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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Iqbal: As a poet and Muslim political thinker

THOUGHT patterns in Iqbal’s poetry transcend spatio-temporal constraints. Little wonder that Iqbal denounced the narrow, parochial notions of the nation-state and nationalism, dismissing them as antithetical to the broader mandate of the Muslim community. Iqbal firmly held the view that the Islamic vision of a universal fraternity of Muslims (ummah) alone ensures the abiding strength and superiority of the Muslim community. For him, the noble ideals of freedom, brotherhood and equality constitute the essentials of Muslim polity. He attributed the erstwhile glory of the Muslim ummah to the doctrines of monotheism, the finality of Prophethood and the life-sustaining Quranic teachings.

In critiquing western polity and civilisation, Iqbal held the view that the West, driven by its political agenda, aggressively promoted the twin notions of patriotism and nationalism, resulting in the fragmentation of mankind. This trend towards nationalism also struck a severe blow to the Islamic ideal of a unified Muslim community. This theme appears in much of Iqbal’s poetry as he laments the irreparable damage incurred by the influence of western political doctrines on the Muslim community and its cherished ideal of universal brotherhood among its believers.

Iqbal longed for the restoration of the former fraternity and unity of the ummah. Throughout his works, in both prose and verse, he warns Muslims eloquently of the dangers lurking behind the glittering facades of democracy, nationalism, fascism, and communism. In his Presidential Address at the Muslim Conference in Lahore in 1932, he stated unequivocally: “I am opposed to the concept of nationalism as presented by Europe. For, I detect in it the menace of materialism and atheism which, in my opinion, would be hazardous for humanity in our times.”

The Western concept of nationalism was one of the major factors behind the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey in the 1920s. Almost all Afro-Asian communities were swayed by this new ideology. Algeria, Tripoli, Palestine and Morocco which had been under Muslim rule for a long time had gradually slipped into alien hands, with causative factors ranging from the inaction of Muslim rulers to the outbreak of civil wars and the accompanying moral and spiritual degeneration. Given this scenario, the concept of nationalism, deeply rooted in narrow territorial and ethnic divisions, had brought about a sea change in the outlook of Muslims. In Iqbal’s celebrated poem Khizr-i-Rah (The Guided Path) Khizr’s reply lays bare western political machinations under the garb of nationalism:

The sons of the Cross have taken away the
heritage of Khalil [Abraham]
The soil of Hijaz has become the brick of the Church’s foundation

The red cap [of the Turks] has become disgraced in the world
Those who were formerly proud are in need of others
The politics of the West has reduced the nation such
As gold is rendered to piece by scissors

The salvation of the East is in organisation of the Muslim nations
The people of Asia are still unaware of this mystery

The Muslims should unite into one body for Haram’s defence
From the banks of the Nile to the city of Kashghar

To establish the Khilafah’s foundations in the world again
The need is bring from somewhere the ancestor’s mettle.

Of similar import are the following observations by Khizr, from the same poem:

The magician of Alamut gave you the hashish leaves
And you, O negligent one, took it as a tuft of candy!

Race, nation, church, empire, civilisation, colour
This assortment of intoxicants is made by ‘imperialsim’

The ignorant one gave up his life for mythical gods
You destroyed your life’s capital under intoxicant’s love.

The ‘Islamicised’ notion of nationalism was articulated by Iqbal in a variety of ways in his poems. His account of Islamic history, especially its glory, infuses a sense of inspiration and an urge for its restoration. This is a recurrent theme in Iqbal’s poetry which is permeated with accounts of history and pointed references to the achievements recorded in early Islamic history. It is, therefore, not surprising that Iqbal made impassioned allusions to the towns and places which had a strong association with Islam and Muslims.

For example, Cordoba, Constantinople, Turkey, Palestine, Tripoli and Granda appear in their full splendour in his poems. His description of these places and of the Muslims who conquered them underscore Iqbal’s reverence of those historic times. The notion of political and cultural hegemony of Muslims invests his verses with an aura of awe-inspiring majesty. In view of the phenomenal conquest of Andalus by Muslims and the splendour of their cultural lives there, it was Iqbal’s earnest desire that the Muslims of his day should exhibit the same  trades which had made Tariq b. Ziyad, the conqueror of Andalus, an outstanding historical figure.

With regard to this aspect of his poetry, Iqbal has been criticised for romanticising the glory of militancy and reposing his hopes in the figure of a man on horseback flashing his sword in defence of Islam and the aggrandisement of its material sources. But reading Iqbal’s poetry against the backdrop of Muslim history in general, and that of Muslim Spain, in particular, and taking into account the social context of colonial India as has been done in the present article, might help us understand Iqbal’s motives.

Excerpted with permission from "Revisioning Iqbal: As a poet and Muslim political thinker"
(ARTICLES) Edited by Gita Dharampal-Frick, Ali Usman Qasmi and Katia Rostetter
Oxford University Press, Karachi, ISBN 978-0-19-906293-5 , 231pp