Among his many great contributions, Allama Muhammad Iqbal will be remembered most for making Muslims realize their distinct Islamic identity and instilling a sense of self-respect and dignity in them.
Human beings are the product of and influenced by their circumstances. While the impact of circumstances on humans is self-evident, it is not necessary that they would or should become their prisoners as well. History provides ample evidence that some individuals—no doubt exceptional ones—have changed the course of history. One need not dig too deep into history to find such evidence. In the twentieth century, several leading figures emerged in the Muslim world whose thought and life struggle changed the course of history in profound ways.
Two names among many others stand out: Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d.1938) and Imam Khomeini (d.1989). For the purposes of this article, we will concentrate on the contribution of only one of these great personalities: Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who passed away 79 years ago this month. While educated in the West and carefully studying its foundational philosophy and ideology, he came to reject both. Instead, he gave a different message to the Muslim masses in British colonial India. It was rooted in the values and principles of Islam and based on the Sunnah and Seerah of the noble Messenger (saws).
By the middle of the nineteenth century large parts of the Muslim world had gone into the belly of the colonial beast. Colonialism affected the Muslim world in profoundly negative ways: political, economic, cultural and intellectual. This onslaught also resulted in resistance movements emerging to reclaim their rights but such movements were either isolated or largely nationalist in nature reflecting the deleterious impact colonialism had had on Muslim political thought.
By the mid-twentieth century, several countries emerged from the bowels of colonialism claiming to be independent. Such ‘independence’, however, has turned out to be a cruel hoax. The Muslims rulers of these nation-states are more ruthless and far more incompetent than the British (and in some instances French or Dutch) colonialists ever were.
Dr Muhammad Iqbal (aka Allama Iqbal) was born in Sialkot on November 9, 1877. He passed away on April 21, 1938. He is widely—and rightly—recognized as having inspired the idea for the creation of the State of Pakistan. While he did not live to see his dream come true, he set the Muslims of British colonial India on a course making them aware of their distinct identity.
Who was Allama Iqbal and why does he matter to Muslims today? In the age of the Internet and instant information, it is amazing how little the younger generation of Muslims knows about Iqbal and his immense contribution to Islamic awakening. While he still has admirers in all parts of the world, not merely in Pakistan (where he was born but died before it came into existence), what he bequeathed to the Muslim Ummah through his stirring poetry, philosophy and political analyses are a rich legacy that cannot be ignore and must never be forgotten.
Allama Iqbal opened his eyes in a grim period of Muslim history especially in colonial India. Muslims had ruled India for nearly 1,000 years. With the arrival of the British, they were displaced from their previous role and cast into subjugation. For the Hindus of India, British colonial rule simply meant a change of masters. In fact, they considered the arrival of British a Godsend since they had chafed under Muslim rule even though it was largely benign and did not affect their lifestyle or habits. True, they felt subjugated and never accepted the Muslims as part of India even if the latter had lived there for 1,000 years. The Hindus, as India’s majority population, realized that the British would eventually leave and they would automatically inherit power.
Aware of this eventuality, the Muslim leadership in British colonial India struggled to safeguard Muslim interests by working with the Hindus. Initially, few Muslims realized that it was a forlorn quest. It was Allama Iqbal, the poet-philosopher and political analyst, who first realized that for Muslims to live a dignified existence, they must have a separate homeland. This was not based on emotions or ethnic chauvinism. Iqbal had arrived at this conclusion after a deep and profound study of the prevailing situation in India.
For decades prior to independence in 1947, Hindu mobs had been attacking Muslims in different parts of India. This was during the British raj; what would happen when the British left and the Hindus were in power was not difficult to imagine yet the majority of Muslim leadership continued to hope that they would somehow co-exist with the Hindu majority. It was in these circumstances that Iqbal gave a call for the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims. He said he envisaged a separate homeland for the Muslims in the northwest and east of India—two regions that were predominantly Muslim.
For the realization of this dream, he emphasized two points. First, he instilled in Muslims a sense of separate identity. Second, he revived their self-confidence that they had lost once they lost political and economic power to the British. Both (self identity and self-respect) were necessary for Muslim revival.
Islam and Hinduism present two very different worldviews. While Islam is egalitarian emphasizing equality, Hinduism is extremely discriminatory based on the caste system. People are born into castes from which they cannot break out. Upper Caste Hindus discriminate against lower caste Hindus and mistreat and abuse them. These practices persist to this day. In some parts of India these have become even more entrenched with time.
Iqbal used poetry as a vehicle to deliver his message. This was a very effective means to create awareness among the demoralized Muslims since poetry was extremely popular as a form of public engagement and entertainment. He did not hesitate to point out where the Muslims had gone wrong in history but at the same time, he showed the way of how to get out of this situation. He expounded the concept of Khudi (self-respect) in order to achieve their objective.
Khudi ko ker bolund itna ke her tagdir say pehlay
Khuda banday say khud poochhay bata teri raza kiya hay
(Elevate your self-respect to such a degree that before any other consideration,
Allah Himself asks His servant, ‘Tell Me, what is it that you desire’?)
If other poets—and there was no shortage of them—prattled about the pleasures of wine and women, Iqbal brought the lofty ideals of Islam. He reminded them of what their great forebears had achieved with so few material possessions at their disposal. It was their self-confidence, determination and spirit of sacrifice that enabled them to achieve such great feats.
The conquest of North Africa in 682 CE by the great Muslim general, Uqba ibn Nafi is one such episode. When there was no more land to conquer, Uqba sitting atop his horse rode into the Atlantic Ocean. Then looking toward the sky, history tells us, he said: “O Allah, if there were more land, this humble servant of yours will conquer that as well”.
Iqbal wrote about this episode in the following stirring couplet:
Dash to dasht, darya bhi na chhorray hum nay
Behr-e dhulumat may dawra diye ghoray hum nay
(What of the deserts, we did not leave even the rivers and seas,
We plunged our horses into the sea of oppression!)
While Iqbal’s message was addressed to all the Muslims of the world, whether in Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey or Arabia, his message was specifically directed towards the Muslims of India. In his Jawab-e Shikwah (Response to the Lament), one of his most outstanding poems, Iqbal reminds Muslims of the secret of securing Allah’s pleasure.
Key Muhammad say wafa too nay to hum teray hain
Ye jahan cheese kiya hay, lo ho qalam teray hain
(If you are truly faithful to Muhammad (saws), then We [Allah] are with you,
What is this world; the entire universe is yours!)
If Muslims today were to imbibe only this single lesson from Iqbal’s poetry, they can achieve great things in life. The choice is ours.