By Sharif Al Mujahid
November 07, 2015
By the very nature of his avocation, a poet is obligated to mirror the prevailing milieu, his people’s hopes and fears, their ambitions and aspirations, their travails and dilemmas. This obligation makes him extremely sensitive to his environment, to the diverse currents of ideas he himself encounters from time to time, and to those impinging upon the society he lives in. Iqbal was, of course, both a thinker and a poet, but since he chose to convey his thoughts, however profound, through the medium of poetry, he would, in the first place, be considered a poet.
Being extremely sensitive, as a born poet, to the diverse currents of thought abroad, it is not too surprising that Iqbal, during his poetic career, spanning some four decades, had imbibed, approved, applauded and commended a great many ideas – ideas which occupied various positions along the spectrum on the philosophic, social and political plane.
This explains why at one time or another, he had commended or denounced nationalism; he had propagated pan-Islamism and world Muslim unity; he had criticised the West for its materialism, for its cut-throat competition and for its values while applauding the East, its spiritualism and its concern for the soul; he had condemned capitalism while preaching “a kind of vague socialism”. But what is remarkable is that despite this swing from one end of the continuum to the other, he was, finally, able to resolve the intrinsic conflict between nationalism, the prime basis of twentieth century politics and inter-state relationship, and pan-Islamism, the enthralling concept which the Muslims had aspired to actualise and enthrone for centuries, and which he himself had so eloquently and so passionately preached for some twenty-five years. And this he did through an improvised concept of Muslim nationalism.
One the one hand, Iqbal had steadfastly stood for “the freedom of ijtihad with a view to rebuild the law of Shari ‘at in the light of modem thought and experience”; he had even attempted to reformulate the doctrines of Islam in the light of twentieth century requirements a la St. Augustine. On the other, he had also defended the orthodox position and the conservatism of Islam on some counts. Though “inescapably entangled in the net of Sufi thought”, he yet considered popular mysticism or “the kind of mysticism which blinked actualities, enervated the people and kept them steeped in all kinds of superstitions” as one of the primary causes of Muslim decline and downfall.
Even so, there was yet one underlying theme in his thought and action throughout the whole span of his active life. This theme, which held together his thoughts and ideas, diverse though they might be and were, was the rehabilitation of Muslims in the contemporary world. Indeed, it was this ultimate goal that had led him to develop the passion for Islam, which inexorably goaded him to work and yearn for an Islamic resurgence in the twentieth century. His arrival at this higher ideal indicated beyond doubt his explicit recognition of the basic fact that Muslim regeneration could be accomplished but with in an Islamic framework, and that it could be accomplished only through an Islamic resurgence. For now, he began perceiving the current Muslim dilemmas and travails in a new perspective, and that to a point that he even considered them as the harbinger of a new dawn. Consider, for instance, his comment on the defeat and desolation of the Ottomans in the First World War:
What does it matter – if a thousand calamities befell the Ottomans?
After all – out of the destruction of a hundred thousand stars does the Dawn emerge!
In any case, it was his devotion to the cause of Muslim resurgence that had led him to adopt various political philosophies at various stages in his life. Without attempting to identify the numerous currents and cross-currents, one may still pinpoint three important bench-marks, each representing a distinct phase and philosophy but not merging into the other. For the sake of convenience, these may be termed as the nationalistic, pan-Islamic and Muslim-nationalism phases.
It is rather common knowledge that Iqbal had entered the corridor of Fame as a nationalist poet. In this phase, he was profoundly influenced by the spirit of nationalism abroad, and gave eloquent utterance to feelings of patriotism. He sang of India, its rivers, its mountains, its countryside as well as of its glorious past and its cultural heritage.
But this phase came to an abrupt end after Iqbal’s visit to Europe, 1905-08. For now, his grounding in Western philosophy, his initiation into modern Western thought and his close contact with Western life seemed to have acted as a catalyst, enabling him to perceive things in a wider perspective and in more precise terms. From the vantage point of an European base, Iqbal could easily see that the onward march of nationalism had bred racialism in several Muslim countries. It had rivened the Islamic concept of ummah, enfeebling the Muslim world and, in consequence, laying it all the more open to Western designs, aggression, and exploitation. What, then, was the remedy? To Iqbal it lay in Muslims holding together – in pan-Islam.
To his utter dismay, Iqbal had found that not only had the Muslim peoples, for now isolated from one another, become a convenient target of Western designs but that mundane Islam itself had also reached its nadir. Hence, his chastisement of Muslims for becoming race-conscious and race-oriented, his exhortation for the building up of a single millat or ummah, and his clarion call for forging unity among Muslims for the defence of Baitul Haram from the banks of the Nile to the frontiers of Kashgar.
Despite his obsession with and passionate advocacy of pan-Islamism, Iqbal was yet a keen and insightful observer of Muslim affairs. Hence he could not escape perceiving the harsh fact that his enchanting panacea of pan-Islam in its idealistic and classical form was not propitious or relevant to his own age – ie, to the nationalist ridden world of the l920s. For one thing, several Muslim countries had opted for nationalism and for politics based on asabiyat – ie, racial and/or linguistic unity. For another, they were seeking nationalist solutions to their problems. Indeed, nationalism was a central fact of life in almost all the Muslim countries, and the nationalist altar was supreme.
Iqbal could not have possibly ignored all this – and much more. “True statesmanship”, he told his audience at the Allahabad (1930) League session, “cannot ignore facts, however unpleasant they may be. The only practical course is not to assume the existence of a state of things which does not exist, but to recognize facts as they are, and to exploit them to our greatest advantage.”
Hence it was but logical that deeply concerned as Iqbal was to see the Muslim people remain firmly anchored to their pristine Islamic legacy and heritage, he tried to resolve the inherent conflict between nationalism, the prime fact of national life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and pan-Islamism, the ideal towards which he would like to see them strive. Thus, Iqbal, like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (18239-96) in the late nineteenth century, arrived at the concept of “Islamic” – but, more accurately, Muslim – nationalism.
Islamic or Muslim nationalism is a via media between unadulterated pan-Islamism and unalloyed nationalism. A blend of these two competing ideologies, Muslim nationalism, while recognising the multiplicity of nations within Islam, strives to promote the solidarity, identity of outlook, and close co-operation between the various Muslim nations on the basis of their religious affinity and cultural coherence.
Iqbal, the ideologue who had diagnosed the malaise of the Muslim world in his famous Reconstruction (1930) came to the conclusion that is at once sane and practical. “For the present” he laid down, “every Muslim nation must sink into her own deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on herself alone, until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics. A true and living unity, according to the nationalist thinkers, is not so easy as to be achieved by a merely symbolical overlordship. It is truly manifested in a multiplicity of free independent units whose racial rivalries are adjusted and harmonised by the unifying bond of a common spiritual aspiration. It seems to me that Islam is neither Nationalism nor Imperialism but a League of Nations which recognises artificial boundaries and racial distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restricting the social horizon of its members.”
Extremely consequential was this paradigmatic shift from a universal, indivisible caliphate to a ‘multi-national neo-pan-Islamism’. It would enable Iqbal to advocate the amalgamation of the four provinces in north-western India “into a single State”, in his Allahabad address (1930), so that the Indian Muslims, though currently designated as a mere ‘minority’ in the larger subcontinental context, could still become, in good time, an integral part of the living family of Muslim republics.
(The author was founder director, Quaid-i-Azam Academy (1976-89) and authored Jinnah: Studies in Interpretation (1981), the only work to qualify for the President’s Award for best books on Quaid-i-Azam. He is also HEC Distinguished National Professor, and has co-edited UNESCO’s history of Humanity, vol. VI and The Jinnah Anthology (3rd edn., 2011)