Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938), Poet, Philosopher

Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938), Poet, Philosopher

by Prof. Mustansir Mir

Submitted by Professor Mohammed Suheyl Umar

Director, Center for English Language and Professor,

University of Central Punjab, Pakistan

I. Sialkot (1877–95)

Iqbal was born on 9 November 1877 at Sialkot, an old city in the province of the Punjab in Pakistan. Some four-and-a-half centuries before his birth, his Brahmin ancestors in Kashmir (northern India) had converted to Islam. In the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when Afghan rule in Kashmir was being replaced by Sikh rule, Iqbal’s great-grandfather, or his sons, emigrated from Kashmir to Sialkot. In his verses, Iqbal refers to his Kashmiri origins and Brahmin ancestry. He weeps over the suffering and misery of the people of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. In one verse, he expresses wonder—and is also amused to think—that, in spite of his Brahmin background, he became privy to mystic insights that only the great Sufi masters possessed (ZA, 405). Iqbal’s father, Nur Muhammad, a tailor by profession, was a pious individual with a mystic bent. Though he lacked a formal education, he could read Urdu and Persian books and eagerly sought the company of scholars and mystics, some of whom affectionately called him an ‘unlettered philosopher’. In a study circle held regularly at his home, well-known Sufi classics were read, and this must have been Iqbal’s first introduction to Muslim mysticism. Wishing to provide a religious education to his son, Nur Muhammad sent 4-year old Iqbal to a mosque where he learnt how to read the Qur’an. Iqbal fondly relates several anecdotes to show how his views and attitudes were subtly but decisively influenced by his father’s simple but deeply religious character. Iqbal’s mother, though illiterate, was highly respected in the family as a wise, generous woman who quietly gave financial help to poor and needy women and arbitrated in neighbours’ disputes. In a moving poem written at her death in 1914, Iqbal pays tribute to her compassion and wisdom.

Barely one year after joining the Qur’an school, Iqbal, now 5 years old, became a student of Sayyid Mir Hasan (1844‑1929), a distinguished scholar of religion and literature who headed a madrasah (religious school) in the city. During their long association, Mir Hasan not only instructed Iqbal in the Islamic religious heritage, but also helped him cultivate a highly refined literary taste. Unlike many other Muslim scholars in India, Mir Hasan felt an urgent need for Muslims to acquire a European—which, in practical terms, meant secular—education in addition to a religious one. Their capture of Delhi in 1857 made the British de jure rulers of India, large parts of which had already been under their de facto control. Anger and frustration led many Muslims to reject everything that was associated with the ruling British—who had already blamed the Muslims for the 1857 Uprising. They accused the British of instituting policies to them of their former dominant political and social position. In the field of education, the traditional Islamic disciplines of knowledge and the Persian and Arabic languages soon lost their pre-eminent position in society; by contrast, English and the modern arts and sciences gained importance. As a consequence, the demand for scholars of Arabic and Persian diminished while the demand for scholars of English and modern disciplines of knowledge increased. Many Muslim religious leaders discouraged their followers from studying English—which they dubbed the language of the infidel usurpers of India—and from acquiring a modern education. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817‑98), educationist and reformer, disagreed with this view. He was convinced that the salvation of the Indian Muslims lay in accepting the fundamental change that had occurred in the real world. Critical of the traditional Islamic educational system, which he termed stagnant and unproductive, he stressed the need for Muslims to study English and the European arts and sciences. Mir Hasan agreed with Sir Sayyid and supported his cause. He persuaded Iqbal’s father to have Iqbal admitted to Sialkot’s Scotch Mission College, where Mir Hasan was professor of Arabic. At this college, Iqbal obtained the Faculty of Arts diploma (1895)—the highest then offered by the college—which represented two years of education after high school. (The Scotch Mission College was later renamed Murray College, which still exists under that name.)

While at Scotch Mission, Iqbal, now 15 or 16 years old, started composing poetry, some of which was published. Like many other budding poets in India, he became a ‘student by correspondence’ of Mirza Dagh (1831–1905), a famous Urdu poet known as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Dagh admired Iqbal’s talent, and Iqbal always took pride in having been one of his students. In a poem he wrote on Dagh’s death, Iqbal paid homage to Dagh’s consummate artistic skills.

By the age of 18, Iqbal had acquired all that the city of Sialkot had to offer him. These early years engendered some of Iqbal’s basic and characteristic attitudes, sympathies, and interests. His parents had given him a deep religious and mystical orientation, which he was to retain for the rest of his life. Iqbal’s love for the Islamic scripture, the Qur’an, is well-known. The Qur’an, which he recited regularly, was a constant source of inspiration to him; indeed, Iqbal claims that his poetry is no more than an elucidation of the Qur’anic message. Iqbal’s father once advised him to read the Qur’an as if it were being revealed to him direct from God, for only then, he said, would Iqbal truly understand it. This remark left an indelible impression on Iqbal’s mind and determined his intellectual and emotional attitude towards the Qur’an. It later found expression in a memorable verse:

Until the Qur’an is revealed to your own heart,

Neither Razi nor the author of the Kashshaf will untie its knots for you.

(Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1150‑1210) and Abu l-Qasim Mahmud al-Zamakhshari (1075‑1144) were Qur’anic commentators, the latter’s commentary bearing the title al-Kashshaf.) It has been suggested that Iqbal’s choice of the subject of his doctoral thesis—Persian metaphysical thought—was indirectly influenced by his father. In apparent reference to his father’s powerful spiritual influence on him, Iqbal used to say that he had not formed his view of life through philosophical investigation but had ‘inherited’ it, and that he used logic and reasoning only to support and vindicate that view.

The influence of Mir Hasan on Iqbal, too, was formative. Mir Hasan was a committed and enlightened scholar who not only instilled in Iqbal a profound love of the Islamic intellectual and literary heritage, but also introduced him to modern learning. It was through Mir Hasan that Iqbal came to know about Sir Sayyid. Iqbal’s sympathy for Sir Sayyid’s educational movement, even though Iqbal had serious reservations about the value of the European educational system it promoted. Furthermore, if Iqbal’s thought presents a unique synthesis of the Eastern and Western traditions of learning, and if that synthesis was expressed mainly through the medium of poetry at once serious and eloquent, then it was in Sialkot, and principally under Mir Hasan’s guidance, that the first foundations of that synthesis were laid and the medium for its expression—poetry—chosen. In a poem written in praise of an Indian Muslim saint, Iqbal reverently talks about his intellectual and literary debt to his dear teacher. In 1922, when the British government decided to confer a knighthood on him, Iqbal made his acceptance of the honour contingent upon recognition of Mir Hasan’s scholarship. Upon being asked what books Mir Hasan had written, Iqbal replied that he himself was the book Mir Hasan had authored. When Iqbal was knighted on 1 January 1923, Mir Hasan received the title of Shams al-‘Ulama’ (Sun of Scholars).

In 1893, Iqbal, then 16, married Karim Bibi, three years his senior. This was probably a hastily arranged match—and there are indications that Iqbal was against it, even though he deferred to his elders’ decision in the matter. Karim Bibi bore him a son and a daughter. The strain in the couple’s relations led to their separation, but Iqbal remained responsible for providing maintenance to Karim Bibi, who was to outlive him by eight years.

II. Lahore (1895–1905)

In 1895, Iqbal moved to Lahore, beckoned by that city’s greener pastures of learning. A major city of the Punjab, Lahore was known for its educational institutions and cultural activities. Iqbal secured admission to the famous Government College, where he spent four years, obtaining a BA in 1897—studying English, philosophy, and Arabic—and an MA in philosophy in 1899. Soon afterwards, he was appointed MacLeod Arabic Reader at Lahore’s Oriental College, where he taught history, philosophy, and economics and worked on research and translation projects. He held this post intermittently until 1904. For a short period of time, he also served as Assistant Professor of English at Government College and at one other college in the city.

In Lahore, Iqbal’s intellectual and literary talents blossomed. At Government College, he was exposed to the broad and vigorous tradition of European learning. Probably the most important influence on him was that of Sir Thomas Arnold (1864‑1930), who had taught at Aligarh College before joining Government College in 1898. Quick to note Iqbal’s abilities, Arnold coached him in several ways. Besides teaching Iqbal formally, he motivated him to undertake several research projects. During his tenure as as MacLeod Arabic Reader, Iqbal, encouraged by Arnold, wrote a research paper on the Muslim mystic ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jili’s concept of the Perfect Man, abridged and translated into Urdu two English books (one on early English history, the other on economics), and wrote the first Urdu book on the principles of economics.

Lahore boasted several literary societies, which met regularly and provided opportunities for both well-known and upcoming poets to present their work before the general public. Iqbal quickly established his credentials as a fine poet. At first, he dealt with the conventional themes of Urdu poetry—love, suffering experienced on separation from the beloved, desire to reunite with the beloved—employing, to that end, the typical and popular Urdu ghazal (a love poem in lyrical verse; literally, love-talk with women). A little later, he chose and perfected nazm (narrative verse) as the principal form his poetry was to take. But even as a writer of ghazals, Iqbal’s originality at times burst through the rigid framework of convention and his novel images gripped the audience’s attention, winning him acclaim from noted poets and critics of the time.

Three developments at this stage of Iqbal’s poetical career are significant. First, Iqbal’s poetry shows an increasing influence of English poetry, as attested, for example, by his many nature poems. But instead of making a clean break with the Indian tradition of Persianate Urdu poetry, Iqbal draws on the literary resources of that tradition in dealing with the themes he had borrowed from English poetry. This was a new experiment, and was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere created by the styles of poetic composition then current in Urdu. A representative poem in this connection, ‘The Himalayas’, is briefly discussed in Chapters 2 and 3.

Second, influenced by English literature and European political thought, but also by the political developments within India, Iqbal begins to deal with themes of patriotism. His ‘National Song of India’ (BD, 83), which opens with ‘Our country India is the best in the whole world’, became immensely popular and was frequently sung in chorus, virtually like a national anthem, at schools and other gatherings across the country.

Third, Iqbal’s poetry receives a new direction through his association with the Anjuman-i Himayat-i Islam (Society for the Support of Islam). The Anjuman was established in 1884 with a view to promoting the welfare of India’s Muslims. Specifically, it offered financial support to students, established libraries and orphanages, and helped widows and poor people to stand on their own feet by giving them vocational training. It also set up a printing press to produce Islamic literature. The Anjuman’s annual fund-raising events were attended by both distinguished national figures and the general public. At these meetings, speeches were made on important national and community issues and poems were read that appealed to religious sentiments. At the annual meeting of 1900, Iqbal read his poem ‘The Orphan’s Lament’, which so moved the audience that he was asked to reread it. Thanks in part to Iqbal’s poem, the Anjuman’s fund-raising event that year was more than successful.

In Lahore, much more extensively than in Sialkot, Iqbal was exposed to the two traditions of Eastern and Western learning. This can be seen in the subjects he formally studied at Government College—Arabic, English, and philosophy. As in Sialkot, so in Lahore Iqbal found an able mentor: the precious stone discovered by Mir Hasan in Sialkot was polished into a glittering jewel by Arnold in Lahore. Under Arnold’s affectionate patronage, Iqbal the poet now also became Iqbal the academic. Iqbal’s studies, writings, and interests came to have remarkable diversity: he taught English, philosophy, history, and economics at several colleges and his writings included treatments of equally diverse subjects. Arnold motivated Iqbal to pursue higher studies in the West. Iqbal had probably already begun the process of intellectually synthesizing the Eastern and Western traditions. In the fertile soil of Lahore, the sapling of Sialkot had become a sturdy tree.

III. Europe (1905–8)

Arnold and Iqbal were highly appreciative of each other. When Arnold left for England in 1904, Iqbal wrote a touching poem in which he paid tribute to Arnold and expressed his resolve to follow him to England. With the financial assistance of his elder brother, Iqbal was able to realise his wish. In 1905, he arrived in Cambridge, entering Trinity College as a research scholar. In the early part of the twentieth century, Cambridge was a renowned centre of Arabic and Persian studies. Its luminaries included Reynold M. Nicholson, who later translated Iqbal’s Persian poetical work Asrar-i Khudi into English (1920). At Cambridge, too, Iqbal met with the philosopher McTaggart and attended his lectures on Western thought. In the meantime, Iqbal also enrolled as a student of law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. At Arnold’s suggestion, furthermore, he registered as a doctoral student at Munich University. In June 1907, Iqbal obtained a BA from Cambridge. In November 1907, Munich University awarded him a PhD for his thesis on the development of metaphysics in Persia. In July 1908, Iqbal was admitted to the bar in London. In the same year, his doctoral thesis was published in London.

The European phase of Iqbal’s life is notable for several reasons. During this period, Iqbal gave almost exclusive attention to his studies; never before or after was he to lead such an intense academic life. His devotion showed results—three degrees from three prestigious schools in three years was a remarkable feat by any standard. During his stay in Europe, Iqbal acquired a sound knowledge of the German language. He was already familiar with a variety of German works in translation, but now he was in a position to make a first-hand, in-depth study of the German philosophical and literary tradition. From this period onwards, references to German writers and their thoughts become more frequent in his works, and he begins to see himself playing in India a role similar to that played in Germany by Goethe, whom he greatly admired. The influence of German thought and literature thus seems to have served as a counterweight to that of English. It has been rightly suggested that Iqbal’s interest in German literature was due partly to the phenomenon of the Oriental Movement, which represented the influence of Hafiz, Sa‘di, Rumi, and other Persian poets on such writers as Herder, Rückert, Goethe, Schiller, and Heine.

Iqbal’s preoccupation with his studies in Europe gave him few opportunities to compose poetry; the number of poems he wrote during this period is small, and he often had to decline requests to contribute poems to journals or newspapers in India. While in Europe, Iqbal, in fact, became sceptical of the need to write poetry at all: it seems that the opportunity for reflection and observation afforded by his stay in Europe compelled him to rethink the poet’s role in society. With the Indian context in mind, he came to the conclusion that Urdu poetry, with its decadent themes and stock expressions, was totally inadequate to the higher task of nation-building. His association with the Anjuman-i Himayat-i Islam had already led to his composing of poems about India’s Muslim community, and Iqbal seems to have become further convinced of the need to dedicate art to life. At the same time, he seems to have felt a certain inadequacy on his part—namely, that he lacked the ability to compose the type of poetry that was the need of the hour—and so he decided to stop writing poetry. When his friends opposed his decision, he agreed to defer to Arnold, who persuaded Iqbal to continue writing poetry.

In Europe, as in Lahore, Arnold played an important role in Iqbal’s education and intellectual upbringing, and Iqbal’s stay in Europe further strengthened the bond between them. It was Arnold who had arranged Iqbal’s admission to Cambridge’s Trinity College even before Iqbal had arrived in England. During his visits to London, Iqbal frequently stayed with Arnold, and when Arnold took six months’ leave from the University of London, Iqbal substituted for him as professor of Arabic. It was at the recommendation of Arnold and others that Iqbal was exempted, during his doctoral studies, from fulfilling Munich University’s residency requirements. Iqbal’s doctoral thesis, upon publication, was dedicated to Arnold.

In Europe, Iqbal was able to make a close and critical study of Western civilization, on which he was to comment in much of his later work. While he admired certain aspects of that civilization, he was critical of its secular character and warned Muslims of the dangers of blindly imitating the West. In one of his verses, Iqbal says: ‘The storm of the West has transformed Muslims into real Muslims’ (BD, 267). Arguably, this observation applies first and foremost to Iqbal himself. During his stay in Europe, Iqbal underwent a major change in his view and estimation of nationalism. Before leaving for Europe, he had championed the cause of Indian nationalism and had worked for Hindu-Muslim unity. To him, loyalty to the country could coexist without any serious tension with one’s commitment to one’s religion. Consequently, he wrote poems in which he extolled Indian nationalism. In Europe, Iqbal witnessed at first hand the deep discord that jingoistic nationalism had caused among the major European powers and that, several years later, was to climax in World War I. Reflection on the European political situation led Iqbal to draw a distinction between the territorial and ethnic nationalism of Europe and the ideological universalism of Islam, and he eventually rejected the former in favour of the latter. This transformation in Iqbal’s thought was to have far-reaching consequences for his poetry and thought.

IV. A Sense of Mission (1908–38)

On his return to India in July, 1908 Iqbal set up legal practice in Lahore, where, for a while, he also taught philosophy at his Alma Mater, Government College. The struggle to establish himself financially made strenuous demands on his time. His married life, too, was far from happy. His first marriage had been unsuccessful. In 1910, he married Sardar Begum and, in 1913, Mukhtar Begum. The troubles in his personal life left him little time to pursue his literary interests, and, consequently, he wrote very little poetry in the first two or three years after his return from Europe. Increasingly, however, he took part in the activities of several social welfare organizations and became involved in different capacities with a number of educational institutions, including Punjab University and Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College.

In 1911, the British government, acceding to Hindu political demands but causing grave disappointment to the Muslims, rescinded the 1905 partition of the Bengal province. The international scene, too, was depressing to Muslims. In 1911‑2, Italy occupied Libya, France annexed Morocco, and several Balkan states attacked Turkey, divesting it of its East European possessions. The events at home and abroad created a sense of despair and helplessness in many sensitive Muslims, including Iqbal, whose life from now on is marked by a growing earnestness of purpose. In both prose and poetry, Iqbal now begins to address the plight of Muslims—not only in India but in the Islamic world at large—and, in the process, his philosophical and political ideas start to take a more definite shape. According to Iqbal himself, it was during his stay in England that he became preoccupied with the question of the decline of the historic Muslim community. This preoccupation is conspicuous in his subsequent literary output.

Iqbal’s Urdu poems had been appearing in periodicals, but his first book of poetry to be published—in 1915—was the Persian Asrar-i Khudi, which sought to offer a systematic treatment of core concepts of Iqbal’s developed thought. Reynold Nicholson’s English translation of the work (1920) introduced Iqbal in the West as a major literary and philosophical writer. Reviewing the English version, Herbert Read compared Iqbal to the famous America poet Walt Whitman (1819‑92). In its scope and appeal, Asrar-i Khudi addresses the worldwide Muslim community. Several other Persian and Urdu collections of poetry followed. Becoming heavily engaged on the intellectual, educational, and social fronts, Iqbal gave public talks and academic lectures, wrote articles for journals and newspapers, assisted in the production of textbooks for students at school and college levels, and corresponded with many people, expressing, in many cases, his views on issues of national and international importance. His major philosophical work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, was published in 1934 (1st edn. 1930). He was invited to give the Rhodes lectures in 1934, but ill health prevented him from traveling to England.

The worldwide Muslim community—the ummah—became a major focus of Iqbal’s attention in the post-Europe period. Iqbal, who had previously written ‘National Song of India’ (BD, 83), saying ‘We are Indians, and India is our country’ (the poem ‘National Song of Indian Children’ (BD, 87)) may also be mentioned in this connection), now wrote ‘Islamic Community’s Song’, proclaiming ‘We are Muslims, the whole world is our country’. Iqbal’s concern for the uplift and well-being of the ummah is evident from his active involvement in several global Islamic causes. When the adventurer Bachchah-i Saqao captured Kabul in January 1929, ousting the ruler Amanullah Khan, Iqbal appealed to the Muslims of India to support the Afghan general Nadir Shah’s campaign to defeat Bachchah-i Saqao. In September 1929, Iqbal presided over a large public gathering held to protest the growing Zionist influence, under British patronage, in Palestine. In his speech, he declared that Muslims put no trust in the investigative commission that Britain had intended to send to Palestine. In 1931, he represented the Muslims of India at a meeting of the World Islamic Congress held in Palestine. In 1931 and 1932, again representing India’s Muslims, Iqbal participated in the London Round Table Conferences held to decide India’s political future. In 1933, Iqbal and two of his friends traveled to Afghanistan at the invitation of Nadir Shah, who wished to consult them about Afghanistan’s educational system.

In practice, of course, most of Iqbal’s political activities were confined to India. In 1926, he was elected a member of the Punjab Legislative Council, a position he retained until 1930. He played an important role in determining the course of the Muslim League, which was to become India’s largest Muslim political party. When the activities of militant Hindu proselytizing movements like the Shuddhi and Sanghatan led to Hindu-Muslim riots, Iqbal urged Muslims to follow the example of India’s Hindu community and rely on themselves for their communal survival and progress. Formerly a supporter of the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity, Iqbal eventually became doubtful of the viability of the project, concluding that the Muslims of India must maintain their distinct religious and cultural entity. He also spoke of the need for a separate electoral system for Hindus and Muslims in India. In December 1930, at the annual meeting of the All-India Muslim League held at Allahabad, he delivered his famous presidential address in which he proposed the creation of a separate homeland at least for the Muslims of northwestern India. Although he did not live to see the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Iqbal is revered as its spiritual father—and as its national poet.