Great men live in people’s consciousness long after they have left the physical world. Sayyid Jamaluddin Afghani (Asadabadi), Allamah Muhammad Iqbal, Syed Qutb, Imam Khomeini, Maulana Maudoodi and Dr Kalim Siddiqui all come into this category. They were men of great ideas which have helped shape the destiny of millions in this century.
The people of Pakistan are rightly proud of Allamah Muhammad Iqbal; he was born in Sialkot, a city that is part of Pakistan today. But Iqbal belongs to the whole Ummah: he gave a message that is universally applicable because it was based on the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the noble Messenger of Allah. He gave a message of hope at a time when despair gripped the Muslims of British India.
Iqbal also understood what clicked with the subcontinental Muslim. It is said that Arabs are motivated by rhetoric; the Irani mind best responds to philosophical arguments; Muslims of the subcontinent are inspired by poetry. So Iqbal chose poetry as a vehicle to convey his ideas. His poetry, however, was not for the sake of poetry itself. Even though he wrote stirring lyrics, his poetry had a higher purpose. In 1911, for instance, Iqbal moved his audience at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore to tears when he recited his poem about the Italian attack and occupation of Tripoli, Libya.
Iqbal’s admirers reside in all parts of the world. He is, of course, best known in his native Pakistan, but it would be a mistake to assume that his reputation is confined to that land. In Iran, there is perhaps even greater admiration for him because more than half his poetry is in Farsi (Persian). Indeed, according to most authorities on Iqbal, his best poetry is in this language. No less a person than the Rahbar of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has on numerous occasions, expressed great admiration for Iqbal’s work in his speeches. Imam Khomeini also did the same.
To find Iqbal’s admirers in Canada reflects the universal validity of his message. There is in fact an organisation - the Iqbal Academy Canada, affiliated with its name-sake in Pakistan - that aims to promote Iqbal’s thought, particularly among the younger generation of Muslims. On June 11, an Iqbal Academy Canada programme in Toronto was attended by more than 300 people from all walks of life. In typical Toronto tradition, the event was organised round a dinner.
The Academy had invited Professor Sheila McDonough, a specialist on Iqbal who currently teaches at Concordia University in Montreal, Professor Mustansir Mir, author of numerous books on Qur’anic themes as well as a scholar on Iqbal, Dr Muhammad Suheyl Umar, director Iqbal Academy Pakistan, and Aslam Kamal, a well-known Pakistani artist who has produced some masterpieces on Iqbal’s poetic works as well as Qur’anic calligraphy. Aslam Kamal, however, was unable to attend because the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad refused him a visa saying the visa officer was ‘not convinced’ that he would leave Canada after the programme!
Despite his absence, however, there were some excellent speeches. There was no rhetoric, nor was there the resort to reading Iqbal’s poetry without context or explanation. Similarly, the organisers, to their credit, excluded the itinerant poets who tend to gather on such occasions to recite their own works. The seriousness of the program can also be gauged from the fact that messages were sent by Rafiq Tarar, the president of Pakistan, and the ambassadors of the Islamic Republic of Iran and of Turkey. Extracts from a speech delivered by Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on an Iqbal Day Program were also read out.
Events of this nature are invariably organised by a small group of dedicated individuals; this was no exception. Syed Sajjad Hyder, the chief organiser, virtually singlehandedly put various parts of the entire program together. The audience, too, was serious and willing to be inspired. They were not disappointed. One could almost feel the presence of Iqbal in the Hall.
Professor McDonough pointed to Iqbal’s wide range of reading interests, which were not confined to philosophy or poetry alone. She drew parallels with the writings of such people as Adam Smith, who she said was as much a philosopher as he was an economist; Ibn Khaldun and Maulana Shibli Naumani. Other writers have also drawn attention to Iqbal’s admiration for Shibli’s works, especially his writings on the Seerah and the lives of the Sahaba.
Professor Mustansir Mir, of Ohio State University, held the audience spell-bound with his talk on five separate poems of Iqbal in which he highlighted the poet’s original thinking. These are to form part of a book that he is compiling on Iqbal. He referred to Iqbal’s great respect for the martyrdom-seeking Fatima bint Abdullah of Libya, who, by giving her life in the struggle against Italian occupation, inspired millions of others - both men and women - to emulate her example. Professor Mir also reflected on Iqbal’s thought about Man’s lonely journey through this world before finally coming face to face with Allah. Upon Man’s inquiry, Allah merely smiles, indicating that He, too, is in the same position. According to Professor Mir, Iqbal was saying that Man’s true friend is only Allah and that he is lonely in this world because this is not his permanent abode.
Although the program was organised by the Iqbal Academy Canada, a brief introduction about the activities of the Iqbal Academy Pakistan was also given by Dr Muhammad Suheyl Umar. He gave an interesting account of how successive governments in Pakistan had treated the academy, based on their political preferences rather than any particular interest in the message or thought of Iqbal. Dr Suheyl Umar’s doctoral thesis was on Ibn Arabi. He himself is philosophically inclined with a quiet disposition, preferring to speak shortly and to the point.
Allamah Iqbal’s personality is a great unifying force. This is so because he gives a message of hope, universal brotherhood and selfhood (khudi) which are the hallmarks of a true believer, qualities that Allah emphasises repeatedly in the Qur’an. Iqbal has admirers in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and throughout the Arab world. This constitutes the heartland of Islam, where much can be achieved by creating bonds of unity against the forces of kufr and dhulm that currently reign supreme in the world.
Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1999