Why Pakistan’s National Poet Iqbal ‘Feared’ for Muslims in India

That a school teacher in Pilibhit (Uttar Pradesh) should be suspended for ‘making’ his students sing Iqbal’s ‘Lab pe aati hai dua ...’ should no longer surprise us. That the song, entitled Bachhe ki Dua was inspired by an English poem by Matilda B. Edwards (1836-1919) entitled ‘A Child’s Prayer’, and is essentially a plea to be saved from any form of wrongdoing, is a small detail that is often overlooked in the all-pervasive, ill-informed antipathy towards Iqbal.

The vilification of Iqbal (1877-1938) as the father of the two-nation theory, as a passionate advocate of a Muslim Renaissance and a votary of pan-Islamism began soon after his death, and once anointed as the ‘national poet’ of Pakistan, acquired the speed of a juggernaut in the years after Partition. Now, given the deeply polarised times we live in, given our propensity to view the world in stark black or white, given our willing suspension of inquiry let alone curiosity in belief systems differ from our own — the blind hatred towards Iqbal and all that he stands for, seems inevitable.

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‘Why Did the Idea of Living Together No Longer Seem Feasible?’

But, given that the same Iqbal we love to hate also gave us Saare jahan se achha Hindostan hamara (which incidentally is adopted by not one but several military bands of different regiments of the Indian armed forces as their marching tune), as well as sweetly lyrical poems on Shri Ram (whom he called ‘Ram-e Hind’ and ‘Imam-e Hind’), on Nanak (whom he called ‘mard-e kaamil’ or the ‘perfect man’) — as well as countless jewel-bright gems on the Himalayas and the Ganga — should make us pause to reflect.

It might be worthwhile to look at his ouvre in its entirety to try and understand the movement in his poetic thought from the Tarana-e-Hind (written in 1904) to the Tarana-e-Milli (in 1910) showing the progression from Hindi hain hum watan hai Hindostan hamara (We are the people of Hind and Hindustan is our homeland), to Muslim hain hum watan hai sara jahan hamara (We are Muslims and our homeland is the whole world).

The vilification of Iqbal (1877-1938) as the father of the two-nation theory, as a passionate advocate of a Muslim Renaissance and a votary of pan-Islamism began soon after his death.

Why did the romantic nationalism and the lyrical syncretism leach out to be replaced by a puritanical zeal? Why did the idea of living together no longer seem feasible, so lyrically expounded in poems such as:

Chishti ne jis zameen pe paigham-e haq sunaya
Nanak ne jis chaman mein wahdat ka geet gaya..
Mera watan wahi hai, mera watan wahi hai

(The country where Chishti propounded the message of truth
The country where Nanak sang the song of Oneness
That is my country, that is my country)

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Iqbal Propounded Message of ‘Socialism’ Couched in Islam

One of the tallest poppies in the Urdu literary arena in the first three decades of the 20th century, Iqbal moved from writing on specifically Indian subjects — reflective of pluralism and multiculturalism — to drawing upon world events to inspire, rouse and challenge the imagination of the Indian Muslims.

He was among the earliest to introduce socialism and the socialist movement to young people in India through his rousing poetry. He also introduced modern philosophical concepts, gleaned from his study in Europe, and vastly broadened the scope of the existing intellectual discourse among educated Muslims, keeping it all the while tethered to its quintessentially religious moorings. In his passionate protests against the capitalist and imperialist forces, he propounded the message of ‘socialism’ couched in Islam:

The capitalist from the blood of workers’ veins makes himself a clear ruby;
Landlords’ oppression despoils the villagers’ fields: Revolution!


What is the Quran? For the capitalist, a message of death:
It is the patron of the property-less slave.

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Fate of Muslims in Colonised World Portended ‘Worse’ Things for Them in India

Iqbal was among the first to take note of the disquiet that was affecting the Indian Muslims and bring it within the ken of poetry. This disquiet found expression in different ways: there was the sorrow over the loss of freedom or power of any Islamic race, whether in the distant past or the present; concern about the future of the Islamic countries subject to European hegemony; and suspicion and distrust of western powers that had, in the first place, plotted and brought about the downfall of Muslim rule everywhere. In a rejoinder to his own famous Shikwa (Complaint), Jawab-e-Shikwa (Answer to the Complaint), Iqbal wrote:

The trouble that is raging in the Balkans
Is a message of awakening to the forgetful.
Thou may'st think it the means of vexing thy heart.
But in reality it is a test of thy self-sacrifice and self-reliance.
Why art thou frightened at the neighing of the enemy's horse?
Truth's light can never be put out by the breath of the enemy.

Iqbal introduced modern philosophical concepts and vastly broadened the scope of the existing intellectual discourse among educated Muslims.

The fate of fellow-Muslims in different parts of the colonised world seemed to carry a portent of worse things in store for them in India. When a feted and lionised poet such as Iqbal penned poems such as Masjide-e-Qartaba (the Mosque at Cordoba) and O Ghafil Afghan (O Heedless Afghan), it fed a growing paranoia of a ‘terrible misfortune’ that was waiting to befall the Muslims of the sub-continent. The emotional tug of tradition, of memories of Islam’s glorious past, blurred Iqbal’s vision of the future making it a bleak prospect. While on the one hand, he remembered the glorious civilisation that had produced the splendid mosque at Cordoba, he was reminded also of the abject state of the Muslim in the present time.

‘Rise, and From Their Slumber Wake the Poor of My World’

If one views Iqbal’s vast and varied ouvre, one is struck by how often progressive — even socialist ideas — are quickly negated by regressive, even reactionary ones. Standing before the mosque at Cordoba, he exclaims:

Destiny’s curtain till now muffles the world to be,
Yet, already, its dawn stands before me unveiled;
Were I to lift this mask hiding the face of my thoughts,
Europe could never endure songs as burning as mine!

In ‘God’s Command to His Angels’, he exhorts:

Rise, and from their slumber wake the poor of My world!
Shake he walls and windows of the mansions of the great!
Kindle with the fire of faith the slow blood of the slaves!
Make the fearful sparrow bold to meet the falcon’s hate!

Iqbal on Women: ‘I Too At the Oppression of Women Am Most Sorrowful’

In Armaghan-i-Hejaz (The Gift of Hejaz), in one of his last important works, ‘Satan’s Parliament’ written in 1936, he puts these words in the mouth of Satan:

... When Nature’s hand
Has rent the sleeve, no needleworking logic
Of communism will put the stitches back.
I be afraid of socialists? – street-bawlers,
Ragged things, tortured brains, tormented souls!
No, if there is one monster in my path
It lurks within that people in whose ashes
Still glow the embers of an infinite hope.

Victor Kiernan, in an essay on Iqbal entitled ‘The Prophet of Change’ admits: “Iqbal mirrored the confusions and contradictions of his highly complex environment.”

Yet it is the same Iqbal who has also written:
Follow the path of thy ancestors, for that is solidarity
The significance of religious conservatism is the integration of the community.

And, on the subject of women he is most inconclusive, in a small poem called Aurat (Woman):

I too at the oppression of women am most sorrowful
But the problem is intricate, no solution do I find possible.

Victor Kiernan, in an essay on Iqbal entitled ‘The Prophet of Change’ admits: ‘Iqbal mirrored the confusions and contradictions of his highly complex environment, and there were to be moments when he could come near the brink of a narrow sectarianism.’ Indeed, such is the duality of Iqbal’s message – couched though it is in a language of a Muslim addressing fellow Muslims — that it can be read as the inspiration for both the Muslim nationalists and the seekers of pan-Islamism as well as by communists and socialists.

The marriage of science and faith, progress and tradition failed to bear fruit. Why did this happen?

Iqbal’s Misgivings About Future of Muslims in India Stemmed From a Real Fear

While there is no denying the breadth and scope of Iqbal’s ouvre, there is equally no denying his hold over the Muslim masses and his significance as the only major Muslim thinker of any stature during this time, it must also be said that, with hind sight, that Iqbal offered the Indian Muslim a vision of the future that was confused, self-contradictory and profoundly reactionary.

The Age of Enlightenment in Europe had successfully brought together the spirit of modern, scientific enquiry and religion. In India, they remained mutually exclusive. Sir Syed’s ‘Aligarh Experiment’ had not borne the desired result. The marriage of science and faith, progress and tradition failed to bear fruit. Why did this happen? What was the difference in the crucible of Upper India and Europe? Was it the presence of Islam that worked as a contraceptive? Or, was it the potent presence of the coloniser that emasculated? Be that as it may, Iqbal’s misgivings about the future of Muslims in India stemmed from a very real fear.

It is easy, with hindsight, to look at a poet’s shortcomings; but we would be guilty of a shortcoming of our own if we fail to at least acknowledge his fears. And, more importantly, if we fail to see him in the context of his time and age.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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