Iqbal, Muhammad (C. 1877–1938)

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IQBAL, MUHAMMAD (C. 1877–1938)

Muhammad Iqbal, South Asian poet and ideological innovator, wrote poetry in Urdu and Persian and discursive prose, primarily in English, of particular significance in the formulation of a national ethos for Pakistan. A popular lyric and patriotic poet in his youth, he later shifted to more philosophical themes that sought to discover in the heritage of Islam a spirit of individual and social activism that would inspire an alternative path to modernity and demonstrate the universal relevance of Islam for the modern world. An opponent of nationalism, particularly the Indian nationalist movement, he promoted a renewed aspiration for a worldwide Muslim umma. Nevertheless, his advocacy of Muslim social self-sufficiency and his occasionally more specific political statements were later construed in Pakistan as the guiding principles for the country's separation from India.

Born in Sialkot, Punjab, of Kashmiri background and modest economic circumstances—his father had a small tailoring and embroidery shop—Iqbal received an early education in Arabic and Persian and a British colonial education that earned him a masters degree in philosophy at Government College, Lahore, where he also established his reputation as a poet. His academic brilliance won him a scholarship to continue his studies at Cambridge University in 1905, while also qualifying him as a barrister. He then earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Munich in 1908 with a dissertation, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, which was published that year. His three years in Europe, during which he was immersed in philosophical idealism, also inspired a powerful concern with the historical circumstances of Muslims throughout the world in the face of the technological and political domination of the West. His Urdu poem Shikwa (Complaint), in 1911, asked why God had allowed Muslims to fall from their position as leaders of humanity.

To reach a wider Muslim audience and establish a deeper historical connection with the cosmopolitan civilization of Islam, Iqbal chose to write most of his later and more philosophically ambitious poetry in Persian. Asrar-e khudi (Secrets of the self, 1915), his first major poem in Persian, was a sharp rejection of the mystical goal of absorption into undifferentiated being, which Iqbal associated with passivity on the part of individuals and communities. For Iqbal, the assertion of khudi, individuality, allows for the possibility of love and creativity in the unfinished creation of the world.

Although calling for practical action in the world, Iqbal's poetry remained steeped in erudite, abstract, and metaphorical language and in the metrical conventions of the Persian tradition. At the same time he mixed in allusions to European literature and contemporary events. His most ambitious work, the Javid Nama (1932), a kind of Divina Commedia, recounts the poet's journey through the solar system, guided by the great Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273 c.e.), encountering a wide range of mythic and historical figures. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930) sets forth his social and religious philosophy, which seeks to construct a concept of a dynamic, democratic society inspired by the Qur˒an and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Rejecting the goals of secular nationalism associated with Europe as a false division of matter and spirit, Iqbal's ventures into politics as president of the Muslim League in 1930, participation in the London Round Table Conferences in 1931 and 1932, and occasional commentary, set forth a positive vision of a modern Muslim social and political order.

See alsoLiberalism, Islamic ; Persian Language and Literature ; South Asia, Islam in ; Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry .


Iqbal, Muhammad. The Secrets of the Self (Asrar-i-Khudi): A Philosophical Poem. Translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1940.

Iqbal, Muhammad. Javid-Nama. Translated by A. J. Arberry. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966.

Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. 1951. Reprint, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1971.

Iqbal, Muhammad. Iqbal: a Selection of the Urdu Verse. Translated by D. J. Matthews. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1993.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Gabriel's Wing: A Study of the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1963.

David Lelyveld