Iqbal: The Universal Islamist

This biography of Allama Muhammad Iqbal redeems the philosopher-poet from political and nationalist stereotypes: Ranjit Hoskote in Open Magazine

iqbal frontTo his great credit, Singapore-based writer, editor and filmmaker Zafar Anjum pursues these questions in Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician. Anjum, whose previous books include a collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent, adopts a biographical approach. In developing an account of the various aspects of Iqbal’s thought, the trajectory of his intellectual influences and commitments, Anjum’s book invites its readers to acquaint themselves with the monumental and multi-directional nature of Iqbal’s life, work and achievement. While this book does not include any material that was not previously available, or offer startling new perspectives on its subject, its strength lies in its refreshing tonality. Anjum presents his subject in accessible terms to a new and popular readership. Could one, before this, have imagined the Allama on vacation? Here is Anjum, describing the great man as a student on an Alpine picnic in the summer of 1907: ‘[His friends] reach the summit of the hill while singing operatic songs. Iqbal joins them in the singing but he is obviously off key, and out of tune.’ And again, conveying his subject’s ability to entertain plural, seemingly opposed tendencies at the same time (Anjum employs, throughout, a historical present as his preferred tense): ‘Even though Iqbal believes in a purist form of Islam, there is still room in his spiritual life for mystics and mysticism. In 1923, the same year that he is knighted, he visits the dargah of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi Mujaddid Alf-e Sani. There he prays for a son and also makes a tryst that if his prayer is answered, he will revisit the mausoleum with his son.’ It would be difficult, after reading this book, for even casual observers to bury Iqbal under half-truths.

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