English Creations    URDU Creations    CHOWK    Green Zone Living       
IQBAL— A Muslim scholar and reformer
by Dr. Khalid Sohail
Review by Ziauddin Ahmed


 Dear Friends,

When I was in the medical school in Pakistan, I met a number of people who were great admirers of Mohammad Iqbal. Some considered him an extra-ordinary poet, others a distinguished philosopher. And then there were others who believed he was a saint. I also met many men and women who saw him as a visionary who conceived a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. In their eyes Pakistan is Iqbal’s dream.

Alongside Iqbal’s admirers I also met those cynical people who had no regard for him. They perceived him as a man who used to drink alcohol; visit prostitutes, had multiple wives, plagiarized poetry from Western philosophers and intellectuals and desperately begged to British authorities for knighthood so that he could be called Sir Mohammad Iqbal.

Those extreme and sometimes contradictory interpretations of Iqbal’s life are not only reflections of his creative genius but also the sentimental nature of the Asian and Muslim communities he belonged to. In those communities artists and writers and intellectuals receive intense reactions. They are loved or hated, worshipped or despised. Rather than accepting creative people as human beings they are perceived as saints or sinners and subsequently blessed or cursed.

To have a more realistic understanding of Iqbal’s ideology, philosophy and lifestyle, I started reading his biographies and collections of lectures, speeches and letters. Among his biographies I found Zirk-e-Iqbal written by Abdul Majeed Salik a very balanced biography. It is affectionately and respectfully written with a genuine attempt to integrate family, social, creative, romantic and political dimensions of Iqbal’s life. While reading that biography I came to realize that Iqbal was a Muslim scholar who had a keen interest in Islam as a philosophy and Muslims as a nation. Being an intellectual Iqbal studied different religious and secular philosophies and tried to present a modern interpretation of Islam, which is highlighted in his book Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, a collection of his lectures. (Ref 5) In those lectures Iqbal not only challenged the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but also explored the mysterious relationship between religion, mysticism, psychology and science. In those lectures Iqbal suggest that for a contemporary reading of scriptures we need to avoid the concrete interpretation and learn to understand the stories and messages in a symbolic and metaphorical way, the way we read the masterpieces of world literature.

After reading Iqbal’s biographies, lectures and speeches, I was quite surprised to find out that Iqbal was not only an academician but also a political activist. He not only participated in elections but also got involved in drafting resolutions for Muslims at local, national and international levels. His background in law helped him in discussing constitutional matters. Iqbal had an ambition to lead Muslims socially and politically worldwide.

Alongside his political ambitions, Iqbal also had a keen interest in spiritual and metaphysical matters. He loved to visit holy shrines of Muslim saints and wrote poetry about those visits. Salik wrote, “Iqbal held great reverence for saints. Before he travelled to England he visited the holy shrine of Hazrat Nizam-ud-din and created his poem ilteja-e-musafir [request of a traveler]. (Ref 1 p 60) I find it quite fascinating that Iqbal tried to build bridges between religion and politics, science and mysticism. Iqbal had a multi-faceted personality. On one hand he created poems that touched the hearts of masses when he read them in Anjamun-e-himayat-e-Islam [an organization to promote the cause of Islam] gatherings, and on the other hand, he delivered philosophical lectures that inspired the intellectuals.

At different stages of his life, different Eastern and Western philosophers and philosophies impressed Iqbal but as he grew older he became more and more preoccupied with the destiny of Muslim nation. He made a number of political and philosophical contributions to the cause of Muslims. I was fascinated to read how his Indian identity transformed into Muslim identity.

To explore the evolution of Iqbal’s religious and spiritual identity, when I read his life story and story of his ancestors, I became aware that Iqbal belonged to a Kashmiri Brahmin family who converted to Islam in seventeenth century. His great great grand father, a few generations earlier, was so impressed by a Muslim saint that he accepted Islam and that saint was so impressed by him that he offered him his daughter and made him his son-in law. Iqbal’s father was also a well-respected member of his community. Although he was an illiterate man, people consulted him regarding religious matters as a wise old man. Iqbal shared stories about his childhood with his friends highlighting that his father had spiritual and healing powers.

Even before Iqbal was born his father had a dream that a big bird fell from the sky in his lap. Iqbal’s father’s interpretation of his dream was that his son will be a great Muslim scholar, not realizing that his son will also be a famous poet who would use eagle, a big bird, as a master symbol in his poetry. When Iqbal was a little boy his father had another dream in which he saw a caravan traveling outside the city. In that caravan he saw a sick person who needed his help. Iqbal’s father went looking for that gypsy group and when he found the group he offered his services. The travelers were shocked. Iqbal’s father prayed and the patient got better. Growing up in such a family Iqbal started believing in saints and mystics and their healing and spiritual powers.

Iqbal was born in 1873 and was brought up in the city of Sialkot in Punjab. He received his early education there. He moved to Lahore in 1895 at the age of 22 to get his higher education. From Government College Lahore he passed his Bachelor in Arts with honors and then finished his Masters in Philosophy in 1899 and received his Gold medal.

Iqbal was not only a bright student he was also a wonderful poet. His teachers and classmates were equally impressed. As he grew older he became popular and was invited to different mushairas to recite his poetry. His popularity increased tenfold when he recited his poems in the annual meetings of Anjuman-e-hamayat-e-Islam. That appears to be beginning of his involvement of the cause and future of Muslim nation. Those were the days when Iqbal’s poems were also published in the respectable literary journal makhzan. Iqbal having a great interest in English and Arabic literature was not only studying Islamic literature and history of Muslims but also English literature. He was so impressed by some of the English poems, written especially for children, that he adapted many of them in Urdu. Even at that young age he was quite respected as a poet. After finishing his masters he decided to teach and within a short time he came an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in Government College Lahore.

Iqbal had an ambivalent relationship with his older brother as a young man who was generous and controlling at the same time. He encouraged Iqbal to go to Europe for higher studies. He offered to pay Iqbal’s fees and other expenses. So Iqbal decided to go to England and studied Philosophy and Law in England and Germany. Iqbal’s Ph.D. thesis focused on Iranian Metaphysical Philosophy. Over the years Iqbal developed a genuine and keen interest in philosophical as well as mystical dimensions of religion especially Islam.

When Iqbal returned to India in 1908, he had developed strong criticism to nationalistic ideology of Europe and love for Islamic philosophy and mythology. After his return not only his passion and involvement with the political, ideological and spiritual dimensions of Islam increased, but also his popularity. But that popularity was a mixed blessing. On one hand he was adored and admired but on the other hand he was condemned and criticized. When Iqbal started to challenge the fundamentalist traditions of Muslim theology and practices and tried to offer a more liberal and modern interpretation of Islam, he was attacked by traditional and conservative groups of Muslims. One such occasion was when he recited his famous poem shikwah, in the 1911 annual meeting of Anjamun-e-himayat-e-Islam. In that remarkable poem he addressed God and respectfully shared his complaints. Many traditional and conservative Muslims were offended. Even his father, who was present in the meeting and listened to the poem, wept bitterly. There was so much moral pressure on Iqbal that he wrote a response to that poem. (Ref 1 p 102) In that poem jawab-e-shikwa, God answers all those complaints. Although that poem is a masterpiece from artistic and linguistic point of view, yet it reflects that when Iqbal came in direct conflict with traditional Muslims he was forced to make compromises. He did not want to be completely ostracized by the community that he wanted to lead. His compromise was not fully accepted by all Muslims and some of the fanatic ones reported him to the clerics who offered a fatwa stating that his poetry was blasphemous and he should be socially ostracized.

Such a reaction escalated the conflicts between Iqbal’s admirers and his critics, his friends and his enemies. Some did not consider him a Muslim at all while others like Zafar Ali Khan proposed that he should be sent to Japan for the preaching of Islam. (Ref 1 p 104)

Those were the years Iqbal got intimately involved with the Muslim cause and formulated his philosophy of Pan-Islamism and Two Nations Theory. On one hand he wanted Indian Muslims to have a separate identity than Indian Hindus and on the other hand he wanted Indian Muslims to identify with Muslims of the world especially from Saudi Arabia and Middle East. Rather than being proud of cultural heritage he wanted them to be proud of their religious and spiritual heritage. Those ideas developed over the years and found political and social expressions in Iqbal’s life. Salik wrote, “ Iqbal decided to dedicate his life for the unity and progress of Muslim nation” ( Ref 1 p 115)

When those scholars who believed in Hindu Muslim unity questioned Iqbal’s two nation theory, he responded with this answer, “ There was a time I also believed that there should be no division socially on the basis of religion. And I still believe that in my personal life. But now I believe that at a national level Hindus and Muslims should maintain their separate religious identities. To have a joint national identity in India might sound a beautiful and poetic concept, but it is quite unrealistic in present social and political climate of India.” (Ref 1 p 117)

Iqbal became actively involved with Muslim League and over the years had passionate discussions with Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He tried his best to convince him of his philosophy. In 1916, in Lucknow, when Hindus and Muslims, Congress and Muslim League decided to work together and Jinnah cooperated with Congress, Iqbal was quite upset as he did not see that a good omen for Muslims. He expressed his descent to Jinnah.

Until 1926 Iqbal had remained distant from active politics but then he could not resist anymore and took part in elections and won. After that elections Iqbal’s fight for the cause of Indian Muslims escalated.

When the independence movement from British Rule gained momentum, Iqbal also had intense conflicts with Mohandas Gandhi who by then had become a national leader of not only Hindus but also Muslims, Sikhs, Untouchables and other minorities. At one stage when Iqbal and Gandhi met face to face, Gandhi stated that he would accept the conditions of Muslims if all the groups had a joint proposal. When Iqbal shared with Gandhi that he was talking like Lord Berconhead, Gandhi felt hurt and disappointed.

Iqbal’s dream to have a separate homeland for Muslims went through different phases. In the beginning even Muslim leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah were not in his favour. Jinnah had been so disillusioned by Muslims and their political conflicts that he went back to England. Iqbal kept on asking Jinnah not only to come back from England but also lead the Muslim nation. In one of his letters Iqbal wrote to Jinnah “Today, in India, you are the only Muslim who can lead Muslim nation in these turbulent times.” (Ref 1 p 240). In the end Iqbal inspired Jinnah to revitalize Muslim League and convinced him that it was best for Muslims to have a separate homeland to safeguard their rights and interests. In his speech in 1930 he stated, “ The principle of European democracy cannot be applied to India without recognizing the fact of communal groups. The Muslim demand for the creation of a “Muslim India” within India is, therefore, perfectly justified…India is the greatest Muslim country in the world. The life of Islam, as a cultural force, in this country, very largely depends on its centralization in a specified territory…I therefore demand the formation of a consolidated Muslim State in the best interests of India and Islam” (Ref 2 p 11,12,14)

When Iqbal’s son Aftab Iqbal, who was in England for his higher studies, read his father’s speech in the local newspapers, he showed it to Mohammad Ali Jinnah but was shocked when Jinnah not only laughed at the speech but also stated that it was nonsense. He stated that it was a poet’s dream that will never come true. (Ref 4 p153). Aftab was quite offended by Jinnah’s comments and wrote to his father about the incident. Aftab Iqbal believed that Jinnah’s ideas evolved over the next few years. Jinnah had to take Mohammad Iqbal seriously when Winston Churchill suggested that he should go back to India and help Iqbal to lay foundation for Pakistan. (Ref 3 p 153)

Alongside the religious ideology of Islam, Iqbal was also impressed by the economic ideology of Socialism. Iqbal tried to bring the philosophies of Mohammad and Marx together. Iqbal was so much in awe of Marx that he called him a prophet without a holy book, an atheist prophet. Iqbal believed in Islamic Socialism and considered

Socialism + God = Islam

Iqbal did not focus on their blatant contradictions. Salik wrote, “Iqbal believed that if we add God to Socialism then we come very close to Islam.” (Ref 1 p 187)

When the poet and philosopher Iqbal became a political activist and reformer, he started fighting for human rights for all segments of society. He fought for

Education of children

Equal Rights for women and

Economic rights for farmers.

Because of the influence of socialism on his ideology he believed that farms belonged to the farmers and not to the governments. He believed that if farmers and their families were deprived of basic necessities of life they had the right to become violent and aggressively fight for their rights. He wrote

Jis khait say dehkaan ko muyassar na ho rozi

Us khait kay har khosha-e-gandam ko jala do

[The field that does not give sustenance to its own tiller,

Should be burnt to the ground with its wheat, fodder and filler] Zia Ahmed

Iqbal had adopted an aggressive dimension of socialist ideology in his philosophy. He believed that the end justified the means. He believed in a fair and just society and was willing to fight for it individually and collectively, socially and politically.

Iqbal believed that for Muslims to gain independence and fight for their rights, they needed to be ready to offer sacrifices for their ideals and dreams. In his speech in 1930 he stated, “Then will arrive the moment for an independent and concerted political action by the Muslims of India. If you are at all serious about your ideals and aspirations, you must be ready for such an action.” (Ref 2 p 29). Iqbal had mentioned that he was himself willing to go to jail for his ideals. Iqbal claimed he had a deep understanding of the dynamics of the rise and fall of nations. He stated he developed that understanding by studying not only Islamic history but also the history of Western Nations.

Iqbal, like Gandhi, was not impressed by Western civilization and found it dangerous for human evolution. He wanted Asians especially Muslims to follow their own religious traditions rather than the Western secular traditions. He expressed his sentiments to his countrymen in these words,

Europe ki ghulami peh razamand hua tou

Mujh ko toe gila tujh say hay, europe say naheen hay

[That you submitted to the subservience of European texture

My complaint is with you, not with the Western culture] Zia Ahmed*

When I read Iqbal’s biographies and studied the evolution of his personality, philosophy and identity, I became aware that there was a time when Iqbal was a dedicated nationalist and wrote patriotic poems. One of his poems became so popular that it became the National Anthem of India. But his stay in Europe for a few years made a significant change in his identity. Over the years, his cultural identity transformed into religious identity. He became more of a Muslim than an Indian and started a movement for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. Rather than identifying with Hindu brothers and Sikh sisters of India, he started to identify with Muslim brothers and sisters of Africa and especially Middle East. During his stay in Europe he became disillusioned by Western modernization. Iqbal was not impressed by the European concepts of state and nationalism as he believed that those concepts were sources of violence and war and bloodshed as nationalist leaders fought for their economic domination, geographical boundaries and political territories.

It is ironic that Iqbal did not realize that he was replacing nationalism with religion. He did not realize that religious leaders, like nationalist, have also been a danger for peaceful communities and have declared holy wars to defend their spiritual borders and religious territories. He did not realize that there has been as much innocent blood shed on the name of God as on the names of national flag and anthem. He did not realize that religious fanatics and fundamentalists are as willing to kill and die as the soldiers of any national army. Iqbal unfortunately traded nationalistic ideology with religious ideology.

The more Iqbal became preoccupied with religious ideology the more he fought for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims and followed two-nation theory. Such an ideology got him in conflict first with Mohammad Ali Jinnah and later on with Mohandas Gandhi. It seems that there was a time when Jinnah was “a leader of India’s National Congress” and “India’s best Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” (Ref 3) but Iqbal strongly disagreed with Jinnah and when Jinnah came back from England after his four years leave of absence from the independence struggle, Iqbal finally convinced him of his ideology.

Iqbal considered himself a great fighter for the legal rights of minorities. He also fought for the political rights of Untouchables and confronted Gandhi. Gandhi, who considered himself a leader of Untouchables as he had fought for their social rights and paved their way for social integration with other Hindu classes and castes, was shocked when he was criticized and challenged by Iqbal. Iqbal believed that to ensure and protect the legal and political rights of minorities whether Muslims or Untouchables, they should have separate elections. Gandhi did not agree with that philosophy. He believed that in a politically secular state all citizens, irrespective of their religious and cultural background should be treated equally and enjoy equal rights and privileges. Iqbal insisted that in theory it seemed a noble idea but it was too idealistic. He was afraid that since Hindus were in majority in the country and will be elected in majority in the assemblies, the rights of the minorities would be violated. The conflict between Iqbal and Gandhi reached a crisis when they met in a conference and confronted each other. Salik wrote, “Gandhi announced that we was willing to accept Muslim demands provided they withdraw from the demand of separate elections for Untouchables. Allama Iqbal was not willing to withdraw from that demand. He could not accept Untouchables be deprived from the same rights as he was demanding for Muslims. He considered both communities as minorities and wanted to fight for the rights of all minorities.” (Ref 1 p 189)

Iqbal pursued his political ideology for a few years but then he became frustrated and tired. As his physical health declined, there was also a decline in his energy, enthusiasm and motivation. He was eventually brokenhearted when he had to face the opposition of Unionist Party, a strong political party that insisted on Hindu Muslim unity and gained popularity in Punjab. Salik wrote, “Allama Iqbal had great differences with Unionist Party as it was a joint party of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh farmers.” (Ref 1 p 244)

“Till his last days Iqbal could not accept Unionist Party as Iqbal believed in a separate nationhood for Muslims.” (Ref 1 p 250)

There was a time when Iqbal wondered whether his dream will ever come true but he kept on insisting to Jinnah that he should fight for a separate homeland for Muslims, which afterwards was called Pakistan. When Iqbal died in 1938, no body could predict the future of the struggle of independence for Hindus, Muslims and Untouchables. Iqbal was adored and loved by intellectuals, politicians and lay people not only during his life but also after his death. His popularity grew with time. In 1940 when the resolution for an independent Pakistan was accepted Mohammad Ali Jinnah mentioned to his secretary Matlub-ul-Hasan Syed that if Iqbal were alive he would be very happy, as he would see his dream coming true. (Ref 4 159) Jinnah acknowledged Iqbal’s contributions on other occasions as well. Salik wrote, “ In 1940 on the occasion of Iqbal’s anniversary, Jinnah presided the function in Punjab University Hall and complemented Iqbal’s contributions in an affectionate way in his speech by stating that if he lived long enough to see an Islamic State in India and at that time if he was asked to chose between being the head of the State and Iqbal’s books, he would accept Iqbal’s creations.” (Ref 1 p 270)

While reading Iqbal’s lectures, speeches and letters I also came across Iqbal’s views about other Muslim countries especially the Middle East conflict that became an international nightmare. Even in 1930s when the idea of a separate homeland for Jews was presented and the concept of Israel was discussed in the Punjab Provincial Muslim League at Lahore on 27th July, 1937, Iqbal had expressed his opposition and had criticized British policy in these words, “Never were the motives of British Imperialism, as regard to the Muslim People of the Near East, so completely unmasked as in the Report of the Royal Commission. The idea of a national home for the Jews in Palestine was only a device. In fact, British Imperialism sought a home for itself in the form of a permanent mandate in the religious home of the Muslims. This is indeed a dangerous experiment, as a member of British parliament has rightly described it and can never lead to a solution of the British problem in the Mediterranean. Far from being a solution of the British problem in the Mediterranean, it is really the beginning of the future difficulties of British Imperialism. The sale of the Holy Land including the mosque of Omar, inflicted on the Arabs with the threat of martial law and softened by an appeal to their generosity, reveals bankruptcy of statesmanship rather than its achievement. The offer of a piece of a rich land to the Jews and the rocky desert plus cash to the Arabs is no political wisdom. It is a low transaction unworthy of and damaging to the honour of a great people in whose name definite promises of liberty and confederation were made to the Arabs.” (Ref 2 p 221). In his letter to Miss Ferguharson Iqbal wrote on July 20th, 1937, “ If the British people are duped by propaganda against the Arabs, I feel the consequences of the present policy will be grave.” (Ref 2 p 219)

Dear Friends, I sometimes wonder whether Iqbal, who supported Pakistan and opposed Israel, ever saw a similarity between these two states, one created as a homeland for the colonized followers of a monotheistic religion Islam and the other created for the persecuted followers of another monotheistic religion Judaism, as they are the only two states in the 2oth century that were born from the womb of religion. I wonder what Iqbal would have said if he saw what happened to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Israel in the last 50 years. I wonder if he would still insist on a theocratic state in which religion and politics embrace each other and create an environment fertile for religious battles and holy wars. I wonder if he would have still insisted “ Politics have their roots in the spiritual life of man. It is my belief that Islam is not a matter of private opinion. It is a society, or if you like a civic church.” (Ref 2 p 34). I wonder if he would have seen the massacres of 1947 where his dream of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims got drenched with blood, and after seeing the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan as well as India over the decades, he would have still insisted that, “ In Islam God and the Universe, spirit and matter, Church and State are organic to each other.” (Ref 2 p 5) and “The religious ideal of Islam, therefore, is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of one will eventually involve the rejection of the other.” (Ref 2 p 8) or he would have changed his mind and joined those intellectuals and Human Rights advocates of the world who believe that to live in peace and harmony in a modern state we need to keep religion and politics separate. Would he have realized that we need to separate

Church and State in a Christian society

Mosque and State in a Muslim society

Temple and State in a Hindu society


Synagogue and State in a Jewish society

so that we can create harmonious multicultural and multi-religious secular states and live in peace and harmony with each other individually and collectively, socially and politically.     Sincerely, Sohail   June 2003

·        Special thanks to Zia Ahmed for translating Iqbal’s couplets for this letter                                                   


1.Salik  Abdul Majeed…Zikr-e-Iqbal
Biography of Hazrat Allama Iqbal
Chaman Book Depot Urdu Bazaar Delhi
2.Tariq A R …Compiled by
Speeches and Statements by Iqbal
Sh. Ghulam Ali and Sons Publishers
Anarkali Lahore Pakistan
3.  Wolpert Stanley …Jinnah of Pakistan
Oxford University Press New York USA 1984
4.  Begum Rasheeda Aftab Iqbal… Iqbal –o- Aftab
Isharaat Publications Pakistan 2002
5.  Mohammad Iqbal…The Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam
Sang-e-Meel Publishers Lahore Pakistan 1996                                             




E-mail welcome@drsohail.com