Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Book Review | Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician

Poet unlimited

Even in a country distinguished by its serial forgetfulness, the once-looming figure of Muhammad Iqbal has been treated exceptionally shabbily by history. His is a paradoxical, unquestionably rich legacy of poetry and politics that has been uniquely blasted into smithereens, and then pieced together into disparate, often competing, historical and political narratives.

The single best-known fact about Iqbal is that he composed the ghazal-anthem Saare Jahan Se Accha, declaring (in translation) “our homeland is Hindustan". Contemporary textbooks, however, still prefer to portray him as the spiritual father of Pakistan, which only came into existence many years after his death. Iran has staked its claim too. In 1986, the paramount Shia cleric and “Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei declared the Islamic Republic of Iran as “the embodiment of Iqbal’s dream", saying “we are following the path shown to us by Iqbal".

Though the poet was a resolute, lifelong critic and opponent of colonialism—and openly sought to oppose Western aggression by fostering broad Muslim solidarity across borders —Iqbal nonetheless accepted a knighthood from the British government in 1923. He was powerfully affected by the urban modernity he experienced as a student in England and Germany, writing that “the Western people are distinguished in the world for their power of action...a study of their literature and philosophy is the best guide to an understanding of the significance of life". Still, his prescription for Indian Muslims was not to read Friedrich Nietzsche but to study the Quran: “Focus your vision on Islam." Iqbal even lectured a sceptical Muhammad Ali Jinnah about the manifold benefits that would accrue if the Shariah, or Islamic law, was “enforced".

Iqbal is best remembered in India for his marvellous Urdu poetry, full of love for his homeland. In this regard too, the contemporary record is accurate only about a small part of the story—more than half of Iqbal’s considerable oeuvre is written in Persian, while the form is often derived from classical Arabic poetry. As the poet himself wrote in the last lines of Shikwa, his wildly controversial “Complaint (to God)":

So what if the ewer is Persian?

The wine is Hijazi.

So what if the song is Hindustani?

The cadence is Hijazi.

(Translated by Mustansir Dalvi)


This towering, multi-dimensional figure of tantalizing complexity has nonetheless been half-forgotten and enshrined in the wrong way by opportunists with crude agendas. Iqbal is obviously a prime candidate for 21st century reappraisal, and a really good, meaty new biography. Unfortunately, Zafar Anjum’s bizarrely stilted, paint-by-numbers Iqbal: The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician is not that book.

Iqbal: The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician: Random House, 320 pages, 429.
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Iqbal: The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician: Random House, 320 pages, 429.

Still, there are some entertaining, if possibly apocryphal, anecdotes. For instance, Anjum writes that Iqbal became interested in a conversation he overheard in the London Underground “about the essence of Buddhist faith. Seeing that Iqbal is probably Asian, they turn to him for a definition of the Oriental religion. ‘What is Buddhism,’ one of them asks him. ‘I’ll tell you,’ Iqbal says and falls silent…‘What is Buddhism?’ they enquire of him again after a few minutes. ‘Sure, I’ll tell you,’ Iqbal replies and goes back into his silence. A few more anxiety-filled minutes pass. The passengers consider Iqbal with curiosity. ‘Perhaps you are thinking about the answer,’ one of the passengers says. ‘Yes,’ Iqbal gives them a brief smile and maintains his silence. By now the station has arrived. The guard shouts, ‘All change!’ The passengers make their way to the carriage door. ‘This is what Buddhism is,’ finally Iqbal tells his fellow travellers, indicating the significance of silence."

While Anjum’s book is fact-filled, it is written in a strange narrative style that combines an awkward present tense with very short sentences that become tedious. “Iqbal enjoys a loving atmosphere at home. His mother Imam Bi plays an important role in his development. He loves her dearly. When Iqbal will grow up and study in Lahore, and later on in England and Germany, she will be the reason for his visits to Sialkot. She will eagerly wait for his letters from London." This kind of odd staccato persists throughout.

But there’s no lack of euphony in the very best part of this well-intentioned but deeply flawed biography—the appendix where some of Iqbal’s own important writings in English are reproduced in full. Here we encounter magnificent flow and mastery of language and idiom by a truly great Indian intellectual and thinker in the mould of Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar.

Wrote Iqbal, the supposed “spiritual father of Pakistan" who is said to have “showed the path" for Iran: “India is Asia in miniature. Part of her people have cultural affinities with nations of the east, and part with nations in the middle and west of Asia. If an effective principle of cooperation is discovered in India, it will bring peace and mutual goodwill to this ancient land which has suffered so long, more because of her situation in historic space than because of any inherent incapacity of her people…A community which is inspired by feelings of ill-will towards other communities is low and ignoble. I entertain the highest respect for the customs, laws, religious and social institutions of other communities. Nay, it is my duty, according to the teaching of the Quran, even to defend their place of worship, if need be."

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