Book Review: The Legacy of Allama Iqbal

iqbal frontKhudi ko kar bulund itna ke har taqdeer se pahle

Khuda bande se khud poochhe teri raza kya hai

(Exalt thyself so high that before issuing the decree of fate

God may ask what your desire is.)

Years ago, I heard these lines from my father who also explained me the concept ofKhudi or selfhood, and it was my first introduction to Allama Iqbal. For many years this couplet adorned the wall next to my study table. Whenever I felt low I would recite it loudly. It made me feel better. Later, I loved his poems which were coloured in patriotism and gave the message of communal harmony and peace. But, at the same time, I also wondered how come a poet who had written Sare Jahan Se Achha Hindustan Hamarabecame ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan’. The book under review, to some extent, answers my questions about this great poet’s transformation from an Indian nationalist poet to a votary of pan-Islamism.

As a surprise to many of us, Zafar Anjum, the author, is not a scholar of Urdu literature and neither is he connected to the legacy of Iqbal directly or indirectly except that his hostel in his alma mater, Aligarh Muslim University, was called Allma Iqbal Hall. Hailing from a small town in Bihar, India, he, in fact, is a Singapore based journalist who edits technology publications (again no connection with Urdu literature).  Without taking resort to sophistry of a scholar, in this important book, Zafar, relate to us the important turning points in Iqbal’s life which shaped his political views and philosophical thoughts. He doesn’t use heavy texts or complex literary or philosophical theories to explain things. His prose is highly readable and free flow, making this book accessible to the general readers. At the beginning of this meticulously researched book Zafar declares why he chose to write about the poet and the chapter is as interesting as rest of the book.

The beautifully written introduction of  Iqbal: The Life of a Poet Philosopher and Politician begins with an explanation of the contradictions in Iqbal’s personality. It was the same Iqbal who was  called ‘Poet Laureate of Asia’, wrote anthem about the undivided India, called Lord Rama Imam-e-Hind , drew inspiration from legendry Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari and was proud of his Kashmiri Hindu ancestry. Many of his poems also have elements of communism weaved into them. Surprisingly, for many, the same Iqbal is considered to be a person who initially mooted the idea of Pakistan.  Even Iranian thinks that Iqbal’s philosophy was also an inspiration for those who brought Islamic revolution in Iran. Owing to these contrasting views about Iqbal, in 21st century, he is celebrated, at the one hand, as ‘the Poet of the East’ by the Pakistani rightwing formations and on the other hand he is totally ignored in India.

Divided into four parts, the first part of the book describes Iqbal’s formative years in his home town. With a modest family background and little means, Iqbal, with his diligence and hardwork, became a famous name in the poetry circle of his city. Iqbal also excelled in his academics and later went to England to pursue higher studies.

The part two of the book is titled Europe and chronicles Iqbal’s life in England from 1905 to 1908. True to his character, in England he impressed his teachers as well as his fellow students with the philosophical depths of his thoughts. Among his admirers was an Istanbul born girl, Atiya Begum, with whom Iqbal shared a special bond of friendship, They both loved poetry and philosophy. Zafar Anjum has intelligently used Atiya’s works about Iqbal along with other sources to recreate Iqbal’s life in England and Germany during his student days. The chapters on Iqbal-Atiya friendship comes out really well and provokes you to read more about their encounters with each other.

The next part delineates the poet’s life in Lahore as a lawyer and details his struggles in his personal life. We get to know about his relationship with his three wives. The story of his Knighthood by the British government also makes a fascinating read.

The final part, the fourth one, is about Iqbal’s political life and changes in his views about the idea of the nation state. ‘By 1900, the concept of a Muslim nation was visibly embedded in his poetry.’ This is how he foresaw a change in the fortunes of Muslims in 1907:

The silence of Mecca has proclaimed to the expectant ears at last

That the compact made with the desert-dwellers will made good again

The lion that had emerged out of the wilderness to upset the Empire of Rome

The angels have told me – that lion will awaken once more

It was his trip to Spain that finally made Allama Iqbal a staunch supporter of Islamic revivalism. In Madrid, he visited the legendry mosque of Cordoba and offered Namaz. The mosque-converted church reminded him the past glory of Islamic Spain. That was an emotional as well as spiritual moment for him which later moulded his religious and political beliefs. The concept of a Muslim state he initially thought about, finally came into being in 1947 (almost a decade after his death) after a bloody conflict which is still unmatched in the history of sub-continental India. But, many believe that Pakistan which exists now was not something Iqbal had really wished for. He never asked for a separate country but a state with more autonomy within undivided India.

In the poet’s vision, the Muslim state was only for the Muslims of Punajb, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkha and the entire population of Indian Muslims had never been a part of his agenda.

There are numerous books available on Iqbal. Still, Zafar has managed to impress his readers by looking at the poet’s life from a different and refreshing angle. The quality of prose is exceptionally good with lower fog index. The neutrality of the author’s voice is also an important feature of this book except at places where an admirer in Zafar dominates over the author.

I would like to end this review with a paragraph from the introduction of the book:People may argue about Iqbal’s status as an Indian or Pakistani , as a Muslim poet or communist, or even humanist. But in his own lifetime, Iqbal had outgrown all categories. He is a shared heritage for the whole world and we ought to celebrate him as such.

Abdullah Khan is a Delhi based writer and literary critic. 


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