Allama Muhammad Iqbal (رحمه الله)

Allama Muhammad Iqbal (رحمه الله)

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) is one of the pre-eminent writers of the Indian subcontinent, and the attention he has received from numerous writers, translators and critics in Western as well as Islamic countries testifies to his stature as a world literary figure. While his reputation is primarity as a poet, Iqbal has not lacked admirers for other reasons: he has been called ‘the most serious Muslim philosophical thinker of modern times’,1 and the appellation ‘poet-philosopher’ has often been used. Here the hyphen is allimportant: Iqbal’s poetry and philosophy do not exist in isolation from each other, but are integrally related, his poetry serving as a vehicle for his thought. Iqbal wrote poetry in Urdu and Persian, and several volumes in each language exist. In the following pages a biographical sketch of Iqbal is followed by a brief treatment of some of the major themes and literary features of his poetry.


Iqbal was born in 1877 at Sialkot, a city in the present-day province of the Punjab in Pakistan. He received his early education in that city, where one of his teachers was Mir Hasan, an accomplished scholar with a knowledge of several Islamic languages. Mir Hasan gave Iqbal a thorough training in the rich Islamic literary tradition and influenced him deeply. Many years later (1922), when the British governor of the Punjab proposed to the British Crown that Iqbal be knighted in recognition of his literary achievements, Iqbal asked that Mir Hasan too should be awarded a title. When the governor remarked that Mir Hasan had not written any books, Iqbal replied that he, Iqbal, was the book Mir Hasan had produced. Mir Hasan received the title of Shams al-Ulamd (sun of scholars). For higher education Iqbal went to Lahore (1895), where he enrolled in Government College, obtaining his MA in philosophy in 1899. In Lahore, which was a major centre of academic and literary activity, Iqbal soon established his reputation as a poet. Among Iqbal’s most admired teachers at Government College was Sir Thomas Arnold, and he in turn had great affection for Iqbal. Arnold helped Iqbal in his career as a teacher and encouraged him to undertake several research projects. When Arnold returned to England in 1904, Iqbal wrote a touching poem in which he expressed his resolve to follow him to England. Indeed Iqbal left to study at Cambridge the very next year. His choice of Cambridge was probably dictated by its reputation as a centre for the study not only of European philosophy but also of Arabic and Persian. During his three years’ stay abroad, Iqbal obtained a BA from Cambridge (1906), qualified as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn in London (1906), and earned a PhD from Munich University (1908).

After returning to Lahore in 1908, Iqbal taught philosophy at Government College for a few years, but in 1911 he resigned from government service and set up his own legal practice — continuing meanwhile to write poetry in Urdu and Persian. His book Asrar-i Khudi (in Persian), published in 1915 and translated into English as The Secrets of the Self (1920) by Professor Reynold Nicholson of Cambridge, introduced Iqbal to the West. It was followed by several other volumes: Rumuz-i Bikhudi (1918), Payam-i Mashriq (1923), Bang-i Dam (1924), Zabur-i Ajam (1927), Javid Namah (1932), Musafir (1936), Zarb-i Kalim (1937), and Armaghan-i Hijaz (1938, posthumous). Iqbal also wrote prose: his doctoral thesis, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, was published in 1908, and his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (with a seventh chapter added to the original set of six lectures, first published in 1930), in 1934. Many of Iqbal’s poetical works have been translated into foreign languages, including English, German, Italian, Russian, Czech, Arabic and Turkish. His work has also given rise to a vast amount of critical literature in many languages.

Although his main interests were scholarly, Iqbal did not lack concern for the political situation of India and the fortunes of its Muslim community. Already in 1908, while in England, he had been chosen as a member of the executive council of the newly established British branch of the Indian Muslim League. In 1931 and 1932 he represented the Muslims of India at the Round Table Conferences held in London to discuss India’s future. And in 1930 he suggested in a lecture the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Iqbal died in 1938, nine years before the creation of Pakistan, but it was his teaching that had been ‘spiritually . . . the chief force behind the creation of Pakistan’. He is Pakistan’s national poet.


A reader of Iqbal’s poetry is struck by its sheer thematic variety. Iqbal was deeply interested in the issues that have always exercised the best minds —the meaning of life, change and constancy, freedom and determinism, survival and progress, the relation between the body and the soul, the conflict between reason and emotion, evil and suffering, the position and role of human beings in the universe – and in his poetry he deals with these and other issues. He had also read widely in history, philosophy, literature, mysticism and politics, and developed catholic interests, and these are reflected in his poetry.

Iqbal celebrates humanity. On one level he shows broad acceptance of it. In ‘The Story of Adam’  the protagonist plays a variety of roles: as prophet, thinker, reformer, scientist, inventor, astronomer, martyr and iconoclast. In this poem Adam is not merely a religious figure belonging to a certain tradition, but represents the whole of humankind. On another level Iqbal takes pride in being human and has no desire to partake of the godhead of God, section ‘The Human Being’, subsection ‘Being God and Being a Servant of God’). Human beings can hold their heads high because of their achievements in the world to which they were banished from paradise: if God made the night, then human beings made the lamp, and if God made deserts and mountains, human beings made parks and meadows (‘A Dialogue Between God and Man’). Human beings must therefore strive to be perfect as human beings, and that is a goal they have yet to achieve.

For Iqbal the theme of humanity is closely linked with the complex idea of khudi (literally ‘selfhood’). Broadly, khudi represents the principle of the inner self ‘combined with an urge to manifest itself. Societies as well as individuals have this quality, and it is on the development or suppression of one’s khudi that success or failure in life depends; for example, the khudi of slaves is moribund. The aim of human beings should therefore be the recognition, discovery, cultivation, and assertion of their khudi. Iqbal’s critique of Muslim societies is predicated on the assumption that they have lost their khudi or allowed it to become seriously impaired. The best source for an understanding of Iqbal’s concept of khudi consists of the poems in which he discusses it.

Perfection — rather limitless perfection — is a motif that frequently recurs in Iqbal’s poetry. In ‘The Houri and the Poet’ , he says, ‘I seek the end of what has no end’, and ‘In the spark I seek a star, in the star a sun’. Iqbal sees no end to human potential, and wants human beings to embark on a never-ending journey of discovery. To this end he emphasises the importance of constant action and perpetual movement as the only guarantee of survival in the world. Nations fall behind when they cease to be dynamic and start preferring a life of idle speculation to one of purposive action.

But the quest for perfection can give rise to irony. Indeed, human life is full of irony, for while human beings have been imbued with the desire to achieve perfection, they have been denied the ability to do so in practice. The first three poems of – ‘Man’, ‘Solitude’, and ‘The Dew and the Stars’ — discuss several aspects of the irony of human life. The fourth and last poem, ‘The Story of Adam’, though ending on a more optimistic note, implies that human beings take a long time to discover the most important secret of existence.

‘The heart has its reasons, of which reason is ignorant’, says Pascal. Iqbal, who frequently tells of the conflict between head and heart, would agree, while adding that the conflict does not have to exist. Reason sometimes seeks to diminish the heart (or intuition), but both are essential to a harmonious life; ideally, the two should cooperate rather than clash. his purposes its historical, religious, philosophical and literary resources. For a full appreciation of Iqbal these resources need to be understood, and the notes and commentaries in this volume elucidate Iqbal’s use of them.

Iqbal held to the doctrine of art for life’s sake. Acutely aware of the problems of Muslim decadence and backwardness, he took it upon himself to shake the Muslims of India and other countries out of their lethargy, urging them to follow the path of progress so that they might fill an honourable position in the comity of nations, and he used the medium of poetry to arouse socio-religious consciousness among Muslims. As a result, the predominant themes in his poetry are Islamic religious and social ones-. Iqbal’s vision of a revived religion is far from conservative, however. He is sharply critical of many of the institutions of historical Islam (that of monarchy, for example), and his vision of a new world  derives from the Islamic notions of egalitarianism and social justice. He rejects dogmatism in religion, and urges a rethinking of the Islamic intellectual heritage and the establishment of a forward-looking community. But the conviction of art for life’s sake never allows Iqbal’s poetry to degenerate into bland or crass propaganda. The worldwide acclaim he has won is evidence enough that his strength lies in writing ‘poetry with a purpose’ that attains the highest artistic standards

Ultimately, the secret of Iqbal’s appeal is to be found in the personality behind the poetry. Whether it is a broadly humanistic or a specifically Islamic theme he is dealing with, Iqbal sees it in a unique perspective. Consider his boldly critical attitude towards certain aspects of the received tradition. He enters into a dialogue with God, raising issues that might disturb the orthodox. He asks whether Adam’s expulsion from heaven has turned out to be a loss for Adam or for God; he challenges God to speak to him face to face rather than through messengers; and, noting the discrepancy between the infinity of human ambition and the finite resources put at human beings’ disposal, he asks God whether His experiment involving Adam should really be taken seriously. Iqbal’s view of the role of Satan in the world is also intriguing — and, as one would expect, highly unconventional (‘Conquest of Nature’,  ‘Gabriel and Iblis’).

Tulip in the Desert
Tulip in the Desert

Notable in Iqbal’s perspective is ambiguity, a typically modern characteristic. Especially on metaphysical issues, Iqbal raises some difficult questions without providing a single ‘valid’ answer. In ‘Paradise Lost and Regained’, he does not answer the question whether Adam should or should not have sinned (each scenario being theoretically defensible). In ‘Gabriel and Iblis’  we are left to speculate about Iqbal’s own view of Iblis’s self-justification. And in ‘Solitude’  we cannot be certain why God smiles. In several instances Iqbal talks about himself— about his Eastern background and Western education, and the contradictions in his own personality; a conviction that his study of historical Islam has furnished him with certain valuable insights which he must share with his people; a hope that his message will spread across the Muslim world; and apprehension that he will be misunderstood, or else appreciated for the wrong reasons ( ‘SelfPortrait’). Here one might add that the various attempts made to identify or label Iqbal as a Sufi or an orthodox Muslim, as a radical or a reactionary are wide of the mark because he is too large a figure to fit any narrow, procrustean category; he demands attention on his own terms.



Iqbal had a fine sense of the dramatic, and in his poetry he frequently uses dramatic techniques. Many of his poems are structured like a play, with the first half building a tension or conflict that is resolved, or raising a question that is answered, in the second half. Examples are ‘Gabriel and Iblis’, ‘The Dew and the Stars’, ‘The Houri and the Poet’ and ‘Fatimah bint c Abdullah’ . Many poems are dialogues, with well-argued positions taken by the interlocutors, e.g. ‘A Dialogue between God and Man’; ‘The Dew and the Stars’; ‘Reason and Heart’ and ‘A Dialogue Between Knowledge and Love’ ; and fables. Some poems are one-sided dialogues or monologues: ‘Give Me Another Adversary!’  and ‘The Falcon’s Advice to Its Youngster’ . Iqbal carefully weaves the ‘plot’ of a poem, arousing the reader’s curiosity, dropping seemingly casual hints that turn out to be prophetic, providing flashbacks, and saving his master-stroke for the end. ‘The Conquest of Nature’ illustrates these and other literary features of his poetry.

Iqbal has some favourite images and motifs: the eagle among birds and the tulip among flowers.  This flower is beautiful, but when it grows in the desert (lala’-i sahra) it has strength too, for it then represents the assertion of the self (khudi) in the face of hostile circumstances. The tulip owes its splendour not to an outside source but to the ‘scar’ inside its heart, its glow being indigenous to it as befits a flower with a khudi of its own. Thus it is a ‘model’ for individuals and nations to follow. The cup-shaped flower suggests to Iqbal’s mind several analogies, and in one piece (‘Locke, Kant and Bergson’) he consistenly uses the tulip image to describe and analyse complex philosophical ideas. It is because of the deep significance of the tulip in Iqbal’s poetry that this volume is entitled Tulip in the Desert. The images of the eagle and the tulip illustrate how Iqbal adds to the native literary tradition or puts that tradition to an innovative use (the tulip). Another example in this connection is that of the moth, which in Persian and Urdu poetry represents the devoted and self-immolating lover. Like the moth, which continuously circles the light, the lover (male) desires to stay close to the beloved (female). But typically the moth often represents for Iqbal a reprehensible rather than a praiseworthy quality: the shining light with which it is in love,, is not its own. By contrast, the firefly has a weak light, but it is at least a light that it can call its own. The firefly, in other words, possesses khudi, which the moth does not.

Iqbal often uses a series of images to convey a thought, and this produces a cumulative effect. In ‘Fatimah bint ‘Abdullah’  he uses no fewer than four images to express the idea that, even in its present age of decadence, the Muslim community can produce individuals of exceptional calibre:

O that in our autumn-stricken garden
There were flower-buds like this!
O that a spark like this, dear Lord,
Could be found in our ashes!
In our desert many deer still hide!
And in the spent clouds
Many flashes of lightning still lie dormant!

Iqbal is capable of writing biting satire. Two examples are ‘Give Me Another Adversary!’ , in which Satan argues that he deserves a better rival than’Adam, and ‘Scorpion Land’ , which criticises the slave mentality.



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