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The almost forgotten radical message of Iqbal

iqbalI am reposting this old blog on Iqbal Day:

God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison

Today Pakistan celebrates Allama Iqbal’s birth anniversary with the usual lip-service. The key messages of Iqbal seem to have been lost in the maze of officialdom. This is further exacerbated by the hijacking of Islam and politics by vested interests, not to mention the recent events that have shook us all. Iqbal opposed exploitation, Mullahism, emphasised the principle of movement in Islamic thought; and highlighted ijtehad (re-interpretation) of Islamic teachings through a modern parliamentary framework. Alas, all of that is nearly forgotten. 

For instance he was clear about the layers of exploitation:

The world does not like tricks and
Of science and wit nor, their contests
This age does not like ancient thoughts,
From core of hearts their show detests.

O wise economist, the books you write
Are quite devoid of useful aim:
They have twisted lines with orders strange
No warmth for labour, though they claim.

The idol houses of the West,
Their schools and churches wide
The ravage caused for, greed of wealth
Their wily wit attempts to hide […]

November 9th, 2013|Arts & Culture, Pakistan, Poetry|2 Comments

Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature – Schimmel

Thanks to a friend on Twitter I rediscovered this essay by the great Annemarie Schimmel which I had read in the pre-internet times. The essay entitled Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature is a remarkably panoramic review of how the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice are central to Islamic faith and Sufi principles. Schimmel looks at the older Persian poets, traces the evolution of Karbala motif in Sindhi Sufi poets such as Bhitai and later Urdu poetry of Ghalib. The essay moves to Iqbal and the commentary by Schimmel is most insightful as it puts his poetry and vision in the spiritual perspective. I hope this is widely read and popularised for this view is essential to countering the popular, ideological narratives on appropriating his poetry for Islamist ascendancy and hypernationalism in Pakistan.

 I still remember the deep impression which the first Persian poem I ever read in connection with the tragic events of Karbala’ left on me. It was Qaani’s elegy which begins with the words:

What is raining? Blood.
Who? The eyes.
How? Day and night.
Why? From grief.
Grief for whom?
Grief for the king of Karbala’

This poem, in its marvellous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and of the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.

The theme of suffering and martyrdom occupies a central role in the history of religion from the earliest time. Already, in the myths of the ancient Near East, we hear of the hero who is slain but whose death, then, guarantees the revival of life: the names of Attis and Osiris from the Babylonian and Egyptian traditions respectively are the best examples for the insight of ancient people that without death there can be no continuation of life, and that the blood shed for a sacred cause is more precious than anything else. Sacrifices are a means for reaching higher and loftier stages of life; to give away parts of one’s fortune, or to sacrifice members of one’s family enhances one’s religious standing; the Biblical and Qur’anic story of Abraham who so deeply trusted in God that he, without questioning, was willing to sacrifice his only son, points to the importance of such sacrifice. Iqbal was certainly right when he combined, in a well known poem in Bal-i Jibril (1936), the sacrifice of Ismail and the martyrdom of Husayn, both of which make up the beginning and the end of the story of the Ka’ba. […]

November 24th, 2012|Religion, Sufi poetry, Sufism|2 Comments

‘On the wings of time, grief flies away’

Salma Mahmud’s new book is not a just a readable memoir, it sets a standard for fine writing.

MD Taseer with his first born, Salma

Perhaps the most memorable time of my career as a media walla is to have worked with Salma Mahmud as a fellow editor and writer. Her writings for TFT have been noted far and wide, eliciting feedback from celebrities to obscure readers across the globe. While she was completing a series on her great ‘Uncles’ (friends of her eminent father M D Taseer), I suggested that these memoirs be turned into a book. After initially feigning scorn at the idea, she relented; and now we have Salma Mahmud’s ‘The Wings of Time’ – a book that is pleasurable for its sparse yet lyrical writing and valuable for the histories it puts together. These reflections and anecdotes would not appear in Pakistan’s official and highbrow historiography as the intent of the book is different. It is a recollection and a reclaiming, with lots of indulgence and warmth.salma2
Salma Mahmud, or Salma-ji, as I call her, is the eldest child of Dr M D Taseer, the noted poet and critic, the first Indian to obtain a PhD in English from Cambridge University. Her other sibling, the late Salmaan Taseer, also made his mark in Pakistan as a brave defender of human rights and offered his life while fighting bigotry against the powerless of the country. Salma was born in Baramula, Kashmir, and was later educated in Lahore where she attended the Kinnaird College before pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Edinburgh. Mahmud is considered a seasoned teacher of the English language and literature and her facility with words made her an ideal editor at TFT. During her career, she has also translated several pieces of Urdu fiction into English and written extensively on literature, history and art.

As a quintessential daddy’s girl, Mahmud’s reverence for her father is evident throughout the book. At the same time, she doesn’t lose sight of the political and cultural context in which Dr Taseer lived and worked. She narrates the story of his times with exceptional honesty; illustrating the “the irreplaceable literary milieu in which he lived.” Indeed, the period of 1930-1950 witnessed immense turbulence but also gave birth to various literary and cultural movements. As the book and its rather deftly veiled melancholy mood tells us, the “milieu has vanished forever”. Mahmud chronicles this sadness and celebrates the histories of “a bevy of brilliant intellectuals who filled the existential void that existed within” Taseer due to his “aloneness”.

salma3 Author, Mariam and Salmaan on a motorbike

Mahmud’s mother, Christabel George, whom Taseer met at Cambridge, descended from a talented Huguenot family on her maternal side. She was the poet’s companion until his death in 1950. Her role in bringing up the three children was not less than heroic and Mahmud is rightly proud of her familial heritage: the complete package of literary taste, fondness for books and ideas and of course humaneness.

Daddy, Uncle Majeed Malik, Mummy, Salma, Mariam and Salmaan Daddy, Uncle Majeed Malik, Mummy, Salma, Mariam and Salmaan

The first part of the book, titled Prologue, has four chapters that provide a fine account of the luminaries whom Mahmud met as a child and continued to know and appreciate as she grew up. The sketches of her ‘uncles’ are unparalleled. For instance, we find out how writer and educationist Pitras [AS] Bukhari single-handedly saved UNICEF “from being closed down by the US government in 1952, when he made a spirited defence of the organization during a UN committee meeting.” Bokhari was our representative at the UN immediately after the creation of the new state. Mahmud writes that after hearing Bukahri’s defence, “Eleanor Roosevelt was so impressed by his eloquence that she declared the United States had decided to let UNICEF remain.” Having written about Pitras here and there, I felt completely ignorant as I found out from Mahmud that on Pitras’s grave in Westchester, this couplet by Robert Frost, written personally by the poet for Bukhari, is engraved upon the headstone:

Nature within the inmost self divides

To trouble men with having to take sides. […]

Khalifa Abdul Hakim (1896-1959)

For years I had been planning to write about Dr Khalifa Abdul Hakim (1896-1959), the great philosopher and intellectual of the twentieth century. Last year, I had ventured to review his famous Urdu translation of the ancient Hindu text Bhagavad Gita. Given the range of Hakim’s thought and accomplishments, I must admit it took me years to get acquainted with his intellectual legacy. He was never taught in our schools and the education system rarely found space for his eclectic and progressive corpus of intellectual investigation. Pakistan as a country is simply ‘anti-intellectual’.

Much has been said about the low priority we accord to humanities and liberal arts and especially with respect to discourses on contemporary Islam. No point in reiterating all those tedious arguments and tragic examples. Imagine if Hakim had translated Bhagavad Gita in the twenty first century Pakistan, where militant outfits preach hatred against India and Mumtaz Qadris are celebrated, he would have been branded as an infidel for promoting the sacred texts of ‘kaafirs’. Such is the rot of our present. Given the parochial education system and the monopoly of televangalists on national television, Hakim’s message and ideas can constitute footnotes of history. This is why I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the new website that his distinguished daughter Prof Rafia Hasan has created. Internet is already changing the way we function, think and see the world. Henceforth, the portal will provide free access to the published works of Hakim saheb. Hopefully, this will allow young Pakistanis to read and refer to his works, especially the ones in Urdu which have been uploaded in a user-friendly format and enable effortless reading.

His book Iqbal aur Mullah

His book Iqbal aur Mullah

Hakim received his doctorate in Philosophy from Heidelberg University, Germany. A Kashmiri by origin and a native of Lahore, he spent most of his working life in Hyderabad Deccan where he was a professor and later Chairman of Department of Philosophy, Osmania University. His long career in academia started in 1918 when he was selected by Osmania University as a professor. During 1943-46, he also served on deputation as Principal Amarsingh College, Srinagar (Kashmir). In 1950, he was appointed as Director, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore and held that position till his death. Hakim was also elected as the General President for the fist session of Pakistan Philosophical Congress in 1954; and was internationally renowned for his scholarship.It is said that Hakim had advised the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in setting up a centre for Islamic research in ShantiNiketan. His extraordinary life was devoted to scholarship and he authored more than a dozen books and translated four from English and German on subjects which represented his key passions: progressive Islam, the spiritual-poetic universe of Rumi, Hafiz, Ghalib, Iqbal and the history of philosophy.

Hakim elucidates why Iqbal was opposed to the literalism and intellectual stagnation of clerics. In fact he makes a definitive comment that had Iqbal not died he would have been at odds with Mullahism

Hakim’s major works include ‘The Metaphysics of Rumi’, ‘Islamic Ideology’, and ‘Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his Mission’. A key work in his rich legacy was “Islam and Communism” published in 1951. Hakim was an ardent proponent of “Islamic socialism” which was later politicised and used as a slogan in the 1970s. In post-war India (during the 1940s) and post-1947 Pakistan, this was an important voice. In Hakim’s worldview, inherent to Islam’s message was social justice. While the religion allowed for limited competition and private property, it also laid down a framework for setting limits […]

That easy intimacy

By Raza Rumi
A Pakistani re-discovers Bangladesh.
Image: Carey L Biron

As a Pakistani, there is a part of you that reacts instantly to the word Bangladesh: guilt, remorse or, in some cases, nostalgia can suddenly take over. I am from the generation that was spared the horrors of Pakistan Army actions, of information blackouts on the massacre of Bengalis in the name of Pakistani nationalism. But what does it mean to be half a Pakistani, without East Bengal – especially when you know a bit of history and have managed to see through the falsities of the textbooks? It means nothing or it means a lot; it depends on which way you want to look at the other half, now a proud, vibrant country.

Working in international development is what took me to Bangladesh for the first time, nearly five years ago. Prior to that, I had been familiar with the country’s mythical music, rich poetry and tales of its golden sunsets and singing rivers, but had never touched its soil. Bengal’s magic is embedded in the Subcontinental imagination, and these images and literary references long shaped my view of the country. However, my romantic notions were severely jolted when I arrived in Dhaka – at first glance, an overcrowded concrete jungle typically lacking in urban planning. More of the same, I concluded: big cities, despite their buzz, can let you down.

Still, my disappointment did not last, as I soon undertook to seek out the city’s various corners, its hidden spaces of beauty and comfort; above all, what I found was an engaged citizenry marching on. Discovering the University of Dhaka and its surroundings came as a much-needed connection, though older parts of Dhaka are also quite mesmerising. The gulmohar (or krishnachura) trees, almost on fire, greet a visitor on nearly every street, as does a tremendous volume of rickshaws.

Then there is the Shaheed Minar, the monument marking Bengali resistance founded on linguistic identity. The physical monument is modern, and by itself is not particularly exciting. However, its significance is truly monumental, marking as it does Bengali nationalism from 1948 to 1971 under the misrule of West Pakistan elites. Given movements for ethnic, linguistic and provincial identities ongoing in today’s Pakistan, the Shaheed Minar is a powerful reminder of how centralised rule and marginalisation of cultural identities lead to festering problems.

A colleague who took me to see these sites was most polite with me. He was fervently nationalistic but chose his words carefully – at least until I asked him to drop the formalities and just say what he wanted. Then the floodgates opened, and out came his personal memories and renditions from Bengali oral histories. I even found myself apologising, though I then laughed at myself for such a delusional gesture – my few words of apology meant nothing against the horrors of Bengali suffering. Luckily, the charms of the place and the krishnachura trees came to my rescue. And so, I brushed the dark side of our shared histories under the proverbial carpet, just the way that Pakistan has done. For many people in Pakistan, 1971 is today an invisible event, a deliberately ignored footnote in our collective memory, despite being one that should remain understood as a moment of reckoning for the entire country. After all, majority provinces seldom secede; it is usually the other way around. […]

October 15th, 2011|Bangladesh, Published in Himal Magazine, SouthAsia, Travel|6 Comments

Muslimness – shifting boundaries

Muslimness is an elusive state of being. There are watertight strictures of the theological identity defined by men, interpreted as the Sharia, on the one hand; and the broad political and cultural sense of the self, on the other. Identity, in any case, is a messy affair: shifty, shifting and eventually, imagined. While 9/11 placed Muslims at the centre stage of global politics, the broth had already been simmering in the cauldrons of biased academe and pop reality mirrored through the blood-thirsty lens of corporate media.

So what is it to be a Muslim? An inflexible bag of rituals? Or a cultural sense of belonging or a deeper dogma ingrained in young minds? I have never considered myself anything but a believer, a ‘practicing Muslim’. This has never been at variance with my secular and inclusive pretensions, despite the fact that the clergy in my country considers secularism akin to atheism, a sort of mirror image of the Pakistani political foundation. The clerics translate secular as la-deen , at best irreligious, and at worst, godless.

Ironical that this business of religious identity is articulated in a land that was the crucible of the secular Indus Valley civilization, non-militant Buddhism and a peculiar version of South Asian Islam that spread via the Sufi khanqahs and was a sort of amalgam of the Central Asian with the ancient South Asian. Even more ironical is the reality, neglected and veiled, that lived Islam is located around dargahs , tribal codes and customs which are irreligious in their own way. But who cares? Referred to as the world’s most dangerous country, Pakistan, according to the pundits of global opinion, is a haven for Islamic terrorists. Collateral damage, therefore, is kosher and a necessity to undo the unstated part of the ‘axis of evil’.

Labels and more labels. On the global shelves such products sell well and work in favour of a war machine hungry for energy resources, territory and blood. […]

The almost forgotten radical message of Iqbal

Yesterday was the Iqbal day- year after year it has become just another empty ritual. High sounding speeches and statements, visits to Iqbal’s tomb in the spectacular Hazoori Baagh and negligible focus on his message and vision.

In essence, Iqbal argued for the reformation of the Muslims and the Islam and was perhaps the boldest of voices in our times.

The stature of his poetry needs no introduction or tribute – it is universal, profound and truly original.

My post entitled Remembering Iqbal’s message for change was posted at Pakistaniat and later picked up by the blog Light Within. I am reproducing excerpts here: […]

November 10th, 2007|History, Islam, Poetry, Politics, Religion, Urdu, Urdu Literature|7 Comments