Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006/2010) by Khurram Ali Shafique


Iqbal Studies

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Chapter 1

The Young Poet-Philosopher (Up to 1904)

  • Early years
  • The backdrop
  • Youth
  • 'The Doctrine of Absolute Unity'
  • Early Poetry
  • Political Economy
  • Patriotism
  • A mind-map of the young poet

Early Years


Iqbal’s parents came together in 1857. Sheikh Nur Muhammad was a middle class Kashmiri from Sialkot; his wife, Imam Bibi, was also of Kashmiri descent. Nothing but an arranged marriage could have brought together such divergent personalities as these two, and their long years of common happiness may indicate some extraordinary sensitivity in both. Nur Muhammad was an ascetic, whose lack of formal education couldn’t prevent him from mastering complex themes of divine love from the gatherings of mystics. Imam Bibi was a down to earth woman with an acute sense of everything related to the practical world.

Shiekh Muhammad Iqbal, their fourth child to survive infancy, is now generally thought to have been born on November 9, 1877 (see ‘Chronology’ for other possible dates of births). He was preceded by a brother (about eighteen years older), and two sisters. He was followed by two younger sisters.

He was around two when leeches were applied to his forehead as a traditional remedy for some illness. This affected his right eye, which became useless for the rest of his life. “I never remember seeing anything with my right eye,” he was later going to report. Apart from the obvious difficulty it might have caused in perception of distances, the dysfunction of one eye also became an impediment when he later applied for civil service. He was disqualified on medical grounds. Although ‘vision’ and ‘sight’ are conventional metaphors in religious discourse and mystical poetry, still it might be less than a coincidence that these found an unusual mention in Iqbal’s verse, especially in the early period.

The house was teeming with caring relatives by the time he grew up and by all reports he was a very friendly child. Of course, he excelled in recognizing the Arabic alphabet and learning the verses of the Quran by heart – almost the entire syllabus of his early childhood education in a mosque school. He was a little above four when he met the person who changed the course of his life. This was a vernacular teacher, Syed Mir Hasan.

Syed Mir Hasan was some sort of a social rebel and a staunch follower of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was also a supporter of Urdu, an effective preacher in his own aloof manner and – what turned out to be most significant for Iqbal’s career – a trusted friend of Shiekh Nur Muhammad. It is said that he noticed Iqbal while visiting the mosque school and used all his powers of argument to change the long-cherished plans of Shiekh Nur Muhammad. The mystic father had always dreamed of dedicating his younger son to the service of Islam – which meant to him a religious education culminating in a lifetime of leading prayers in some mosque or serving a Sufi order. The plans were now altered and Iqbal was admitted to the Scotch Mission School where he studied modern subjects till the 12th Grade before leaving for further education in Lahore at the age of eighteen. Much had changed in his life by then.

As a child he was drawn to music and poetry. He delighted in bringing popular ballads from the market and reciting them to the women in the house who were working till late in the night. Reportedly, the child also parodied these ballads to make fun of people he knew. Before passing the high school he mastered the classical skills of the craft of poetry, such as arooz (the science of metre) and even abjad, or the numerology of verses. He could write chronograms, compose ghazals and had some working knowledge of the classical Indian music (later he could also play sitar).

The backdrop

In the first twenty-eight years of his life he appears as a natural poet growing up against a background of material progress and social change around him while disappointments in personal life only prompt him to be, on one hand, more ambivalent about his poetic talent, and on the other, more down to earth in his analysis of philosophical ideas.

The material progress was set in motion by the onslaught of industrialization and Western enlightenment in the wake of the British subjugation of the sub-continent. Sialkot’s transformation into a prosperous town with an industry in sports goods took place right in front of the adolescent Iqbal; the modern education also promised, or was seen as promising, instant gratification through lucrative government jobs or successful careers in such fields as law.

Of course, there was resistance to the “evils of modernization” – aspiring for material progress was disdainful in a society where professions were hereditary and stepping up the ladder of social status was properly obscene. It was precisely this state of mind that Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan aimed to change in the Hindu and Muslim communities respectively.

Superficially, it would seem that the communal spirit nurtured for centuries by feudalism and blind obedience was now merely changing its character, but the deeper reality might be different. “One for all and all for one” was still the watchword but the direction had been reversed: instead of looking backward, communities were now geared towards changing together.

The post-enlightenment European concept of individualism was nowhere in the picture (except as a latent idea in the writings of the great Syed, who was far ahead of his times in almost everything). The spirit of change and eagerness to participate in community service in the Victorian sub-continent was seemingly based on the assumption that the individual had no identity save as a part of the larger mass of people. This larger mass was the biraderi, literally meaning fraternity or community but also conveying a mystifying awe to the Eastern mind – it was supposed to be the highest common factor to which the individuals must submit their ego, but quite often it turned out to be the lowest common denominator. Also, one could belong to various communities at the same time. For instance, Iqbal was a Kashmiri by caste, a Muslim by religion and a Brahmin by race (which last identity his ancestors forfeited when they converted to Islam a few centuries ago).

In his subsequent works and in his psyche we find lucid documentation of this interaction between the individual and the community. While he would denounce prejudice and bigotry, he would also preach to the individual to find salvation, not through annihilation in God but through annihilation in the national ideals.

God, individual and the community was, in a way, the love triangle he had to deal with from the very beginning. Readjusting the roles of these coordinates was the task he assigned to himself before very long.



Iqbal had much to complain about by his early twenties – as the singularly most brilliant student of his batch he must have expected rewards at the end of his studies. Far lesser peers had carved out prosperous careers for themselves. One example was Gulab Din, a groundling from Sialkot who was groomed by Syed Mir Hasan to become a successful lawyer and a considerably prominent social figure in Lahore. Iqbal, however, flunked the law examinations (incidentally, he failed in jurisprudence, a subject on which he later wrote his famous ‘Sixth Lecture’) and he was disqualified as a candidate for public service, since his right eye was dysfunctional. Hence, he was stuck with a contracted job in a second class college for the first few years of his professional life and if his father’s part in him could tell him to be content with what he got, the genes of his mother must have made him impatient to strive for more (“my urge for worldly progress was due only to her presence,” Iqbal wrote in a letter upon her death in 1914). His early failures fade away in the light of his later achievements, but they may serve as pointers in a biography of his mind. It seems that the major impediments in his life at that point were emotional dissatisfaction in his personal life and dissipation of creative energies.

Iqbal got married to an incompatible partner at the age of sixteen, and apart from producing two children within the next few years there was little interaction between the couple – he never brought his wife to Lahore, who thus spent most of her time at her parents’ house in another city from two years after marriage.

By 1902, the difficulties in marriage were prominent enough to be mentioned in a biographical essay that couldn’t have been printed without the young gentleman’s willing approval. Iqbal himself would jest about his quest for female company in some of his poems – the most celebrated reference comes from ‘The Inconstant Lover’ (1909) and translates as: “feminine beauty is a thunderbolt to your nature; and how strange that your love is indifferent too!” However, he was far from being a Byron in such matters, and displayed some kind of pious masochism. (“Spotless like the daybreak is his youth,” Iqbal proudly quoted a detractor in a 1904 poem titled ‘Piety and Sinfulness’).

He is said to have developed a strong affection for a singing girl from the old city area in Lahore, Ameer Begum, around 1903–4. In one letter to a friend, Iqbal mentions her by name and in another he refers to her anonymously as the ‘raison d’atre’ of his grand poem ‘The Pearl-laden Cloud’ (1903). However, a biographer looking for substantially scandalous material should be rather disappointed; the poems from this period betray a desire to discover the pleasure of longing whereby separation becomes a romantic ideal and unfulfilled desires provide nourishment to the soul. Reportedly, the girl’s mother resented her daughter’s attraction to the frugal professor and eventually stopped her from seeing him at all.

Whether that was true or not, he had certainly discovered a cornerstone of his later philosophy: separation is better than union.

Either due to emotional impediments or out of its own drive his power of imagination became his crown and his cross at the same time. The young scholar from Bhati Gate was ambitious – way too ambitious for his own good. He had acquired six languages – Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, English, and Sanskrit (German would be added later), with power to write world-class literature in at least three of these. Quite possibly, he had read everything in the libraries of Lahore on philosophy, literature and economics. Most certainly, he had also mastered history, classical music (Indian as well as Persian) and the theory of fine arts. He was also churning out a few good poems every month and at least one longer masterpiece every year besides participating in the activities of two (or more) social service organizations in the city. And yet, all of the above and his salaried work at the various colleges of Lahore were mere pastimes and absolutely unrelated to the profession he was aspiring to chose, i.e. to become a lawyer, or failing that, at least get a post in the civil service. He had yet to learn a basic lesson: the powers of your mind may be unlimited but the time at hand is always measured.

Unlike the young barrister from Bombay, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (about whom Iqbal was going to hear in a few years), he could not dedicate himself to career building first and politics later while shutting out all other venues of interest. If he had tried harder he might have succeeded in giving up some of his other pursuits, but not poetry. To him, poetry was not a matter of choice; he was a poet by nature. Not having any time at hand (for instance, being busy checking answer books) could not prevent him from dictating over two hundred couplets of outstanding value in a single sitting (that is exactly how ‘The Pearl-laden Cloud’ came into being). Born a hundred years ago, or a hundred years later, he could have taken pride in this remarkable capability but here was the irony: he lived in an age that looked down upon poets as an unnecessary evil. In the days of the Mughals they had lived on stipends from the princes and nobles by pleasing them with high-flown eulogies. The formidable Sir Syed denounced such practices as beggary and his disciple Hali, himself the greatest poet of his generation, painted a repulsive picture of them in his immortal Musaddas: the world would become unbearable if sweepers went on strike but it would become a much cleaner place if all poets of the sub-continent were to vanish; the culmination of their lifetime achievement was that their songs were sung by prostitutes. Iqbal wanted to be known as anything but a poet. “I am not a poet,” he was going to insist until his last breath, “and I haven’t even studied the craft properly” (which was a self-flattering understatement since his command over classical devices of Urdu and Persian poetry was comparable with the past masters of the Mughal Court). Then how did he explain his verse-making activity if he wasn’t a poet? He was, of course, a learned thinker and seer expressing his thought in verse rather than prose, he would explain.

However, a learned thinker he was, even in those early years, and was soon going to become a seer too. ‘The Doctrine of Absolute Unity as Expounded by Abdul Karim Al-Jili,’ Iqbal’s first known thesis (completed in March 1900 and printed in a research journal six months later) was something Nietzsche should have paid attention to (incidentally, the German iconoclast was alive until a few days before its publication, although insane for many years by then, but Iqbal had not heard of him).

‘The Doctrine of Absolute Unity’

Before we look further into the Al-Jili thesis we should set some ground rules for the study of Iqbal’s thought.

The first thing is to differentiate between the three vehicles of expression he used for his thought: (a) prose; (b) short poem (including the longer ones among them, such as ‘The Mosque of Codoba’); and (c) masnavi. While prose could be the most dependable medium for rational thought, masnavi too could be trusted, since the great masters of the last thousand years of Persian literature, including Ferdowsi, Sinai, Nezami, Attar, Rumi and Jami, had perfected this genre as a medium for coherent discourse at any desired length. The masnavi was even preferable to prose where the thrust was a mix of logic and emotion.

The case of the short poem was different. Both the ghazal and the modern poem adapted from the Western literature were focused on brevity rather than logic and while it was possible to be thoughtful in ghazal (like Urfi and Ghalib) or in poem (like Wordsworth and Browning), the thoughtfulness itself had to adopt the garb of artistry first – even our understanding of the “philosophical” content of a poem is directly proportional to our enjoyment of the poet’s craft.

An interesting example is the bunch of poems on nationalist themes in the first part of The Call of the Marching Bell (and which will be revisited later in this chapter). These were written in 1904–5, around the same time when Iqbal also wrote a detailed essay ‘National Life.’ Some of the issues listed as crucial in that essay and discussed in much detail could not get explored in the poems. Why? Because the theme of the poem ‘A New Temple’ was just a new temple; ‘National Song of Indian Children’ was just a song; Saray jahan say achha was just about feeling good for belonging to your country. The poet must have wanted to say what he said in each poem, but what else did he have to say, and how much? Were there ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in his mind? The poems don’t tell us. They would have been bad poems if they did.

The same cannot be said about the masnavis. If we compare Secrets and Mysteries (Asrar-o-Rumooz) with the numerous essays Iqbal wrote on the subject around the same time we find that nearly every important aspect of the argument presented in prose is also substantially covered in the masnavi. Likewise, Javid Nama contains nearly everything he had to say about the world, and it says it in detail almost to the extent of quoting references. This would not have been possible in some other genre.

While it is often discussed why Iqbal switched over to writing poetry in Persian in later life it is completely overlooked that he did not just shift to Persian, but essentially to Persian masnavi, and that too only when he wished to present a complete exegesis of his philosophy. Shorter poems in Persian were either incidental or a by-product of his masnavis and were merely a handful as compared to the huge bulk of such poems in his Urdu Kulliyat. (On a few occasions he attempted sustained philosophical argument in Urdu poems too – such as ‘In the Memory of My Late Mother’ (1914), ‘The Khizr of the Way’ (1921), ‘Sakinama’ (1935) and some other poems, but even these were capsule summaries as compared to his masnavis).

It might be said that if a poem is like a painting, then a masnavi is like a feature film. The difference in scope and purpose is obvious but failing to recognize this has led the scholars of Iqbal to either distrust poetry as expression of his thought or to approach the short poems in the same manner as the masnavis. It would be safer to treat his prose and masnavis both as major exponents of thought while using his short poems with necessary literary preparation.

The two over-arching subjects in his prose and poetry are the human being and the society (with the devil as a runner-up for the third major subject). None of these subjects can be separated from their position towards God.

Al-Jili might have caught Iqbal’s attention as a commentator of Ibn ‘Arabi (although an unreliable one, as we now know) and it is remarkable that while the medieval mystic named his book Al-Insan al-Kamil (‘The Perfect Man’), Iqbal refered to the Divine rather than the human in naming his paper. Apparently this led him to a more comprehensive study of ‘the development of metaphysical thought in Persia,’ which he carried out in Cambdirge a few years later.

The Absolute Reality cannot even be named, yet alone understood, for it is the absence of all attributes and name is an attribute while understanding is a relation – even ‘One-ness’ is a step away from that which is being described as ‘One,’ Iqbal presented Al-Jili’s argument. Yet, Essence and attributes are identical, or else one could not have represented the other and the veil is removed when we understand this: “The perfect man is the pivot around which revolves all the ‘heavens’ of existence, and the sum of the realities of material existence corresponds to his unity,” the young scholar went on to state that the Throne of God, the Footstool, the Lote Tree, the Pen, and the Preserved Tablet correspond respectively to the heart, the I-ness, the spiritual statation, the intellect, and the mind of the perfect human being. Likewise, the elements of nature, matter, air, Heaven and the skies correspond to the temperament, faculty of perception, the occupied space, the imagination and the intelligence of this ideal human – the list goes on. Here, in seminal form, was the essence of nearly half of Iqbal’s later poetry, whose metaphysical background would come from Al-Jili’s description of ‘reality’: God is the essence of reality and cannot be comprehended by the human mind; comprehension is a bonding and God, or the Absolute Reality, is beyond it. Yet, the human being can approach the Divine Presence, if not through knowing then through becoming.

Two myths overshadow our understanding of the development of Iqbal’s ideas. The first is a presumed change of heart whereby, it is supposed, he gave up all his early beliefs while coming up with a new idea during his stay in Europe, which he presented a few years later as secrets of the self. This myth also feeds on Iqbal’s later statements against mysticism, which are often taken in isolation from the rest of his writings. For instance, in an article published in 1917 he admitted that he no longer believed in Al-Jili’s theory about the Absolute Reality stepping down from its podium in order to become creation or nature. However, the draft of an aborted history of Sufism written in Urdu at the same time reads, “There would have been no harm if these various grades of existence were seen as manifestations of the Divine omnipotence, but alas they were presented in a pantheistic light.” This unpublished statement gives us a better insight into the working of Iqbal’s mind: he retained most of his earlier knowledge but shifted the emphasis. Evolution of thought is not a mechanical process and an organic paradigm would bring us closer to the truth: the seed was sown and it sprouted. While fresh flowers kept appearing all the time the plant remained the same.

Taking the mechanical approach, most writers have failed to trace the proper origins of his ideas. “In the garb of mysticism [Al-Jili] has dropped remarks which might be developed so as to result in a philosophical system,” Iqbal stated at the end of his thesis, “but it is a matter for regret that this sort of Idealistic Speculation did not find much favor with later Islamic thinkers.” This is precisely the task Iqbal took upon himself: to develop the idea.

The second trap is to overrate the influence of Western philosophers. In an age of comparative studies and intellectual dominance of the West he had to compare the ideas of his favorite Muslim thinkers (as well as his own) with well-known thinkers of the West if he wanted to be understood by his European audience or even the educated youth in his own country. However, such an approach has its inherent perils: beginning with his translator Nicholson and coming down to our own age is an endless line of scholars who failed to see the difference between comparison and adaptation. If, for instance, Iqbal said that Bergsonian ideas were also found in the poetry of Bedil (who preceded Bergson), then this should be a reason to trace similar ideas in Iqbal’s own poetry to Bedil more than Bergson. Unfortunately this has not happened, although Iqbal tried to make it very clear in a letter to Nicholson in 1921: “I claim that the philosophy of the Asrar is a direct development out of the experience and speculation of Old Muslim Sufis and thinkers. Even Bergson’s idea of time is not quite foreign to the Sufis.” He explained that the Quranic views on the human life and destiny rest on metaphysical propositions and he was not putting ‘new wine’ (i.e. Western ideas) in ‘old bottles’ (i.e. Sufism) but rather his work was “only a restatement of the old in the light of the new.”

Early poetry


“To see is to see not,” Iqbal wrote in one of his ghazals (incidentally, from his days of affection for Ameer Begum). Iqbal’s experience of God in this phase tends to be guided by wahdatul wujud – he was born into a great mystic tradition and even claimed to be a formal initiate into the Qadriya Order through his father.

His early poetry (especially the uncollected poems) reveal a strong inclination towards the doctrines of the classical Spanish mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, passages from whose Bezels of Wisdom used to be taught to gatherings at Shiekh Nur Muhammad’s home while Iqbal was growing up. Among the recurring themes in Iqbal’s early poems are the connection between ordinary love and love for God (clearly an influence of Ibn ‘Arabi), similarity of all human religions, and reverence of the Prophet as a prism for the Divine Light (and, sometimes, an exalted status for the Caliph Ali).

A thought that encompasses his spiritual life at this stage is that God is the separated beloved whom the human being has to find in everything beautiful, including one’s own heart. The thousands of forms in this world are like thousand veils across the face of a single Reality. True seekers learn to ignore the appearance (majaz) of whatever they see, and concentrate instead on the unseen, the Reality (haqeeqat). In other words, God exists everywhere and those who can see beyond appearance see Him manifest in things as little as a glow-worm and as huge as the Himalaya.

‘The Pearl-laden Cloud’ (1903) is a remarkable poem for the manner in which it exalts at once the amorous yearning (majaz), the devotion to the Prophet and the love of God. Seemingly diverse loves are alloyed into a typically mystical unity as the mystic is ever ready to perceive God as Beauty. A grand vision of the human soul in the divine context seems to underline Iqbal’s evolution towards preferring separation to union (mentioned above). The individual was discovering its own importance in the crowd – your ego corresponds to the Footstool of God, and how can you betray Him?

Political Economy


His interest in economics was derived partly from the fact that he was supposed to teach this subject and partly from his desire to balance his daydreaming with something practical (or at least something practical ‘in theory’!). The outcome was his first Urdu publication, a handbook for students titled Political Economy (or Ilmul Iqtisad), published in 1904. For good reasons he called it outdated some two and a half decades later. Unfortunately, many Iqbal scholars have turned that comment into an excuse for not reading the book carefully or sometimes not at all. A willingness to do otherwise is rewarded with a portrait of the poet as a young thinker since the book is generously punctuated with comments of moral, political and philosophical import. The essence of these observations may be presented as follows.

  • The balance between individual freedom and common good of the community is an important concern.
  • Humans aspire for wealth and prosperity and would probably achieve it if wrong ideals don’t rob them of aspiration itself. Nihilistic religious philosophies are chief among such robbers.
  • Economic revolution in the sub-continent is desirable (this idea permeates the entire book).
  • Economics should not be seen as a normative science; right and wrong must be decided on a moral basis. However, what is useful for a community at one point in time may become harmful at some other time and therefore customs need to be revaluated and reformed. (Against what criteria? He doesn’t raise that question here, but the answer he provided later was: the divine revelation and a pragmatic test of one’s own understanding of that revelation).
  • ‘Freedom,’ in its political economic sense is also emphasized. “You know that the labor of slaves cannot match the labor of independent workers. Why is that so? Why is the labor of slaves devoid of the virtue of performance?” The answer provided here is: “the whip cannot provide the motivation that comes only from a desire of wealth and the tension of self-respect.” (Obviously, this is a forerunner of such later discourses as ‘The Book of Slaves’ in Persian Psalms, or Persian Psalms).

The remarkable optimism of the preface provides us the best key to Iqbal’s entire worldview: “A question has arisen in this age, viz., is poverty an unavoidable element in the scheme of things?” He pretends to hide the fact that he had already found the answer. “Can it not happen that the heartrending sobs of a humanity suffering in the back alleys of our streets be gone forever and the horrendous picture of devastating poverty wiped out from the face of this earth? Economics alone cannot answer, because the answer lies to a great extent in the moral capabilities of the human nature…” Javid Nama, his magnum opus written some twenty-eight years later, was evidently his personal answer to the question, and the entire body of his work from now on, a lifelong effort to expand those “moral capabilities of the human nature.”



Apparently a by-product of Political Economy was his essay ‘National Life’ (1904-5). If in his Al-Jili thesis he had expounded a description of the human being in relation to God, then ‘National Life’ defined the relationship of the human being with his or her surroundings.

The opening passage stated the same things that were later summed up more tersely at the opening of the ‘New Year Broadcast’ in the last year of his life. It can be quoted from there without risking anachronism: “The modern age prides itself on its progress in knowledge and its matchless scientific developments. No doubt, the pride is justified. Today space and time are being annihilated and man is achieving amazing successes in unveiling the secrets of nature and harnessing its forces to his own service.” It is obvious although he did not say it in ‘National Life’ that any positive achievement to him was a manifestation of that Divine element in the human being which he had detailed in the previous thesis.

However, a human being doesn’t live in isolation. People live in groups, and this leads us to the next cornerstone in Iqbal’s worldview: his concept of society. Society as a voluntary association of people in the political sense does not appear in this essay. Instead, what we have here is the concept of the society as an organism – a living organism that almost springs out from the earth like plants, animals and humans. A society might be organized according to territory, as in the case of nation states like Italy (whose reformer Mazzinni was Iqbal’s hero those days); or it might be organized around a race principle, as in the case of the Jews; or it could be a community of people with the same religion, as in the case of the Muslims (and a few years later he would describe Islam as a society whose membership is open to any like-minded individual). However, no matter how a society defines itself it had to face a constant struggle for existence in the nature and only those societies survived who were capable of adjusting to change – just as the giant organisms of the ice age became extinct because they could not keep pace with the changing climate, so do societies become extinct if they fail to grow with the pulse of time – “Greece, Egypt, Rome, all vanished from the face of the earth but we [the Indians] still have our name and glory; there must be something about us that has sustained us against centuries of hostile changes,” he said in his famous Saray jahan say achha Hindustan hamara, printed in the same issue of Makhzan. This vision of life might sound starkly indebted to Darwin, yet Iqbal’s worldview was not essentially Darwinian since it was based on the recognition of the Divine in every human being, even in those who lagged behind in the struggle for existence (he later criticized Darwin as one of the reasons for Nietzsche’s lack of self-awareness).

Individuals may be called upon to make sacrifices for their community, Iqbal suggests in his essay. The justification provided here is much simpler than the one he would present in ‘The Muslim Community – a Sociological Study’ six years later. He just says that religion comes to the aid of the society by way of establishing sacrifice as a spiritual principle (in the later lecture he would expand this theory on a formidable cosmological scale as we shall see in the next chapter).

Interestingly enough, Iqbal used the word qawm (nation) interchangeably with society in this essay and, more significantly, the title did not refer to a homogenous Indian nation but only to the Muslim community of the sub-continent. As far as we can see, it seems highly unlikely that he subscribed to the idea of Indian nationalism as propounded by the Indian National Congress – and that should not surprise us given the influence of the Aligarh Movement on Iqbal in his early days. The common perception that Iqbal was once a staunch nationalist and later turned in the other direction (like his contemporary Jinnah), does not seem to be true and might have originated from an isolated reading of his Urdu poems of this period. Keeping these poems in a proper perspective with his prose writings it seems more plausible that despite his Aligarh bias he kept a fairly independent mind. Only five years later he said in a lecture that he was approaching the religious system of Islam strictly as a critical student (and by the religious system he could have also meant the Muslim Community in its conceptual form), and explained, “The attitude of the mind which characterizes a critical student is fundamentally different from that of the teacher and the expounder. He approaches the subject of his inquiry free form all presuppositions, and tries to understand the organic structure of a religious system, just as a biologist would study a form of life or a geologist a piece of mineral. His object is to apply methods of scientific research to religion, with a view to discover how the various elements in a given structure fit in with one another, how each factor functions individually, and how their relation with one another determines the functional value of the whole.” He went on to list history, geography and ethics as some of the perspectives through which a system should be studied.

This gives us a fair picture of Iqbal’s attitude towards things in a phase of life that lasted till 1913 when he eventually felt that he was ready to perpetuate a worldview of his own.

His so-called nationalist poetry coincided with aggressive protests from the Indian National Congress to the Viceroy’s announcement of the impending partition of Bengal in 1904 (the partition was planned to take place the next year). A careful examination of these poems shows that they weren’t addressed to the British government but rather represented his Muslim nation to the Hindu compatriots. We, the Muslims, too are patriotic, he seemed to be suggesting, and we belong to India just as much as any other people living here; Islam is as much a part of the religious and cultural heritage of India as the indigenous religions are. “O Brahmin, you estranged yourself from your kin in the name of idols; likewise, God taught war and mayhem to the preacher of Islam,” he says in his poem ‘A New Temple’ (1905), and goes on to construct a new deity made of gold and receiving adoration from all religions (this somewhat bizarre imagery was expunged in a later revision of the poem before inclusion in The Call of the Marching Bell). “Let’s label the god ‘India,’ and to him we should pray for fulfillment of all our deep desires,” he says.

The question ignored by his commentators is this: what are these “deep desires,” which must be addressed to the new idol of India and which cannot be fulfilled without its blessing? We can safely assume that Iqbal is referring to an economic revolution in the country – the idea that permeated through the entire Political Economy a while ago. Even in his 1910 lecture on the Muslim community he proposed that, despite a distinct national identity the community had to approach the economic question “in a broad impartial non-sectarian spirit.” The economic forces in a region affect all communities alike, he believed.

A mind-map of the young poet


It would be interesting to draw a mind map of the poet in his young age from the poems surviving from 1893 to 1905. Six distinct subjects appear: (a) nature; (b) personalities; (c) parables and dialogue; (d) autobiographical anecdotes; (e) monologues; and (f) ghazals.

The strands of his thought (already discussed in this chapter) cut across all these subjects. Objects in nature are seldom described without emotional underpinning. The imagery is dynamic and invariably philosophical, often metaphysical. “O Himalaya! The Nature’s hand has but created you as a playground for the elements,” Iqbal says to the great mountain. “Pray tell us a tale from those early days when the first humans found a dwelling in your outskirts; tell us about that simple life unstained by the rouge of civilized pretenses.” Everything in nature represents mystical secrets to him; flowers, streams, rivers and meadows may be mute to other listeners but not so to the poet. He explores their mystery, connects to the vibrations of the Divine rhythm emanating from them, and develops a wavelength with birds, bees and animals. This is an Ibn ‘Arabi utilizing the mind of Wordsworth for writing verses in Urdu. Of course, the influence of the Vedantic poetry is also quite visible (and we must remember that Iqbal had some familiarity with Sanskrit and never stopped quoting from the great poets of that language).

However, it is also Iqbal, and very distinctly so: “You don’t know how the thorn of unresolved problem pricks the heart,” he says to ‘The Colorful Flower’. Neither Ibn ‘Arabi nor Wordsworth would have remembered to bring up the issues of the mind during a blissful union with nature. Iqbal’s flower is also ripe with sensuous undertones: “O colorful flower! Perhaps you don’t carry a heart in your bosom,” is a line that could be addressed to an unmerciful dame as well.

Just like the objects of nature, the personalities in his poems also serve as mouthpieces to various thoughts and opinions. The poet’s mission is to see and tell (‘Ghalib’), learning is a labor of love under a worthy mentor (‘The Lament of Separation,’ written on Arnold’s departure from India), blessed are those who suffer for the sake of love (‘Bilal’), and so on. The elegy on Dagh commences Iqbal’s lifelong struggle to prove life’s supremacy over death. The symphony of immortality, reaching its highest note in the epic Javid Nama twenty-seven years later, begins with a soft whimper in this first of Iqbal’s approved elegies: “The colors of autumn too are a reason to stay in the garden,” he writes at the end of this poem (and the verse can also be translated to mean that the colors of autumn too are “part of what created the garden,” or even “a source of permanence for the garden”). “The same universal law governs all: carrying the odor of the sweet flower beyond the garden gates, and the flower-gatherer beyond this world.” This brand of optimism seems to be a theorizing activity by a clever mind under crushing pressures of perceived or real grief.
His qasidas, or eulogies, might also be counted among the poems centered on personalities but he included none of those in his anthology later on. Here, he followed the arrogant but loveable Persian poet Urfi, who was notorious for showing conceit even while praising superiors.

Parables and dialogue, beginning with the famous adaptation of ‘The Spider and the Fly’ was predominantly limited to more inspirations from English poetry but it was a genre that would eventually come to a grand finale in ‘The Satan’s Parliament’ two years before Iqbal’s death.

Autobiographical anecdotes appear in great proportion and they are refreshingly free from egotism in a poet who would otherwise become the prophet of the ego. In real life as well as in poetry he thoroughly enjoyed a good joke about himself and none of his critics ever came up with better satire on him than he himself provided in such poems like ‘Piety and Sinfulness.’ The poem was inspired from a puritan neighbor’s criticism of contradictions in Iqbal’s personality: “I hear that Iqbal is so much influenced by philosophy that he doesn’t count a Hindu among non-believers anymore,” the neighbor is quoted in this poem. “Nor is he averse to women of the ignoble profession, but oh that ought to be expected of our poets; I, however, fail to understand the wisdom of listening to a singing girl in the night before reciting the Holy Quran in the morning…” The pious critic goes on to fear that this crazy young philosopher might end up inventing a new religion. Iqbal’s reply, appearing at the end of the poem, has now become famous: Iqbal bhi Iqbal say agah nahin hai… (“Iqbal too is not aware about Iqbal; and this is not a jest, by God it is not!”). In other autobiographical anecdotes, such as the one about his little nephew who used to gaze endlessly at the candle, the poet penetrates beneath the surface of common observation. “Why are you so amazed, O moth-like child?” Thus begins the poem ‘A Child and the Candle’ and goes on to state that the child’s fascination with light stems out of some ancient acquaintance; the candle is naked flame while the human being is light contained in the chandelier of opaque dust.

Iqbal’s monologues and dramatic monologues cover a wide range, and this manner of poetry (apparently inspired from Robert Browning) as well as his numerous prayers may also be included in this category (even ‘The Complaint’ written later would be, ironically, a ‘prayer’; but that will be discussed in the next chapter). The dramatic monologues include one by an imaginary tombstone of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan; the opening is starkly proud and optimistic: “O you, who are living, look at the rehabilitation of this once deserted city! This indeed is the society I used to be so concerned about, so look at the fruits of my patience and perseverance. My tombstone has become fond of speech, so read its inscription with your inward eye.” The commandments invisibly inscribed on the tombstone enjoin that thou shalt not turn thy back on the world, nor use thy pen and speech for creating dissentions, and so on.

Ghazal used to be the dominant genre in Urdu poetry before Hali – in other words, until the days of Iqbal’s adolescence. It was still popular but Iqbal was not a ghazal-writer by temperament although not averse to the genre either. He wrote fewer ghazals than nazms (‘poems’) and they follow Ghalib’s manner of sustaining an idea through the various couplets although the genre allows the poet to be disjointed since each couplet is supposed to be a standalone unit.

Iqbal on the eve of his departure for studies abroad was far from being the naïve, bewildered student portrayed in some biographies. By all means he was an accomplished young intellectual, aware of what he wanted to do and which direction he would like to take. From that he never swerved although he was ever quick to accept his humility before any new manifestation of truth.

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