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Allama Iqbal: a critical perspective

By Abdul majeed Abid:

“Every generation has its own dreams and vision which it wants to accomplish without interference. Not imitation but freedom is required to build a new world. Therefore, an attempt should not be made to repeat but to make new history. People should be liberated from the shadows and allowed to flourish in a free society. Great leaders should be respected but not worshipped”.
(Dr Mubarak Ali)

Ibne Khaldun, the doyen of Muslim Historians, described History as a science and not an art. He was of the view that History should be objective, not subjective to the historian’s whims or the needs of the hour. The problem with later-day Muslim historians arose when they tried to “glorify” Muslim history and “re-invented” certain personalities as shining examples for the modern Muslims. This historical revisionism was at its peak during the 19th century and early parts of the 20th century.
Dr Mubarak Ali, in his book, “Taareekh ki Daryaft” (Exploring history) provided some glaring examples of historical revisionism from sub-continental history. The most famous religious figures from 15th to 18th century are supposed to be Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi(also known as Mujaddad Alaf Sani) and Shah Waliullah. According to Dr Mubarak, the hype about  Sheikh Ahmad was propagated by Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani and Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad while Shah Waliullah  was “re-invented” by Obaidulah Sindhi as he was searching for someone resembling Karl Marx in the Islamic world. Sheikh Ahmad was made out to be the nemesis of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Another very important source of such revisionism was famous novelist Naseem Hijazi. This trend of bending history according to the time was continued after creation of Pakistan. An “Ideology of Pakistan” was created during the 1960s. The father of that Ideology was designated to be Allama Mohammad Iqbal, poet and philosopher. (For more on the story of creation of this so-called Ideology, I recommend reading the book “Dau Qaumi Nazriya: Aik Taareekhi Jaiza” by Professor Amjad Ali)
As a part of Historical Revisionism, Allama Iqbal’s poetry was used to stir up emotions of Nationalism and Pan-Islamism. Thousands of books have been written on Iqbal, most of them in his praise and very few in critiques. I will try to present some aspects of Iqbal’s poetry that I consider to be erratic and anachronistic.
Iqbal himself can be categorized as a historical revisionist. He remained passionate about Pan-Islamism throughout his life. While the argument that all the adherents of a religious ideology should combine and form one entity is very promising but it is utopian at best. Iqbal, of all people, would have known that since the death of Caliph Usman, Muslims have NEVER been a single entity throughout history. In fact, more Muslims have been killed by other Muslims in the last 1400 years than by people from other faiths.
Iqbal’s idea of an all conquering  “Mard-e-Momin” is not very different from the “Superman” of Neitzche. Allama Iqbal also propagated the idea of Muslim Supermacism i.e. only Muslims deserve to lead the world. This approach has led to a national cultural narcissism.
There is no place for women in Iqbal’s poetry, echoing a patriarchal approach by the esteemed poet. According to Mohammad Haneef, Iqbal wanted Muslim youth to take refuge in Mountains and that Martyrdom should be our ultimate aim. Now that the youth (TTP) has taken up all these endeavors, we can’t even stop them because we always taught them to do so. Interestingly, the most remarkable work done by Iqbal were his lectures titled “Reconstructing Islamic thought”. We do not find any reference to those lectures in mainstream media or textbooks only because they don’t teach anything about following without thinking(Taqleed) rather they slam this approach. There are also many contradictions in Iqbal’s poetry regarding structure of State. Iqbal criticized Democracy, Capitalism and Communism but did not hint at what kind of state he perceived. This issue has been highlighted by Dr Javed Iqbal, Iqbal son, in his autobiography(Apna Garebaan Chaak).Iqbal wrote most of his poetry in either Urdu or Persian, while the majority of Muslim Population communicated in Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi or Pashto. According to figures collected in 1951, 54.6% people in Pakistan spoke Bengla, 28.4% spoke Punjabi, 7.2% spoke Urdu, 7.1% spoke Pashto while 5.8% spoke Sindhi. Keith Callard, Pakistan: Political Study, George Allen & Unwin, Oxford, 1957, p. 181). We declared Iqbal as our national poet despite the fact that fewer than 8 per cent of Pakistani people spoke Urdu as a first language(1981 national census). Iqbal’s so-called plan for Pakistan(due to which we credit him as the “dreamer/thinker of Pakistan, wrongly because 64 such suggestions had been publicly presented before 1930) did not include East Pakistan which was the hub of Muslim political activity in United India.

Due to so much diversity in the message of Iqbal, many elements have tried to use his poetry for their own agendas. Mullahs(clergymen), whom Iqbal opposed all his life and actively wrote against, blatantly used Iqbal’s message of Pan-Islamism for their own purposes.
In recent years, Iqbal’s poetry has been used for propaganda-mongering by Glenn Beck of Pakistan, Zaid Hamid who did two shows namely ‘Iqbal ka Pakistan’ and ‘Iqbal the Mysterious’ eulogizing the “mystic” aspects of Iqbal and attributed all kind of supernatural powers to Iqbal.
According to Nadeem Farooq Paracha, writer and blogger, “ I sometimes feel, a non-critical stance towards Iqbal’s work in this country has actually damaged his standing. He was a product of his time and well suited to compliment what was going in the minds of Indian Muslim men in the first half of the 20th century. But was he a visionary? I don’t think so. I don’t think his work is as relevant today as it is made out to be. Certainly not in a post-modern world where the notions of universalism based on certain singular concepts of faith and progress have long crumbled and given way to a healthy respect and need for democracy, pluralism and diversity.”

Despite all the above-stated criticism, I cannot deny the importance of Allama Iqbal as a poet and as a Philosopher. All I am saying is that we need to project a balanced image of Allama Iqbal and refrain from deification a mortal man. We also need an objective approach towards history so that our future generations do not suffer from paranoia as we are. We should also encourage constructive criticism of Iqbal and leave behind the notion that saying anything about Iqbal is akin to blasphemy.

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