Have We Forgotten Iqbal

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Zafar Aziz Chaudhry

It is the hallmark of all great poets that through the gift of their poetic craft, they succeed in recreating the same experience in the minds of their readers

Every year, Allama Iqbal’s birth anniversary on November 9 passes away unnoticed and in sharp contrast to the celebrations held a few decades ago. This shows that his appeal to Pakistan’s new generation has suffered a decline, which is a matter of concern for all those who have drunk deep at the springs of his colossal genius as a poet of great power and vitality to derive immense pleasure and benefit through all these years.
If his poetry doesn’t find favour with our new generation, is it because of their disillusionment with their abilities to cope with future challenges, or with a defeatist mindset they find Iqbal’s recipes too inadequate to rejuvenate their dead frames? It is also likely that due to the resulting despondency, poetry as a literary genre has lost its hold on Pakistani readership. Whatever may be the reason, it is time we seriously considered what is amiss, why and where?
Iqbal is a multi-dimensional genius and the irony with all such men is that the assessment of their art and philosophy often becomes lopsided or blurred because of the inadequacy of their critics to comprehend them in their totality. The dilemma of Iqbal’s appraisal can best be explained by the parable of the elephant which four blind men tried to know what it must look like by touching various organs of his body, each forming a different perception. In the same way, Iqbal can be seen as a poet, a philosopher, a revolutionary, a reformer, a theologian, a visionary, a political thinker, or a Muslim leader. But Iqbal was first and foremost a poet and all other attributes may be seen to colour his poetry but do not describe his vocation or standing for which he became famous. And in the realm of poetry, even views and attitudes do not matter so much as does the medium or form through which those are put across.
After Independence, a great bulk of critical work on Iqbal, unfortunately, exploited his political views to constrict his philosophy to the sole object of making him a founding father and attributing him the credit for conceiving a separate homeland for the Muslims of the sub-continent, despite the fact that at heart, he was a pan-Islamist and a philosophic mystic whose struggle went far beyond the petty limits of Nationhood. Prominent among the early writers to politicize him were Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, Hafeez Malik, Aziz Ahmad, Ikram Chaghtai, Riaz Husain and Muzaffar Husain Burney. Then, there is another crop of critics who took a narrow view of his poetic art and presented him as a dry pedagogue or an armchair ideologue without reference to his great art form as a poet. Prominent among them are critics like Ali Abbas Jalalpuri (educationist), Dr Mubarak Ahmad (historian), and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (scientist) each one of them looking at him from the angle of his discipline. There is still, a third category that considers his ideas as too idealistic to be practical and therefore has no appeal to the present generation. These include mostly our young educated lot who have little knowledge of our oriental languages, history, culture and traditions.
Some of the objections the present generation has against Iqbal include his mistrust in western democracy, the vagueness of his concept of “Islamic spiritual democracy,” his various palpable contradictions and inconsistencies, his aversion to traditional Sufi thought, his vague notion of Mard-e-Momin, his anti-nationalistic stand, his exhortations to
Muslims to take up the sword, his call to return to pristine religion, his aversion to “Aql” (rationalism) as against “Ishq” (love) etc. A close examination of these objections in the light of his work would reveal that most of these objections have either no basis or stem from misinterpretation or inadequate knowledge of his works and beliefs. A poetical work should essentially be interpreted in the light of its own rules and not those governing the prose writings because poetic thought has countless layers of meanings and has no frontiers to be defined under one title. Poetry at its best opens one’s eyes to the vast realm of possibilities leaving much for the viewer to draw his conclusion.
Most of the labels attached to the image of Iqbal are based not on what his poetry presents, but on the subjective cravings or propensities of his critics. Since it is not possible within the space of this brief essay to take up each objection and examine its validity, I have, therefore, chosen Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s recent article titled “Why Sir Syed loses and Allama Iqbal wins in Pakistan,” which generally represents the scepticism of the present generation about Iqbal’s art
and works. Prof Hoodbhoy, by comparing and contrasting the views of Sir Syed (in prose) and Iqbal (in his poetical works), concludes that Sir Syed accepted the challenges being faced by the down-trodden Muslims, and showed them the path to modernity and science, by declaring learning of English language compulsory for Indian Muslims, while Iqbal mostly left the key questions unanswered or ambiguous.
He only called the Muslims to return to the sword, while his concept of “Khudi,” being ambiguous did not help Muslims in changing their fate. Thus according to him, while Sir Syed tried to bridge the gap between science and religion, Allama appears to widen it. And in the end, he bemoans that in the struggle for Pakistan’s soul, Sir Syed’s rational approach failed, while the Allama’s call for emotive reasoning won.
Now, this kind of “scientific” approach to assessing Iqbal’s work and philosophy is the bane of the present generation. A comparison of Sir Syed’s views with those of Iqbal did not make much sense. Such a comparison also militates against the norms and discipline of the genres of poetry and prose, the medium they used. Sir Syed’s views (though just and proper) were temporal and addressed to the Indian Muslims at a crucial time of their history, while Iqbal’s views expressed in his poetry are universal and addressed to Man and humanity at large
showing him boundless possibilities for growth and expansion. This criticism epitomizes the failure of this generation to truly understand and appreciate the great message of the poet who speaks to them straight from his heart through the soul-stirring medium of poetry whose impact is a hundredfold stronger than anything said in simple prose. But a condition precedent to such understanding is that one should be fully and truly imbued with the charms and niceties of the poetic medium, which discipline is outside the scope of a scientist’s understanding. Iqbal as a poet of great vitality and power occupies a place in the pantheon of the world’s most eminent literary geniuses. Unless we truly know the poetic medium and its discipline, we are likely to fall into the same error of judgment to which most of his critics were subjected. Poetry is a very complex and sensitive medium, which conveys the thoughts or perceptions of the poet in varying shades and meanings through the abundant use of metaphors, similes, imagery, symbolism, allusions, allegory, hyperbole, fancy and imagination within the aesthetic framework of cadence, rhyme, rhythm, metre etc.
According to Wordsworth, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” and is “the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.”
This implies that the spontaneity and power of the poet’s feelings are generated when his imagination is fully at work. This unusual combination is set in motion when the poet becomes seized by a latent faculty called intuition which is made available to the poet’s perceptions at that heightened state of mind when he starts perceiving things which are ordinarily difficult to conceive. “Poetry,” says Dr Johnson, “is the metrical composition of the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.” Since most realities are revealed to the poet through intuition, which is an integral part of his creative process, his experience becomes uniquely personal and difficult to share. It is the hallmark of all great poets that through the gift of their poetic craft, they succeed in recreating the same experience in the minds of their readers.
For the true appreciation of poetry, we must know the difference between an ordinary truth and the poetic truth. By poetic truth, we do not mean fidelity to facts in the ordinary acceptance of terms. Such fidelity we look for in science. By poetic truth, we mean fidelity to our emotional apprehension of facts. Poetic truth has also a human value to which scientific truth cannot possibly lay claim. A poet may not write with a conscious ethical aim, nor is it his business to instruct and guide. The poet’s business is to “stir and vivify, to inspire, energize and delight.” His tools leave a lasting impact on the human mind and inspire and motivate him for generations to come.
The inspiration from a complex and sensitive genre like poetry pre-supposes an enlightened state of mind and a peaceful environment, which is not possible when there is ranked poverty in the masses engaged in the mad race for survival in a crippling economy. We already have lost much and therefore it would be no surprise if Iqbal, the only beacon light, too is forgotten.