Iqbal: More than a King of the Unknown

Zafar Anjum’s biography of the great Indian-Muslim poet, philosopher and thinker, Muhammad Iqbal, uses a combination of known facts and new narration to let readers view Iqbal through a contemporary lens. For a young generation largely unfamiliar with the ideas and personal life of Iqbal, it is an especially useful introduction.

It’s a shiny blue pattern. Two-dimensional, but elegant and tranquil like an ocean at rest. I’m about to exit a terrible international students day event at the university where I am attending graduate school. But near the hall’s exit, I am forced to stop and stare.

On a desk, someone has placed upright a copy of the Divan-e-Hafez Shirazi. The book’s cover gleams against the aggregate dullness of the event. Here, in the US Midwest in 2011, it’s a sight to behold. I slowly move to the Iranian stall and express to the students seated behind the desk my desire to read from the Divan. The one boy and two girls, undergraduates I assume, are curious. Where are you from, they ask. Pakistan, I say, and their eyes light up, and, almost simultaneously, they speak an unexpected sentence: “Oh, the country of Eqbal Lahori.”

For a moment, I just stand there, speechless, trying to process these words. I am not sure what I’ve heard. Then, familiarity creeps in. I know this name. But is this some I-know-your-poet, you-know-my-poet trick? Who says Iqbal “Lahori”, anyway? Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet, is not from Lahore, though he lived and worked there. He was born to a Kashmiri family in the city of Sialkot, some 13 kilometres away from my own ancestral village. And I know he wrote extensively in Persian because I skipped those sections when I read his collected works as a college student. (At that time, I was completely unaware of Iqbal’s influence on the Iranian Revolution of 1979.)


Iqbal’s greatness lost meaning for the Pakistani youth among the state’s empty rhetoric.


But if I look back, this one point in time was really the first, perhaps the only, moment I felt an involuntary nationalistic bond, a visceral connection through identity and association, with Iqbal, the poet-thinker who inspired the movement that led to the creation of Pakistan.

His writings are difficult to avoid for people who grew up in Pakistan. But perhaps because his late-period, Pan-Islamic poetry was selectively and superficially used by the Pakistani State as fuel for its divisive Islamist programme, Iqbal’s greatness lost meaning for the Pakistani youth among the state’s empty rhetoric.

So, for some of my peers and most of the generation that followed, Iqbal’s contributions are limited to his metaphorical dream of a separate Muslim homeland in the Subcontinent, a public holiday, some poems in textbooks, and some popular verses.

It is for people like myself, then, that Zafar Anjum, the author of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House, 2014), decided to narrate anew the life story of one of the Subcontinent’s greatest Urdu poets.

In a sense, Anjum’s biography of Iqbal is more introductory than insightful. It remains cautious in theorising the working of Iqbal’s mind, often opting to rely on Iqbal’s own poetic declarations of his enigmatic self. Anjum lays out Iqbal’s life events sometimes in a delightful manner and sometimes in an incredibly romanticised tone. Some of the events are well sourced, others weakly supported.

Iqbal’s two unrequited loves, Atiya Fyzee and Emma Wegenast, each get a chapter. One account that puts Fyzee and Wegenast together with Iqbal is from Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907 when on an excursion, a group of friends places a wreath of wild flowers on Iqbal’s head and crowns him the “king of the unknown”. The moniker references an incident before the excursion when friends had found Iqbal in his room in an overnight trance while reading a book. Similar anecdotes alternate with stories from his domestic life in the background of his philosophical, artistic and political pursuits throughout the biography.


The book’s most impactful and believable assertion is about the monumental ideological shift within Iqbal – situated during his first trip to Europe – that took him from being a staunch Indian nationalist to being desirous of global Islamic unity based not on territory but religion.


Some of the apparent contradictions and vulnerabilities of Iqbal’s personality are also on display, for example, his desire to return to Europe (“My object is to run away from this country”) versus his disdain for European individualism (“Iqbal saw the seeds of Europe’s destruction in its material culture…”).

Sometimes this dissonance in ideas is amplified by each chapter’s epigraph, an excerpt from the published form of Iqbal’s private notebook Stray Thoughts, such as Iqbal’s reflections on the lack of logical truth in poetry and flirting with the public with lies and platitudes as a political leader.

The book’s most impactful and believable assertion is about the monumental ideological shift within Iqbal – situated during his first trip to Europe – that took him from being a staunch Indian nationalist to being desirous of global Islamic unity based not on territory but religion. This desire later made him an advocate of a “higher communalism” in India. His three-year stay in Europe is also roughly the period when Iqbal came up with the philosophical concept of Khudi as a doing-oriented, humanitarian Ego. During this time, he also decided to use poetry to deliver his message, and began to write in Persian.

“Europe infused Iqbal’s life with a singular mission – to revive the dynamism of Islam to save humanity from the ills of materialism,” Anjum writes, in the book’s introduction. “A transformed Iqbal stopped considering himself a poet; to his mind he became a messenger who used poetry to awaken humanity, and especially Muslims, to its ills.”


Anjum hints at this wholehearted faith of Iqbal in Islam when he writes, “In Islam, Iqbal finds a better model to combat the ills of the West – competition, heartlessness, capitalism, and nationalism.”


From this point forward, everything Iqbal did or did not do as a poet, philosopher or politician can arguably be explained through the lens of Iqbal’s study of, and devotion to, Islam. Even his poem Jawab-e Shikwa, which Pakistani leftists often cite as an example of a progressive Iqbal being cowed into compromise by professional clerics. Especially Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam lectures, which unfortunately get one of the shortest chapters in Anjum’s book.

Anjum hints at this wholehearted faith of Iqbal in Islam when he writes, “In Islam, Iqbal finds a better model to combat the ills of the West – competition, heartlessness, capitalism, and nationalism.”

It is perhaps this dominant message of Islamic polity in Iqbal’s works, supplemented with a revivalist approach, which emphasises action and keeping up-to-date with modern developments, that inspired Iranian ideologues such as Ali Shariati and was passed on to the Iranian students at my US university who fondly remembered Iqbal as an iconic thinker from Lahore.

However, Anjum avoids driving this point-of-view home forcefully. He leaves Iqbal “veiled in mystery” and beyond categorisation: “a shared heritage for the whole world.”


For people unfamiliar with Iqbal’s philosophy and ideas, Anjum’s biography would be a good place to start.


In his Allahabad address of 1930, reproduced in the book’s Appendix, Iqbal had clearly stated his decision to resolve the issue of unity of the Indian nation by supporting a “permanent communal settlement” based on territorial segregation and a subsequent internal harmony among the different groups living in India.

This much has failed to happen in the Subcontinent in the 67 years since freedom from the British, and on the global landscape, as Anjum points out in the book’s Epilogue, Islam and Muslims face a perilous world today. He suggests Iqbal’s reaction to developments such as Islamic militancy and the Arab Spring might be to reiterate his principles of Khudi and commonsense brotherhood.

But in that same 1930 speech, Iqbal had said he did not know “what will be the final fate of the national idea in the world of Islam” and that people could “modify, reinterpret, or reject the foundational principles of their social structure” with the caveat that they should clearly see what they are about to do before experimenting.

Instead of a hollow universality, Iqbal’s legacy for the Muslim world could be to revisit religious thought in the 21st century, an effort in the same spirit as Iqbal’s efforts at reconstruction of Muslim religious philosophy in the 20th. For people unfamiliar with Iqbal’s philosophy and ideas, Anjum’s biography would be a good place to start.

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