A poet, intellectual and philosopher, Iqbal sought to arouse the Muslim world from a long and deep slumber. Though his works have been neglected in recent decades, he continues to inspire and move readers around the globe.
In 1913, a 36-year-old Muhammad Iqbal stood in front of a large crowd, just outside Mochi Gate in Lahore, Pakistan, to recite a poem so powerful it would leave the audience in tears and cause an uproar in the hearts of those who listened.
The poem, Jawab-e Shikwa, (‘Reply to the Complaint’), was the second half of a two-part poem. The first, Shikwa (‘Complaint’), was penned in 1909 and had Iqbal admonished as a non-believer by some and celebrated as a genius by others.
This political rally in 1913 was part of a series of recitals and talks given by Iqbal and other Indian figures to raise funds for the weak and collapsing Ottoman Empire. Iqbal, perceptive to the tumultuous times ahead and aware of the pain and confusion of the Muslims around him, wanted to provide some guidance and answers.
Both Shikwa and Jawab-e Shikwa delivered just that.
Shikwa, for Iqbal, was a cry to God. An outpouring of frustration and pain at the state of the Muslims around the world, most of whom lived under direct European colonial rule. Himself born as a subject of the British Crown, Iqbal was weaned by European teachers and European institutions and after having spent many years studying and travelling across European lands, he could see no reason why a society and a people that took pride in an atheistic and capitalistic system could be profiting when Muslims, who were the true viceregents of God, were oppressed and suffering.
Iqbal gave voice to the lost Muslims in Shikwa, who felt burdened under imperial rule, confused by their current state and felt dejected by a God who they believed should have given them recompense for their sacrifices.
You bestow favours on these other clans
If punishment is to be served, it’s only on Muslim lands
The tragedy is this, while the faithless enjoy these worldly pleasures
Resting on vague hopes, the poor Muslim expects future treasures
We gave our hearts to You, and we took what was owed
Barely in Your company had we sat, to leave we were told
The Muslim, Iqbal argued, has given God and His religion all he can. So why does the non-believer profit in this world, whilst the Muslim is persuaded to wait for a vague reward in the life to come?
In the second poem, Jawab-e Shikwa, Iqbal gives voice to God and responds to the complaints of the Muslim:
Void of strength, your hearts have gone astray
The Muslim race is a blot on the Prophet's face
The loss and gain for your race is but one
There is one Prophet for you all, one faith for everyone
One Kaaba and one God, and one Quran too
What a sight it would have been, if you were one too
Shikwa, though upsetting for many, was not entirely new for Muslim audiences. A few decades earlier, the Turkish writer Ziya Pasha uttered the same sentiment in his own way.
Later, Umm Kulthum, who has been called the ‘The voice of Egypt,’ performed a version of Iqbal’s Shikwa to a live audience in 1967, following Egypt’s defeat to Israel, leaving the audience in tears. Though these two poems define Iqbal for many, his legacy goes much further.
In the West, Iqbal is now barely known. A graduate of the University of Cambridge and the Lincoln’s Inn Bar in London, Iqbal completed his PhD in Germany and mixed with some of the most brilliant minds of the time.
Whilst a student at Cambridge, he studied under the noted neo-Hegelian McTaggart, and in Paris, Iqbal met the famous Henri Bergson, whose work would influence Iqbal’s own philosophical thought; and in Italy a young Mussolini, who Iqbal first admired, but would later reject.
In 1920, the brilliant RA Nicholson, who was also translating Rumi into English, translated Iqbal’s own masterpiece, ‘Israr-e-Khudi’ (‘The Secrets of the Self’). For the first time, Iqbal’s philosophy would enter Europe, where many critics recognised Iqbal’s unique philosophical thoughts. Though Iqbal was a harsh critic of Europe, he had a soft spot for Germans, for Iqbal was a student of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Goethe.
In 1923, Iqbal wrote the brilliant Payam-e Mashriq ('A Message from the East'), which was the first response from the East to the Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan (‘West-Eastern Diwan’), which itself was the West’s first response to the Eastern Poet Hafiz’s Diwan.
In the 1950s, German orientalist Annemarie Schimmel was won over by Iqbal when she came across his Persian poetry. She later noted that “if there was a poet from the East who loved both Rumi and Goethe, that is going to be my poet”. Schimmel would go on to translate Iqbal into not only German and English, but also Turkish.
Today in Turkey, Iqbal is known simply as ‘Ikbal’ or ‘The Disciple of Rumi’. Mehmet Akif Ersoy, the Turkish poet of Islamic revivalism once read Iqbal’s ‘Payam-e Mashriq’ (‘Message from the East’) and commented, “I compared the poet to myself, Iqbal, who has read the whole poetry of the great Sufis…in ‘Payam-e Mashriq’ there are very beautiful poems, one or two of his ghazals made me shout in intoxication”.
Iqbal dedicated many lines of his poetry to celebrating the bravery and victories of the Turks, namely in ‘Khizr-e Rah’ (Khizr the Guide) and ‘Tule-e Islam’ (‘The Rise of Islam) and ‘Muhasra-e Adarna’ (‘The Siege of Adrianople’).
Mehmet Akif would go on to give his copy of the book to Abdulwahhab Azzam, who was to become Egypt’s Ambassador to Pakistan and would later translate some of Iqbal’s poetry into Arabic.
In Iran, Iqbal is lovingly known as Iqbal-e Lahori (‘Iqbal of Lahore’), and although his poetry is read by schoolchildren, it also inspired and sustained the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
In the early years of the revolution, Iranians would gather and read his poetry in parks and in private spaces. Half of Iqbal’s work was originally written in Persian, and many great Iranian literary critics have noted that although he was not a native speaker, his mastery and style in Persian is unmatched, for Iqbal wrote in classical Persian, a style and form only found in the great poets.
Though Iqbal’s work and legacy live on, his message has begun to fade. Outside of Pakistan and the Urdu speaking world, his poetry is barely read. In Iran, Iqbal is now just another name on the school curriculum, and his poetic style is too antiquated and heavy for young readers who prefer Hafiz. In Turkey and other countries, he is resigned to street names and the odd reference or footnote in a history book.
Iqbal did not see himself merely as a poet for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent or belonging to the Urdu intelligentsia. In 1938, Iqbal published ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’, written and recited solely in English. Some say, it is an implied allusion to the ‘Revival of the Religious Sciences’ by Imam Al-Ghazali. Although Iqbal’s message carried into nationalist movements across the Muslim world after his death, his message has been subdued.
Iqbal was pained by the long and deep slumber of the Muslim world, of the fragrant Persian gardens in which the Muslim lay and listened to the nightingale. Iqbal wanted the Muslim to return to the deserts of the Hejaz and drink from the well of Zam-Zam. To live a life of self-reliance, action and ingenuity.
Iqbal had hoped that his English and Persian works would be read by many, and his poetry and prose would inspire generations of Muslims, who he felt needed to be warned of the magic and glitter of the West.
The bell is struck! The caravan moves
Do not wait, here mere hope won’t soothe
This world is new, you too have changed
That life of Sufi caves, it cannot remain
Note: Beyond one small collection of Iqbal’s poetry in English, ‘Tulip in the Desert’ by Mustansir Mir, there are no other collections available for the English reader, either in the East or West. Though many translations exist online, many are incomplete, incorrect or fail to inspire the reader.
The poems referenced in the article are taken from the author’s upcoming work, a new and modern English translation of Iqbal, titled ‘The Garden and the Ghazi’ (‘Gazi va Gulistan’). The book is scheduled to be released in May 2021. Please visit www.zirrar.com/iqbalproject for further updates and details.
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