Recovering Iqbal

By Dr Syed Nomanul Haq

The year 2008 marks the centenary of Iqbal’s return from his three-year European sojourn, an intellectual and social experience that embodied a turning point in his life. In England, he studied at Trinity College of Cambridge University where a conference was recently held to celebrate the event.
Iqbal’s disclaimers that he is not a poet, or at least not a good one, are well known. ‘This voice of mine arises in discord with its own elements,’ he says, ‘do not receive it as poetry!’ Or again: ‘What of my ghazal? It has no tongue! What of myself? Ignorant of language!’ Such disclaimers are strewn all over the Iqbalian literary corpus. When the Lucknow magazine Awadh Punch cast the microscope of its linguistic bigotry on him and picked holes in his poetic expressions, he remained elegantly unfazed: ‘Why do they consider me a poet anyway?’ he asked. Then he would trivialise the matter utterly, lowering it from the poetic to the mechanical: ‘Quite often they base their censure upon printing errors… People keep printing my poems without asking me; at least they ought to show me the proofs!’

And here lies a whole multiplicity of ironies — a mesh of ironies which, like a thorn-clad branch of a jungle tree, ruthlessly interrupts literary movement and pierces into the very heart of what is supreme, primary, logically and historically prior, and the signature of Iqbal: That he is a poet, par excellence. To begin with, no matter how much he denies being a poet, his poetry screams from every line of its manifestation that its begetter is indeed a poet unparalleled, and not so only in the creative world of Urdu and Persian but in world literature. Nobody who vibrates with the rhythms, ambiguities, and sidereal motions of poetry, any poetry, would fail to hear this scream, a scream that moves the inner core of our being.

Iqbal saying that he is not a poet is like Isaac Newton saying that he is not a scientist, or the immortal hands that built the Taj Mahal declaring that architecture is not what they have done. Such disclaimers are expressions of humility and cannot be taken at their face value; in the case of Iqbal, it seems that by such denials, he simply wanted to stay out of trouble from the polemics of the bigoted language mafia of his times. He let his poetry speak for itself.

But the tragedy is that many people did take his disclaimers quite literally. So those who have no inkling of poetry, no real sense of or feel for a Bang-e Dara or a Javid-Nama or a Bal-e Jibra’il, those who destroy the meter of an Iqbalian verse if ever they recite it for embellishment — these are the people who became the main claimants of this supreme poet. So we now pluck another thorn of the irony.

We see that over the last so many years there has been a steady flow of published writings on Iqbal. But then, a vast majority of these publications locate him in a niche other than that of poetry: philosophy, discursive thought, psychology, politics, statesmanship, economic theories, Iqbal and western philosophers, Iqbal and Muslim philosophers, Iqbal’s lectures, Iqbal as this, Iqbal as that …

It must be pronounced very loudly that Iqbal does, indeed, have many niches and many locations. Yes, he is a statesman, and a robust thinker, and he is certainly a political theorist too, and also a practical politician, and so on; and yet, in the words of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, ‘whatever other status Iqbal enjoy[s] ha[s] been conferred on him because of his status as a poet.’ Remove poetry from Iqbal, and he will be removed from our hearts and minds, ceasing to be the Iqbal whose hand we hold.
 


Iqbal was a poet of cosmic proportions, having not a singular vision but a plurality of visions. In order to give expression to these visions, he opened all vistas he could find; through one he received the sublime glow of the rhythms and rhymes and imagery of the Quran; another opened to the west of the Arabian Sea, showing him the Pyrenees and beyond; here he caught glimpses of Plato and Aristotle, and saw Dante and Goethe and Nietzsche, and Kant, Hegel, Marx and Bergson.
 


Iqbal’s primary abode is the chamber of poetry; that is his frame of reference, the anchorage for all else. Dislocating him from this abode has had very serious methodological consequences.

For example, when we consider him primarily as a theoretical philosopher, like Kant or Ibn Sina, we notice all kinds of problems, contradictions and embarrassments. How could he, the professional philosopher would ask, dismiss Greek philosophers and, even more strongly, the Hellenised Muslim thinkers, how could he admonish a young man to stay away from Bergson, indeed steer clear of the whole discipline of philosophy, how could he say rhetorically that Hegel’s oyster contains no pearl — and then, after all this, accept the very harvest of Greek philosophy, consciously appropriating the shadows of Farabi, Ibn Sina, Bergson, Kant and Hegel? And more, the professional philosopher would have every logical and historical reason to ask: Why does Iqbal espouse the dismissed and untenable Baconian inductive and positivist myth of science? And why did he keep claiming here and there that any great idea in the despised western philosophy has a Muslim precursor?

Then, on the one hand, he has an abundant contempt for reason and intellect — heart, love, and the ineffable glow of revelatory light, he would say, not reason, intellect, or the machinations of formal logic; and yet, on the other hand, he argues tooth and nail that religious truth, the ultimate truth, can be and ought to be reached by reason at the top of the rational stairway. This is all very embarrassing!

But it need not be embarrassing at all. What we need is a fundamental and necessary methodological adjustment on our side. Iqbal has to be rehabilitated back into the chamber which has an uncompromising primacy for him — that is, the one existing on the avenue of poetry where he sits like a prince wearing a diamond-studded crown.

Poetry must present distorted references, otherwise it is not poetry but book-keeping or astronomy or physics, as many a great critic has pointed out, and these distorted references are called fictions.

Fictions have a value not due to their correspondence with facts, or their structural conformity to the rules of logic, but owing to their literary effects on the narrative and their motion in concert with all the elements in the totality of the narrative; this is precisely their communicative valence.

A literary work has its own ontological autonomy. Fictive elements, then, are meaningful only in this internal, autonomous context of the literary work within which they arise; their meanings and their accuracy cannot be located in the external world of natural reality.
 


How could Iqbal, the professional philosopher would ask, dismiss Greek philosophers and, even more strongly, the Hellenised Muslim thinkers. How could he admonish a young man to stay away from Bergson, indeed steer clear of the whole discipline of philosophy; how could he say rhetorically that Hegel’s oyster contains no pearl — and then, after all this, accept the very harvest of Greek philosophy, consciously appropriating the shadows of Farabi, Ibn Sina, Bergson, Kant and Hegel?
 


It is for this reason that Shakespeare made one of his characters say, ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning!’ Note that Arabic literary critics knew this even before Shakespeare. And as for logical contradictions, while they are an anathema for rational discourse, they are cherished pearls of poetic expression — recall ‘The sound of silence,’ or Romeo saying ‘In this hit you miss!’ Ambiguity, too, becomes a virtue, an enriching device for opening up the possibility of a multiplicity of meanings — recall Mir Taqi Mir: ‘I made poetry a veil to hide my utterances!’

Iqbal was a poet. And he was a poet of cosmic proportions, having not a singular vision but a plurality of visions. In order to give expression to these visions, he opened all vistas he could find; through one he received the sublime glow of the rhythms and rhymes and imagery of the Quran; another opened to the west of the Arabian Sea, showing him the Pyrenees and beyond; here he caught glimpses of Plato and Aristotle, and saw Dante and Goethe and Nietzsche, and Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, and Bergson.

A large window opened to him the Arabo-Persian world, introducing him to a grand legacy: here is Farabi, there Ibn Sina and Ghazali; here stands Hallaj, there the redoubtable Rumi; then, mingling in this stellar crowd are Hafiz, Sa‘di, Sana’i and Khayyam; and there is the tulip of Sinai and the palm shoot near Cordoba. But there are other vistas opening up Iqbal’s own milieu, the Indo-Persian and the Indic: Bedil, Ghalib, Mirza Dagh, Bhartari Hari, folios of Gayatri …

What phenomenal range this is! All of this, and much more, appear in Iqbal’s works. And the integration is poetic, we must remember, not discursive or philosophical. No other poet in the history of the entire world literature can claim this range, this rich kaleidoscopic multifariousness, and — again ironically — this humanism. So if the logician of the professional kind finds inconsistencies, incompatibilities, even contradictions, so be it. Poetically speaking, it all works eminently — just look at the ‘Mosque of Cordoba’ or ‘The Heaven of Jupiter,’ or pick up anything randomly from any Iqbal opus.

This poetic anchorage, this primary reference point, resolves the anxieties of those — whether Aziz Ahmad or Cantwell Smith — who view Iqbal from non-poetic perspectives, perspectives that are secondary to him. This applies also to his Reconstruction.

There is still another thorn in the harvest of ironies. And it is that while Iqbal in one sense is ubiquitous, he is steadily dwindling away in another but basic sense. He is invoked by all politicians of Pakistan, by all presidents and leaders; he is read (and misread) on the radio and television all the time; and there is hardly a town where one does not find named after him some building, some monument, some street, some institution.

Yes, he merits all this: but, then, we are losing, and losing precipitously, Iqbal the poet. He is blurred in disputations, for example, about the chronic question of his ‘message,’ and debates about whether he is a theologian or a philosopher, or whether he is reactionary or progressive, or whether he believed in democracy or monarchy.

Let’s revel in Iqbal’s rhythms and beats, in his images; let’s grab his arm in the excursions of his imagination that took him beyond the heavenly vault; let’s cherish his unique craft, his metaphors and symbols, the dignity and elegance of his language, the phenomenal range of literary genres that he commanded, his paradoxes, his rich allusions; let’s meet his companions, and hear his ‘Caravan Bell.’ Let’s recover Iqbal the poet.
 


The writer acknowledges his debt to the many writings of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.




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