Iqbal Day Special: An existential quest
In his poetry, which was by his own admission only a tool to convey his ever evolving thought, Iqbal raised many a magnificent existential question: Who am I? What am I here to do? What is my role, for myself, my community, my people, and humanity as a whole, in the great scheme of the cosmos?
These are some of the fundamental questions with regard to the human condition that Iqbal struggled to answer. His peculiar existentialism predates the mid-20th century preoccupation of western thinkers like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus; it is also a far cry from the inherently selfish strain of a very individualism-centric thought that we see in the 19th century Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; or the alienation witnessed in the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka right after them. While European modern thought, a pre-curser of post-modernist thinking, developed in industrialising societies, Iqbal’s thinking took shape under a dual influence exerted on him by his European education and travels and his experience of the human condition in a pluralistic India under the Raj, a pluralism which was historically ill at ease with itself.
The Historical Context
In recorded human history, India was a place where the nobility, whether home grown or of foreign origins, practically enslaved the vast majority and their resources. Only a strong central authority gave India a semblance of being one, albeit a diverse, whole. Democracy did not come naturally to the Indian soul; British colonial rule, despite its modernity, remained just that. The British not only refused to Indianise themselves, they also could not bring themselves up to calling India home. This was very unlike the Muslim rulers who had ruled from Delhi or the Deccan before they were ousted.
Iqbal’s identification with and his concern over the fate of all colonised nations of the East—not India alone—by mighty powers of the West called for a wider shift in the entire power paradigm that was in place in his time. This he sought by transcending the relatively smaller canvas of India, which had historically shown itself to have been intellectually and militarily docile in the face of foreign aggression century after century. With the entire Muslim world under virtual colonisation of the West after the debacle of the Turkish caliphate, and considerable weakening of the Persian Empire that struggled between Russian pressure exerted from the north and British protectorates to the south, it was the Muslim East—once a formidable power and a civilization—with a history and idiom of its own, that Iqbal invoked as a counterweight to western hegemony.
He did this for two reasons: one, better the devil you know, and two, in a bid to weave a parallel but indigenously sourced modern thinking, the wherewithal of which some from his generation had acquired through their western education, and by rebelling against the West’s Orientalism. He was ready to travel further on the road that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had taken before him. This was because the Indian National Congress’s Swadeshi politics and Bande Mataram-like trappings reeked too much of an idiom that increasingly became exclusionist of non-Hindus; likewise, the social change-centric Arya Samaj movement’s belief in the supremacy of a Hindutva-based mechanism (albeit in a milder form than the ideology later espoused by the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh and the like) as a counterweight to colonialism, left a Muslim thinker who was well versed in his own tradition and secular, western education with little choice.
A Troubled Pluralism
This was the troubled pluralism of India that Iqbal grew up in, and which practised communal segregation often bordering on apartheid: upper caste versus lower caste; untouchability of the other in its many forms; food segregation; Persian, Arabic and Urdu education for Muslims, the fallen nobility; Sanskrit and Hindi for Hindus; Gurmukhi and Khalsa educational institutions for Sikhs; missionary schools for the Christian converts and modern natives, etc. Then there was the caste/ biradari system that divided both Hindus and Muslims equally within their own respective creeds, virtually barring any meaningful social interaction, sharing of rituals, intermarriages, etc., even among the many sub-communities within the larger communities.
Secondly, Iqbal could only communicate in the languages and the idiom that he was comfortable with; he chose Urdu and Farsi for poetry and English for prose, but kept his idiom firmly rooted in the Muslim tradition of knowledge and philosophy, which despite being Islamic was secular enough to embrace non-Muslims, in that it had a heart big enough to historically take in a very diverse cross section of humanity, from the desert Bedouin to the culturally refined Arab of the Fertile Crescent, to the sophisticated Persian to the warrior Turk, to the diverse North Africa of many tribes and tongues, to the Spanish, on the one hand, and the diverse peoples of the Far East on the other side of the spectrum. This was Iqbal’s universe of the humanity, including India, that suffered either under direct colonial rule or its debilitating influence over their affairs, and which he tried to address.
A Wider Outreach
As for the outreach of secular Muslim learning as it developed in India despite the segregation and apartheid practised in society, Urdu and Farsi, as opposed to Hindi, appealed to a wider informed audience interested in the arts and literature. It is a great historical contradiction that can only be resolved by taking into account the fact that the Muslim learning tradition and its cultural manifestations became secular under the great Mughals. The trend continued despite Aurangzeb’s half a century of intolerant rule which decisively weakened the latter day Mughals. In Iqbal’s time it stood revived first through the Aligarh movement and later under a modern, secular, Fort William College, Kolkata, Oriental College, Lahore, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Jamia Millia, Delhi and many Anglo-Mohammadan colleges across the empire, to continue even after independence. India churned out some of the finest non-Muslim Urdu writers and poets from across northern India, particularly from Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and Punjab, whose idiom, like Iqbal’s (and even Pandit Nehru’s), remained very Muslim, if you like, in its cultural context. One need only look at the works of the likes of Ratan Nath Sarshar, Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Azad (an Iqbal scholar of authoritative standing in his own right) and his father, Tilakchand Mehroom, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Firaq Gorakhpuri, etc. In our own time there are ace critic/scholars like Gopi Chand Narang and the inimitable Bollywood lyricist, poet and writer (Sampooran Sigh) Gulzar, along with the nearly entire pre-1990s Bollywood industry; even the prolific and much anglicised Khushwat Singh is Urdu-Farsi literate, for it stemmed naturally from their native cultural and learning milieu.
Iqbal’s Context: Then and Now
Thus, Iqbal, by using a so-called Muslim idiom and symbolism, is by no means the poet/ thinker of Islam or of Muslims alone, although his idiom remains firmly rooted in Muslim lore via Urdu and Farsi sensibilities. The appeal of his social thought, which takes precedence over his so-called religious thought, which was anathema to many of his contemporary Muslim ulema/ scholars, found ready admirers from among the progressive literati, including Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This was because Faiz never read Iqbal out of the context from which his thoughts flowed—and those thoughts are quite diverse when seen in their entirety as they progressed over the years. It must also be noted that Iqbal was a poet and a thinker, and not a politician, much less a crystal ball gazer. The possibility of the miracle of democracy taking root in a post-independence India, which Nehru and Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad getting the pride of place, managed to pull off, eluded him. It eluded him by what was to be the turn of events as they unfolded, and not because of a lack of vision on his part. Iqbal died in 1938, long before Britain would be exhausted of its military power in the Second World War to be able to hold on to India by the end of 1945, and seek rather hurriedly to pull out of India. In the years that followed, India’s troubled pluralism decisively settled for a majoritarian and market-oriented socioeconomic paradigm; in the process of democracy taking root, Urdu was gradually but virtually wiped out from the place of its birth, and with it also died the all-inclusive Muslim secular sensibility. The saving grace may be that secularism of the state, despite being under threat from the now electorially popular and now rejected Hindutva, has managed to survive, but it has extracted a heavy toll all the same: no Iqbal, not even an Abul Kalam Azad, will henceforth sprout from the Indian soil, because the Muslim sensibility in India that groomed such stalwarts has died an unsung death. Only the likes of Darul Uloom or the integrated mainstream citizen, for whom being Muslim is just a personal statistic, and not an entire way of life and thought, remain.
His Peculiar Existentialism
While Iqbal rejected Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s self-serving individualism, he, like them, prodded one to rethink the human condition to seek answers that would serve the individual, thence a growing number of individuals and on to the collective whole of humanity. Only such a growing and all-inclusive human chain of thought, of consciousness, to him, could lead to true intellectual freedom that would not be subservient to a colonial or any hegemonic mindset in any of its manifestations, be it under the garb of religion, western academia or military muscle, three forces which have now appropriated all power at the expense of humanity at large. Falsafi se hai gharz mujh ko aur na mullah se/ Yeh dil ki maut, woh aqeeda-o-nazar ka fasaad (Neither the philosopher nor the priest I contend with/ One spells death for the heart, the other runs riot with his conflict of conviction and vision), he wrote.
Religion to Iqbal is morality and social justice that it ensures, as forming the basis of a humane society, a living spirit imbued with ‘Love’ for that elusive human ideal. Religion is certainly not a bunch of rituals or a set of archaic tribal Arab customs that should be implanted in a soil where they do not belong; any morality thus implanted will never take root let alone bring peoples and cultures together under a set of values that apply universally. Iqbal knew this well enough. ‘And what is that one value based in the refined realm of the human experience that can deliver humanity?’ he seemed to ask himself repeatedly; until he found the answer in Love, and cried out loud and clear: Bande-ye-azaadam, ishq ast imam-e-man/ Ishq ast imam-e-man, aql ast ghulaam-e-man (I am a free man; Love leads me on/ Love leads me on; reason is my slave).
Here was a clear bid to alter the Nietzschean recipe for putting meaning in individual life through acquisition of sheer power, power of the ruthless variety, if it be so, by replacing it with Love as a natural, positive human sentiment and value that can empower the individual and through him more individuals until the fraternity grows into one vast sea of humanity.
Powered by Love that is so intrinsic in human nature, Iqbal then spoke of the individual regaining his self-esteem (khudi), which then widens its appeal to include the collective humanity, thus leading to temporal and spiritual fulfillment. Likewise, Iqbal sees man’s Biblical fall from Paradise not through Milton’s lament of Paradise Lost; on the contrary, he considers it man’s call to action on Earth. The ‘fall’ from Paradise is a descent on Earth, not man’s disgrace but his rightful and earned opportunity to exercise freedom of choice and of will, and do so responsibly, by which he proves his mettle and builds his self-esteem, individually and collectively. Then, he can even confront God: Mujh ko jiddat ki talab hai, daal tarh-e-nau koi/ kyun mujhe sagashta-e-imroz-o-farda kardiya (Innovation I seek, start a new order/ Don’t let me be caught up between yesterday and tomorrow—Faiz’s translation from the Persian).
This is the renewed human spirit in action in Iqbal, of looking God (or the powers that be) in the eye as did the classical Greek heroes, with the difference that Iqbal is not into writing tragedies, but stories of triumph of human endeavour and dignity and inspiring improvement in the human condition. References in his poetry to Biblical and Quranic anecdotes and phraseology could be seen in their symbolic, allegorical context and not always literally. In that Iqbal has improved tremendously on the 16-century existentialism of Mulla Sadra (in theological Muslim thought), who had argued that all and any existence precedes all and any essence of all matter and mind, thus acknowledging change as a constant running factor defining man’s interaction with the divine and the cosmos; this theory altered the course of medieval philosophical thought in Europe as well as in the Muslim world.
This Iqbal Day, here’s some more food for thought:
Yeh gumabad-e-meenai, yeh aalam-e-tanhai/ Mujh ko to daraati hai iss dasht ki pehnaai
(This vast grey dome, this world of solitude/ Sacred I am of delving in its wilderness)
Bhatka hua raahi tu, bhatka hua raahi mein/ Manzil hai kahan teri, aye Laala-e-sehrai?
(Of course you are, traveller, of course I am / Tell, your destination, O flower of the wild)
Tu shaakh se kyun phoota, mein shaakh se kyun toota/ Ik jazba-e-paidaai, ik lazzat-e-yaktaai
(Why did you sprout? Why did I break loose?/ A passion to be born? A taste for being unique?)