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Call of the Caravan Bell: the return of Iqbal’s vision

Zainab Cheema

Understanding Allama Iqbal’s universal message through reflecting on his stirring poetry, Zainab Cheema takes us on a tour of delight.

Sometimes, the date is more than a mark on the orderly grid of a calendar. November 2012 has mostly unfolded as a pageant of blood and violence in Syria and Palestine, accompanied by the crumbling of post-Mubarak hopes for enlightened government in Egypt. However, this month is also the 135th anniversary of the birth of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, perhaps the greatest poetic mind of the 20th Century. Some dates are incandescent, marked with an afterlife of remembrance that erupts through the present. November 9 is a mark of remembrance for a spark that rhetorically invoked a global Muslim Ummah in speech through combining revolutionary political thought with Persian-Urdu-Arabic poetics.

Iqbal’s legacy today is limited to being the poet-philosopher who first dreamed of the idea of Pakistan, an independent country for the Muslims of India. Iqbal first announced the idea of Pakistan during his 1930 Allahabad address, proposing a “state in northwestern India for Muslims.” He did not call it Pakistan (which was coined by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali in 1931 who was then a student at Cambridge University in England). Pakistan sees itself as the political fulfillment of the poetic vision that seared audiences for a century, from the men and women attending India’s poetry mushairas in the early-20th century to present-day readers encountering him through poetry collections such as Bang-e-Dara (Call of the Caravan Bell); Bal-i-Jibril (Gabriel’s Wing); and Zarb-e-Kalim (The Rod of Moses). Anniversary celebrations in Pakistan included recitations and musical adaptations of his poetry, attended by corporate big-wigs and army generals who style themselves as custodians of Iqbal’s vision.

Struggle is the concept expressed in Iqbal’s poetry — that calls on readers to embrace the storm and stress of battling with ages, societies, leaders, and even states of self, rising in the process to become their highest selves (and, the highest social collective capable of guiding others). In Bal-e-Jibril, he writes,

The secrets of this silent sea, however, do not yield (Khulte nahin iss qulzam-e-khamosh ke asrar),

Until you cut it with the blow of Moses’ rod (Jab tak tu iss zarb-e-kaleemi se na cheere).

For the reform movements across the Muslim world, he mobilized Urdu-Persian poets toward a new political consciousness,

The politics of the ancien regime have crumbled (Purani siyasat giri khwaar),

The world has tired of exalted kings (Zameen mir-e-sultan se baizar hai).

Iqbal’s work then transcends his pedestal as national hero — as Muslims till today largely remain corralled within the paddocks of nationalisms and ethnicisms, his vision mostly remains unrealized. A global celebrity in the 1930s (and even today, esteemed as one of the paramount Muslim intellectuals of the 20th century), his grave now lies near Lahore’s historic Badshahi Masjid, rather forlorn and unattended. Iqbal’s last words indicated his self-awareness as an intellectual before his time — his works were an anodyne to decay, but his revolutionary visions of khudi (selfhood) and collectivity were simply not understood by the public, whether the masses or the technocratic class of middle class Indians who dreamed of change but could not quite transcend their “education” under the British Empire.

Born on November 9, 1877 in Sialkot (then India), Iqbal trained at Intermediary College under the tutelage of Mir Hasan, a scholar in Oriental literatures and languages. Iqbal developed a close relationship with Sir Thomas Arnold, a professor of philosophy at the college. Encouraged by Arnold, Iqbal traveled to England’s Cambridge University, where he used his skills in Arabic literature to do a readership in Arabic. Iqbal then completed his PhD from Heidelberg University in Berlin, where he integrated his intimate knowledge of Arabic-Persian poetry with German philosophy (particularly Heine and Nietzsche) in a doctorial dissertation on the intellectualism of Persian mysticism (The Development of Metaphysics in Persia). It was in Europe too, when Iqbal turned to Persian as a mode of expression for homeward longing, writing,

Though the sweetness of Urdu is sugar (Garche Urdu dar uzubat shekkar ast),

The speech of Dari is sweeter still (Tarz-e goftar-e Dari shirin tar ast).

If early-20th century reform movements that spread across the Muslim world were about politically challenging colonialism’s draining of lands and minds, Iqbal was rather more ambitious. He described his Urdu poetry collection, Zarb-e-Kalim (The Rod of Moses), as a declaration of war against the age. Storm and stress, the matrix of human struggle, is the life-giving process of becoming, where humans ignite with the divine to change the world,

To know and see is so easy in the world (Jahan mein danish-o-beenish ki hai kis darja arzani),

Nothing may stay hidden for this universe is luminous (Koi shay chup nahin sakti kye alam hai noorani).

For Iqbal, the high German idealists gave him the philosophical vocabulary for recasting the thoughts and visions he encountered in the revolutionary Sufism of early Urdu poetry. Iqbal realized that the boundaries of East versus West, boundaries consuming Muslims afflicted by a sense of historical defeat, could be easily crossed — for after all, the West’s philosophical revolution was based on thoughts and problems written on by Arab philosophers, inherited by Cambridge, the University of Paris or the University of Heidelberg. Iqbal saw civilization as the outward movement of the idea — and if the West was in a material sense, “ahead,” it was because they were struggling and grappling with questions that Muslim thinkers had long since confined to the archives as “case solved.”

Scholar, philosopher, and poet, he used his pen to restore confidence to Muslims, mobilizing them against ideological pressures of an age of late imperialism.

West and East were fundamentally interlinked, in Iqbal’s view. Intellectual thought moved between geographies, receiving inspiration (and misdirection) from the other — a fact that British (or for the matter, French and German) imperialism strove to disguise.

“The most remarkable phenomenon of modern history, however, is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam is spiritually moving towards the West,” he wrote in his philosophical text, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, “There is nothing wrong in this movement for European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam.” But Iqbal also voices his fear that reform movements may become seduced by Western “modernity” and not preserve their unique intellectual orientation that Islam gives them.

Iqbal’s realization is tied to the West-intoxication of Muslims, religious or otherwise, who lacked the will to contend with the civilization and draw out of it the luminous essence that it had received in inheritance from Islamic philosophy. In Tariq Ki Dua (The Prayer of Tariq), imagining the prayer of Tariq ibn Ziyad as he burned the boats and delivered the command to his armies to liberate Spain, Iqbal envisions,

These warriors, victorious, these mysterious worshippers of Yours (Ye ghazi, ye tere purisrar bande),

Whom You have granted the will to win power in Your name, as the fulfillment of a historical promise (Jinhain tu ne bakhsha hai zuaq-e-khudai).

In the flower-bed, rose is waiting from a long time (Khayaban mein hai muntazir lala kab se),

The Color from Arabs’ blood (Qaba chahye iss ko khoon-e-arab se).

This contrasts with the lazy dreamer, mourning past glories and honors but unwilling to engage in the process of storm and stress, and gain the skills and abilities that will allow him to move between intellectual traditions and give voice to tawhid. In Bal-e-Jibrael, Iqbal writes,

The people merit as poison the Western wine (Zehr ab hai uss qoum ke haq mein mei-e-afrang),

When their offspring has forgotten skill and God-consciousness (Jis qoum ke bache nahin khuddar-o-hunar mand).

If Iqbal moved between the literary and philosophical traditions of Western and Eastern literature, it was through his embrace of storm and stress as the means to truly understand Islamic philosophy — and its unique synergy of the everyday, practical and the transcendent. “With Islam, the ideal and the real are not two opposing forces which cannot be reconciled,” Iqbal wrote. “[Islam] is the perpetual endeavor of the ideal to appropriate the real with a view eventually to absorb it, to convert it into itself and illuminate its whole being.” In other words, the great philosophical questions that Muslim thinkers had extracted from the Qur’an, were about properly managing reality — not condemning it as a perpetual state of fallenness from which a messiah will magically rescue us, as Christianity believed.

In his masterful Urdu poem, Shikwa (Complaint), Iqbal achieved the ambition that other scholar-writers can only dream of — voicing the historical consciousness of his age. In this poem, an imaginary Muslim interlocutor complains to God about the historical decay in which the Muslims had fallen. The narrator describes the “strange world” that prevailed before the Muslim Ummah came into being, the disfigured landscape of worship where men bowed before idols, fire, and kings. The narrator, with skill, audacity and suffering urges God,

Proclaim, whose fierce valor once did Khyber’s barriers overthrow (Tu hi keh de ke ukhara dar-e-khyber kis ne)?

Or whose might once laid famed Caesar’s proudest cities low (Sheher qaiser ka jo tha, us ko kiya sar kis ne)?

The narrator then complains about the abjection of the Muslims, who are compelled to witness glory and honor given to nations thwarting the oneness of God. The anguished poetic voice charges God for withdrawing from the Muslims, when the same flame burned in their breasts as before — and for exposing the Muslims to shame of suffering conquest,

Our hearts’ desires, long unfulfilled, unceasingly our life-blood drain (Joo’ay khoon mee chakad az hasrat-e-dairina-e-maa),

Our breasts, with thousand daggers pierced, still struggle with their cry of pain (Mee tapd nala ba nashtar kadah-e-seena-e-maa)!

Using metaphors of Sufi kalam, the poetic traditions of Muslim India, the narrator expresses longing for the delirious union of human and divine, when then human embodied the divine will in flesh, and mastered ancient civilizations. Through the complaints, Iqbal winds the sound of the caravan bell; the sound of remembrance, jolting return to the place of the original revolution.

The blood of sweet Arabian vine O’erflows this wine-jar Ajamy (Ajami khum hai to kya, mai to hijazi hai meri),

Although the singer sings in Hindi, Hijaz is his melody (Naghma hindi hai to kya, lai to hijazi hai meri).

Scholar, philosopher, and poet, he used his pen to restore confidence to Muslims, mobilizing them against ideological pressures of an age of late imperialism. His life’s work was to grapple the contradictions of a Muslim collectivity broken under historical defeatism and the secularism sponsored by the British Raj. As was the norm for every Urdu poet of Hind, three-quarters of Iqbal’s poetic output was in Persian, which has given him a considerable afterlife in Iran. His Urdu poetry catalyzed India, presenting lyric protests against imperialism, and offering the dream of a resurgent Muslim global community. As the musical culture of India and Pakistan is grounded in poetry, Iqbal still circulates, the ringing call of his voice circulating in a society that finely appreciates the aesthetics but misses the politics.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 10

Muharram 17, 14342012-12-01

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