Allama Iqbal: The forgotten promise

By: | Muhammad Ali Azlan |



A man of his age, A man ahead of his age and A man at war with his age.

Truly the Greatest Poet,Thinker,Philosopher and Ideologue of the past 2 centuries ALLAMA MUHAMMAD IQBAL lovingly known as the Hakim-ul-Ummat.

Born in Sialkot on 9 November 1877, in British India (now in Pakistan), whose poetry in Urdu, Arabic and Persian is considered to be among the greatest of the modern era and whose vision of an independent state for the Muslims of British India was to inspire the creation of Pakistan.

Once upon a time, once upon a recent time in fact, young Urdu poets frequently used to talk about Iqbal’s poetry in both formal and social settings — Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet. And not only poets but South Asian intellectuals in general, among them even diehard ideologues standing tenaciously on the left side of the aisle, such groups too used to invoke this monumental literary personage all the time.

Iftikhar Arif who would recite Iqbal and explicate his poetic virtuosity for hours on end — and he would do so with an inner glow and passion, passion that seemed to arise out of the depths of an articulate voice and a fine literary sensibility. Then, there were the BBC veterans with whom I socialised as a young broadcaster: I remember Taqi Ahmad Syed, Rashid Ashraf, Rashidul Ghafoor, Muhammad Ghayur, Hasan Zaki Kazimi, Raza Ali Abidi, Tahir Mirza who subsequently became daily Dawn’s editor, and several others, all of them at times virtually drenched in Iqbal’s verse, and this despite the fact that many of them had a leftist orientation.

In these poetic reminiscences, there were occasions when Faiz Ahmad Faiz too would join in. People forget that Faiz had translated into Urdu many of Iqbal’s poems from his Payām-e Mashriq (Message of the East) — this verse translation is now available in an audio rendition by Adeel Hashmi. Indeed, in one of his own poems in his first collection Naqsh-e Faryādī (Complaining Image) – a poem called Iqbal written in honour of the named – Faiz affectionately called him a khush-navā faqīr (mendicant/fakir with a beautiful or pleasing voice):


Saqi Faruqi as well, an uncompromising follower in the footsteps of Noon Meem Rashid – Rashid, who marks a daring new departure in Urdu poetry with an ambivalent and sometimes dismissive attitude to Iqbal – and in this case too we see the embodiment of an irony. This now senior poet Saqi living in London used to speak to me every now and then about Iqbal. He often referred to what he described as the majesty and grandeur (the Arabic/Persian/Urdu word he chose was ihtishām) of Iqbal’s words and poetic diction. I found the verbal noun ‘ihtishām’ so very appropriate for the sonorous voice that radiated forth from the Bāñg-e Darā (Call of the Bell) and Bāl-e Jibra’īl (Gabriel’s Wing).

On the other hand, Pakistan’s religious scholars would cite and chant Iqbal’s poetry in their sermons and especially in Muharram assemblies (majālis). His poems would be set to music routinely by state electronic media. One heard his verses being declaimed all around with cultivated intonations, informed pauses, sound punctuations, stainless enunciations and with standard pronunciations.

High premium was placed on those who held Iqbal’s poems in their active memory.

Qurratulain Hyder, had a fascination for Iqbal. As for her philosophical orientation, no matter how we describe her, by no stretch of imagination can she be called a conservative or, to use a Christian theological term that has gained global currency, an ‘orthodox’ Muslim. In her rich world of imagination, Iqbal served as an inspiration, an effulgent source of creative signposts from whose oeuvre she could draw just a few words to sum up an entire protracted socio-cosmic narrative.

“Most of my titles [yes, she did say “most”] come from the poetry of Iqbal and Faiz,” Hyder declared in an interview in 2006. Indeed, she called her debut novel, completed in 1948, Mērē Bhi Sanam Khānē (My Idol-Houses Too) — this resounding title happens to be a quarter-verse from a ghazalesque poem of Iqbal in Bāl-e Jibra’īl, a poem written in a broken metre where every half-verse (misra‘) is made up of two further half-verses, often with an internal rhyme:


Then, many decades later, we saw Kār-e Jahañ Darāz Hai (Much to Be Done in this World); this title of this mature work being another quarter verse from another broken-metre poem from the same Bāl-e Jibra’īl.

But, then, things have changed now: These days, when we are well into the new century, young literary circles hardly talk about Iqbal’s verse, and those very few individuals who dare invoke his poetry have to apologise in case they are accused of being obscurantists, backward-moving, ‘orthodox’; at best, being revisionists. Now in the self-professed liberal chambers, Iqbal has effectively become a dark force in its fullness, an embarrassing event in the intellectual vicissitudes of our world.

We don’t want to brainstorm on his ideas but only to proudly claim him as ‘our’ national poet. Pakistan honors him every year in a guard changing ceremony at his tomb in Lahore. Ironically, at the time when the country is fighting a war against terrorists and is facing challenges in protecting the living, we choose to spend resources protecting the ‘dead’. Nasira Javed once said in a conversation that people have remembered Iqbal but forgotten his work. Hence, it is not the case that we don’t honor him enough but the problem is that we don’t understand him enough. Iqbal academy Lahore is a ray of hope in keeping Iqbal’s work alive in Pakistan especially when Iqbal’s inclusion in Pakistani educational text is so limited, selective and categorised that it is unable to do justice to the vast horizons of Iqbal’s work. Iqbal’s glorification as Pakistan’s national poet has unfortunately caused the downfall of his intellectual contributions. We as a nation have reduced him to a glorified figure with whom we love to attach our national prestige however we don’t have time to pay attention to his work which is the reason for him being our national poet.

It is the valor of Iqbal’s poetry that his dream remains the frame of reference for the creation of Pakistan, regardless of our present disconnectedness with his work. There are a lot of debates about Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan which somehow rests upon Iqbal’s dream according to our textbook understanding of history. However, this is selective and categorical understanding of Iqbal.

When a nation refuses to listen to a seer like Iqbal, then humiliation is written for those people.

When will this nation, its elders, its parties, its Ulema It’s establishment, It’s bureaucrats, It’s economists and it’s courts listen to Iqbal?

If you go against Iqbal’s advice, it does not matter what political system or economic strategy you make, you will remain a slave you will remain weak and afraid.


The writer tweets @MuhammadAliAzlan



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