Question Islamism of iconic poet

As Pakistan slides into an anarchic form of Islamism, a democratic criticism of Iqbal’s ideas is needed

Published: 09th November 2013 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th November 2013 02:53 AM   |  A+A-

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Pakistan’s national poet whose birthday on November 9 is celebrated by Islamist organisations and Urdu litterateurs across South Asia, is known for promulgating the idea of Pakistan, engendering Islamism among Muslim youth, lauding socialism which he did not follow and ridiculing democracy under which he thought people are counted and not weighed. Iqbal has been the subject of numerous doctorates and academic books, but his poetry is best known for radicalising Urdu-speaking Muslim youth. His couplets are on the lips of the followers of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, India and elsewhere.

On December 29, 1930, addressing the 25th session of All India Muslim League at Allahabad, Iqbal dismissed Indian nationalism as “false” and demanded a separate state for Muslims comprising northwestern provinces, now Pakistan. The Islamist thinker defined Islam as “an ethical ideal plus a certain kind of polity” which he explained as “a social structure regulated by a legal system and animated” by Islam. As India has emerged into a vibrant republic today as conceived by Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, the malfunctioning state of Pakistan grew out of Iqbal’s vision. In his speech at Allahabad, Iqbal was clearly sowing the seeds of sharia rule, notwithstanding his attempt to convince the Hindus otherwise.

In a bid to justify the Islamic basis of the Muslim state he was proposing, Iqbal devoted his speech to disparaging the territorial conception of Europe’s nation-states, lamented that the outlook of the younger generation of Muslims was coloured by territorial boundaries of their countries, and defined himself as “a man who is not despaired of Islam as a living force for freeing the outlook of man from its geographical limitations”. In this thinking, Iqbal is a front-runner to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda ideologues of today. In jihadi videos, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters quote Iqbal to demand a global Islamic caliphate by rejecting the geographical boundaries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim states. The jihadi magazine Azan recently quoted a couplet in which Iqbal dismisses Muslim states as idols because their boundaries are territorial: “The country/state is the biggest among these new idols; its clothing is the shroud of religion.”

In Pakistan, Iqbal is revered as the country’s ideological founder. To strengthen anti-Semitism, Pakistani columnists cite Iqbal for his anti-Jewish statements and couplets like: “the veins and life of the English (people) are in the clutches of Jews”. To justify Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, writers note that Iqbal, in his book Zarb-e-Kaleem, praised Ghazi Alimuddin who killed Rajpal for blasphemy in Lahore and Ghazi Abdul Qayyum who killed Nathu Ram in Karachi, both victims being Hindus. One Urdu columnist celebrates suicide bombings by quoting Iqbal: “This martyrdom, as if it’s treading in the path of love; People think it’s easy to become a Muslim!” In his book Bal-e-Jibril, Iqbal opposed the separation of religion from the state: “Whether it be the pomp of monarchy or democracy’s show; if religion is separated from politics, what results is Genghis’s tyranny.”

Pakistan’s veteran editor Majeed Nizami gives Iqbal’s famous couplet on how Islamic conquerors rode horses into the oceans of darkness an atomic meaning: “our horses are our nuclear weapons”. Iqbal’s poetry is action-oriented, rousing Muslims to action. Iqbal transformed Nietzsche’s idea of superman into the ideal of mard-e-momin, or pure Muslim. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal’s opening words are: “The Quran is a book which emphasises deed rather than ideas.” A columnist says: “Iqbal is the Quran amongst poets and a poet of the Quran.” Iqbal’s poetry derives Koranic authority and radicalises youth. In a Persian couplet, he says: “Muslims are ill-bred and dressed in coarse clothes/and whose activities have put Gabriel under tumult; Having come to demolish the mark of other communities/as if this community has become a burden on the world.”

Mohammad Shoaib Adil, editor of Lahore-based Nia Zamana, perhaps the only liberal magazine in Urdu language, says that Iqbal was out to conquer the world for Islam and through his poetry planted the seeds of global Islamism. Iqbal’s jangjuana shairi, war-transpiring poetry, has been taught through textbooks and media in Pakistan. Adil notes that clerics and liberals previously also debated Iqbal’s ideas about ijtihad (consensus and reasoning as sources of lawmaking), but any discussion on this aspect of his thought gave way to a jihadi narrative following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and after 9/11 even liberal writers stopped seeing any benefit in such arguments.

In India, where a vibrant democratic culture over the past six decades has created abundant free space for journalists, poets, writers, dramatists and others for expression of views, Iqbal’s poetry could have been examined critically, especially for the ideas that are drawing Muslim youth to radical Islam. However, Urdu litterateurs in India have focused on the literary merit of his poetry and the depth of his thought as if these were neutral in meaning, thereby reproducing volumes of research that are celebratory in tone and sympathetic to Islamists.

As Pakistan slides into an anarchic form of Islamism, a democratic criticism of Iqbal’s ideas is needed. First, the departments of Urdu and politics in Indian universities should collaborate on joint research to study the political impact of Iqbal’s ideas on Muslim youth. This is needed because Urdu students lack the skills of a social scientist. Second, most Muslim scholars will continue to nurse a sympathetic relationship with Iqbal, reproducing his work and reinforcing Islamism. It is essential that non-Muslim scholars, especially those based in think tanks that are not limited by academic boundaries, undertake independent research on Iqbal. Third, Iqbal’s poetry is celebrated by religious groups like Jamaat-e-Islami in India. There is a need to foster a public discourse on Iqbal’s ideology. This can be done by academic institutions, think tanks and journalists through electronic and social media, and such efforts should contrast Iqbal’s Islamism with the cosmopolitanism of Ghalib, Faiz and others.

Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. Email:


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