January 5, 2015 By Shajahan Madampat

Life of ‘the Poet Laureate of Asia’


Allama Mohamed Iqbal, one of Indian subcontinent’s most versatile and controversial figures in the 20th century, defies easy categorizations. The myriad ironies and contradictions that defined colonial India converged in the life and works of Iqbal to such an extent that the exact opposite of anything ever said of him could equally be true! A celebrated poet in Urdu and Persian, a philosopher steeped in the knowledge systems of both the East and the West, a polyglot with absolute mastery over several languages including German and Arabic, a political thinker and activist who fathered the idea of Pakistan, and an Islamic scholar well-versed in both the Perso-Islamic and Arab-Islamic theology, history and culture -Iqbal was undoubtedly a magnificent presence in the sub-continent’s turbulent history of the period.

In ‘Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician’, Zafar Anjum provides a lucid narration of the maverick’s multi-layered life, without trying to either explain away the many contradictions in his subject’s life and works or defend the serious intellectual and political flaws in his thought which proved costly for the subcontinent’s future. Given the biographer’s barely concealed admiration for his subject, any attempt at vindication or explanation would have turned this simple, well-written and chronologically organized biography into hagiography. The appendix at the end of the book, which includes the poet’s long and historic speech demanding the creation of a separate nation for the Muslims of the North West provinces, provides a fitting context in which to locate the life of Iqbal. One wishes a chapter on the afterlife of Iqbal were also included in the book, tracing the relics and ruins of the poet-philosopher’s rich legacy in the gargantuan mess that Pakistan today is and the majoritarian hell that India is fast metamorphosing into.

One fascinating fact that emerges from the biography is the continuum of concerns, vision and positions that permeates Iqbal’s diverse spheres of involvement – his politics, his philosophy and his poetry. His main concern was the rise of the West and the decline of the East in the modern era. He posited that Islam had the innate capacity to play the role of an emancipatory ideology in the struggle for self-determination and liberation from colonial yoke. He predicted that rampant materialism would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of Western Civilization. In terms of his central concern and the remedy he prescribed, he was comparable to most social reformers and thinkers of colonized countries in the period. The uniqueness of Iqbal was in the way he marshalled the spiritual, the political, the intellectual and the creative into the core of his life and works. This he did in an idiom and a style that were truly universal in spite of the unapologetically confessional nature of his worldview.

Another interesting fact that the biography reveals is that in private correspondence we see an Iqbal who was totally at odds with the publicly cultivated image of the religiously conformist and devout leader and spokesperson of a spiritual community. In a letter to his bosom friend Atiya, we see the poet and philosopher prevail for a brief moment of rebellious reflection over Iqbal the public figure. After lamenting the miseries of his life and asserting his right to happiness, he says: “A good God created all this, you say. Maybe. The facts of this life, however, tend to a different conclusion. It is intellectually easier to believe in an eternal omnipotent Devil rather than a good God…..” This, coupled with his irrepressible nostalgia for Europe whose civilization he thought was irredeemably obnoxious, exposes the inner struggles the poet had to hide in order to perpetuate his image as a confessional bard and religious reviver.

Iqbal may still be a major presence in Pakistan, but in India he is almost forgotten. Because of his association with the creation of Pakistan, one can even notice a palpable sense of unease bordering on hostility, especially in official circles. Islamic religious intelligentsia never had much of an interest in him because his lofty intellectual heights were beyond them. The man who was described as the ‘last great thinker in Islam’ could not have in any case found common cause with the minimalist worldview of the clergy.In such a depressing scenario, Zafar Anjum’s biography of Iqbal is a timely and valuable contribution to the ever-dwindling domain of Iqbal studies in India.

Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator based in Abu Dhabi

Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician by Zafar Anjum, Random House India, 2014.

A slightly different version of it has appeared in  Business Times of Singapore.

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