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Mohammad Iqbal, who wrote ‘saare Jahan se achha’, made modernity a dirty word for Muslims

Iqbal’s poetry was not art for art’s sake. He saw himself as a millenarian messenger for the restoration of Islamic supremacy.

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Sare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara is arguably our most popular patriotic song. It’s de rigueur for ceremonial occasions where military or police bands are played. Its author was poet Mohammad Iqbal who has been adopted by Pakistan — not without reasons — as their spiritual father. He being one of the three founding fathers beside Sir Syed and Jinnah.

From penning India’s most popular national poem to adumbrating the idea of Pakistan, Iqbal had a remarkable evolution of thought, involving many a somersaults from his nationalist phase when he sang paeans to the beauty and greatness of India’s civilisational heritage (यूनान  मिस्र  रूमा सब मिट गए जहाँ सेअब तक मगर है बाक़ी नाम निशाँ हमारा), and pleaded for transcending religious divide for the sake of national unity (मज़हब नहीं सिखाता आपस में बैर रखना).

In a poem Naya Shivala, his patriotic effusion went to the extent of suggesting nationalism as a supra religion for all Indians.

His oeuvre ranks among the greatest of world literature. It’s so sublime and majestic that no matter what he wrote on, he added a touch of transcendence to the most mundane of subjects, and it’s impossible to remain unmoved by the force, beauty and fervour of his words.

But his poetry was not art for art’s sake. He saw himself as a millenarian messenger for the restoration of Islamic supremacy.

So, aesthetic sublimity apart, and many profound philosophical and mystical insights notwithstanding, his legacy remains deeply problematic. It continues to haunt public discourse of the Urdu literati and the Muslims of India and Pakistan, more than ever as many religio-ideological strands that have informed the current surge of extremism, are directly traceable to him. This is not to say that he invented those thoughts, but that he found expression for them in an idiom whose elegance lent respectability to them, and placed them beyond serious critique. In any case, such is the nature of Urdu poetry that even a pedestrian verse can trounce the most well-thought out idea in prose.


Also read: Allama Iqbal: Pakistan’s national poet & the man who gave India ‘Saare jahan se achha’


How Iqbal saw the West

Iqbal divided his poetry into his pre and post-European sojourn (1905-08), for higher studies, in England and Germany. This stay enabled him to formulate an ideology which, on the analogy of Orientalism, may be called Occidentalism. Quite another matter that the latter remained an ideological sentiment, and could never acquire the gravitas of an academic discipline. Iqbal found the West in a terminal state of moral decadence and spiritual aridity, and wished that it committed suicide with that very apparatus which had lent it, in his words, a false glitz, namely modernity, rationality, science and technology.

His poetry played a major role in shaping anti-modern (couched as anti-Western) attitudes among Muslims. In a major reversal of Sir Syed’s advocacy of science and rationality, Iqbal made modernity a dirty word in the socio-religious discourse of Muslims.  Every creed of Enlightenment was derided, and the epithet Progressive became a jibe. However, the underbelly of modernity, which found expression in the militarist and supremacist movements such as Nazism and Fascism, resonated with him. He converted Nietzsche’s Übermensch to Islam, and renamed him as Mard-e Momin, in literal translation, the Believing Man, but in interpretation, the Alpha Muslim Male. Whatever be its mystical esoterica, in plain translation, this khudi (self) awakened man came to be understood as a super species with a religious entitlement to subjugate the world to his diktats. He invented the symbolism of Shaheen — Eagle — the bird of prey, as the avian counterpart of Mard-e Momin. That the word Shaheen has since been one of the popular Muslim names shows what kind of collective psyche has been shaped by his poetry.

His advocacy of raw passion and impulsive action (ishq) in preference to reason and rationality (aql) went on to buttress the cult of reckless irrationality which an overpowering religiosity would cultivate. His opposition to science was a corollary of anti-rationality, and considered science and technology dehumanising, though not in the same spiritually debilitating sense as Marx’s theory of alienation.


Also read: The ‘greatest envoy’ of Hindu-Muslim unity who later ensured a separate Muslim nation


Take on modern education

On gender issue, Iqbal was unequivocally misogynist, and considered modern education to be deleterious to femininity.  That he would crave for educated female company, and would later send his daughter to a convent, wouldn’t temper his patriarchal moralising, formulated as it was in religious idiom.

Like all supremacists, he couldn’t see anything noble or edifying in groups outside his pale. He taunts the erring Muslim by likening him to Hindus, Christians and Jews, in demeanour and conduct. Such xenophobia, when brandished with claims like di azaneń kabhi Europe ke kalisaoń meiń — ‘once we called azan in churches of Europe’ — couldn’t but be a recipe for Islamophobia.


Also read: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: The man who made India realise the value of education


Attitude towards Indian nationalism

The most important shift in Iqbal’s ideas occurred in his attitude towards Indian nationalism.

He had no problem with the idea of nationalism per se as long as Muslim supremacy could be maintained. “In majority countries Islam accommodates nationalism; for there Islam and nationalism are practically identical; in minority countries it is justified in seeking self determination as a cultural unit”.

In the 19th century itself, the Muslim political predilection, as articulated by Sir Syed, had evinced an innate disability to be a part of the emerging national consciousness. The Muslim ruling class, deriving its prestige and entitlement to rule from foreign origin, couldn’t participate in a process which privileged indigeneity over exogeneity. Iqbal rationalised this aversion into a credible religious doctrine. He told the Muslims “Islam tera dēs hai, tu Mustafvi hai”— ‘Islam is your country since you are a Mohammaden’. Positing identity and nationality in religion, and not in land and culture, was a tactical, not principled, proposition to make the Muslims break away from the national mainstream.

The reason for repudiation of Indian nationalism was democracy, since Hindus were the religious majority. Iqbal deprecated democracy as “jamhuriyat ek tarz-e hukumat hai ke jis meiń; Bandoń ko gina karte haiń, tola nahiń karte” — democracy is such a system of government which counts the number, not weighs the worth, of people. Those believing in their chosen people status couldn’t agree to the system of head count. Likewise, if political power were to be derived from religion, the related concept of secularism would come in for an equally caustic remark. “Juda ho deeń siyasat se to rah jati hai Changezi” — ‘if politics and religion were to be separated, it would result in Chingiz Khan like barbarism’. Iqbal’s denunciation of democracy and secularism still remains the strongest arguments against these concepts among those who regard him as the reviver of Muslim community. Little surprise that these principles remained alien to the country that venerates him as its patron saint.

Restoration of political supremacy of Muslims was central to his worldview. “ … the formation of a Northwest Indian Muslim state…” was a step in that direction. He wouldn’t countenance any idea which could impinge on “the prospect of Muslim political and religious solidarity, particularly in India”, the reason why he spearheaded the excommunication campaign against the Ahmadiya sect.


Also read: The man who played a role in the politics of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh


The damage by his poetry

His poetry had a major impact in shaping the conventions of public speaking in Urdu. His couplets came to be woven into speeches in order to add religious fervour to them. Once a couplet was quoted, there was no need for developing the argument. Iqbal’s poetry permanently retarded the public discourse of Urdu-speaking Muslims.

Iqbal could be reasoned and rational when writing prose, which unlike his poetry he always did in English. He was an admirer of Kemal Ata Turk, and spoke approvingly of the abolition of Khilafat as a necessary step in the direction of separation of church and state. His Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a major work in the lost tradition of Islamic rationalism. But he knew his constituency, and purposely wrote it in such a ponderous style as to keep it beyond the reach of his Urdu readers.

For every argument made here, adduced with his couplets, another can be cited to controvert these contentions; but only for argument’s sake. For Iqbal’s legacy of irrationality, emotionalism, revanchism, militarism and supremacism is the narrative built on the couplets quoted here.

The author is an IPS officer. He tweets @najmul_hoda. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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