Book Excerpt: Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician by Zafar Anjum



I’m of a pure Somnathi extraction

My ancestors were idol worshippers


In a wide green field, a crowd chases a pretty, white pigeon. The pigeon circles above the heads of the chasing party. The crowd, in a mad dash, tries to capture the bird in flight. Now the bird flies high and now it descends down, teasing those who are sprinting after it. At last the pigeon swoops down into the lap of a tall and handsome 40-year-old man who accepts it as a gift from the heavens.

Shaikh Noor Muhammad, the man dreaming this dream, wakes up with a smile in a house near Do Darwaza Mosque in Kashmiri Mohalla in Sialkot, a border town of the Punjab located by the Chenab river, at the foot of the Kashmir hills.

It is a cold night in early November and he sees his wife Imam Bibi sleeping peacefully next to him under a warm blanket. She is expecting again and he interprets the dream to be a divine indication that he will be blessed with a son whose good fortune it will be to serve mankind.

The tall Kashmiri Noor Muhammad, red of skin and with a penetrating gaze, is known for his simplicity in the community. He has a peaceful and aff ectionate nature. When he was growing up, he could not study at the maktab, the local school; but this did not stop him from teaching himself the alphabets. Because of his own efforts he becomes literate and is able to read books in Urdu and Persian.

He is the eleventh child of his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, the only child to have survived from his father’s second wife. After him, another son, Ghulam Muhammad, was born. He grew up to be an overseer in the department of canals in the British government.

Noor Muhammad and his family have always lived together with his younger brother Ghulam Muhammad’s family. The house near the Do Darwaza Mosque was bought in 1861 by their father Muhammad Rafiq and they have been living in this house ever since. It has been expanded over time to accommodate new members of the family.

Noor Muhammad loves to spend a good deal of his time among sufis and Islamic scholars. By virtue of keeping such pious company, he has come to have a good grasp of Shariat and Tariqat. His knowledge of tasawwuf (mysticism) is so deep that his friends call him Anpadh Falsafi (Untutored Philosopher). He regularly studies and recites the Quran which he considers to be the ultimate source of all bliss, worldly and for the hereafter.

By profession, he is a tailor and embroiderer. In his early career, he helped his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, in his dhassa and loi (blankets and shawls) business but when an official rents him a Singer sewing machine, a mechanical marvel of its time, he turns to tailoring. His wife, Imam Bibi, disapproves of the sewing machine when she learns that the machine was bought with illicit money. Noor Muhammad returns the machine to the official and he strikes out on his own as a cap embroiderer, and makes Muslim prayer caps. The enterprise becomes a success and soon he employs other workmen in his workshop. By virtue of his popular merchandise, people start addressing him as Shaikh Natthu Topianwale. In the later stages of his life, he slowly loses interest in his business and takes a deeper interest in mysticism. He ignores his business and, with time, his business suffers decline.

Noor Muhammad’s is a family of migrants in Sialkot. What he has heard is that his ancestors came from an old Kashmiri Brahmin family. One of his early ancestors, a Kashmiri Pandit, converted to Islam in the fifteenth century. His gotra was Sapru.

Even Noor Muhammad doesn’t know how or why his family moved from Kashmir to Sialkot. But he has heard stories of migration from his father and from his grandfather. These are not very appealing stories. These are stories of poverty, desperation, and struggle.

His elders tell him that in the five thousand year old history of Kashmir, twenty-one Hindu families ruled over that famed piece of paradise on earth. Droughts, floods, palace intrigues, and civil war weakened this Hindu dominance in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Finally, Zulqadir Khan Tatari’s invasion finished the last family of Hindu rulers.

When Muslims became predominant in Kashmir in the thirteenth century, the Brahmins of the province did not pay much attention to the knowledge or languages of Muslims. The bias reflected a kind of social obscurantism among the Brahmins who considered Persian the language of the malechch and prevented their community members from studying Persian or working for the government of the Muslim rulers. Those who defied this social practice were disowned by the community.

However, Kashmir’s Sultan Zainul Abidin Budshah (who ruled between 1420 and 1470 AD) encouraged Hindus to study Persian and allocated many scholarships and allowances for Hindu students. The first group of Brahmins in Kashmir who courted the Persian language and literature (which had become the court language in 1298) and earned the trust of their Muslim rulers were called Saprus. This word denotes a person who starts reading early. For Kashmiri Brahmins, the word Sapru became a derogatory expression, used to describe fellow Brahmins who had left behind their customs to embrace Islamic languages and knowledge. Slowly, as the category Sapru crystallized into a gotra in the Kashmiri Hindu community.

One of Noor Muhammad’s early ancestors, known as Hazrat Baba Lol Hajj or Loli Haji (Lover of Hajj) was one of Kashmir’s famous sages. According to Kashmiri folklore, he performed Hajj several times on foot, and came to be known as Lol Hajj. He belonged to a village called Chaku Bargana Aadoon. For twelve years, he stayed outside Kashmir and trekked from country to country. It is said that he had left Kashmir because he did not enjoy cordial relations with his wife. According to one legend, he was cross-eyed and bow-legged and hence a target of his wife’s derision. Heartbroken, Baba not only left his family but also gave up on the world and turned into a mystic.

When he came back to Kashmir, he received a divine signal to become a disciple of a sufi pir named Hazrat Baba Nasruddin. Nasruddin, in turn, was a disciple of Hazrat Nooruddin Wali. Baba Lol Hajj spent the rest of his life in the company of Baba Nasruddin and he is buried close to his master’s grave.

Noor Muhammad does not know exactly when his ancestors migrated from Kashmir to Sialkot. This migration most probably happened towards the end of the eighteenth century or in the early nineteenth century. This was the time when Afghan power was declining in Kashmir and Sikh power was on the rise. The Sikhs, having established rule in Punjab, drove out the Afghans from Kashmir with the help of Raja Gulab Singh. Between 1837–39, Gulab Singh extended his rule by seizing Ladakh and Baltistan from Tibet. Seven years later, the Sikhs lost Kashmir to the British in the Anglo–Sikh wars. Raja Gulab Singh offered the British 750,000 pounds (Rs 75 lakhs) to continue ruling Kashmir. In 1846, the two parties signed the Treaty of Amritsar—Kashmir was made an independent state under Raja Gulab Singh.

Sikh rule over Kashmir (1819–1864) inaugurated a tragic phase for Kashmiris. After the Treat of Amritsar, the Dogra rulers who now possessed the state ‘set upon a policy of unlimited cruelty on the helpless Kashmiris, with the result that many Kashmiri families migrated from Kashmir to the Punjab.’ The Sikhs had treated Kashmiris like animals. For instance, if a Sikh murdered a Kashmiri, he was legally bound to pay a fine to the state which ranged between sixteen and twenty rupees. Four rupees were paid to the family of the victim if he was a Hindu and two rupees were paid to the victim’s family if he was a Muslim. The local people were burdened by heavy taxes. To escape their dire situation, many migrated to Punjab in a state of penury. In those days, the punishment for cow slaughter was hanging by death. If a Muslim was found to have slaughtered a cow, he would be dragged through the streets of Srinagar and then be hanged or burnt unto death. In 1831, during the reign of Kanwar Sher Singh, a deadly drought reduced the local population from eight to two lakhs.

Fleeing such painful circumstances, one of the migrants was either Noor Muhammad’s great-grandfather, Shaikh Jamaluddin, or his four sons, namely, Shaikh Abdurrehman, Shaikh Muhammad Ramzan, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, and Shaikh Abdullah. It is also possible that Shaikh Jamaluddin, along with his four sons, migrated to the Punjab through Jammu. Of the four brothers, three lived in Sialkot and Shaikh Abdullah lived in Mauza Jaith Eke.

Noor Muhammad’s wife Imam Bi was known as Beji amongst the relatives. She comes from a Kashmiri family from a village in Sialkot district. She is illiterate but god-fearing and devout, and is very particular about performing namaz. She takes care of the household affairs and folks in the neighbourhood respect her because of her helpful nature. Even though she is a housewife, she is a bit of a social worker. She can’t help but settle neighbourhood disputes and when her friends ask her to keep their cash or ornaments in her safe custody she takes on this responsibility gladly. She also secretly helps the poor in her locality. It is no surprise that their son Shaikh Ata Muhammad teases her by saying that she practices gupt daan, secret donations.

Now that Imam Bi is pregnant again, Noor Muhammad wonders if it will be a boy or a girl this time. His dream of a pigeon falling into his lap gives him the intuition that this child will bring him good luck and will make a name for himself and his family.

Noor Muhammad closes his eyes and prays to Allah for his child’s safe delivery and survival. Imam Bi and he had lost a child during childbirth earlier.

He recalls an incident that marks a painful phase in his family’s history. It so happened that his brother had only girls, no boys. But like most mothers, his brother’s wife desired boys too. Once, both Imam Bi and Ghulam’s wife got pregnant nearly at the same time. Imam Bi gave birth to a boy whereas Ghulam’s wife had a baby girl. Imam Bi knew that her sister-in-law had desired a male child. To cheer up her sister-in-law, she suggested an exchange of babies. The swapping of babies took place but unfortunately the male child died within a few months. Imam Bi bowed her head before Allah’s will and returned the girl child to her sister-in-law.

On Friday, November 9, 1877, when the dawn is yet to break, Noor Muhammad and Imam Bi are blessed with a son in one of the dark and narrow rooms of their house. Remembering his dream, Noor Muhammad names him Muhammad Iqbal, indicating luck and fortune.

Noor Muhammad beams with happiness when he holds Iqbal in his hands for the first time. The cute little thing is fair, bonny, and ruddy like a cherry. With the tender love of a father, he kisses the boy on his forehead, folds him in a rug carefully, and returns him to his smiling mother. It is time for the fajr prayers and he needs this moment to thank Allah for this beautiful gift.