Allama Muhammad Iqbal: an inspiration for young Muslims at all times and places

Developing Just Leadership

Zawahir Siddique

Sha'ban 27, 1426 2005-10-01


by Zawahir Siddique (Features, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1426)

At a time when Muslims are struggling to make sense of the world we live in and the situation facing us, ZAWAHIR SIDDIQUE turns for inspiration to the writings of one of the great Muslim thinkers of the modern era...

Young Muslims today are endangering themselves by a vicious mixture of trends, cults and careers. With fast-paced technological advancements and alluring career prospects on one side, to fast food, casinos and MTVs intoxicating young Muslims from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, Egypt to Malaysia, young Muslims are beset by many distractions and temptations. Islamic Iranhas resisted Coke, Pepsi and MTV but not the tobacco infiltration from the British-American tobacco industry. Saudi princes apparently cannot escape the casinos of Europe and North America. Arabs and Malays seemingly cannot live without over-consuming American fast food. What is lacking in this ‘progressive' modern lifestyle is the vital piece that links our young to their roots in the Qur'an and the Seerah. It is in this context that the message of Muhammad Iqbal for the empowerment of Muslim youth in the light of Islamic history is relevant.

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), philosopher, poet and political leader, was born in Sialkot, a small town in the Punjab, which is now a province of Pakistan. In 1927 he was elected to thePunjab provincial legislature, and in 1930 he became president of the Muslim League. In addition to his political activism, Iqbal was considered the foremost Muslim thinker of his day. His poetry and philosophy, written in Urdu and Persian, stress the rebirth of Islamic and spiritual redemption through self-development, moral and ethical integrity, and individual freedom.

Iqbal was also given ;the title of Sha‘er-e Mashriq ("Poet of the East"). It may seem strange that Iqbal never considered himself a poet, as is shown by his correspondence with Syed Sulaiman Nadvi (1885-1953):

"I have never considered myself a poet. Therefore, I am not a rival of anyone, and I do not consider anybody my rival. I have no interest in poetic artistry. But, yes, I have a special goal in mind for whose expression I use the medium of poetry considering the condition and the customs of this country."

Iqbal's contribution to the Muslim world as one of the greatest thinkers of Islam remains unequalled. In his writings, he addressed and exhorted people, particularly the youth, to stand up and face life's challenges boldly. The central theme and main source of his message was the Qur'an.

Iqbal regarded the Qur'an not only as a book of religion (in the traditional sense) but also as a source of fundamental principles upon which the infrastructure of an organization must be built as a coherent system of life. According to Iqbal this system of life, when implemented as a living force, is ISLAM. Because it is based on permanent (absolute) values given in the Qur'an, this system provides perfect harmony, balance and stability in society from within, and security and a shield from without. It also provides personal autonomy and opportunities for the development of character and personality for everyone within the guidelines of the Qur'an. Thus, in Iqbal's opinion, Islam is not a religion in which individuals strive primarily for a private relationship with God, in the hope of personal salvation (as expected in secular conceptions of religion), although that sometimes happens too. Iqbal firmly opposed theocracy and dictatorship, and regarded them as against the free spirit of Islam.

In his travels and personal communications, Iqbal found that Muslims throughout the world had detached themselves from the Qur'an as a guiding principle and a living presence. After the disaster that followed the Balkan War of 1912, the fall of the caliphate in Turkey, and many provocations and anti-Muslim actions in India (1924-27) and elsewhere by intellectuals and so-called secular leaders, Iqbal suggested that a separate state should be given to the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent so that they might express the vitality of Islam to the full. In his presidential speech to the annual session of the Muslim League at Allahabad in 1930, Iqbal stated:

"I, therefore, demand the formation of a consolidated Muslim state in the best interests of India and Islam. For India, it means security and peace resulting from an internal balance of power; for Islam, an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilize its laws, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times."

Iqbal was at his eloquent best when he addressed young Muslims:

Ghareeb-o-saada-o-rangeen hai daastaan-e-Haram
Intiha uss ki Husain, ibtada hai Isma‘il

“The noble path [history of Islam] is full of simple lessons of devotion, honesty and commitment, whose culmination is Husain and beginning Isma'il.”

Iqbal thus summarises a young Muslim's role as that of Isma‘il (as) and Husain (ra). Isma‘il (as) teaches us how to be prepared to sacrifice ourselves in the prime of our youth by giving the command of Allah priority over our own ambitions and aspirations. Husain (ra), on the other hand, bore witness that when it comes to choosing between subservience to the Yazids of our time at the cost of tarnishing the ideals of Islam, and fighting oppression, then the role of Muslim youth is to choose shahadah.

Iqbal's vision was that young Muslims should aspire to become the ideal of Islam and humanity, whom he describes as God's vicegerent (Khalifatullah): one who absorbs within himself and demonstrates as many of God's attributes as possible. Iqbal compares and contrasts this ideal with that of Nietzsche's godless superman and of that extreme individualism that is promoted by pseudo-secularism, democracy and commercialized capitalism. Iqbal's Mu'min is a firm believer in God, Who endows him with seemingly superhuman powers. This Divine endowment of self-confidence and dynamism elevates the Mu'min to the highest human potential. Once a Mu'min attains enlightenment, as God's vicegerent on earth, he or she fulfills his divine mission of establishing justice on earth out of God's infinite Mercy and boundless love and grace:

" O believer! Raise your Khudi (self, character, sense of self-respect, etc.) so high that God Himself, before making any decision, asks you what will please you."

Iqbal used the metaphor of the shaheen (falcon or eagle) mainly in reference to young Muslims, to symbolize the concept of constant struggle in order to contribute to the Islamic cause of serving humanity at large. He contrasted the untiring pursuit of this goal with the life of the parasitic vulture, who survives on animal carcasses without the dignity of effort. He stated that Islam encourages Muslims to travel constantly like falcons in order to resist over-dependence on an easy, comfortable way of life:

"The falcon is a self-reliant member of the shifting world of birds; therefore he does not build his nest on a fixed spot".

Iqbal described vividly the pitfalls of modern Muslim and western societies, and at the same time offered immense hope to the young who were willing to embrace his vision and heed his advice. His imagery of the dawn to come is emphatic: "See your present in the light of the past." Iqbal emphasized that "the New Age that will soon emerge the world awaits in eagerness". Iqbal's message was very clear: he meant that the "New Dawn" could only come from the modern youth who are capable of overthrowing the shackles of external (western/imperialist) materialism and reawakening their inner fire (love of God).

In a poem addressed to a young man, Iqbal wrote:

Your sofas are from Europe, your fine carpets from Iran,
My eyes weep blood when I see such pampered ways among young men!
For what are rank and office, what even the pomp of Chosroes, when
You neither like Ali brave the world, nor scorn it like Salman.
Not in the glittering modern world is that contentment to be found:
It is the splendor of the true believer, his ladder reared on faith.
When the Eagle spirit is awakened in the youth,
Its destination appears to it far off in the skies.
Hope on! In despair is the decline of mind and soul;
The true Believer's hopes are among the confidants of God.
Your resting place is not in the vaulted palaces of kings,
You are an eagle; build your nest upon the mountain rock.

Iqbal continued this fervour eloquently, praying to his Lord for the young of his people:

Give the young, O Lord, my passionate love for you!
And give them the Eagle's force to fly and see!
O Lord, I pray that You vouchsafe to them
The power of vision that You have given me.

The Iranian revolutionary Ali Shari'ati insisted that only if exemplary Muslim personalities like Mohammed Iqbal could be reborn and remake themselves would Muslim societies be transformed. Shari'ati refused to classify Iqbal's contribution as that of a philosopher, mystic or political thinker: "Muhammad Iqbal is not just a Muslim mystic who is solely concerned with mysticism or gnosis as were Ghazzali, Muhyi Din ibn Arabi, and Rumi. They emphasized individual evolution; purification of the soul, and the inner illuminated 'self'. They only developed and trained a few people like themselves but, for the most part, remained oblivious to the outside world, having been almost unaware of the Mongol attack and the subsequent despotic rule and suppression of the people."

The greatest advice of Iqbal to humanity is: Have a heart like Jesus, thought like Socrates, and a hand like the hand of a Caesar, but all in one human being, in one creature of humanity, based upon one spirit in order to attain one goal: become a human being who attains to the heights of political awareness in his time. Iqbal achieved this to the extent that some people believe him to be solely a political figure and a liberated, nationalist leader who was a twentieth-century anti-colonialist. Shari'ati described Iqbal as "A man who, in philosophical thought, rises to such a high level that he is considered to be a contemporary thinker and philosopher of the same rank as Bergson in the West today or of the same level as Ghazzali in Islamic history."

Iqbal went to Europe and became a philosopher. He came to know the European schools of philosophy and made them known to others. Everyone admitted that he is a twentieth-century philosopher, but he did not surrender to Western thinking. On the contrary, he conquered the West. He was devoted to Rumi and a disciple of his, without in any way compromising his allegiance to the authentic dimensions of the Islamic spirit. Sufism says "As our fate has been predetermined in our absence, if it is not to your satisfaction, do not complain". Or, "If the world does not agree with you or suit you, you should agree with the world". But Iqbal the mystic says "If the world does not agree with you, rise against it!"

Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei's speech, "Iqbal: The Poet-Philosopher of Islamic Resurgence," delivered at the opening session of the First International Conference on Iqbal, held in Tehran in March 1986, highlighted the historical relevance of Iqbal's contribution. Imam Khamenei emphasised that if Muslims wish to understand Iqbal and the significance of his message, it is necessary to know the conditions that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent during Iqbal's lifetime- "an Epoch that culminated in Iqbal himself." Iqbal was born in 1877, twenty years afterBritain established its domination over India's Muslims. Khamenei described Iqbal's faith: "Iqbal's day-to-day life in the city of Lahore and in the colonized subcontinent of India led him to directly experience the pains and hardships of life. It was at this juncture Iqbal raised the banner of his revolt. His was a cultural, political and revolutionary movement."

Iqbal was frustrated with the dualist education system because it was divided into ‘secular' and ‘religious' education even in the Muslim world. He complained that this partition failed to fulfill the mission of producing falcon-like young Muslims: "I am seriously disappointed with those in charge of running our schools, because they are training them to lead a life of lowly and aimless wandering devoid of any serious devotion to a worthy cause."

Iqbal rejected outright the idea of separating politics and human relations from faith, ethics and morality. He was bitter about the hollow rhetoric and rituals adopted by Muslims and their traditional leaders: "The religious elite have lost all the wealth of spirituality and wisdom; who is the temptress that has robbed them of such a valuable commodity?" Iqbal firmly believed that the divorce of religion and politics was antagonistic to the spirit of Islam: "Be it the royalism of monarchs or the jugglery of the democrats, if one separates religion from politics one is left to face the barbarism of Genghis Khan."

Iqbal foresaw what most Muslims face in the modern world: dependence on alien ideas and ideologies, and eventually subjugation to the whims of their leaders. Iqbal realized that, given the technological superiority of the imperialist powers and the opportunities and challenges that globalization provides, the Ummah would suffer not only from an inferiority complex and slavish mentality, but also from the malaise of learnt helplessness.

Iqbal regarded as myopic nationalism, patriotism restricted to narrow geographic borders, and democracy in the liberal-western style: to him all are the new gods crafted by mankind for self-delusion. He compares these ‘isms' to old pagan gods and goddesses: “Human beings are still trapped in the same old magic of idolatry, whose armpits are still hiding the images of gods of the primitive era."

Humanity is being sacrificed like a sheep at the foot of an unholy idol.
O drinker from the goblet of Khalil (the idol destroyer) [i.e. Ibrahim as, destroyer of his people's idols],
Your veins are throbbing with the wine of the passion of Khalil:
You have to strike the sword of ‘nothing exists except Him'
Into falsehood described as truth.
Let your face shine on the dark horizons of time
And spread the perfect message that has been revealed to you.

Iqbal vehemently opposed servitude in any form, be it to leaders or concepts and ideas that rebelled against God's commands:

Man worshipped man in the world.
He lived as a non-entity, as a non-being, and as a subordinate
Under the heavy yoke of the Kings and the Caesars
And his neck, his hands, and his feet were chained.
The Popes and the priests and the kings and the idols-
A hundred hunters after a single prey!
Both the king and the priest

Levied taxes on his devastated harvest.

In his monumental work Islam Between East and West, the late Bosnian president Alija Ali Izetbegovic uses a beautiful poem from Javid-Nama, on the first page:

Though it is from the East that the Sun rises,
Showing itself bold and bright

without a veil, it burns and blazes with inward fire
Only when it escapes from the shackles of East and West.
Drunk with the splendor it springs up out of its East
that it may subject all its horizons to its mastery.
Its nature is innocent of both East and West,

Though in origin, true, it is an Easterner.

Muslims living in the East and West today are not sure of their roles and responsibilities, nor of the reasons for their current predicament. Muslims in the East, be it in Africa, Asia or theMiddle East, are inclined to fight the imperialist oppressors from the West. In this inevitable process, what they risk being guilty of is neglect of the contributions and struggle of their Muslim brethren living in the West. The Muslims in the West brand Eastern Muslims as "reactionary and backward"; the Easterners brand Westerners as "comfort-loving and elitist". As Kalim Siddiqui stated in his last book, Stages of Islamic Revolution: "The new Global Islamic Movement includes all social classes among all Muslims living all over the world, including the substantial Muslim minorities living in the West." It is perhaps at this critical juncture that Iqbal's message can be used to unite humanity in the struggle for freedom and justice. Iqbal has entrusted this gigantic task to none other than the Muslim Youth.

As we approach the month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world are preparing to replenish their spiritual reservoirs. There is no better time for all Muslims, especially the young, to heed Iqbal's emphasis on the essence of the "morning wail". Iqbal asks us all to explore the "secrets of the self" (asrar-i-khudi). The "morning wail" has a special significance in Iqbal's thought. It refers to the practice of spiritual exploration through nightly prayers and reflection on the message of the Qur'an at the break of dawn. Calling on the fresh, courageous, optimistic and energetic young Muslims of the Ummah for a new Islamic renaissance, Iqbal pleads lovingly:

Understand the significance of my morning wail:
May God keep the young ones safe!
Impart to them the lesson of selfhood and self-denial;
Teach them the ways of piercing the rock.
O Lord! I have but one wish:
Give to all the gift of my foresight!

While most of the world slept, Iqbal's spiritual and mental awareness gave rise to restlessness: the spark, the inner fire that is so vital to a young Muslim – indeed any Muslim – in order to aspire to a strong and militant commitment to truth and justice.

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