The controversial Iqbal - Farooq Sulehria - Tuesday, November 09, 2010

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In his book The Duel (2008), Tariq Ali draws our attention to Sibte Hassan's view of Allama Iqbal. Tariq Ali recalls Sibte Hassan reprimanding radical youth for disowning Iqbal. Sibte Hassan thought that Pakistani youth have been "fed on Iqbal's metaphysical ideas alone," and hence "the radical-minded among them disown Iqbal as an obscurantist who has no message for the future." Sibte Hassan, on the contrary, characterised Iqbal as "a great friend of the people and an apostle of social revolution."

Sibte Hassan correctly points out that Iqbal's writings "contain a paradoxical combination of anachronisms of the past and the most progressive ideas of the modern age." It is no surprise, therefore, that his legacy is contested by two opposite camps: "Those who adhere to his metaphysic belong to the camp of orthodoxy and the establishment. Those who have grasped the radical implication of his philosophy of selfhood (khudi) in relation to society and nature, belong to the other camp."

In his essay, "Iqbal's Concept of Man" (in The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan), he goes as far as to declare that "the utopia of Iqbal very much resembles the vision of a socialist society." He urges his progressive friends to understand the "conspiracy to project Iqbal as a revivalist." He warns that, as well as this being "a disservice to the poet," the progressives "would be depriving themselves of an effective weapon against their opponents and allowing the vested interests to use Iqbal for their own anti-people interests."

There is hardly a literary giant whose legacy has been as intensely contested - between the left and the right, on the one hand, and, on the other, among progressives themselves. True, at times Saadat Hassan Manto was also excommunicated by the official Left. However, right-wingers almost never claimed Manto's legacy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was so dismayed at the progressives' treatment of Iqbal and Manto that he gave up his membership of the Progressives Writers Association after Partition. Faiz fondly recalled his brief meeting as a child with Iqbal (Faiz's father was a friend of the poet), and paid a glowing tribute to him in his poem titled "Iqbal" (See his Naqsh-e-Faryadi) and wrote some critical masterpieces on Iqbal, thus greatly enriching the understanding of Iqbal's poetry.

Faiz translated Iqbal's "Payam-e-Mashriq" from Persian to Urdu. Iqbal's most enthusiastic progressive promoter is the late Ali Sardar Jafri. He and a host of progressives hold that Iqbal was a link between progressive writers and Ghalib. They say that, by radically digressing from set patterns of poetic forms and subjects, Iqbal inspired critics to delve into the subject of whether any poet in the past experimented as daringly as him.

This inquiry led to a rediscovery of Ghalib, who had almost been forgotten by the time Iqbal began to create ripples in the literary world by his unorthodox poetic experiments. This line of argument is not so convincing for everyone, in particular for Ghalib's fanatical admirers. There is no doubt, however, that Iqbal broke radically with the established poetic traditions of his times.

It seems that progressives who are dismissive of Iqbal - or liberals, for that matter - do not dispute his greatness when it comes to his literary contributions. They tend to judge Iqbal by the "paradox" in his poetry, which they find tilting in favour of Mussolini instead of Karl Marx, whom Iqbal described in a Persian couplet as someone who is "not a prophet, yet he has a Book." This troubling aspect in Iqbal's poetry was acknowledged by Sibte Hassan in an article ("The concept of 'Shaheen' ") he wrote for Naya Adab in 1939.

In this essay, Sibte Hassan criticises Iqbal for being "an advocate of individualism" and considers the concept of khudi as "tempting the individualistic qualities of Man by dissolving the established social links necessary for a society."

What irritates some progressives is definitely not merely the metaphysical thought promoted by Iqbal but also the status assigned to him in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Even an analysis of this status, let alone someone's disputing or questioning it, is considered a breach of patriotism. Hence, historian Dr Mubarik Ali was lambasted for the unorthodox view on Iqbal he presented in his Ilm-e-Tareekh. Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, in his Iqbal ka Ilm-ul-Kalam, questioned Iqbal's status as a philosopher. Therefore, one almost never finds this book in any library or public colleges and universities.

It is hard to say which side of the fence the leftist poet and songwriter. Sahir Ludhianvi stood in this "progressive" dispute. A parody on one of Iqbal's best-known poems, in a song he wrote for the film Jago, Hua Savera ("Wake up, dawn has arrived"), would suggest Sahir's disagreement with Iqbal:

Iqbal's words:

Cheen o Arab hamaara, Hindostan hamaara/Muslim hain ham, vatan hai saara jahaan hamaara

("China and Arabia are ours, India is ours;

We are Muslims, the whole world is our homeland.")

Sahir gives a mischievous twist to the second line:

Rehnay ko g'har naheen hai, saara jahaan hamaara.

("We don't have a home to live; the whole world is our homeland.")

The writer is a freelance contributor.


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