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The contradictory Hindustani

Iqbal's contradictions and complications make him very human and interesting. Still, few in India have bothered to explore his life, work and philosophy, perhaps because he believed in the "two-nation theory"

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Zafar Anjum
Random House India

274 pages; Rs 499

More than 75 years after his death, Allama Mohammad Iqbal remains an enigma. While he wrote India's national song (Sare jahan se achchha Hindustan hamara …), he was also the originator of the idea of Pakistan, born out of the premise that Muslims and Hindus were two separate nations not destined to live together. He was a poet of the masses and had a keen sense of the subcontinent's history, which was reflected in his liberal use of Sanskrit words and Hindu symbols, yet he was a firm believer in Islamic puritanism. He loved Europe but felt the continent's lack of religiosity would one day cause its doom. He is said to have inspired the Iranian revolution, which happened more than 40 years after his death, and won fulsome praise for his poetry from liberals such as Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu. He was against colonial rule, yet he accepted a knighthood when it was offered to him (at Iqbal's insistence, it was granted to his teacher as well).

These contradictions and complications make Iqbal very human and interesting. Still, few in India have bothered to explore his life, work and philosophy, perhaps because he believed in the "two-nation theory" that India rejected at the time of Independence - at least on paper. I have heard many people recite well-known couplets without the slightest idea that these were composed by Iqbal. After Ghalib, he remains the tallest Urdu poet to have walked the earth. Yet he remains largely unknown. This is the gap that Zafar Anjum's book fills. It does not try to iron out the complexities in Iqbal's thoughts, nor does it try to justify what he said or did - it just lays bare all the facts in front of you. This is a fantastic effort that needs to be lauded.

Iqbal was born in Sialkot on November 9, 1877, to a family of Kashmiri Muslims. The family traced its lineage to the Sapru community of Kashmir. Iqbal would never run shy of accepting this Hindu connection: "I am of pure Somnathi extraction/My ancestors were idol worshippers."

Strands of poetic genius and mysticism were visible in Iqbal right from childhood. By the time he was in his twenties, Iqbal began to gather fame with his poetry. "Sare jahan se achchha ... " happened after the British rulers partitioned Bengal on religious lines in 1904. Iqbal followed it up with another poem called Naya Shivala (The New Temple), which asked the Muslims to unite with the Hindus. Each particle of the dust of my country, he said in this poem, is God to me. Another poem, "Aftaab", was a translation of the sacred Gayatri Mantra of the Hindus.

However, in a few short years, Iqbal became an avowed Islamist. What contributed to it? The dismemberment of the Turkish Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate by the Allied Forces after the First World War anguished Iqbal, like it did many other Muslims on the subcontinent who felt spiritually connected to it. Muslims had supported the Allied Forces in the belief that Turkey would not be penalised for siding with the Germans. This added to their sense of betrayal. What made their isolation complete was that Persia became a playground for Russian ambitions and Tripoli was overrun by Italy. From there, Iqbal's journey to the "two-nation theory" was logical and short.

Like many others, Iqbal feared that Muslims would not get fair treatment in independent India because they were numerically inferior. These men were initially happy to demand separate electorates for Muslims. Then Iqbal came up with the idea of Pakistan: a contiguous territory carved out of the Muslim-majority states of Punjab, Sindh and the Northwest Frontier Province. East Bengal would get added to it many years later.

Iqbal died in 1938. It was left for Mohammad Ali Jinnah to give shape to his dreams. Yet there were serious dissimilarities between the two. Unlike Iqbal, Jinnah was a reluctant Islamist. His vision for Pakistan was totally secular where all communities would have equal rights. In his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, Jinnah did not mention Islam even once. He had even got a Hindu to write the country's national anthem. Of course, much of Jinnah's secularism got undone in subsequent years. For Iqbal, Islam was the guiding beacon in private life as much as in public affairs. In his presidential address to the 1930 session of the All India Muslim League at Allahabad, he said: "At critical moments in their history, it is Islam that has saved the Muslims and not vice versa." A secular Pakistan would have been unacceptable to him.

This is perhaps why he felt Europe was on the verge of destruction. The confinement of religion to the personal sphere bewildered Iqbal. This, he was convinced, robbed a community of its social conscience. Morality, for Iqbal, could not exist in a vacuum. Religion created a brotherhood amongst its followers. He also found Western materialism offensive. The views are debatable. But at least we now know what the poet-philosopher-politician said - a step forward in making sense of the Indian subcontinent's complicated past.

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First Published: Thu, October 30 2014. 21:25 IST