The Universal Islamist

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked India’s first cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, at a video conference in April 1984, how India looked from space, he replied without missing a beat: “Saare jahan se achcha.” Every schoolchild in India recognised the phrase, for it comes from a song composed by Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), and is deeply identified with the Indian nationalist struggle. At the same time, many in South Asia regard the same man as the ideological father of Pakistan.

Partisans on either side of the Iqbal debate sometimes forget that the dominant motif in Iqbal’s thought was the pan-Islamic global community or umma, rather than a regional Muslim state. Was Iqbal, then, a visionary of the global umma or was he an activist whose anxiety for his co-religionists informed his correspondence with Jinnah, and his belief, in his last years, that South Asian Muslims ought to have a territorial federation of their own? The binaristic phrasing of such a question is itself an error.

Indeed, I have often been struck by the number of misconceptions or partial images that circulate about Iqbal, who should in fact be regarded as one of South Asia’s most seminal modern thinkers. It is tragic that his public reputation should today be based on a few fragments culled from his erudite and moving corpus of writing across several genres. These fragments occupy an ahistorical vacuum, shorn of the texture of circumstance from which they emerged, and are quoted approvingly or in condemnation of their author, depending on the observer’s ideological preference. Iqbal has thus been variously labelled, stigmatised or venerated, not on the basis of an engagement with his complex evolution across several phases as a poet and thinker, but on the basis of a few verses from one poem or another. To what period in his life does the Iqbal poem of one’s choice belong, and what was the context in which he composed it?

Which ‘Iqbal’ are we speaking about, actually, when we blithely speak of Iqbal? Would that be the author of ‘Naya Shivala’, who described Rama as the Imam-e Hind, drew on the Gayatri Mantra in his poem, ‘Aftaab’, infused his Urdu poetry with the repertoire of Sanskrit imagery, and admired Dara Shikoh, the philosopher-prince who dreamed of a confluence of Hinduism and Islam? Or are we speaking of the author of ‘Shikwa’ (1909) and ‘Jawaab-e Shikwa’ (1912), radicalised by his years as a student of philosophy in Europe and his awareness of the subjugation of the Ottoman Empire—and hence the Caliphate—by Europe, who presented himself as an heir to Hali, urging Muslims to emerge from their weakness and torpor to reclaim the expansive heritage of early Islam as a global community? Or are we discussing the scholar who wrote The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam? Or the author of the Persian poem, ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (1915), who developed a concept of selfhood and agency based on an active relationship both with the Divine and the historical condition of one’s religious community?

To his great credit, Singapore-based writer, editor and filmmaker Zafar Anjum pursues these questions in Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician. Anjum, whose previous books include a collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent, adopts a biographical approach. In developing an account of the various aspects of Iqbal’s thought, the trajectory of his intellectual influences and commitments, Anjum’s book invites its readers to acquaint themselves with the monumental and multi-directional nature of Iqbal’s life, work and achievement. While this book does not include any material that was not previously available, or offer startling new perspectives on its subject, its strength lies in its refreshing tonality. Anjum presents his subject in accessible terms to a new and popular readership. Could one, before this, have imagined the Allama on vacation? Here is Anjum, describing the great man as a student on an Alpine picnic in the summer of 1907: ‘[His friends] reach the summit of the hill while singing operatic songs. Iqbal joins them in the singing but he is obviously off key, and out of tune.’ And again, conveying his subject’s ability to entertain plural, seemingly opposed tendencies at the same time (Anjum employs, throughout, a historical present as his preferred tense): ‘Even though Iqbal believes in a purist form of Islam, there is still room in his spiritual life for mystics and mysticism. In 1923, the same year that he is knighted, he visits the dargah of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi Mujaddid Alf-e Sani. There he prays for a son and also makes a tryst that if his prayer is answered, he will revisit the mausoleum with his son.’ It would be difficult, after reading this book, for even casual observers to bury Iqbal under half-truths.

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In the course of a Twitter discussion last year, I offended some of my Punjabi interlocutors unwittingly—by reminding them that Iqbal, who is often thought to be Punjabi, was in fact Kashmiri, a descendant of Kashmiri Brahmin converts. My intention, I clarified, was not to claim the Allama on ethnic grounds, but rather, to draw attention to the profound centrality of the question of identity for him. An inheritor of multiple religious and cultural lineages, multiple cartographies of the self, he was always wrestling with the profound and potentially productive instability of affiliation. His thought is inspired by the key questions of where and how to belong. It might be argued that his various shifts of emphasis demonstrate the manner in which he constantly framed, re-framed and crafted forms of belonging for himself: the confluential tradition, the emergent nation, the umma, the sectarian enclave, all these could then be regarded as provisional resolutions he considered at various times.

Anjum traces Iqbal’s life from his childhood in Sialkot and his student years in Lahore through his formative encounter with Europe (1905–08), following his subject to London, Cambridge, Heidelberg and Munich.

Anjum’s account of the social and political paradigm shifts that were underway in Europe in the first decade of 20th century Europe is particularly instructive. He invokes the intellectual upheavals of the time, in which Ibsen, Oscar Wilde and HG Wells played a role; as well as the unrest among feminists demanding suffrage, the contrast between the precarious lives of the industrial proletariat and East European expatriates in London and the life of scholarship and writing within the hallowed portals of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Iqbal arrived in September 1905.

It was Iqbal’s time in Germany, at the universities of Heidelberg and Munich, that brought him into contact with the vigorous philosophical tradition of Central Europe. To this period, we may trace his preoccupation with the thought of Nietzsche and Bergson, his understanding of Nietzsche’s existentialist notion of amor fati, the embracing of one’s fate again and again with courage, fortitude and improvisatory energy, and of Bergson’s concept of the élan vital, the life force that animates individuals as well as societies. These would inform his central idea of khudi, a declaration of agency by the self, approaching the Divine without recourse to theological doxa or social convention. Indeed, as his critics pointed out, khudi takes him to the edge of blasphemy, since, in one way of reading ‘Jawaab-e Shikwa’, he assumes the prerogative of speaking in the voice of God, addressing the historical predicament of His perplexed believers.

In Europe, too, Iqbal studied the tradition of Islamic thought, the critical engagements of the School of Baghdad with the School of Athens, the manner in which thinkers of the stature of al-Razi, al-Kindi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd had extended the Aristotelian tradition. There, he first formulated his critique of the imperial and colonial expansion by which Western capitalism had swallowed up the globe. And, once again, it was Europe that reminded him of the glories of the Islamic ecumene that had once extended from Spain to the Philippines (in 1933, he was to realise his dream of visiting Spain; a peak experience during this trip was his visit to the grand cathedral of Córdoba, which had been the city’s grand mosque in the days of al-Andalus and retains much of its original architectural character).

Anjum’s account of Iqbal’s subsequent life, his various political explorations and his exchanges with Nehru and Jinnah, all cover well-worn territory; one is left wishing the author had focused on the student years and addressed himself to the task of outlining an intellectual biography instead. In the same vein, one wishes Anjum had expanded on Iqbal’s intellectual afterlife in Iran and Egypt. Iqbal was acknowledged as an inspiration, for instance, by major thinkers like Ali Shariati, who played a role in the first phase (1978) of the Iranian Revolution. However, one must not carp; Anjum includes, as appendices that amplify our sense of Iqbal’s political years, some important primary material, including Iqbal’s 1930 Presidential Address to the 25th session of the All-India Muslim League, two of his letters to Jinnah, and Lala Lajpat Rai’s thoughtful critique of Hindu and Muslim sectarianism.

Ultimately, Anjum’s biography leaves us with two illuminating realisations, rich in paradox. First, that Iqbal—whatever the pragmatic concerns of his final years—was, like Gandhi and Tagore, a critic of nationalism and the nation-state as a political and cultural project. All three recognised and cautioned against the coercive, machine-like aspect of the nation-state, its demand of obeisance from the individual. In an essay, Iqbal once asked rhetorically: ‘What is patriotism but a subtle form of idolatry?’ And second, that Iqbal’s greatest poems cannot be separated from his politics, as some have suggested. His greatest poems emerge from, and express, his political convictions. And here we must face a moment of reckoning. In his account of a universal Islam whose promise of inclusive solidarity overrides local and regional affiliations, Iqbal shares an affinity with the Tablighi and the Salafi visions. In this sense, he must take his place as one of the foundational thinkers of present-day Islamism, alongside Maulana Maududi and Sayyid Qutb.

This may be bitter medicine for nationalists, whether Indian or Pakistani, to swallow, but it must be considered. The visceral reality is that we may be deeply moved by the poetry, if it is beautiful, enigmatic and tapestried with plural strands of sense and cadence, of an individual whose political vision we might not share.

*Originally published in OPEN Magazine in Nov. 2014