbal, a primary truth thrown into obscurity by the ideological melee, is that he is a poet, and a poet par excellence. And insofar as he is a poet, contradictions are totally licit for him. Poetry often revels in contradictions, such as the expression “the sound of silence”, or William Shakespeare saying “in this hit you miss”, or Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib reporting “the more I am the less I become.” It is for this reason that it is absurd to talk about Iqbal’s ‘message.’ What message? There are many of them, no single unique one, sometimes mutually clashing messages. So is the trade of poetry. Read Iqbal as a poet and ‘contradictions’ turn into beautiful poetic devices.

This leads us finally into the third node of explanation of the loss of Iqbal. This appears to be the worst of all the calamities that have befallen the superb poet — and this is the appropriation of Iqbal by the Pakistani state. He is (mis)quoted and invoked in all kinds of political rhetoric as a rallying cry for popular support. This delivery of Iqbal at the state’s threshold involves a process of harmful idealisation.

The state has raised Iqbal from the domain of history into the domain of metaphysics. Thus, he is an idea, cleansed of human imperfections. The result is that a veil has been thrown over the historical Iqbal with his contingent frailties. Nobody talks about the fact, for example, that he was unhappy with his family life, that he bitterly censured his own father for forcing him into marriage at the tender age of 15, and that he contemplated on taking refuge in alcohol since “this makes suicide easier.” Suicide? Then, another consequence of this official appropriation of Iqbal is that those who disagree with the state shun Iqbal along with the state — this is rejection by association and the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

The columnist teaches at the IBA Karachi and is Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 22nd, 2018