Book review – Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician

How did Muhammad Iqbal go from being a champion of inclusiveness to a believer in the Land of the Pure? A new biography doesn’t quite have the answers

Updated: November 3, 2014 1:02:15 pm

By Rakhshanda Jalil

Book- Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician
Author: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 499

I must confess to being somewhat dismayed at the sight of Zafar Anjum’s Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician. For me, a near-perfect non-scholarly introduction to the poet’s life and work has long been Iqbal Singh’s The Ardent Pilgrim, first published in 1951 with a revised reprint coming out in 1997. Singh, a journalist of some repute, made Iqbal accessible to the English reader and in elegant prose located Iqbal on the cusp of a change between tradition and modernity. Over the years, a series of academic works in English — most notably Annemarie Schimmel’s erudite Gabriel’s Wing: A Study Into the Religious Ideas of Muhammad Iqbal — have tried to grapple with the complexity of Iqbal’s oeuvre and the dualities and contradictions that make him a biographer’s delight. But I have found none that match Singh’s simplicity and empathy.

Having said that, it is undeniable that every age produces its own biographers of visionary men and women. Zafar Anjum, also a journalist like Singh, has given us his reading of Iqbal’s life, philosophy and politics. There is little that is new here or not known to the Iqbal lover, let alone Iqbal scholar. Nor has Anjum made any attempt to access original sources or archival papers. But what he has given us is a useful book for several reasons: the first and foremost being an Iqbal ‘Reader’ for our times. In lucid prose, he presents before the modern reader the life of a visionary poet, and possibly the last of the great  Muslim thinkers.

In his Javed Nama, Iqbal had written: “I have lost hope in the older men, and I have a message for tomorrow. Therefore, help the youth to comprehend my works and fathom the depths of my thought with ease.” Anjum seems to have taken heed of this, for his book is essentially meant to locate Iqbal back in the national narrative. Explaining his reasons for writing the book, Anjum says, “The story you are going to read in these pages is an attempt to narrate Iqbal’s life once again for those who have forgotten him. I don’t claim it to be a comprehensive account, for to write such a book would require a lot of time and research and in the time that I was given, I have tried my best.”

Eulogised and deified by one lot of people as the father of a new nation, and vilified and disparaged by another set for turning away from his earlier nationalistic and inclusive stance, Iqbal is held responsible by many in India for introducing a discordant note into the public discourse regarding Muslims. Many a school child who has sung Saare jahan se acchha Hindostan hamara at morning assembly is perplexed to later read his views on the necessity of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. Also, the liberal use of Hindi words in his early poetry, the references to Nanak and Chishti, the paean to Lord Rama whom he calls Imam-e Hind, his wish to see a new India create a “Naya Shivala” —  all of this inexorably leaches out and leaves in its place a staunchly pan-Islamic worldview and Islam-centric frame of reference.

While his poetry and the philosophy that forms its bedrock continues to thrill readers of all hues and inclinations, his politics does indeed become troublesome for many, including this reviewer. Unfortunately, save for a few sweetly lyrical poems such as Haqeeqat-e Husn, it is not possible to extricate Iqbal’s poetry from his politics in the vast majority of his oeuvre. And if the politics is problematic, the poetry — for all its vim and vigour, its fire and passion, not to mention its incredibly evocative visual imagery — falls inexplicably short.

Anjum attempts to explain this anomaly thus: “There is universal acknowledgement of Iqbal’s greatness as a poet. The problem starts when we come to his politics. The Indian journalist Khushwant Singh once aptly said that if you forget Iqbal’s politics, he was a great poet. However, Iqbal’s poetry cannot be appreciated without understanding his politics. At the same time, one must note that Iqbal’s politics was his response to his immediate circumstances. Otherwise, we might misconstrue his politics as only the ambition to create Pakistan.”

This, to my mind, is a generous assessment. While Iqbal was certainly much more than a mere champion of a separate homeland and early proponent of the two-nation theory, it is hard to say if his poetry was merely a “response to his immediate circumstances”. Had he lived to see the formation of Pakistan, and lived long enough to witness the seeds of decline sown in the Land of the Pure, would he not have been dismayed? Was his vision of a Pakistan based on social democracy and a “return to the original purity of Islam”, enunciated in a letter to Jinnah in May 1937, merely a response to his immediate circumstances? I think not. I think it was an essentially flawed idea that may well have been triggered by extremist movements such as the Shuddhi and Sangathan but had its roots somewhere deep within Iqbal’s own psyche. That Iqbal had an inkling of some of his own ambiguities is evident from the following verse:

Dhoondhta phirta hoon ai Iqbal apne aapko
Aap hi goya musafir, aap hii manzil hoon main

(I keep looking, O Iqbal, for myself
As if I am the traveller as well as the destination.)

Rakhshanda Jalil is the author of Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu

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