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HomeOpinionMuhammad Iqbal wasn’t against democracy or a casteist. Don’t misinterpret his work

Muhammad Iqbal wasn’t against democracy or a casteist. Don’t misinterpret his work

Celebrating his birthday as Urdu Day in India can be a topic of debate but Muhammad Iqbal is certainly a hero.

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A recent article in these columns on poet Muhammad Iqbal by Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie is the ideal prototype of two common fallacies — ignoring the epistemology, and the uncritical acceptance of the West. Fyzie takes for granted that Ashraaf exist but doesn’t explain who they are. Even if the discrepancy is ignored, the author infers that Pasmanda, in absolute, do not hail Iqbal.

Iqbal is not just a Pakistani icon, he is recognised as the ‘Poet of the East’ worldwide, owing to his reply through Payam-e-Mashriq (Message of the East) to Goethe’s West-ostlicher Divan, and is a world-renowned icon of philosophy. Celebrating his birthday as Urdu Day in India can be a topic of debate but Iqbal certainly is a hero, a fact accepted by Fyzie himself when he called him ‘Allama’ whose implicit connotations in Arabic is the ‘learned hero’. If, for a moment, the author’s reasoning — which supposedly is the disregard of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb by Iqbal — is to be accepted, then all preservers of unique cultures around the world would also be villains. Then, the author calls Iqbal a Muslim league supporter and an anti-Congress, as if the former was a dark zealot organisation and the latter a beacon of justice.

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

Iqbal on nationalism

The most interesting part is the author’s quotation of Iqbal’s couplets, where the poet has been misunderstood enough to misrepresent.

In the very first couplet that the author mentions, where the symbolic metaphor of Prophet’s migration is used, Fyzie interprets Iqbal is hinting at large scale migration that would result from the Partition of India. However, Fyzie’s interpretation is a historical misfit and philosophical misunderstanding. This is so because neither the idea of Partition, nor migration was conceived in the lifetime of Iqbal.

What Iqbal is concerned about is giving up Nationalism — as a political concept — which is also reflected in the title of his poem. Nationalism all across the world has caused a lot of blood-feud between communities, a fact recognised by many philosophers of his age, including Ambedkar and Tagore. Also, the making of nation-States has been a very violent process in history, resulting in extreme bloodshed. Thus, according to Iqbal, “Humanity is broken asunder into several nations by nationalism.” (Bang-e-Dara, 102).

The author comes across as contradictory when he says that Iqbal rejected the idea of nationhood. I say so because either one can give two nation-theory (consequently supporting nationalism) or reject the idea of nationhood.

The lack of depth in the author’s philosophical understanding reveals itself best in the section: ‘Anti-democratic thoughts’.

He says that Iqbal shunned democracy because it endangers people’s personal reputation and neglects socioeconomic position. However, the truth is that Iqbal shunned democracy because of its populistic tyrannical feature that restricts freedom — a thought shared by the philosophers of his age, and a major concern of liberalism in the contemporary world. Thus, Iqbal said:

Dev-e-istabdad jamhoori qaba me paaye koob

Tu samajhta hai ye azaadi ki hai neelampari

(The Devil of tyranny has transformed itself into democracy for sustenance.

You think that it is an angel of freedom!)

(Bang-e-Dara, 162)

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

And his views on caste, democracy

Fyzie calls Iqbal a possessor of casteist thoughts because he thinks the poet flaunts his Brahmin ancestry when he calls himself ‘somnati, brahmanzad’ and his ancestors ‘laati o manati‘. But Iqbal had always used ‘somnath’ as a metaphor for idols of injustice and oppression. For instance, he writes:

Kya nahi aur ghaznawi kaargaah-e-hayat me

Baithe hai kabse muntazir ahle haram ke somnath

(Is not there any Ghaznawi in the womb of creation

Idols of Mecca are waiting to be broken)

(Bal-e-Jibreel, 132)

Thus, when Iqbal calls himself ‘somnati’ and ‘brahmanzad‘ and his ancestors ‘laati o manati’, it is to show his journey from injustice and oppression to the reign of justice, which according to him lies in Islam. Fyzie has correctly acknowledged that Iqbal ‘flaunts’ but misunderstands what exactly. He has mistranslated the couplet from Persian, taking ‘Rum and Tabrez’ to be ‘Rumi and Shams Tabrez.’ The mentioned nouns are the two historical centres of learning of two distinct civilisations: Rome of Western education and Tabrez of Islamic. Iqbal flaunts his intellectual diversity of knowing the Hindu philosophy, the Western philosophy and the Islamic philosophy. In fact, he repudiates casteism in Muslims even in the couplet which the author cites in support of his narrative declaring Iqbal as casteist:

Firqa bandi hai kahin, aur kahin zaatein hain

Kya zamane me panapne ki yahi baatein hai

(You split yourselves in sects and caste

Are these the signs of prospering in the world)

(Bang-e-Dara, 120)

Fyzie’s article presumes Modernity as essentially a good thing. This is problematic because it produced one of the most brutal phenomena in history — Colonialism. The reason given by the colonisers of the world, including in India, was that they were here to make the ‘barbaric’ ‘civilised’ (tehzeeb-yafta) by substituting the existing (knowledge) systems with the white man’s system. Iqbal repudiates ‘nai tehzeeb‘ in this precise sense (Zarb-e-Kaleem, 175). Also, there have been currents against Modernity even in the West: Romanticism, phenomenology and of course, post-Modernism.

In the last section of his article, the author decrees Iqbal as anti-women by quoting a poem titled Aurat ki hifazat. The word hifazat connotes the protection of something precious under attack. However, protection must not be understood in the sense of control over women but as the security of women, which is the responsibility of men. This security is not in the sense of appendage, but as a duty of men towards women as equal beings in the society (whose security must not be contingent on veil or education but is a duty), since the word ‘nigehbaan‘ in the poem has connotations of ‘a person responsible for duty towards someone’. However, Iqbal does recognise the essence of men and women as different, thus equating the loss of female essence as death for women. Now, is that a point of criticism? In fact, Iqbal praises women in his distinct style:

Khulte jaate hai isi aag se asrar-e-hayaat

Garm isi aag se hai maarka-e-bood o nabood

(Woman is the fire which opens the secrets of life,

It is the fire which heats the struggle between ‘be’ or ‘not to be’)

(Zarb-e-Kaleem, 107)

Shahzar Raza Khan is pursuing Masters in Political Science from Hyderabad Central University. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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