Allama Iqbal- Is he still relevant?

Posted on October 25, 2009 by



Muhammad Iqbal

by  Yasser Latif Hamdani

Given the current turmoil, which has made it abundantly clear that the people of Pakistan desire a truly representative democratic civilian order, the question above has become very relevant. Essentially – this begs four
questions that ought to be answered to understand the relevance of Allama Iqbal to Pakistan today.

1. What were Iqbal’s views on democracy and how did they fit into the overall Iqbalian-Ijtehadi Islamic thought ?

2. How and why did Iqbal become the national poet and philosopher of Pakistan ?

3. What has been the nature of criticism of Iqbalian thought in Pakistan?

4. What is the future of Iqbalian thought in Pakistan?

1. What were Iqbal’s views on democracy and how did they fit into the overall Iqbalian-Ijtehadi Islamic thought ?

Iqbal famously said something to the effect that democracy merely counts and does not weigh. No doubt this as well as the distinct glorification of Islam (inter alia his concept of the Islamic Superman i.e. Mard-e-Momin and Shaheen) in his poetry has been used by the military rulers of Pakistan.

On the other hand, Iqbal celebrated the coming of democracy or republicanism in his famous couplet:

“Sultan-e-jumhoor ka ata hai zamana”

or “Dawns the era of republican democratic rule”

In his letters to Jinnah – Iqbal declared that “Social Democracy is actually a return to the roots of Islamic history”. He clearly took Syed Ameer Ali’s point of view and considered the state founded by the Holy Prophet an example of republicanism.
So when we say that Iqbal was against democracy, one has to consider what it means.

1. Does it mean Iqbal was against representative rule?


2. Does it mean Iqbal was against something else that goes beyond representative participatory rule?

Iqbal’s conception of a modern Muslim state- which emerges from the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is of a state run by representatives elected by the people. In addition to the supreme legislative body, the parliament, including the Non-Muslim members, was also to be the Grand National Ijtehad Council which would meet to modernise Islamic traditions, civil code and criminal code. The reason why his book was denounced unanimously by the Mullahs was because they saw that Iqbal favored giving the state the power to completely change Islam according to modern times. For example he argued that the state could ban polygamy and that would be perfectly Islamic…

Thus it is quite clear – from his lectures atleast- that Iqbal was not against representative rule.

It is also quite clear that he himself used the terms “Social Democracy” and “Spiritual Democracy”, the former being a system of government and society that sought create equitable distribution of power, wealth and participation and the latter a system of religious “movement” which ensured the constant updation of religious tradition.

Infact Iqbal’s famous idea of a “separate Muslim state in North West of India” in 1930 was not inspired by any attempt at achieving group rights or a group-identity consciousness etc but rather the idea that just like Judaeo-Christian ethics have colored the otherwise secular legal systems of the west, Islamic ethics should get a chance to develop and modernise in a similar fashion in a state of its own.

Thus what he was presumably afraid of was the lack of a moral basis for the democratic system. (Ironically similar fears were raised Gandhi in India but Gandhian Religious Moral Philosophy was not allowed any constitutional expression by Dr. Ambedkar). Allama Iqbal favored hyphenated democracy of sorts- a democracy limited by morality determined by Islamic ethics.

While in my view this idea is inherently flawed but it is clear that a majority of Muslims around the world agree with Iqbal’s idea, what they don’t agree with is Iqbal’s liberal interpretation of Islamic law and his readiness to do away with what they consider to be the central motif of islam. The reason why no one mentions Allama Iqbal’s views on democracy because the current pro-Democracy movement is not concerned with the issues that have been mentioned above. The current pro-Democracy movement wants representative civilian rule. Whether this representative rule would be limited by Islamic ethics or human reason is an issue that is irrelevant to the movement.

Issue 2: How and why did Iqbal become the national poet and philosopher of Pakistan ?

Truth be told Iqbal’s stature has been enhanced by the state each passing year. He is no longer just the national poet and philosopher but is now a founding father equal to Mahomed Ali Jinnah in the official state pantheon. How is it that Allama Iqbal- who passed away 2 years before the Pakistan Movement officially kicked off- is held today in equal esteem to Jinnah ?

There is no question that Allama Iqbal was widely respected as the foremost Muslim poet since Hali. But there has been considerable exaggeration when it comes to giving him credit for Pakistan’s creation. According to “Plain Mr. Jinnah” a collection of Jinnah’s personal correspondence, a Muslim League volunteer found Iqbal’s letters to Jinnah in some corner of Jinnah’s legal library in his house in Bombay, after the 1940 resolution. The first edition of Iqbal-Jinnah Correspondence, published by the Muslim League, is from 1941 or 1942.

In my opinion from the period 1947-1958, Iqbal was celebrated as a great poet but not for anything else. It was 1958 onwards that the revision of Iqbal as a founding father began. There are several reasons for it. One major reason is that Army, as an institution, has at best always been uncomfortable with Mahomed Ali Jinnah’s memory. A lawyer-politician and parliamentarian as the founding father and the “Quaid-e-Azam” has always given the army people a bit of a kick in the balls. Ayub in particular , it is said, could never get over Jinnah’s chilly rebuke to army officers (when they complained about British officers) informing them that it was civilians who made policy and not army men. Especially after the threat posed by Fatima Jinnah in 1965, the army realised that Pakistan with a single memory cannot be good for them.

Allama Iqbal in contrast provided a much more workable situation. The Iqbalian concepts of “Mard-e-Momin” and “Shaheen” (even though Iqbal’s Mard-e-Momin and Shaheen could be civilians) were used- much in the same way Nazis used Nietzche’s “Superman”- to invent the “Super-Fauji” who could dodge bullets and travel at the speed of light … all the while managing a pathetic little country like ours.

If Pakistan’s 60 years are mapped in terms of Allama Iqbal promotion, the graph would be highest under Ayub, Zia and Musharraf. The Ulema – including people like Dr. Israr- the same sort Iqbal had warned against- have also had good reason to own Iqbal. Much of Iqbal’s poetry is recited by the Ulema because it speaks of Islamic glory etc.

Issue 3. What has been the nature of criticism of Iqbalian thought in Pakistan?

Allama Iqbal has been criticised by Pakistani intellectuals across the board on several counts, namely:

Liberals/Secularists/Left’s objections

1. Iqbal’s apparently ambivalent attitude towards democracy.

2. Iqbal’s contradictory stances day to day issues confronting Muslims.

3. His championing of “Pidram-Sultan-Bood” or the past glory of Islam.

4. His Mard-e-Momin/Shaheen conceptions lending themselves to patriarchal interpretations including but not limited to the role of military in a Muslim society.

5. His conception of the Muslim majority state in the North West alone…hence Iqbal’s apparent disregard for Bengali Muslims.

6. For writing poetry for the elite and upper classes and not for the masses.

Leading critics of Allama Iqbal include Dr. Mubarak Ali- a leading historian. Another group of intellectuals that seeks to play down Iqbal as a founding father is the Rahmat Ali group which rejects the notion that “Allama Iqbal was the first man to give the idea of Pakistan”. KK Aziz has written extensively on the issue and holds that Allama Iqbal’s scheme was just one of the many schemes to partition India and create an independent North West that emerged starting from 1892 onwards.

Islamists/Theocrats/Right’s objections

The main Islamist objection to Allama Iqbal is that he sought to break the vicious cycle of taqlid and tried to liberate Islam from centuries old intellectual stagnation. This is viewed by the Islamist sections as “Biddah” or innovation. The fear in the minds of the Islamists is that clever rhetoricians would use Iqbal’s logic of Ijtehad to do away with the core principles of Islam. The Islamists accuse Allama Iqbal of attacking Islamic way of life by hinting that the state could if it wanted outlaw polygamy (that he himself was polygamous is another issue) and for endorsing Sir Syed’s view that Interest-banking was not the same as Riba/usury. Allama Iqbal also favored and encouraged people like Allama Pervez and Tolu-e-Islam who took to a more rational interpretation of Islam and this too is not liked by the Ulema.

Issue 4: The Future of Iqbalian Thought in Pakistan

The criticism that Allama Iqbal was ambivalent towards democracy is irrelevant to the future of Iqbalian thought. Pakistanis are- whether some like it or not- completely committed to a civilian democratic system of representative rule in Pakistan based on adult franchise. It is only a matter of time that we have sustainable democracy in Pakistan. Similarly the criticism that he ignored the Bengali Muslims in his conception of a sovereign state is also irrelevant, since Bengali Muslims today have a state of their own.

Similarly the criticism that Allama Iqbal glorified the Islamic Past is usually because of a misunderstanding of Iqbal’s works. Iqbal was terribly conscious of the morass Muslims are stuck in and things have gone from bad to worse since his time.

I for one am sure that both Nietzche and Iqbal would have given up their conceptions of Superman and Mard-e-Momin respectively had they seen the Nazi regime in action with the Superman concept in Germany or the mockery General Zia ul Haq made of the Mard-e-Momin idea.

The major crux of Iqbal’s thought remains relevant even today i.e. to liberate Islam from the shackles of taqlid and re-open the door to Ijtehad. Iqbal imagined Islam not as a stagnant faith but a dynamic life code… which was universal and flexible enough to evolve with time. Just like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had envisaged Aligarh University as a place for Muslim Ashraf to equip them with modern knowledge, Allama Iqbal’s vision of a sovereign Muslim homeland was to create a place for Muslims to experiment and re-invigorate the deadwood that Islam had become over the centuries and re-discover its dynamism.

The creation of Pakistan itself and the route that was followed shows that Jinnah’s concern was essentially that of a lawyer trying to get his client his fair share in the settlement. The emergence of an independent sovereign Pakistan benefitted and enriched the local and indigenous people who saw an industrialisation that was hitherto denied to them under British rule. The areas that form Pakistan today were essentially hubs of agricultural produce and regions for martial recruitment.

Hence under British rule, this region had remained both politically and economically under-developed. Politically because British ruled Punjab and other provinces of the Pakistan that exists today through the collaboration of the feudal classes and notables. Thus the Commissioner and not an elected representative had his firm control over this region. Economically because this area remained useful for agricultural raw materials and cannon fodder for the Royal Indian Army. It was only Pakistan’s creation that forced the industrialisation of this region. Thus Pakistan itself had an economic and political purpose that has been more or less fulfilled.

Iqbalian thought however has the promise and potential of giving Pakistan a higher purpose: that of unleashing an intellectual renaissance and reformation of the entire Islamic world. Whether it is secular or not, I endorse this idea that the state should become an instrument of reformation and renaissance, but only after guaranteeing that every citizen of Pakistan, regardless of religion, caste, creed or gender has equal rights and opportunities. Only when we’ve put our house in order, we can ponder on this higher purpose.