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


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Chapter 5

What Lies Beyond (1931-1938)

Javid Nama


Around the time when Iqbal was writing his Presidential Address proposing the birth of a consolidated Muslim state within or without the British Empire, he was also working on his greatest masterpiece, Javid Nama (or The Book of Eternity), which was completed between 1927 and 1931. It was an exceptionally ambitious undertaking despite the towering stature of the poet, for the book aimed at drawing out the spiritual landscape of the universe and culminating in an interview with God Himself.

In his prayer to the Almighty at the very beginning, Iqbal claimed that the book was intended for the youth, especially excluding the seasoned readers from the intended audience. An interesting question that arises here is whether the book should not be categorized as juvenile reading on this ground. In all probability, Iqbal would not have minded that, and perhaps this is what he intended, since the book yields a lot more when it is approached with the simple curiosity of a young reader instead of the self-incriminatory scholarship of a hardened academic.

The significance of Javid Nama is manifold, no matter how one approaches it. Iqbal himself called it “the sum total” of his life, and indeed its narrative holds together all the various pieces of his thought as well as showcasing the full range of his poetic moods and expressions. His passion for landscape is well utilized here in depicting scenery of a spiritual nature, and true to the genre of epic, he makes his work entertaining with powerful characterization. Zurvan, the Zoroastrian spirit of Time and Space, straddles across the horizons and always flutters his wings in some new dimension of Time while the Devil appears as an impressive old entity, to whom the soul is visible inside a body.

A most interesting chapter is about a spiritual breed on Mars. The evil spirit tried to tempt their progenitor, just like Adam, but unlike Adam, this person refused. Consequently his children were spared the restricting duality of matter and spirit, and live a life without scarcity, poverty, needfulness or tyranny. This prosperous colony is Iqbal’s ideal world and only the demons within us prevent us from achieving it on this earth — fatalistic interpretation of religion and lack of self-esteem are among the major causes.

The real significance of the book lies elsewhere and has not yet been realized. W. B. Yeats once described Homer’s poem Iliad as the epic that ushered in the millennium of Hellenistic civilization and Dante’s Divine Comedy as the epitome of the Christian civilization spanning over two millennia. In the same vein we can say that Javid Nama is a candidate to be regarded as a true representative of the millennium that was about to start when it was written and which has started just very recently. The East meets the West here. All major world religions find passionate representation in this book. No one in this spiritual universe of Iqbal is condemned or rewarded on the basis of religious beliefs alone – Buddha and Zarathustra dwell among the prophets and a Hindu poet is lodged in Paradise while a pair of traitors (incidentally both Muslims), have been condemned to a fate worse than hell.

It is true that this is a universe seen from the perspective of a Muslim – “the Quran has many worlds, seen and unseen, and you should take out of it the kind that suites you,” says Jamaluddin Afghani in the firmament of Mercury. Despite this, at least in three ways, the book has arguably more universal appeal than any other written in this age. Firstly, there is this sincere and committed attempt at interfaith dialogue – which marks the difference between our world and the world of Dante where bigotry ruled triumphantly over the poetic talent. Secondly, the very texture of this poem reflects cultural fusion, which is a hallmark of our millennium. For instance, the concept of Heavenly Prologue is reminiscent of Faust, while the ‘Lament of Abu Jahl’ which is starkly reminiscent of the agony felt by false idols in Milton’s celebrated poem on the nativity of the Christ. This seamless blending of the Eastern literary tradition with the Western is in itself symbolic of the fabric of the world current(s) in the new millennium: we are one.

However, the most notable feature of the poem that could support its claim for universality is its stark realism towards the state of things. God is not only Beauty, He is also Majesty and He is also qahhar, the Irresistible. When the poet requests the Divine Creator to reveal the fate of the world, he doesn’t see a rose garden but a sheet of blood sweeping over the horizon of the Earth. Nowhere does the religious devotion of the poet and his partiality to spiritualism carry him away into forgetting that in this world the human beings are thrown back on their own resources. Beliefs and spirituality help by transforming our ego into something greater but destiny has no favorites and nature doesn’t bend except on its own terms.

It should be attributed to the power of this poem that lines from it have become proverbial although they were written in Persian at a time when that language was losing its domain in India (and despite the irony that this magnum opus remains the least printed poem of Iqbal so far). ‘Din-i-mullah fi sabil Allah fasad’ (the religion of a Mullah is to create trouble in the name of God), and ‘Jaffar ez Bengal-o-Sadiq ez Deccan/Nang-i-Adam, nang-i-deen, nang-i-watan’ (Jaffar of Bengal, and Sadiq of Deccan – disgrace to humanity, religion and country) are just two examples of phrases from this book that are widely known and used by people who don’t even understand Persian.

The cosmology of Javid nama


Iqbal’s cosmology forms an important part of his poetic imagination but has received little attention especially in his own country.

Javid Nama had a long history in Iqbal’s own thought and it might be said that it was in the making ever since he wrote his first masterpiece ‘The Himalaya,’ since even in that poem there was an attempt to present more than what meets the eye in the elements of nature. Other poems, such as ‘A Walk Across the Sky’ (1910) with its imaginative concept of hell and ‘In the Presence of the Holy Prophet’ (1912) with its heavenly theme could be considered complete Javid Namas in miniature. Even the dialogue with God, which formed the climax of Javid Nama had been practiced many times before, most notably in ‘The Complaint’ (1911), ‘The Answer’ (1912), and ‘A Dialogue Between God and the Human Being’ (c.1923).

The poetic retelling of the creation of the universe, which formed the first prologue, had also been a favorite theme since the earliest days and explored in such poems as ‘Love and Death’ (incidentally adapted from Tennyson), ‘Love’ (1906), and ‘Conquest of Nature’ (c.1923).

It is therefore safe to assume that he had been developing his own cosmology all this while. The literary challenge of Javid Nama merely forced him to put the pieces in order and present a complete map of the universe as it existed in his mind.

He mapped the afterworld as a vast universe with patches of good and bad places, corresponding to reward and punishment. Moon, Mercury, Jupiter and Paradise appear as pleasant pastures but none of these may be sufficient for pleasing all kinds of blessed souls – the individualist in him would abhor uniformity even in the afterlife. Moon presents a blissful atmosphere suitable for meditation, and hence the planet is preferred by the Hindu sage Vishvamitra. It is here that a poet may listen to the song of Sarosh (Persian equivalent of a heavenly Muse), and the spiritual history of the humankind is also revisited here in the elemental tablets of four of the true prophets. Quite possibly, Iqbal himself may like to be here when he is dead – as he would later pray to God in the 16th poem of the first sequence in Gabriel’s Wing (1935).

Mercurial reformers like Afghani could find solace, of course, in Mercury – and Iqbal’s Lenin, after his passionate dialogue with God in Gabriel’s Wing, may also have been sent to reside here.

Then there are spirits who would always like to move on – Hallaj, Tahira and Ghalib are seen wandering around the fast moving and ever expanding Jupiter after they refused even to accept Paradise.

Paradise itself is an abode for fair rulers, and pious men and women – basically all the good conformists. Of course, the proverbial houris are there too, but Iqbal would rather move on to bask in the reflection of the Divine Beauty directly rather than spend too much time in the company of these heavenly dames – and hence in Javid Nama we find a full corroboration of his earlier poem ‘The Inconstant Lover’ (1909). There, while admitting that the feminine beauty was like a lightening to him (although his “love was indifferent too”), he had argued that he was in fact looking for the Divine in Its totality, and that was the reason why his search didn’t end with any particular woman. True to these words, when the poet gets surrounded by the houris at the doorstep of God Himself, he doesn’t pay heed to them and moves on – even the ghazal he recites to them out of mere courtesy is not quite amorous.

The unpleasant patches in the spiritual landscape of Iqbal include Venus, Saturn and Hell (which stays off screen in Javid Nama but we had a cameo description of it in the earlier poem ‘A Walk in the Sky’). The cold and lifeless Venus is the abode of the false gods of the ancient peoples, and quite aptly, the tyrants and the evil imperialists rot here in the bottom of a lightless sea. Saturn, with its terrifying storms, lightening and the ocean of blood, is suited to those who betray their fellow humans – the traitors, refused even by Hell.

Thus apportioning the heavens in this manner between good and bad souls, he kept at least one planet to create a world of his ultimate fantasy. This was Mars, which was quite hot with the science fiction writers in those days, and in the utopian civilization of Marghdeen we do have the seeds of Iqbal’s very own science fiction – something rather anticipatory of Tolkien as well as Avatar, since it introduces spirituality in a genre that has been usually filled completely with gadgetry (and while Iqbal does not give us details, he does mention the scientific advancement of the Martians as well as their extraordinary spiritual prowess).

Interestingly, this cosmology keeps recurring in his later poetry, especially in Urdu. More aspects are explored in various poems of Gabriel’s Wing, Zarb-i-Kaleem, and Armaghan-i-Hijaz where we are treated with conversations from purgatory, repeat appearances of the Devil, dialogue between God, Lenin, angels, and – of course – more glimpses of Iqbal’s version of the Genesis.

The meanings of his later Urdu poems adopt more dimensions if studied with reference to this cosmology. How else can one explain lines such as these, addressed to the Almighty in Gabriel’s Wing: “My thought has been wandering in the skies for so long, now confine it in the caves of the Moon”?

The Round Table Conferences


Iqbal’s politics from 1931 to the end of his life was dominated by one basic aim, i.e., to unite the Muslim community in India. In that bleak year when Maulana Muhammad Ali (Jauhar) had died in the wake of the First Round Table Conference and Jinnah had decided not to return, Iqbal did a great service to his community by publishing an open letter in The Statesman, Calcutta, in July that must have jolted up many readers. Picking up on a certain theory of Sir Francis Young Husband whereby the British author had invited his people to save the world, Iqbal wrote that the people of this region would like to help too. Hard feelings between India and Britain would pass, provided that both sides kept their sense of humor. These were “normal and inevitable accompaniments of an age of readjustment,” he assumed an almost condescending position over his British readers. “The periods of readjustment are the common-places of history. They have been going on ever since time began,” (as if he was himself a firsthand witness to the whole process), and then adding, without a warning: “The history of Europe deals with little else.” Next he came to his main point, “It is true that we in this country need readjustment between ourselves…”

The matter was immediately elaborated: if the British didn’t recognize the Muslims of the region as a political entity and went ahead to transfer all power to the Indian National Congress, the Muslims of India would be forced to use Gandhi’s tactics of non-cooperation against Gandhi himself when he came into power.

Iqbal called upon the British not to use their divisionary politics to this end. This masterstroke in argumentation was evidence that his training at Lincoln’s Inn had not been rusted after all these years. So far the mainstream Muslims of the Aligarh school of thought were the ones who had been constantly accused of being a product of the colonial stratagems. Iqbal was now turning the entire argument on its head. However, that was not enough, since the Poet of the East was in a mind to give some real jitters to his white rulers. Denying the Muslims of the sub-continent a share in power “may result in the whole of Muslim Asia being driven into the lap of Russian communism which would serve as a coup de grace to the British supremacy in the East,” he added. Then he went on to declare, “Since Bolshevism plus God is almost identical with Islam, I should not be surprised if, in the course of time, either Islam would devour Russia or Russia Islam. The result will depend, I think, to a considerable extent on the position which is given to the Indian Muslims under the new constitution.”

This expression was probably a political move. This entire letter was a political statement and not one of his Reconstruction lectures, but unfortunately it also misled many of his ardent admirers who would later take this quotation as Iqbal’s opinion on Bolshevism, forgetting much else of what he wrote on the subject. By the principles of Iqbal’s own philosophy it could be argued that religious thought grew organically rather than mechanically – the concept of God could not be added to a political system like a new room to an existing old building; it needed to be cultivated in the heart, and all other realities of one’s existence then had to grow out of that divine seed.

This was not the only instance of shrewd wordplay in that statement of Iqbal. He would not mind to be ruled by the Hindu “if the Hindu had the tact and ability to govern,” he stated. “But I cannot worship two gods. It must be either him alone or the British alone, but not the two together.” The subtle implication was that just as the British were ruling the sub-continent against the will of its people, Gandhi too, by asking the foreign rulers to transfer their power to him without solving the communal question was in fact engineering a Hindu imperialism over the Muslims. Let it not hide its true nature under a sanctimonious face of freedom or democracy, was what Iqbal was actually demanding.

He was invited to both of the subsequent round table conferences – the second and the third. The journeys took place in 1931 and 1932–33, and in addition to his political mandate, Iqbal also delivered his seventh and the last lecture in the Reconstruction series, visited many places on his way to and from London in each trip and commemorated almost every stop with some memorable poem.

All India Muslim Conference


Meanwhile his old class fellow Sir Fazli Husain had formed a combined platform of four Muslim political parties with financial backing from His Highness Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III. All India Muslim Conference, as it was called, received some sincere input from Iqbal and he even presided over its annual session in March 1932.

“He who desires to change an unfavorable environment must undergo a complete transformation of his inner being,” he told his listeners after deploring the fact that the Indian Muslims had long ceased to explore the depth of their own inner life. “Our ideal is well defined. It is to win in the coming constitution a position for Islam which may bring her opportunities to fulfill her destiny in this country. It is necessary in the light of this ideal to rouse the progressive forces of the community and to organize their hitherto dormant energies. The flame of life cannot be borrowed from others; it must be kindled in the temple of one’s own soul.”

He then proposed a “partly political, partly cultural” program – apparently inspired from the peasant’s leagues that played a role in China’s cultural transformation in the 1920’s, if not also inspired in parts from what he had witnessed in Mussolini’s Italy during his recent journey.

If he had not already formed that conclusion in his heart, he would come to it in less than two years, that the only man capable of leading the Muslims of the region was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the barrister and politician who had reportedly never told a lie in his life, nor ever broken the law.

‘Is Religion Possible?’


“Neither the technique of medieval mysticism, nor nationalism, nor atheistic socialism can cure the ills of a despairing humanity,” Iqbal stated in his lecture ‘Is Religion Possible,’ organized by the Aristotelian Society, London in 1932. “And religion, which in its higher manifestation is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involves, and restore to him that attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining it hereafter.”

The lecture was a fitting climax to the previous six ones in the Reconstruction (and was added by him as the seventh chapter when the Oxford University Press brought out an edition of the book two years later). Iqbal was now ready to move on, and that is what he did.

“I have spent the last 35 years of my life contemplating ways of adjusting Islam to the present culture and civilization, and that has been the focus of my life all this while,” he is reported to have stated early next year in a reception held on the occasion of his return. “To some extent my recent travels have convinced me that this is not the right way of presenting this issue as it implies the inferiority of Islam before the modern culture. In my opinion the correct approach is the other way round.” This statement, which has become very famous among Iqbal scholars, cannot be accepted if we remember that at this point he had just finalized the arrangements for the publication of the Reconstruction by Oxford University Press, thus ensuring a much wider propagation of the same former views which he is supposed to have discarded according to this statement. Secondly, it is not even true that in his entire career as a thinker he had been “adjusting Islam to the present culture and civilization.” It had happened on other occasion that reporters, even when they were from his inner circle, ended up misquoting him or missing his point altogether. The same appears to be the case here. What he actually said on that occasion cannot be found out now, but all that may be presumed within reason is that in some manner, which the reporter apparently failed to grasp, Iqbal was pointing out the need to retain an intellectual position above and beyond sentimentalities.

The topic he chose for an in-depth study around this time was ‘Time and Space in the Muslim Thought.’ This he suggested to the Oxford University, which had invited him to make a presentation in the Rhodes Lectures series. He immediately busied himself collecting material on the theme but the topic had to be dropped in the end, since the University found it too complex for the intended audience.

In a way that was his farewell to metaphysics. The next choice was reinterpretation of the Muslim law. This issue was also close to his heart and once when an admirer called him the mujaddid, or the reviver of the age, he replied, “That I am not. The mujaddid of the present times would be the one who reinterprets the Muslim law.” Working out the principles on which the Muslim law could be reinterpreted remained his major focus during those last few years of his life along with another project he wanted to take up, i.e. writing down his notes on the Holy Quran. Both ambitions remained unfulfilled due to financial problems and failing health.

One observation might be relevant here. Unlike poetry or philosophy, law has no utility without political power and that was one reason why the Sufis rarely held it in a high priority despite observing the religious precepts in daily life. Iqbal was essentially a Sufi but he was also in touch with the pulse of his times. A fundamental difference between Iqbal’s vision of the Islamic law and the various subsequent movements with seemingly similar purposes, is, that his main interest was putting an end to tyranny and poverty through the implementation of the Islamic law. From this position, the implementation of this law in a free country should start with those provisions which liberate the masses and bring them more civil rights as well as a better standard of living. On the other hand, many movements that aimed at implementing the Islamic law since then have unfortunately begun by putting sanctions on the common person in the name of religion while avoiding the inevitable conflict with the forces of exploitation.

Gabriel’s Wing


Iqbal’s legal practice floundered as a result of his frequent travels in the early 1930’s and his subsequent prolonged illness beginning with partial loss of voice in 1934. The disease was finally diagnosed as cardiac asthma and though he also visited Bhopal twice for electrotherapy, the treatment seems by and large irregular by modern standards. His beloved wife Sirdar Begum died in 1935 (a few days within shifting to their own house, Javid Manzil) and apparently he could never get over the loss. He rarely visited the zanana portion of the house, stopped dyeing his hair and started describing himself as an ‘invalid.’ He would also mention a supernatural bond through which her spirit informed her that she had already been judged and passed beyond the purgatory.

A stipend of Rs. 500 per month from the Nawab of Bhopal came as a timely assistance at this point. This was the only allowance Iqbal ever accepted from a ruler. In return he dedicated The Blow of Moses, or Zarb-i-Kaleem, to him two years later. However, that book was preceded by ‘Musafir’, a brief versified travelogue in Persian describing his visit to Afghanistan (visited in 1933 for advising the government on educational policy), which came out in 1934 and Baal-i-Jibreel, or Gabriel’s Wing, the landmark book of poetry in Urdu published in 1935.

Gabriel’s Wing is an experiment in compilation. The first sixteen pieces, which look like ghazals (but many of which are not ghazals) are numbered and, without any explanation, the numbering restarts after the sixteenth piece. This is apparently intended to suggest, in a subtle way, that the first sequence is a monologue addressed to God and the second a monologue addressed to the humanity. These two are followed by quatrains and the latter half of the book consists of poems, including some of Iqbal’s best. The poems also lead into each other thematically, so that their impact and meaning depends on the number of poems read together. For instance, ‘Lenin in the Presence of God’ taken on its own is remarkable but if the next two poems ‘The Song of the Angels’ and ‘God’s Decree’ are also added to it then the trilogy brings new meanings to the whole thing. The poem written on the tomb of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (Mujaddid Alf-i-Sani) is a light-veined rhetoric if taken in isolation but turns out to be the prelude to an exhaustive study of the politics in Punjab if the next few poems are also read in continuity.

The key to this design of the book and its subtexts is provided, not through words but through the conspicuous absence of such words: there is no editorial preface and not even a table of contents. That this masterpiece must be seen as a single book rather than an anthology of isolated poems should be evident from the omission of the table of contents to those who pay heed to the two-line prelude of the book – a couplet from the Hindu poet Bhartari Hari to the effect that the heart of a diamond could be cut with a flower petal while the subtleties of discourse are wasted upon the ignorant.

Gabriel’s Wing has a strong affinity with Javid Nama, which provides the landscape and narrative background for most of its poems although its best poem ‘The Mosque of Cordoba’ stemmed from the principles about the architecture of free people earlier elucidated in ‘The Book of Slaves’ in Persian Psalms.

What did he find so inspiring about the mosque? “I found a significant difference in the three buildings I visited [in Spain],” he later said in an informal gathering. “The Palace of Al Zahra seemed to be the creation of giants; the Mosque of Cordoba, of civilized giants while the Palace of Alhamra just that of civilized humans.” Reportedly, Iqbal then smiled and added, “I wandered about in the Palace of Alhamra but whereever I looked I saw ‘Hu al Ghalib’ [‘He is the Dominant One’] written on the walls. I said to myself, ‘God dominates everything here. I would rather that man dominated something too!”

The grand building in Cordoba, then, answered to his taste for magnificence in art. It naturally provided the argument that opens the poem: Time is the enigmatic vanquisher but a masterpiece of art created by a “Man of God” is timeless. Of course, one has to account for natural disasters and Iqbal does not care to tell us how he would make exceptions to his rule in order to fit a case where a theoretically permanent artifact by a Man of God vanishes due to some natural calamity. Yet, the real worth of a poem lies in its beauty and not in its scientific truth, as he had jotted down in his notebook long time ago.

The poem is especially touching as it moves on from the initial high-flown idea to draw similarities between the magnificence of the building with things more humane and alive around us – such as the heart of a true believer, or the song sung unmindfully by the daughter of a peasant in the nearby field, or the prophetic imagination of the poet himself. As one of the critics has rightly pointed out, instead of writing a poem about the mosque, the poet sought to create through words an equivalent of its architectural splendor.

The ‘Man of God’ (‘mard-i-Khuda’) and the ‘Muslim’ (‘mard-i-Musalman’) as used in the poem are not synonymous. The ‘Man of God,’ whose work receives immortality could be anyone, even a non-Muslim, who is moved by Love – in Javid Nama, Iqbal had shown Hindu poets as paragons of perfection while Gabriel’s Wing itself ascribed a remarkable strength of character even to Lenin. Hence a Muslim might just be one of the many possible types of “men of God.”

Never departing from its universal underpinnings, the poem, however, retains a thoroughly Islamic character in its unrelenting movement from one magnificence of Muslim thought and history to another until the past is transformed into the present and the present is experienced as a foreshadow of the future.

In the overall plan of Gabriel’s Wing, ‘The Mosque of Cordoba’ is preceded by a ‘Prayer’ (written in the mosque itself). The powerful grandeur of these poems is contrasted by varying shades of several other prayers – ranging from dramatic monologues of figures from the Moorish Spain and the Russian Lenin to angels in the heaven and, finally a reply from God Himself, the much talked about poem in which God bids the angels to topple the oppressive social and economic systems in the world.

The Blow of Moses and What Should Now be Done?


Two books came out the next year. Zarb-i-Kaleem in Urdu and Pas Cheh Bayed Kerd Aye Aqwam-i-Sharq in Persian.

The first was subtitled ‘a declaration of war against the present age’, and showcased Iqbal’s perspective on religion, education, art, current affairs and ‘the woman question.’ It is often seen as rather didactic and, as compared to the other works of Iqbal – especially his earlier poetry – its quotations often sound rigid and unrelenting in terms of the ideas they contain. This impression begins to dispel once the book is studied in its entirety. To begin with, the prefatory poems themselves make it clear that the poet is well aware of the ruggedness of his expression, which is a necessity due to the nature of his task.

Almost sixty and suffering from chronic illnesses, he must have counted this seventh book of his poetry as one of the final expressions of his vision for a universal social reconstruction, and as such the sense of urgency is well-justified. However, the Islamic poems in this work do not betray to see a world subjugated by the Muslim faith. In fact, one of the poems contains a rather sarcastic criticism of the preaching of Islam in Europe, and proposes that the exploitation of the poorer nations would not end by the conversion of the white races, since the Western political system was based on race rather than religion. The implication is that a change in the political structure of the global community, and not a lip service to faith, is needed. The plea to the Muslim readers is to pay attention to the true spirit of Islam and present a humanitarian model before the world. Just like Sir Syed had done before him, Iqbal too asks the Muslim readers to move on from such unproductive ideas as predestination and blind following of religious leaders.

‘Makkah and Geneva’ is one of the many poems where the aim of Islam is presented as “nothing less than a nation of humanity. Makkah sent this message to the soil of Geneva: a League of Nations, or a League of Humanity?”

Having devoted his life to the reconstruction of Muslim religious thought for achieving unity of the human race, he reiterated here that faith turns into superstition if divorced from a sense of life: every bough that grows on a plant is a testimony to the fact that even the plants are aware of the expanse of the space, he argued in a poem aptly titled ‘Resignation’: “Don’t bar the path to deeds for Nature’s claims/ Submission to Will of God has different aims.”

Nor does the book lack in its share of shock treatment for jolting up the readers, especially the Muslim readers: “May I say it openly, if it may not strain you too much: the existence of the human being is neither the soul nor the body.” If the Muslims were to carry forward his mission of a universal social reconstruction then they would be called upon to revise their positions on a lot of issues about life and religion, and to jolt them up into critical thinking was the combined purpose of all Islamic poems in this book, whether motivational or rational.

The avowedly didactic character of the book does not affect the poetic quality too much, and some passages even surpass the previous Urdu poems in terseness and brevity. Most of the section on art and literature is colorful without being flowery, while the poems about current affairs successfully conciliate verbal art with polemics.

The Persian masnavi was his last undertaking in that genre and in a way it finished off the discussion started in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (see Chapter 3). Health was failing him by that time and he was taking solace in the thought that his work in this world was heading towards a decent close.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah


It is not known when Iqbal first met Muhammad Ali Jinnah (more widely known as Quaid-i-Azam, or the Great Leader, after 1938). Iqbal might have heard about him around 1911 when Jinnah successfully pleaded the case of an antiquated Muslim law in the Viceroy’s Council. Iqbal was skeptical about the whole thing and considered it to be much ado about nothing – “The Sheikh Sahib used to fight for the Law of Trusteeship,” he wrote in a satirical poem, “Ask whether he even has property for turning into a trust!”

Lucknow Pact, the crowning achievement of Jinnah’s early political career, was a great pitfall according to Iqbal. He believed that the pact turned the Muslim majority of Punjab into a virtual minority, and even wrote some satirical verses about Jinnah descending from the celestial London on the mount Simla like another Jesus Christ. As late as 1929, Iqbal and Jinnah were poised in the opposite camps of the Muslim League, which had bifurcated between Jinnah and Sir Muhammad Shafi. Iqbal went to Delhi that year to attend the meeting in which Jinnah was supposed to present his Fourteen Points and couldn’t. They had certainly developed some mutual appreciation by the next year when the League patched up and the invitation to preside over its annual session was sent to Iqbal with the willing approval of Jinnah, if not on his very suggestion.

The sad demise of Sir Muhammad Shafi in 1931 might have pressed upon Iqbal the need as well as the opportunity to look at Jinnah in a new light and it is reported through an oral tradition that Iqbal was a frequent guest at Jinnah’s Hampstead residence during the course of the Third Round Table Conference. He is also usually named as one of the people who urged Jinnah to end his self-imposed exile and return home. Despite a history of political differences, Jinnah was the only Muslim leader in the sub-continent whose personal magnanimity matched Iqbal’s lofty imagination.

The two met in the last week of April 1936 at Iqbal’s Lahore residence to discuss the setting up of a parliamentary board for the Muslim League in Punjab. Jinnah had still not earned his title of the Quaid-i-Azam, or the Great Leader, but the poet certainly regarded him as one. He told his twelve-year-old son Javid that they were going to receive a very great personality, and latter when Jinnah commented on the shy young boy’s hesitation to answer the casual question about what he would like to do when grown up, Iqbal remarked, “He is waiting for you to tell him what he should do.”

The parliamentary board was subsequently set up and Iqbal played a major role in bringing the Muslims of Punjab to the folds of Jinnah’s Muslim League. The task was difficult and by no means accomplished in the lifetime of Iqbal. At best Jinnah was able to make a so-called pact with Sir Sikander Hayat, the Unionist leader of the province, whom Iqbal didn’t trust. However, Iqbal’s services went a long way to the eventual popularity of the Muslim League in the province.

“His views were substantially in consonance with my own,” Jinnah wrote in his foreword to the collection of Iqbal’s letters addressed to him, “And finally led me to the same conclusions as a result of careful examination and study of the constitutional problems facing India.”

“The League will have to finally decide whether it will remain a body representing the upper classes of Indian Muslims or Muslim masses who have so far, for good reason, taken no interest in it,” Iqbal wrote to him while explaining that the new Constitution of 1935 didn’t provide justice to the common people. Pressing the significance of economic problems of the masses he observed, “Happily there is a solution in the enforcement of the Law of Islam and its further development in the light of modern ideas. After a long and careful study of Islamic Law I have come to the conclusion that if this System of Law is properly understood and applied, at least the right to subsistence is secured to everybody.” The need for a Muslim state or states was therefore imminent, he pointed out.

As Jinnah would write in his foreword, these views “found expression in due course in the united will of Muslim India as adumbrated in the Lahore Resolution of All India Muslim League, popularly known as the ‘Pakistan Resolution,’ passed on 23rd March, 1940.” That was nearly two years after Iqbal died.

Debates with Ahmedis and the Nationalist Ulema


Iqbal dabbled in two major controversies in his last days.

The first of these started when, in 1935, the Governor of Punjab advised the Muslims to overcome the rift between the Ahmedis and non-Ahmedis. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadiyan, a religious scholar and debater had started the Ahmedi Movement in the late 19th Century. He later claimed that he was a prophet and all Muslims should accept him as such. A belief about the second coming of the Christ was current among many Muslims, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmed claimed also to be the promised messiah.

Iqbal was at first impressed by the vigor and social spirit of this movement and it found some favorable references in his early prose (but never in his poetry, except for a poem attributed to his early days without sufficient authority). He could never sympathize with the religious ideas of its founder, since they were in refutation of the finality of the Prophet of Islam (according to Iqbal, “the Promised Messiah” was “a bastard expression” since the concept of waiting for a supernatural redeemer was alien to the spirit of Islam). By 1935 he was openly asking the government to declare the Ahmedis a separate community from the Muslims, just as the Sikhs were declared separate from the Hindus in 1919.

He received severe criticism from the Ahmedis, the British and the Indian National Congress (the last of which was represented by a series of lectures by Jawaharlal Nehru to which Iqbal responded with an exhaustive article on the subject).

The other argument started with his rather harsh statement against Maulana Husain Ahmed Madni, a renowned scholar from the orthodox seminary of Deoband, who was reported in the newspapers to have said that nations were founded on the basis of territory and not religious ideals. Iqbal’s criticism came out as a Persian poem, starting, “The non-Arab world hasn’t yet grasped the mystery of religion, or else how could Husain Ahmed from Deoband utter such nonsense!” The ensuing controversy marked the last intellectual battle fought by Iqbal and it was apt that his opponent should represent orthodoxy defending territorialism – two concepts, against which Iqbal had taken a lifelong stand, thus got combined now in a single person.



His burning desire was to visit the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Anticipating this, he titled his forthcoming collection of Persian poems Armaghan-i-Hijaz (The Arabian Gift) – his secretaries were therefore shocked when he eventually dictated a table of contents. Was he giving up hope of living until the sacred journey and of finishing his book in the land of the Prophet?

Professor Hameed Ahmad Khan, who visited him with two friends on the evening of November 10, 1937, has left this vivid account:

Dr. Sahib [Iqbal] was lying in his bed. Still reclining on his pillow, he replied to our greeting. We three were about to sit down on the chairs near the bed when he asked, “Who is this?”

We were taken aback, a little. I had been visiting him for seven or eight years now and he had always welcomed me. Although there had been a gap of a few months, I could still not understand why he would ask such a question. Hiding my surprise I answered him, “It’s me, Hameed Ahmad Khan – Saeedullah and Abdul Vahid.” And we sat down on the chairs.

We asked him how he was doing and then there was a brief silence finally broken by his characteristic long ‘Hmmm!’ ...I looked at the little table next to his bed. Five or seven books were resting on it while one or two were lying on the floor near it. Fleetingly glancing over the books I asked, “Dr. Sahib, are you reading more these days, or writing too?”

“What reading!” He replied, “I can’t see...”

He was suffering from senile cataract, which could not be operated upon until it was ripe. “Since I cannot read now, I spend my time thinking,” he told Hameed in the same meeting. “It offers the same pleasure.” Then he lifted his head from the pillow and added with a little excitement, “The strange thing is that my memory has improved since the loss of sight.”

On February 7, 1938, he dictated what would turn out to be his last Urdu poem (although a few more couplets would follow in Persian). An apt ending to his poetic career, the poem was called ‘The Human Being’ and was meant for inclusion in his proposed Urdu anthology – which turned out to be a section added at the of Armaghan-i-Hijaz, or The Gift of Hijaz.

Indeed, some verses alluded to death – such as a Persian quatrain that has become very famous since then:

Will the old song return?
Will another breeze arrive from the Hijaz?
The time of this faqir has come –
Will there be another who knows all secrets?

(Translated by Mustansir Mir)

The physicians pronounced him critical on the evening of April 20 and decided that the treatment should be changed the next day. However, it was not very likely that he would make it through the night.

His son Javid entered his bedroom in the late hours. Unable to see him due to cataract, Iqbal asked someone who the visitor was. Upon hearing that it was Javid, he smiled and said gleefully, “I would rather that you become Javid!” (The name means ‘immortal’ or ‘eternal’ in Persian). He then requested Chaudhry Muhammad Husain, one of the trustees, to read out ‘An Address to Javid’ from Javid Nama to him when he grows up. This was the last time the boy saw his father alive.

It was a little before dawn that Iqbal felt congestion in the chest and called for the physician, who had left shortly before. It was suggested that he should not be disturbed again so soon. “It will be too late otherwise,” said the poet, and recited the Persian quatrain he had composed a few days ago. Someone rushed out but the end came before help could arrive.

It is reported that in his final moments he refused to take pain-killers because they were sedatives and he did not wish to miss out on the experience of dying awake. While his servant Ali Bux was holding him for comfort, Iqbal pointed to his chest, saying, “It is here,” and passed away with almost a sigh.

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