Today is Muhammad Iqbal’s 136th birthday, which was celebrated with much revelry and reverence.
At last, Hamza Kashgari has been released from jail. Kashgari should have never been arrested in the first place. He never committed a crime.
What he did was dare to tweet an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad. Judging from all the furor that immediately ensued, one might assume his tweet was filled with curses and venomous hatred. But what he wrote was hardly incendiary–nothing more than a few lines from a longer poem entitled, “Out of Time: A dialogue with the Prophet“:
I love many things about you and hate others, and there are many things about you I don’t understand.
On your birthday, I shall not bow to you, I shall not kiss your hand.
Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.
For this, he was arrested and held in jail for 20 months. For this he faced a possible death penalty for apostasy. Astonishing.
A century ago, another poet wrote of an imaginary conversation, not with the Prophet Muhammad, but with God Himself. Actually, he wrote two companion poems. The first as Complaint to God, and the second was His Reply.
He dared to challenge God Himself. A century ago. But he wasn’t executed. He wasn’t even arrested.
In 1909, Muhammad Iqbal published Shikwa (The Complaint). At the time, the Muslim establishment was shocked by Iqbal’s harsh words and apparent ingratitude toward God. His poem sparked debate, not calls for execution. A few years later, by the time he published the companion poem, Jawab i-Shikwa (Reply to the Complaint), the last vestiges of public controversy had given way to widespread acclaim:
“Iqbal has come amongst us as the Messiah and has stirred the dead with life.” ~ a young Muslim admirer
We are swimming in a very different historical moment. We live in a time when, sadly, “Muslim thinker” will strike many as an oxymoron. Yet Muhammad Iqbal was arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.
He was not only a renowned poet, but also a philosopher, and a political strategist hailed as the spiritual Father of Pakistan. He is fondly remembered for his stunning contribution to classical Urdu and Persian poetry, and is a towering figure in the Muslim world today, where he has become affectionately known as the Poet of the East.
The sliver of Muslim society that is constantly in the Western spotlight is not reflective of the whole Muslim world, now or in the past. Iqbal’s legacy is a direct challenge to the image of Muslims as mindless, two-dimensional characters devoid of thought and reason. Critical of both Western exploitation and decay within the Muslim world, Iqbal dreamed of a Muslim renaissance.
A product of the East and the West, Iqbal was well suited to bridging the gap between the two. He held degrees in philosophy from both the Universities of Cambridge and Munich, and was well acquainted with ancient Greek philosophy. He drank deeply from the works of European thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. Ultimately, his own distinctive philosophical framework emerged, a synthesis of East and West, but firmly rooted in traditional Islam.
Urdu and Persian Poetry
Unfortunately, Iqbal’s work is not widely known outside of limited academic circles in the West. His obscurity stems partly from a general lack of interest in poetry and philosophy in popular culture. But even those who enjoy philosophy and poetry may find his work challenging. Rich with religious and historical references unfamiliar to most Western audiences, Iqbal is not a likely choice for light reading. These obstacles are further exacerbated by a language barrier because, especially in poetry, some of the original majesty and meaning are inevitably lost in translation.
Iqbal was born in Sialkot, in pre-partition India, in a portion of the Punjab that is now part of Pakistan. He was a native speaker of Urdu, a flowing and beautiful language that lends itself well to poetic expression. Shikwa and Jawab i-Shikwa are fine examples of Urdu poetry, but ultimately, Iqbal favored Persian (Farsi), a sweet and charming language singularly well adapted to the expression of literature and poetry.
Just as French is widely admired for its beauty in the West, Persian is widely admired in the Muslim world, a language Iqbal described eloquently in his book, The Secrets of the Self:
Although the language of Hind is sweet as sugar, Yet sweeter is the fashion of Persian speech.
My mind was enchanted by its loveliness, My pen became as a twig of the Burning Bush.
Because of the loftiness of my thoughts, Persian alone is suitable to them.
O Reader, do not find fault with the wine-cup, But consider attentively the taste of the wine.
Excerpt from The Secrets of the Self (Kindle Locations 445-452). OrangeSky Project. Kindle Edition.
Muhammad Iqbal’s poetic style has been compared to that of the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, but his inspiration came largely from Persian mystic, Jalálu’ddín Rúm. Widely known in the West simply as Rumi, he was a 13th century Muslim mystic from Central Asia.
Rumi is one of the most popular poets in America today. A Time Magazine article, Rumi Rules!, described him as a, “lover of irony, of the odd and absurd juxtapositions that life creates,” Rumi has inspired many famous people, including Madonna, Donna Karen, and Oliver Stone, and of course, Muhammad Iqbal.
Some say Rumi was to Iqbal what the early Roman poet Virgil was to Dante, the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages. Rumi expressed himself through fables and masterful use of language, and Iqbal not only picked up this torch, but often paid homage to Rumi for his inspiration:
Inspired by the genius of the Master of Rúm, I rehearse the sealed book of secret lore. His soul is the source of the flames, I am but as the spark that gleams for a moment.
His burning candle consumed me, the moth; His wine overwhelmed my goblet. The Master of Rúm transmuted my earth to gold. And clothed my barren dust with beauty.
Excerpt from The Secrets of the Self (Kindle Locations 402-407). OrangeSky Project. Kindle Edition.
At first glance, Iqbal’s admiration for Rumi seems peculiar to anyone familiar with their respective religious philosophies. Sufi doctrine is often infused with pantheism, the ancient notion that ultimately, “Everything is God, and God is Everything.” The ultimate goal of the human being is therefore to destroy the illusion of self, to lift the many veils of separation, and reunite with the Divine.
Pantheism and “reunification” through the destruction of the ego are flatly rejected by Iqbal. His philosophy is rooted in the traditional Muslim view of Allah as the Most Unique Individual. The goal is not ego destruction, but development of the khudi (self) as a unique individual, in the service of the Most Unique Individual. Iqbal could never accompany Rumi on his pantheistic flights, but nevertheless, he greatly admired his poetic genius.
Iqbal’s Complaint to God and His Reply was born of despair. He dreamed of a New Mecca, where Muslims would once again flourish, and in anguish, he cried out to Allah:
Shikwa (excerpts from The Complaint)
If we lived, we lived for the calamities of war. If we died, we died for the grandeur of Your name. We did not wield the sword for our kingdoms. Did we roam about the world fearlessly for wealth? If our nation had been greedy for worldly wealth, why would we have been idol breakers instead of idol sellers?
We continuously wandered all over the world. We wandered like the wine cup with Tawhid’s wine. We wandered with your message in the mountains, in the deserts. And do You know whether we ever returned unsuccessful? What of the deserts! We did not spare even oceans! We galloped our horses in the dark ocean.
We effaced falsehood from the earth’s surface. We freed the human race from bonds of slavery. We filled Your Kaa’ba with our foreheads. We put Your Qur’an to our hearts. Still You complain that we are lacking faith. If we are lacking faith, You are also lacking generosity….
Now the world is the lover of others. As for us, we can only imagine. We have departed, others have taken over the world. Do not complain now that the world has become devoid of Tawhid. We live with the object of spreading Your fame in the world. Can the wine cup exist if the cup bearer does not live?…
Make easy the difficulties of the blessed Ummah. Place the poor ant shoulder to shoulder to Sulaiman. Make the invaluable produce of love accessible again. Change the idolatrous Muslims of India into Muslims again. A stream of blood drips from the well of frustrations. Grief throbs in my wounded breast!…
…There is no pleasure in dying, and no taste in living. If there is any pleasure, it is in bearing this affliction. Many a virtue is restless in my mirror!
Brilliance and splendor are fluttering in my breast! But there is none in this garden to bear witness. There are no poppies with love’s stains in their breasts.*
* The poppy flower has a black stain at the bottom of its corolla, a mark symbolizing God’s love.
Jawab-i Shikwa (excerpts from God’s Reply)
We are inclined to mercy, but there is no one to implore. Whom can We show the way? There is no wayfarer to the destination. We’re poised to polish jewels, but there is no proper jewel. There is no clay that can be molded into Adam. We confer the glory of [ancient Persian Dynasties of grandeur and power] on the deserving. We confer even a whole new world on those who search…
…Who effaced false worship from the face of the world? Who rescued the human race from slavery? Who adorned my Ka’bah with their foreheads in love? Who put My Qur’an to their breasts in reverence? They were surely your ancestors, but what are you? You are sitting in idleness, waiting for tomorrow!…
…Some nations in the garden of existence benefit from their labor, while some are deprived of the fruits, overtaken by the autumn. Hundreds of trees are deteriorating and hundreds are flourishing. Hundreds more remain concealed in the bosom of the garden. The tree of Islam is a flourishing model for you. This is bitter fruit of your own efforts in the garden of existence…
…Like fragrance you are contained in the flower bud that has become scattered. Become the chattel traveling on the wings of the breeze in the rose garden. If you are poor, create a wilderness from a tiny speck. From the melody of a wave, marshal the tumult of a storm. With love’s power elevate every low to elegance. With Muhammad’s name illuminate the whole world…
Intellect is your shield, love is your sword. My dervish! Your vicegerency is world-conquering. Your Takbir is like fire for the godless. If you are Muslim, your vigilance is your destiny. If you are loyal to Muhammad, We are yours. This universe is nothing, the Tablet and the Pen [that preserve the decrees of God] are yours.
Although Iqbal criticized Western exploitation, he believed both the fall of the Muslims and the restoration of the their historical legacy rested in Muslim hands. Opportunists had seized on weakness and decay, and to become strong and independent once more, Muslims needed to tackle their own backwardness and divisiveness. For Iqbal, the ideal Muslim society would center on the Kaa’ba in Arabia, and transcend sectarian, ethnic, racial, and national borders.
“Return to Muhammad! Return to the Qu’ran!”
Return to the purity of true Islam. Today we recognize this as the battle cry of Muslim revivalists, many of whom are reactionary, regressive, and authoritarian. But today’s self-proclaimed pious vanguard has little in common with Muhammad Iqbal and his grand visions.
For him, the fledgling democracy of the early Muslims was a challenge to Neitzche’s cynical vision of the herd and the Superman. His vision was not confined by the narrow construct of East and West. The Clash of Civilizations is of more recent vintage.
New Mecca was not to be a Western construct grafted onto Muslim society, nor was it to be a rejection of all things Western. New Mecca would be an outgrowth of the Muslim historical experience. His ideal society was a democracy, but one that incorporated the egalitarian principles of Islam. His was a dream that is likely to resonate with many young Muslims today.
Were Muhammad Iqbal to return and see the state of the Ummah, a century after he released his famous poems, he would almost certainly be disappointed. But perhaps he would not be terribly surprised. He was an idealist, but had no illusions about the prospects of realizing this dream within his own lifetime. He hoped to inspire future generations:
My own age does not understand my deep meanings, My Joseph is not for this market.
I despair of my old companions, My Sinai burns for the sake of the Moses who is coming.
Their sea is silent, like dew, But my dew is storm-ridden, like the ocean.
My song is of another world than theirs: This bell calls other travelers to take the road. How many a poet after his death Opened our eyes when his own were closed…
Iqbal, Muhammad (2011-05-30). The Secrets of the Self [with active TOC and footnotes] (Kindle Locations 372-375). OrangeSky Project. Kindle Edition.