ESSAY – A Place amongst the Stars:
Remembering Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal and the Meaning behind his Global Message
by Katherine Schimmel Baki
Sir Mohammad Iqbal
علامہ محمد اقبال
O zephir, O messenger of those who are far away
Bring our tears to his pure dust. [i]
“From the spark I seek a star, from the star a sun.”[ii]
“As for the stars…they are the signs of God”[iii]
Note: This article is the first in a series on Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the great Indian philosopher, poet, statesman and visionary. It is part of a new program being introduced by Wild River Review, called: Peace Routes, whose mission it will be to foster greater understanding between East and West through hands-on educational programs and workshops for our nation’s youth, while at the same time acquainting the Western reader with the writings and works of outstanding poets, philosophers, scholars and thinkers who are engaged in forging bridges of cultural understanding. The series is a companion to the Mystic Pen series, which focuses on the late life and scholarly work of Dr. Annemarie Schimmel, a world renowned scholar of Indo-Muslim culture, and Sufism. Any inaccuracies or shortcomings within the content of this series are regrettable, and are of course my own. Diacritical marks have been greatly minimized in the online format, and unless otherwise noted, all Qur’anic references in English will be from Yusuf Ali’s translation which is the commonly accepted standard for an English translation of the Holy Quran. All references to Hadith (sayings ascribed to the Prophet) will be drawn from those of al-Bukhari unless otherwise noted.
“The East belongs to God
The West belongs to God
north and southern lands
rest in the peace of His hands,
He, the sole just ruler,
intends the right things for every one,
Among His hundred names
– be this one glorified and praised
It seems only fitting to begin Peace Routes with Allam Muhammad Iqbal whose ideas helped shape an entire generation of Muslims, and who drew much inspiration from the writings of the great 13th century Persian Sufi poet Maulanna Jallaluddin Rumi (1207–1273) whom he called his spiritual guide[v]. But, Iqbal also drew just as easily from the West’s Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), for whom he paid tribute in his Payam-i-Mashriq (1923)… an illuminating response to Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, inspired by the lyricism of the Persian poet Hafiz Shirazi[vi].
Allama Muhammad Iqbal was a man from whom ideas flowed as though pristine waterfalls of knowledge, spreading a philosophy and a truth that was hard to match anywhere else in the world. Iqbal’s tenacity of thought and spirit, known in Arabic as “Ruh,” left a very large void upon his death. One might even say in fact, that the Islamic world has yet to recover from the loss of its supreme poet-philosopher and is in a sense, still waiting for his return.
Iqbal’s mausoleum located in the Hazuri Bagh lawn in Lahore, Pakistan, just between the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque, a labor of love, was funded entirely by his friends and admirers. It took thirteen years to construct his final resting place which is inlaid with the finest Lapis Lazuli the world has to offer, a generous gift from Afghanistan[vii]. Gardens whose heady fragrance I can only imagine, surround his grave which is sprinkled with the dirt from Rumi’s grave[viii].
Six couplets of a ghazal from his Persian Psalms, the Zabur-i-Ajam, lay etched on his red sandstone tomb, paying homage to a man who suffered from near blindness at the end of his life and a long, debilitating illness. Yet, he died with a smile on his lips[ix] for he knew he was returning home at long last.
But you may ask, who was Mohammad Iqbal, this Indian Muslim poet-philosopher who could change the world through his pen? A man who could easily recite Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Bergson, expounding on their ideas, while challenging them to their core, thus putting him among an elite few.
For Allama Iqbal was a man who has been compared in importance to Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) in the West and to Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058- 1111) in the East[x]. He is known widely throughout the Islamic world as ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan,’ the National Poet of Pakistan, and one of the greatest poet-philosopher’s of his century. But perhaps the words of the German scholar Stephan Popp ring most true here, when he referred to him as ‘a spiritual bridge between the East and West.”[xi]
For he was, without a doubt, one of the 20th Century’s greatest bridge builders, as he (not unlike Goethe) spent his life trying to close the gap on an otherwise very wide chasm of Western medieval thought.
As we will learn here, Allama Iqbal had the most ideas for his beloved East and for Islam… and it was certainly not an exaggeration when he once said: ‘Gahrah hay maray bahray khayalat ka pani,’ or ‘deep are the waters of my thought.’[xii]
And so I begin this journey which is part memoir, part biography, by paying a small tribute to this inspiring individual with the hope that more western readers will become acquainted with his profound spiritual message and perhaps internalize some of its gem-like truths, which I truly believe can lead us all to a far better place.
Past moon and sun I journeyed,
To where God sits enskied;
In all Your world no atom
Is kin of mine, I cried:
Heartless that world, this handful
Of dust all heart, all pain;
Enchantment fills Your garden,
But I sing there in vain.
–There gathered on His lips a smile;
He smiled and did not speak. [xiii]
The stars for me never seemed to be of this world even though it is only from within this world that I can view them. As a small child their brilliant white light like that of the beautiful Soheil,[xiv] endlessly fascinated my curious mind as they shone “by the sky with its numerous paths,”[xv] a sky that led to a heaven I yearned to know and a universe I tried to understand. They kept me company on those long, hot summer nights that I could not or would not fall asleep simply because I was mesmerized by their beauty. I dared not close my eyes for fear they would disappear. For I knew that as soon as ‘the last thread of darkness met with the first thread of light[xvi] they would be visible to my eyes no more. And recognized at an early age that the stars were born of another time and space…a place that I could only be left to wonder about but never, ever truly know.
The brilliant tiny dots of light that lay scattered across the azurite skyline like a vast glistening, shimmering net of jewels, seemed to me to be far more valuable than the most prized diamonds the world had to offer.
Like a unique race thus She flies in space,
With eyes ever set on her centre’s base.
The moon and stars in her lasso’s reach,
Lies in her hand the fate of age each.[xvii]
What, I wondered, existed beyond our realm of consciousness, and where was our place as human beings amongst the pure ‘Light upon Light’[xviii] that the stars cast upon this earth? To me, the stars were the most tangible evidence of a merciful God, the“Lord of Sirius (the Mighty Star)[xix] who so loved us that He sprinkled His light into an otherwise pitch black world. They were my faithful lcompanions and guides, the prayer beads of a universe my small fingers yearned to grasp… it was their light in the end, that I could not sleep without.
The Chehab River, Pakistan
Allama Muhammad Iqbal was born in 1877 in Sialkot, India, an ancient city located in the North-Eastern region of what once was British controlled Punjab, now a province of modern day Pakistan. The earliest Greek literature on the city dates back before 327BC, where it mentions that Sialkot, formerly known as “Sagala” was a thriving part of the silk trade route (established by Alexander the Great) and formed the eastern most point along the route of what was once a highly prosperous region in the Aechemenid empire. As such, Sialkot has a long, rich cultural history where legends abound and many battles have been fought, passing through the hands of numerous kings, queens, princes and Hindi emperors such as Raj Sul, the emperor of Madradesa, uncle to the Pandavas’ whose heroic deeds are recorded in the Mahabharata. [xx]
Once a home to Zoroastrian temples, Buddhist stupas and Hindi temples, Sialkot finally passed into Muslim hands in 1185 through the defeat of the Punjab by the Sultan Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Ghauri.
Geographically, the city lies at the foot of Kashmir, where the snow-capped peaks of the Pir Panjal mountain range can be seen towering majestically overhead and the confluence of two beautiful rivers – the Chandra and Bhaga – unite to form the mighty Chehab River which flows purposefully, over many a rock nearby. But the Aik Nala, a smaller, seasonal stream also flows nearby and this stream flows through the heart of Sialkot itself and is recorded as doing so at least as far back as the Upanishads.
In Urdu, the word ‘Chan’ or ‘moon’ when coupled with ‘Aab’ (river) means ‘moon-river’ and it is easy to imagine how Iqbal would have drawn local inspiration from the beautiful rivers, the intoxicating smell of the jasmine and juniper that grows so wildly where it may, the snow cloaked mountains and pristine views, the cry of a solitary eagle soaring high above…imagery which appears regularly in his poetry. In one of his earlier poems, called The Himalayas, the poet conjures up not only the lyrical beauty of his home but also the poignant sense of timelessness and awe that the he must have felt just by living there:
O Himalaya, tell of that time when man first lay
in your lap. O let me imagine that dawn
unstained by red. Run backward, cycle of
day and night, ancient eras a moment in your lifetime.
You are a poem whose first verse is the sky.
Your bright turbans dazzle the Pleiades.
Lightning across your peaks sends black tents wandering
above the valley. The wind polishes the trembling mirrors
at your hem. Streams cascade down your forehead,
your cheeks quiver. As morning air cradles intoxicated
roses and the leaves are silenced by the rose-gatherer’s wrists,
so speech is silenced in the roar of falling water.[xxi]
The eldest of five children, Allama Mohammad Iqbal came from an upper class Kashmiri family. His father Sheikh Nur Muhammad, was a pious Muslim who gave Iqbal (and we can assume his siblings), a solid grounding in his faith. Sheikh Nur Muhammad was a well-known prosperous Taylor in town who hailed from a long-line of devout Muslims. He was married to Immam Bibi – a very pious Muslim – whose death in 1914 preceded his own by quite a few years. Both parents embraced a pantheist Islamic mysticism, which it is said, Iqbal initially adopted but later rejected[xxii]. Iqbal’s early education (other than that provided by his father) came through his teacher Sayyed Mir Hassan, an accomplished scholar in the Islamic literary tradition who also spoke several languages, had a strong influence on the young Allama Iqbal’s mind. There is a small story concerning Allama Iqbal and Sayyed Mir Hassan which gives us insight into the nature of Allama Iqbal’s character and the very close student teacher relationship that they shared. It is said that (years later) when the English governor of the Punjab proposed to the British Crown that Allama Iqbal be knighted, he felt it only right that Mir Hasan should receive a title too. But this kind declaration of Allama Iqbal’s was met with a comment from the governor who, somewhat confused by his proclamation exclaimed, why should this be so as Sayyid Mir Hasan has not authored any books. To which Allama Iqbal quickly responded ‘that he, Iqbal, was the book that Mir Hasan had produced.’ And thus, Mir Hasan was given the title of ‘Shams al-‘Ulama’ or ‘Sun of Scholars.’[xxiii] Which I think is a perfect name for him.
Imam Bibi, mother of Allama Muhammad Iqbal
The ultimate goal of all teachers is to impart enough knowledge into their students that they may release them into the world, not as clones of their own ideologies but as further developed (and hopefully better) extensions of the students original selves. And so, the time eventually came for Iqbal to continue his studies elsewhere, which he did, first at the Government College of Lahore graduating Cum Laude and winning a Gold Medal for his exam in Philosophy. And later, as a Master’s degree student, where he had the chance to became good friends with Sir Thomas Arnold, a noted specialist in Islamic studies and one who could introduce the young Allama Iqbal to Western thought. After a brief teaching stint at the Oriental University in, Sir Thomas Arnold convinced Allama Iqbal to further his studies in Europe, which culminated in his PhD. Although he was formally trained in Law, having studied in Cambridge, Munich and Heidelberg, and has written scholarly works in this area, he is best known for his seminal works in the fields of religion, politics, poetry and philosophy and for his instrumental role in the conception of an independent Islamic India, an idea which eventually took hold and resulted in the creation of modern day Pakistan on August 14th, 1947. In his presidential address before the all-Muslim League (for which he served as Secretary) in 1930, Allama Iqbal’s ideas in this realm are spelled out quite clearly:
I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India.”[xxiv]
One has to assume that although he would have been pleased with the creation of Pakistan, he would have been deeply troubled by the bloodshed…the rampant poverty and resulting factionalism…all issues he fought hard to address. How could he have known that his poems would still be read over and over again by both young and old, fill countless volumes of books in libraries around the world, provide much conversation amongst both rich and poor, but that his call would ultimately go unanswered? Or as the famous late Sufi scholar Reynold A. Nicholson, (a former teacher of Iqbal’s) once put it:” He is a man of his age and a man in advance of his age; he is also a man in disagreement of his age.”[xxv] For he dreamed of an entirely different world for all Muslims…a type of Iqbalian state in which poverty was minimized, the self was actualized through spiritual development and action, and a lethargic nation was awakened to what he believed to be the true essence of Islam and the central teachings of its Prophet, Muhammad. After spending much time in Europe Iqbal was keenly aware of the swift modernization that the West was undergoing and sought to inspire a renaissance movement in the East by taking the most positive aspects of Western development without sacrificing the development of the individual or core values of Islam. In his mind this would require both a major intellectual and spiritual shift in the East. Many of his literary works focus on this theme and the idea of humankind being awakened to a greater calling.
Near Sialkot, Pakistan
…the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west…[xxvi]
As with the stars themselves, Allama Muhammad Iqbal never seemed to me to be of this world. But nowhere was this more evident than when in the company of my late aunt. There is no doubt that Annemarie Schimmel had a deep, long-lasting love and innate understanding of him, spent what was a very large portion of her life pouring over his writings and composing what would become some of the most significant works on his life, poetry and philosophy. As with everything she did, she immersed herself fully in her subject; meeting his friends in India and Pakistan on a regular basis, enjoying many lively discussions over what must have been wonderful feasts consisting of both intellectual morsels and food. And for those questions that she had which no one else could answer, she had his son, Javad Iqbal to fill in any gaps in knowledge that she might have had. The wonderful memories I have of her discussing his ideas or reciting a line from a poem of his over a meal and the tangible reverence that always seemed to accompany such moments, has stayed with me still. So although I lived under the gaze of a western sun who burned not for the beloved Shems[xxvii] and a moon who did not answer to its eastern name of al-Qamar[xxviii], I knew at a very early age who Muhammad Iqbal was. I also knew that his poetry, depth of philosophy and statesmanship, were significant enough to have not only inspired countless generations of Muslims, scholars and thinkers from around the world, but also served to provide a unique window into one man’s driving spiritual quest for perfection, for answers to some of life’s greatest questions concerning the existence of the self, spirit, God, and to offer practical solutions for a more cohesive and spiritually prosperous Islamic world.
GREEN be the holy grave of Shafi’i,!
Whose vine hath cheered a whole world ?
His thought plucked a star from heavens:
He named time “a cutting sword.” 111
How shall I say what is the secret of this sword?
In its flashing edge there is life.[xxix]
I A Akhund, Javed Iqbal, Annemarie Schimmel, Hafeez malik and Barbara Metcalf
In 1953 Annemarie commemorated the inspirational life of Allama Muhammad Iqbal by publishing: Muhammad Iqbal, The Ascension of the Poet. An impressive piece of scholarship which was followed up a few years later by her masterpiece, “Gabriels Wing,” a book which was generally regarded as the best work on the study of Iqbal for the period 1947-1981 and to my knowledge, a book that has yet to be replaced by anything more thoroughly beautiful or rigorously illuminating. It should be referred to by anyone wanting to engage in what will certainly be an exhaustive study of the man. For no study of Allama Iqbal can be undertaken without a complete understanding of the historical context from which he sprung, as the political milieu – past and present – most certainly shaped his philosophy in a deep and intimate way. But to think that Iqbal was motivated mainly by the political landscape would be missing a large part of who he was. “Gabriel’s Wing” not only provides the rich tapestry from which the threads of his life was woven, but also sheds insights into his character that allow the reader a rare window into the many facets of his soul.
Annemarie Schimmel in front of the Boulevard in her name. Lahore, Pakistan.
While my own introduction to Muhammad Iqbal came to me through his poetry as recited by Annemarie and which seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of Islamic ideals, it wasn’t until many years later, while a student of Sufism, that I began to understand some of the deeper meanings behind his words. Here I will briefly outline some of his major works, giving the Western reader a brief flavor of his style, main currents of philosophical thought and extraordinary breadth of knowledge.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal employed a very wide number of poetical devices, not to mention having a solid command of Arabic, Persian and Urdu, all languages with highly complex, rich sentence structures. The use of imagery -especially that of his beloved eagle which appears almost interchangeably as either a eagle, hawk or falcon (shāhīn, ‘uqāb, bāz, shahbāz) depending on the metrical constraints – will have to be left to a future issue, although it is central to any real understanding of his work. But in sum, Iqbal’s eagle always appears as a lofty creature who soars to the highest realms in the skies not getting lost in the ‘maze of day and night’. Unlike the lowly sparrow whom he did not favor because it bathes in the dust from the ground, the eagle, falcon, hawk, remains solitary in his pursuits, which the poet lets us know… are clearly not of this world.
…You are an eagle; your job is to fly:
You have other skies in front of you.
Do not get lost in this maze of day and night,
There is, for you, another space, another time.
In 1915 a collection of poetry bursts forth from the pen of Allama Muhammad Iqbal which hits the East by storm and for which he was knighted in 1922. It stands to be what many consider to be his greatest masterpiece. The “Asrar-e-Khudi,” or, “Secrets of the Self,” is a bold series of poems, modeled in meter after Rumi’s Masnavi, and for whom the latter he proclaimed appeared to him in a dream and begged him to sing![xxx]. This work deals primarily with the Muslim individual and the constant inner struggle toward perfection. And it is here that Allama Iqbal tells us:
The luminous point whose name is the Self
Is the life-spark beneath our dust.
By Love it is made more lasting,
More living, more burning, more glowing.
From Love proceeds the radiance of its being
And the development of its unknown possibilities.
Its nature gathers fire from Love,
Love instructs it to illumine the world.[xxxi]
It is perhaps through these words that his ontological philosophical message is best expressed and where he introduces to us his concept of the idea of the “Khudi.” It is a concept not unlike the ‘al-insan al-Kamil’ or ‘perfect man’[xxxii] from the Qur’an, from which Ibn Arabi develops in many of his writings or from the overall concept of Khidr which Hallaj, Hafez, and so many other Sufi’s have drawn from. But what distinguishes Iqbal’s “Khudi” is that it compels the self into a state of ultimate action…an action which leads to the betterment of all humanity. For Iqbal, Khudi is the ‘Ruh’ the soul and spirit of both the individual and humanity. A Divine spark of which the Quran speaks of, and which when awakened from its long slumber is able to spring into action, leading to a far better, more enlightened life and society, as it uncovers the full inner essence of one’s existence. For Iqbal, non-action against social-injustice or the stagnation of the spirit due to spiritual apathy was the equivalent of death here on earth and belonged to ‘the land of those who lie silent[xxxiii]’ until they die. Iqbal’s imagery of the sleeping masses awakening upon their being enlightened brings to mind the well-known Hadith-i Qudsi, a saying of the Prophet, in which he states “People are asleep and when they die, they awaken.”[xxxiv] This Hadith would have certainly been known to him at that time and one wonders if it bore any influence on his theme.
For Iqbal, Khudi then is the essence of the ‘self’ being awakened into a state of purposeful action, being continuously polished by the trials and fire of love, a love which is not a worldly, immature or material love, but instead is a perfect love (‘Ashq) reserved only for the Divine and involves the complete surrender and annihilation (al-fanai’) of the self to His will. For as we find in the Qur’an: We are nearer to Him than his jugular vein[xxxv]. As such, Khudi is not a word that is only confined to humanity but rather to all things which are to be pulled in the direction of Him. Therefore, it cannot be a static state in which the believer arrives at a place and then rests… rather it is the continuous struggle against much greater forces and above all else, in which life and death appear only as passing stages, caravans in a tulip filled desert along the way to a far greater, larger existence drawn from the eternal breath of the Infinite reality.
حیات و موت نہیں التفات کے لائق
فقط خودی ہے خودی کی نگاہ کا مقصود
Throughout the book, Iqbal outlines in great detail the various stages of perfection that the human being must go through along with the hazards that the self faces along the way, even warning of the possibility of the individual never reaching his or her ultimate goal and being a casualty of the path. But he also offers us hope by telling us that one has only to look… for “There is a beloved hidden, hidden, within thine heart: I will show him to thee, if thou hast eyes to see’[xxxvi]’ For like Rumi, Iqbal sees the Divine in absolutely everything, from the small blades of grass which are bent in eternal prostration to the sound of the ‘andaleeb or nightingale whose song is colored with His name over and over again and for whom the beloved red tulips grow across the dry desert sands. For proof enough of His existence (wujud) lies in His Truth (al-Haq) which is reflected perfectly, absolutely everywhere and is expressed so beautifully in the well-known Hadith-i Qudsi, “kuntu kanzan makhfiyyan, I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known so I created the world.”[xxxvii]
The concept of complete annihilation (al-Fana’) of the self in which the believer is transformed through his/her prayers into al insan al-Kamil is a central theme in Sufi thought, literature and poetry. The great Persian mystical poet and thinker, Maulanna Jalalludin Rumi, expressed the concept so perfectly when he proclaimed in his Divan:
I have prayed so much that I myself have turned into a prayer
everyone who sees me begs a prayer from me[xxxviii]
In the end, the path toward perfection may be likened to the process in which an oyster creates a pearl. The outside of the mollusk is an unremarkable, often-times unattractive or plain shell. But in time, if the conditions are right, a small grain of sand gets lodged inside the shell and creates constant friction. It is the constant irritation of the sand, and the precise degree of irritation on the soft flesh of the little creature that will in time create the most beautiful of pearls. Some oysters will never have pearls and surely some pearls will be more radiant than others. Just as each journey is unique, so too is each believer’s outcome along the path of knowledge. Iqbal knew that humankind would not be able to pass through the different stations of development without real effort, patience, perseverance and a spiritual roadmap for getting there. The Asrar-e-Khudi provides a profoundly beautiful map.
As is the case with the majority of Allama Iqbal’s works, it is written in Persian and this is because the nature of the language itself lends itself more favorably to matters concerning rhyme and meter.
The Fountain of Life is love’s flashing sword.
The hardest rocks are shivered by Love’s glance:
Love of God at last becomes wholly God.
Learn thou to love, and seek to be loved:
Seek an eye like Noah’s, a heart like Job’s!
Transmute thy handful of earth into gold,
Kiss the threshold of a Perfect Man!
Like Rumi light thy candle
and burn Rum in the fire of Tabriz![xxxix]
The Asrar-I-Khudi then is a spiritual roadmap to human enlightenment if you will and forms the cornerstone of his philosophy from which many of his works have sprung, the idea that not only should the individual perfect him or herself to the extent of his/her own capabilities but also that it is possible to not loose ones sense of individuality while working for the betterment of all of society. Here we learn that “Obedience”, “Self-control” and “Divine Viceregeance” are the main stops along the way to perfection and Iqbal offers stories throughout the book which illustrate these main points.
In the section entitled ‘The Story of the Bird that was Faint With Thirst’ a clever vignette is played out between a bird, who is ready to collapse from dehydration, “The breath in his body was heaving like waves of smoke,” a diamond that he mistook for a drop of dew, and a drop of dew ‘upon a rose-twig’ resting which we learn “gleamed like the tear in a nightingale’s eye.’ For, ‘there it hung, ready to drop. Like a tear on the eyelashes of a lover who hath lost his hear’[xl]
With poetic imagery that is rich and wrought with the symbolism so typical of Iqbal, he deftly teaches us personal lessons in perseverance, strength and determination and warns against the neglecting of the self:
Never for an instant neglect Self-preservation:
Be a diamond, not a dewdrop!
Be massive in nature, like mountains,
And bear on thy crest a hundred clouds laden with floods of rain!
Save thyself by affirmation of Self,
Compress thy quick silver into silver ore!
Produce a melody from the string of Self,
Make manifest the secrets of Self![xli]
The Rumuz-e-Bekhud or “Hints of Selflessness” which was published in Persian in 1923, may be thought of as a sequel to the Asrar-e-Khudi, and as such is about the individual with respect to the state. Through a series of philosophical poems, Iqbal lays out for the reader his underlying core belief that an Islamic code of ethics provides a far better model and moral compass for the individual and for society than a complete separation from church and state and rampant materialism, as he witnessed in Europe. In this book we find for instance, poems which reflect on the five pillars of Islam, the ideal virtues of Fatimah, a story about Sultan Murad, an architect and Muslim equality…
The late A.J. Arberry has provided a fine translation of this work which would be otherwise completely inaccessible for the English reader. In the Preface, he hits on a key challenge when dealing with a poet-philosopher such as Iqbal:
For whereas his few prose writings are chiefly in English, his poetry is in Urdu and Persian, and abounds in the conventional imagery of those literatures; so that even when translated into English it is apt to be felt as somewhat remote and unfamiliar. Moreover, not only is his style highly idiomatic, but his thought is not infrequently complex, and almost too subtle for the language in which he chose to express it; while the exuberance of his poetic fancy baffles the reader not alert to its rapid transitions and not aware of the conceptual unity underlying the rhetorical diversity. I know of no Oriental poet who confronts the translator with problems so various and so stubborn.[xlii]
Nontheless, Arberry’s translation will give the reader a sound sense of some of the subtler shades of meaning behind the poet-philosopher.
His “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” (which is a compilation of a series of lectures he gave in Madras, Hyderabad and Aligarh and was published in 1930), is considered to be one of Allama Iqbal’s finest masterpieces. It is centered on Islamic philosophy and his own quest for answers to some of life’s greatest questions. In this seminal work, among other things, he questions the ‘finite mind’s’ relation to the nature of the universe (a manufactured article with no relation to its maker?) versus the Divine view. This compilation provides an outstanding window into a mind so refined in its thinking that by the end of the series one can easily be left intellectually breathless by the sheer volume and pace of ideas and views he throws at his audience.
Excerpted below, the reader will find a sample from this work, along with Iqbal’s interest in the ideas of Professor Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944), a famous British Astro-physicist who published extensively on the theory of relativity, and for whom the Eddington Limit[xliii], was so named:
The real question which we are called upon to answer is this: Does the universe confront God as His ‘other’, with space intervening between Him and it? The answer is that, from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The universe cannot be regarded as an independent reality standing in opposition to Him. This view of the matter will reduce both God and the world to two separate entities confronting each other in the empty receptacle of an infinite space. We have seen before that space, time, and matter are interpretations which thought puts on the free creative energy of God.8 They are not independent realities existing per se, but only intellectual modes of apprehending the life of God.
…The world of matter, therefore, is not a stuff co-eternal with God, operated upon by Him from a distance as it were. It is, in its real nature, one continuous act which thought breaks up into a plurality of mutually exclusive things. Professor Eddington has thrown further light on this important point, and I take the liberty to quote from his book, Space, Time and Gravitation:
‘We have a world of point-events with their primary interval-relations. Out of these an unlimited number of more complicated relations and qualities can be built up mathematically, describing various features of the state of the world. These exist in nature in the same sense as an unlimited number of walks exist on an open moor. But the existence is, as it were, latent unless some one gives significance to the walk by following it; and in the same way the existence of any one of these qualities of the world only acquires significance above its fellows if a mind singles it out for recognition. Mind filters out matter from the meaningless jumble of qualities, as the prism filters out the colours of the rainbow from the chaotic pulsations of white light. Mind exalts the permanent and ignores the transitory; and it appears from the mathematical study of relations that the only way in which mind can achieve her object is by picking out one particular quality as the permanent substance of the perceptual world, partitioning a perceptual time and space for it to be permanent in, and, as a necessary consequence of this Hobson’s choice, the laws of gravitation and mechanics and geometry have to be obeyed. Is it too much to say that the mind’s search for permanence has created the world of physics?’
It is this last line of Eddington’s that Iqbal informs us, moves him the most deeply. And from here we can perhaps infer more about him as his is a thought process that extends to the furthest reaches of the mind.
But The Reconstruction of Islam in Religious Thought is also a reflection of his move toward the political arena in the late 1920’s which, again, was fueled by his strong desire to offer solutions to the many ills he found to be facing Muslim society. We must remember that Muslims in India were suffering under a stifling colonial rule, which had reduced them to mere slaves of the state. Iqbal was deeply affected by their lot, and much of the outer turmoil he was witnessing in India and the world at large became only further inspiration for the more personal, internal development of his ideas and philosophies. As such, The Reconstruction of Islam in Religious Thought is an urgent appeal to change the current system, a call for a democracy, a resolution to issues surrounding women’s rights, and a return to a truer expression of the Islamic values of yore. As such it calls for a complete revival and reform, an Islamic renaissance for a civilization (which he felt) had fallen into a deep, motionless slumber from which they needed to be awakened, a dark abyss that needed to be climbed out of. And so it is not surprising that he would turn his attention and pen toward the Muslim youth and thus a portion of his efforts are directed here in this work.
“O Muslim youth! Have you ever used your prudence
What was that sky of which you are a fallen star?” [xliv]
“To the Youth of Islam” a powerful poem from which the above verses belong, is famous throughout Pakistan today and serves as the inspiration (along with aspects of his other works) for a core curriculum for children in schools across Pakistan. And this, I believe, is a further testament to the enduring nature of his message.
It was well known that Iqbal was profoundly bothered by the state of the Islamic world and felt that along with an awakening of the individual that the re-education of the Ulema was critical to any real change and also necessary for a return to the true values of the Islam found in the Qur’an. He believed in a pan-Islamic world, an Islamic world united by values not borders and was convinced that a western awakening of the Islamic contributions toward its society would lead to a more exalted status of the faith and a return to the true teachings of Islam and the Prophet. For as he once exclaimed:
“If Muslim scholars were aware that Einstein’s most thrilling ideas are already existent in Islam, they would like to take more interest in them and study them carefully.”[xlv]
If in the Asrar I Khudi we learn about khudi, khidr and the journey to selfhood, in the Bang-i-Dara or call of the Marching Bell, we obtain a profound glimpse into the soul of the ‘ascending poet.[xlvi]’ Written over a twenty year period, the Bang-i-Dara, is Iqbal’s first Urdu philosophical poetry book. The book is divided up into three distinct sections: the pre-England period which is comprised of poems written up to 1905, his student days in Europe… poems written between 1905 and 1907, and those written between: 1908-1923. Each period in his life (at least in this book) is marked by distinct shifts or expanded developments in his thought and philosophy. While his earliest poems are filled with pastoral and patriotic verses, such as the Tarana-e-Hindi (Song of India) which Ghandi reportedly sang over one hundred times while imprisoned[xlvii], poems for children such as “A Child’s Prayer or the poignant poem, “Mother,” which speaks of the moment a child must eventually leave its mother, his second collection of poems sets the stage for what lays ahead and delves into themes surrounding the materialism of the West and its subsequent loss of spirituality. Here it is clear, that although he appreciates the many fine modern developments that have occurred, he clearly feels that the Western way will also lead to suffering and thus becomes more convinced that a return to moderate Islamic ideals provides an ideal solution for the many Islamic nations.
In “Shakwah” (The Complaint) and Jawab-i-Shakwah (The Response to the Complaint) Allama Iqbal departs from the commonly accepted religious protocol and engages in a direct dialogue with God (in a somewhat demanding tone). Here we can witness the evolution of the poet’s struggle with the main ills that affect the Islamic world today. Questions surrounding the Ummah, or “Islamic nation” is a central theme here as is his intense frustration with the status of Muslims in India:
Should I hear nightingale’s wails, and remain completely silent?
O companion! Am I some flower so that I may remain silent?
The strength of my poetry is encouraging to me
Woe be to me! My remonstrance is against God!
…Justice is a condition, O Lord of Universal Benevolence
How could flower’s fragrance spread if zephyr did not exist?
This problem’s solution was the source of satisfaction to us
Otherwise was the Holy Prophet’s Ummah insane?[xlviii]
This poem, which created a very large brou-ha-ha amongst the Islamic clergy at the time, was later accepted when Iqbal published his follow-up poem, Jawab-I-Shakwah (The Response to the Complaint) a poem in which God patiently answers all his questions thus laying the whole controversy to rest. Today, both poems are considered to be literary masterpieces and in them we can catch a glimpse into the heart and soul of the man.
But it is perhaps his “Javed Nama” (1932) or “Book of Eternity” a small masterpiece of Iqbalian thought rendered in a highly engaging format that provides some of the most interesting insights into his soul. Annemarie translated this work into German under the title: Dschavidnma: Das Buch der Ewigkeit and also into Turkish under the title: Cevidname. The English translation has been taken care of by A. J. Arberry. In the Javad Nama we find a most entertaining book of poems inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy – only here Dante’s guide Virgil is replaced by Maulana Rumi – and Dante is replaced by Iqbal (who goes by the pseudonym ‘Zinda Rud’ or ‘Stream full of Life’). In the Javed Nama, both he and Rumi move in and out of different heavenly spheres coming across people and themes he wants us to encounter… in the process revealing something new about himself. The role of Mir Jafer from Bengal and Mir Sadiq from the Deccan and their role in the British occupying India is very cleverly played out here… and it is clear that theses two men are traitors to their own people, forcing them into perpetual slavery. But other characters emerge as well, as Iqbal weaves both East and West together into what is a brilliant tapestry of characters, with problems posited and clever solutions offered. Under the heading “Beyond the Spheres” we have for instance, the appearance of Nietzsche, the departure for the Garden of Paradise, the Palace of Sharaf al-Nisa and a Visitation to his Highness, “Sayyid Ali Hamadani and Mulla Tahir Ghani of Kashmir”. While “The Sphere of Venus” holds “The Assembly of the gods of the ancient peoples, “the Song of Baal,” a plunge into “the Sea of Venus “ in order to “behold the spirits of Pharaoh and Kitchener” and then “The Sudanese Dervish appear…”
I have long thought of Iqbal as the lyrical gateway to understanding the core essence of Islam, a supreme God (Allah) and the potential spiritual unity of the east and west. As such, I believe more in bridges that connect points between peoples and cultures rather than borders and boundaries that divide. I am sure that I am not alone today in asking, what will it take for the Ullema to internalize his message and move forward in true Iqbalian fashion? Can his dream nation ever exist or was it always destined to be a construct within his own heart and mind? Will another “Iqbal” ever come along and if such an individual does…what will it take for all nations to wake up to his call? For did he not say, “Mon Nawaa-i Shair-i Fardaastam” (I am the voice of the poet of tomorrow)?[xlix] We may ask ourselves then, has the nature of society and the spiritual advancement of the individual changed much since Iqbal’s death? These are questions that we each have to answer for ourselves and each answer surely contains a bit of both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ And what would Allama Iqbal write, say, do… if he were here today?
For now more than ever our collective futures depend on shedding the eerily persistent Islam phobia that seems to cloak the West in a dark shroud of ignorance and fear. But equally so, it also depends on raising the level of spirituality around the world. In light of life extinguishing floods, the ill treatment of women and children, the raging Islam phobia in the West, the hateful threat of burning Quran’s by one small church[l], and the inability of some to move past a medieval mentality, we remember one man’s global message and all that it has yet to teach us. As I do, I remember that peace, just like spiritual growth and enlightenment is a long and arduous path with many casualties along the way. The death threats and protests that Annemarie had to endure upon her nomination for the German Peace Prize -because she could understand the Muslim perspective of why they would be offended by Salman Rushdie’s vilifying book on the Quran – astounded the rational. But ironically, her equally important message of free speech, along with her enormous scholarly contributions toward east-west understanding, was lost on an angry mob who cared nothing for poetry, philosophy, faith or all that we can learn from one another…as they dared not listen or see.
It seems fitting to recall here the words that Annemarie spoke during her acceptance speech before the German chancellor upon receiving her prize: “if Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) were still alive he would certainly deserve the Peace Prize, as his motto was: “Weltpoesie (global poetry) alone is Weltversohnung (leading to the reconciliation of worlds.)” And this is certainly true of Allama Iqbal, for his poetic works are infused with a powerful global message, a call to action that has yet to be fulfilled and whose message still resounds above the din of the day to day, albeit faintly, in our ears. A message built on khudi, khidr and on a love of God and humankind that goes way beyond the self but is yet intrinsically part and parcel of it. And for this reason, the Muslim world still finds itself waiting for Allama Iqbal and I am left suspended in space, forever haunted by his last words:
The departed melody may return or not!
The Zephyr from Hijaz may blow again or not!
The days of this Faqir has come to an end,
Another seer may come or not![li]
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[i] Iqbal, Rumuz-I-Bekhudi, Annemarie Schimmel translation.
[ii] Iqbal, Allama. From the poem, “The Houri and the Poet.” In: “Brief Life Sketch,” Mustansir Mir. Allama Iqbal Website, Lahor, Pakistan.
[iii] Schimmel, Annemarie. As spoken in her Phenomenology class at Harvard University when speaking about the role of the sun, moon and stars in Islamic thought. (1992)
[iv] Goethe, West-Ostlicher Divan, Annemarie Schimmel translation. As spoken in German Peace Prize acceptance speech. “A Good Word is Like a Good Tree.” 1996.
[v] Schimmel, Annemarie. “The Ascension of the Poet.” 1953
[vi] Iqbal and Goethe, A Project Commemorating the 250th anniversary of Goethe. Muhammad Suheyl Umar. Allama Iqbal website, Pakistan
[vii] Schimmel, Annemarie, Islam in the Indian Subcontinent (Handbuch Der Orientalistik), Brill. 1980.
[viii] Iqbal’s final resting place, Amna Nasir Jamal, 20 April 2002, Dawn. It is said the Mustafa Kamal Attaturk sprinkled the dirt from Rumi’s grave onto Iqbal’s tomb.
[ix] Syed Abul Hasan Nadwi, Glory of Iqbal
[xi] Popp, Stephan, “A Spiritual Bridge between East and West.” Qantar.de
[xii] Dr. Ahmad Khan
[xiii] Iqbal, excerpted from “Solitude,” R. A. Nicholson Translation.
[xiv] Soheil refers to a constellation of stars belonging to Canopis. It is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and Argo Navis, and the second brightest star in the night-time sky, after Sirius. Wikipedia.
[xv] Quran, Sura 51:7
[xvii] Iqbal, Allama, Iqbal offical Website, Pakistan. Aramgham translation.
[xviii] Quran, Sura 24:34
[xix] Quran, Sura, 53:49
[xxi] Iqbal,Muhammad, Poem: “The Himalayas.”
[xxii] Popp, Stephan. Qantara.de, 2010
[xxiii] Official Allama Iqbal website, Pakistan
[xxiv] Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s 1930 Presidential Address to the 25th Session of the All-India Muslim League, Allahabad, 29 December 1930. Section 3.
[xxv]Sabra, G, “Do We Need Iqbal Today.” Iqbal Academy Scandinavia
[xxvi] Quran, Sura An-Nur, 24:35
[xxvii] Reference to Rumi and his beloved Shemsuddin or “Sun”
[xxviii] Arabic word for “moon.” Plays an important role in Islamic thought, literature and poetry.
[xxix] Iqbal, “Time is a Sword.” Excerpted from the:” Asrar-I-Khudi,” R. A Nicholson Translation
[xxx] Iqbal, Asrar-e-Khudi, Prologue, R.A. Nicholson Translation.
[xxxi] Iqbal. Excerpted from the Asrar-e-Khudi, R.A Nicholson Translation.
[xxxii] A reference to the Prophet whom embodied all the ideal traits. Also a Sufi term for spiritual perfection of the self in which the believer has shed all the outer garments of this world and is fully immersed in His divine presence.
[xxxiii] Schimmel, Annemarie, Gabriel’s Wing. (1989) “The Land of Those Who Lie Silent” is the title to a poem that Iqbal was working on just before his death.
[xxxv] Quran, 50:16. In this case “we” refers to the two angels, one on each shoulder who act as intermediaries between humankind and God.
[xxxvi] Iqbal, Asrar-I-Khudi, R.A. Nicholson Translation
[xxxvii] Hadith Qudsi, as recited by Annemarie Schimmel in her Phenomenology class at Harvard University.
[xxxviii] Rumi, Divan. Annemarie Schimmel translation
[xxxix] Iqbal, Muhammad. Asrar-I-Khudi, R. A. Nicholson Translation
[xl] Iqbal,Muhammad, Asrar-I-Khudi. Excerpted from “The Bird That was Faint with Thirst.” R. A. Nicholson translation
[xli] Iqbal, Muhammad Asrar-I-Khudi. Excerpted from “The Bird That was Faint with Thirst.” R. A. Nicholson translation.
[xlii] Iqbal, Muhammad, Remuz-I-Bekhud, AJ Arberry translation
[xliii] The Eddington Limit, in simple terms, explains the natural limit to the luminosity of the stars.
[xliv] Iqbal. Muhammad, excerpted from “To the Youth of Islam.”
[xlv] Iqbal. Muhammad
[xlvi] A reference to Annemarie Schimmel’s book on Iqbal, “The Ascension of the Poet.” 1954.
[xlviii] Iqbal. excerpted from “Shakwah.” Offical Allama Iqbal website, Pakistan
[xlix] Saber, G. “Do we Need Iqbal Today?” Iqbal Academy Scandinavia
[l] Reference to the threat by Mr. Jones, leader of the Dove World Outreach Center, Tallahassee, Fla in August, 2010.
[li] Allama, Iqbal as quoted in: Glory of Iqbal by Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi
Katherine Schimmel Baki is Director of Global Partnerships at Wild River Review, a 501 C3 not-for-profit whose mission is to build bridges of understanding between cultures and to highlight all the positive work going on around the world. She hosts a series at WRR called The Mystic Pen (http://themysticpen.org) which focuses on the life and scholarly works of the late, legendary specialist of Indo-Muslim culture and religion, Dr. Annemarie Schimmel (http://themysticpen.org). Katherine holds a B.A. in professional music from Berklee College of Music, and a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University, where she was the Islamic representative for the Eastern Chapter of the United Nations World Religions and Peace, Youth Program. Additionally, she has spent much time in Egypt where she conducted original research on the Adhan. That work commenced in a book entitled, Hayya ‘ala al-Salat, the Socio-Religious Impact of the Adhan on the Muslim Community of Cairo. She also writes for the San Diego Examiner, where she hosts a new series called MOSAIC, which focuses on Islamic art and architecture in California.
Katherine’s interests are in profiling the work of peaceful visionaries, and in particular those of Muslim extraction. She and her team at Wild River Review were honored to be chosen as the exclusive media escorts to Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, while on tour through Ecuador in 2008. Her academic collaborations include the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Harvard University, The Davis International Center, Princeton University and the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.
Currently she is continuing her work on the Adhan and is engaged in several large research projects whose aim it is to highlight the Islamic contributions to western society and to fight Islam phobia in the west.