My relationship with Iqbal has been an ever evolving one. When I began reading Iqbal, I found his verse to be a welcome release from the dismal, dreary air of classical Urdu poetry. Iqbal brought Urdu out from its assemblies into the mountains and tulip fields. His verse married Longfellow and Wordsworth to Rumi and Hafiz. He also refashioned Urdu’s classical metaphors of the moth, rose and nightingale, giving them a salience in modern times.
Many of my Pakistani friends thought differently about Iqbal. They had grown up in a Pakistan where Iqbal’s poems were shoved down their throats since primary school. I had been allowed to relate to Iqbal’s poetry as an adult born outside of Pakistan: I didn’t think of him in nationalist terms as Pakistan’s “spiritual founder.”
First, Iqbal died in 1938, nine years before Pakistan came into existence. In fact, he died before the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which many Pakistani nationalists consider as the historic declaration of a separate state for the Muslims of India.
Second, Iqbal’s pronouncement of an autonomous state of Muslim-majority provinces in the north-West of India was not the spiritual birth of Pakistan. Indeed, he disavowed any association with the Pakistan movement in his letter written to Edward Thompson on March 4, 1934:
“You call me protagonist of the scheme called ‘Pakistan.’ Now Pakistan is not my scheme. The one that I suggested in my address is the creation of a Muslim Province, i.e. a province having an overwhelming population of Muslims – in the north-west of India. This new province will be according to my scheme, a part of the proposed Indian Federation.”
Third, the interpretation of Iqbal’s poetry by Pakistan’s nationalists in largely Islamic terms fails to consider the poet’s context. His pan-Islamic sentiments arose when the Muslim world was in decline. For instance, Shikwa was written upon the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by Italy in Tripoli in 1912. Tulu-e-Islam was written after World War I when the Caliphate was abolished, and the Ottoman Empire dismembered.
Iqbal’s pan-Islamic tenor reached its crescendo in Bal-e-Jabreel. It slowly diminished thereafter in Zarb-e-Kaleem and Armaghan-e-Hijaz, which became more critical of materialism, European politics and imperialism. These later poems figure less prominently in the nationalists’ discussions on Iqbal’s career.
Unlike the idea of Pakistan moreover, Iqbal’s Islam was a cosmopolitan one. His verses carry the dust of Samarkand, the mountains of the Himalayas and the rose gardens of Persia. His poetry is a memoir of this cosmopolitanism whether gazing along the banks of the Neckar in Heidelberg or navigating the alleys of Cordoba.
If Iqbal’s poetry is to be understood, it must be read as the poet’s very own. If Nietzsche can be appreciated with disregard for his later appropriation by the Nazis, then so too can Iqbal be enjoyed without reading in to his poetry the politics of the land of the pure.
– For my brother, H. Nizamani, for our discussions over the years.