Three basic questions
Iqbal was not a philosopher in the Western sense
of the word but in the Eastern sense. He never claimed to have
a system of philosophy in the same sense as Kant or Hegel had
theirs (he categorically denied this during his visits to Europe
in the early 1930’s). Instead, he claimed his intellectual
descent from Muslim sages like Sanai, ’Attar and Rumi (in
Gabriel’s Wing he even quotes a verse popularly attributed
to Rumi, which says, “We are coming after Sanai and ’Attar”).
Hence, the distinct worldview that he had was presented in the
organic, holistic structure known for such discourses in the East
and not delineated in the mechanical manner common in the West.
Philosophers, Western or Eastern, try to answer
some questions (and not all questions, as sometimes misunderstood
by the followers of Iqbal). There are three basic questions that
Iqbal tried to answer.
- What is the right approach towards understanding
the world? He believed in the ego, and specified at least three
types that play an important role in the human affairs: the
individual ego, the collective ego and the Absolute Ego (God)
– which was the source of the individual ego and was discussed
mainly in that context. (The collective ego was not a direct
creation of God, but was created through a “man of God,”
the pioneer of that community. For instance, the Muslim community
was a creation of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him).
- What is the nature of human life on earth? Applying
his theory of the ego to the human world, Iqbal pointed out
that all humanity was one. Anything that divided the human race
was evil and must be opposed, whether it was nationalism, racism
or even some reductionist interpretation of religion.
- What is the ideal worth living for? The ideal
to be achieved is a world completely free from poverty and tyranny.
Unlike Marx, Iqbal offers an essentially spiritual solution
and his observations sound strikingly contemporary today in
the light of the new trends now unfolding all over the world.
However, he is also on guard against intellectual eccentricities
and wasteful hallucination. History is a good benchmark. A balance
between innovation and restraint is advisable for our own good
(and not because tradition is inviolable in itself – Iqbal
believed that Islam was “anti-classical” in its
As we have seen, the most important premise in his
thought is the unity of the human race, rooted in the Oneness
of its Creator, and the divine in each human being. The very thought
of humanity could drive him to ecstasy. Transformation of an individual
soul into something larger than itself was the common goal of
all mystics, but while some of the earlier ones had preached fulfillment
through annihilation into the Divine Self – proclaiming
that a drop becomes an ocean by becoming a part of it –
Iqbal declared that the individual ego must seek its expansion
through union with the collective ego of the group.
Today, the gurus of human resource management are
devising workshops for suggesting that competition within an organization,
which was once regarded as the healthiest form of motivation,
is an outdated monstrosity that must be replaced with the gentler
incentives based on the idea that the world has enough resources
to make everyone happy. The human resource experts must primarily
think in terms of organizations and small groups. It takes a world
philosopher to raise our vision to the level where we can suddenly
realize that our ideas need not be restricted to small groups
but may be applied to the entire humanity. Cooperative learning
is not for classrooms only – how about applying it to the
heads at Geneva? Win/win approach is not for boardrooms only –
what could the world not achieve if this became the rule for international
We need a world class thinker to provide sufficient
drive for developing such a conviction in our hearts and minds.
Iqbal is one such thinker. He employs the trickiest, shrewdest,
loveliest possible wordplay to convince his listeners that if
political leaders can talk in terms of eradicating illiteracy
and poverty in their own countries then why can’t someone
talk about wiping out the evils from the face of the entire globe?
If one leader can’t do that, then many should get together
– or maybe all should get together.
What the scientists of management are today showing
us as possible, convenient and reasonable at micro level is also
possible, convenient and reasonable at macro level. It may sound
strange but it might be true that among the great modern thinkers
with any claim to universality, Iqbal is perhaps the only one
whose thought can provide a profound philosophical foundation
for building a super structure of global solutions from the ideas
gaining popularity on a grass-root level in our times.
This is the difference Iqbal can make to our world.
His belief in a common human future was far ahead of his times
to be understood then and it is no surprise that it was mistaken
for something else, something smaller. Today his voice can bring
a paradigm shift in the way we see ourselves and our world.
The birth of a
There have been many poets but few can be credited
with the birth of a civilization. Homer and Iqbal are two cases
in point. The works of such poets not only stand in their own
right but also provide a rational context for making sense of
the civilizations that spring out of them. The Homeric poetry
is not only a reference for the Greek poets and playwrights that
came after him but also for the exploits of Alexander of Macedon,
who was driven by a larger than life ambition to live out the
The genetic code of Pakistan — the state as
well as the civilization — is contained in the works of
Iqbal. To these we must refer with an objective mind.
Pakistan is now been around for long enough that
its history could become a dependable reference. The future course
of action in this country may be charted out now in the light
of its past experiences since 1947. As Iqbal is the ideological
founding father of the nation, the relevance of his thought should
also be determined in the light of this recent history.
Firstly, let’s look at the way the society
has changed since the days of Iqbal. The British have gone and
we are independent. On the flip side, it also means that the magnificent
infra structure of the Raj – receiving sustenance directly
or indirectly from centuries of political and administrative experience
of the British – is gone too. Many things that Iqbal took
for granted – such as democracy, cultural pluralism, a certain
degree of tolerance, and efficient governance – now need
to be rediscovered through our own effort. We need to readjust
his thought to this situation.
Secondly, it is often overlooked that the Muslim
“community” mentioned by Iqbal might not be the same
as the Muslim “state” that we now have in our hands.
The state, in the modern political sense, tends to become a Frankenstein
monster, and it was this exploitative business against which Iqbal
complained when he described patriotism as a false god of the
new age. The give and take between an individual and the community
is transparent and immediate, whereas the totalitarian tendency
of the state dictates a different ballgame. It creates a mystique
and introduces blinkers in the name of security concerns, very
often without even explaining them to the citizen. Just as religion
was abused by the rulers for exploiting the common people in the
medieval age, so the mystique of the modern state may be abused
by the ruling elites, whoever they may be.
Iqbal’s concept of a separate homeland for
the Muslims on “communal” lines was driven by a desire
to avoid precisely the kind of games that were later played in
Pakistan by some wielders of power. One can be sure that the denial
of human dignity in the name of state necessity would be shirk
in the eyes of Iqbal, and he would say that it amounts to making
the state a partner with God.
It is true that the transformation of the community
into a state was inevitable once the state was established, but
the regrettable fact is that this transformation happened mostly
at the hands of non-professionals. Bad politicians, bureaucrats
and military adventurists could hardly be looked upon to accomplish
a task that was more challenging than running any other state
in the world, for this was a state that was to present a model
against the common trends of the age. The very point in having
Pakistan was to defeat the idea of geographical divisions in the
world, and to lead the humanity in discovering a universal spiritual
democracy. To match the task were needed, not just good leaders,
but extraordinary ones.
Unfortunately, the people at the helm of things
in Pakistan for a very long time were the complete antithesis
of what was desirable – when Iqbal’s younger son Javid
met one of the dictators who ruled over Pakistan in its early
phase, he was extended courtesy but was told that his services
were not required since he was a gentleman. “We are looking
for rascals,” the ruler said to Javid in just so many words.
Great leaders, at least in a democratic context, can only come
up when the people are empowered and mindful of their civil liberties.
Thirdly, the Pakistani society has remained divided
on the issue whether Islam should have an official role in the
state or not. This divide between the “liberals” and
the “conservatives” has caused a deplorable waste
of political energies and intellectual talent. It is not even
diversity of opinion as may be desired by the society. It is disintegration.
There is no attempt of meaningful dialogue between these opposing
schools of thought. Perhaps a common ground could be reached if
both sides were willing to accept the humanity of the other, and
focused on solving the real problems of the common people of the
country rather than fighting over names and icons.
For Pakistan, Iqbal could mean a much-needed compromise
in this heated debate. He supported the legitimacy of the Muslim
law but focused on the eradication of poverty and injustice. The
Iqbal scholars should now do something to bring him into the higher
avenues of discourse in the region, which has remained aloof from
him since 1947. This can only be done if we stop projecting our
own ideologies on him and allow him to come out as what he was.
The Way Ahead
The study of Iqbal suffers greatly from a decadent
trend peculiar to the East. Here, even original ideas are often
presented by way of “commentaries” on past masters.
A classic example of this was Iqbal’s hero Al-Jili himself,
whose perception of wahdatul wujud notably differed from Ibn ‘Arabi,
yet his ideas were paraded as commentaries on the Spanish mystic.
Likewise, a careful study of the enormous bulk of the so-called
“thought of Iqbal” literature would show that so many
ideas presented by his interpreters have no foundation in his
A thinker of Iqbal’s stature should have
spawned a school of thought, or several schools of thought, claiming
their descent from him but giving birth to entire generations
of independent thinkers. One is overwhelmed by the sense of waste
considering that the intellectual face of Pakistan could have
been different if these countless “commentators” had
taken the sensible step of coming out on their own. Just how many
independent social scientists and thinkers we could have had if
instead of wasting their energies in proving their ideas with
insufficient references to Iqbal they had tested and proven those
new ideas against the rules of logic, reasoning and common sense!
Good results may come out if commentaries on Iqbal
are restricted to those issues that he himself chose as topics
or sub-topics, and preferably on which he left substantial amount
of writings from every period in his life, so that we can not
only see the progression of his thought but also be sure that
what he was saying on these subjects was not a fleeting comment
that could be misunderstood but a product of his independent thinking
over a considerable period of time.
For instance, there are such themes as Time, education,
law, and so on, which Iqbal touched upon in his poetry and prose
but did not cover comprehensively. To claim that one knows the
complete picture of these concepts as it existed in Iqbal’s
mind is not scholarship but clairvoyance.
A good deal of energy currently wasted away in
writing far-flung explanations could be directed towards independent
thinking on important issues which we face today. The fundamental
principles of Iqbal’s approach – infallible belief
in the glory of the human soul and a healthy spiritual sensitivity
– could be used as starting points for approaching the issues
of modern life but let there be new ideas. Let there be more thinkers.
However, the difference between presenting something
on your own authority and forging it in the name of a past master
is actually the difference between two entirely different intellectual
settings. To make a statement in your own name you need to be
in a society where critical thinking and originality is valued,
and people are open-minded and look forward to new ideas. You
can present the same stuff but with reference to someone dead
for ages if you are living in a society where critical thinking
and originality are considered blasphemous, people are morally
insecure and look backward on their past in order to avoid responsibility
for their own actions.
Regardless of the impediments in the intellectual
make-up of their society, the Pakistani people today carry the
immense responsibility of making the voice of Iqbal heard across
the globe: today the world needs to hear him more than ever before.
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