Iqbal: Beyond poetic catchphrases

Published: April 22, 2011

Yesterday was the death anniversary of one of Pakistan’s prominent national heroes, philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

Dr Riffat Hassan wrote a wonderful piece on how Iqbal’s ideology and message has been excluded from national discourse. I would like to echo that sentiment; today’s generation feels no connection to Iqbal’s ideas.

Every once in a while, I see a couple of his lines on someone’s Facebook status but that’s about it. Pakistanis know nothing of the man beyond a few catchphrases. His ideas are important to understand, question and reflect on, because we have all grown up in an environment that is a product of his ideas. His vision for what Pakistan is more important now than ever before.

The great intellectual leaders

The age of colonisation gave birth to a new intellectual trend among Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia. Muslims who chose to study till the university level engaged in the study of Persian, Arabic, Urdu, as well as German, French and English. Thus, understood both worlds and what emerged was the first semblance of a dynamic, vibrant, cultured Muslim elite. The combination of the East and the West, the old and the new, the modern and the ancient produced an intellectual movement exemplified by men like Iqbal.

The disinterested and the conservative

Sadly, it seems that this movement died out. I have met Muslims from different countries. They, for the most part, fall into two categories: the disinterested or the conservative. The former does not care and the latter emphasises rituals, but lacks the intellectual drive to pursue discussions on ethical, scientific and philosophical movements. Most of this group’s religious emphasis is on Arabising their speech and inserting the usual Arabic phrases in them – which is fine; I suppose it is hard to develop a Muslim identity as a minority in a country.

What this tells me is that today, in Pakistan and I’m guessing from my encounters with immigrant Muslims in America, in the rest of the Muslim world too, we are plagued by intellectual stagnation. Our viewpoints are disjointed and polarised; we are either Tabhleegi or Westernised with no cultural roots. Iqbal’s vision of a modern Muslim comfortable in the East and the West, with the scientific method, with evolution, with rational inquiry, with democracy, is dead. It is no wonder we are such a confused society.

The way ahead

To reinvigorate the Muslim consciousness we need to revive Iqbal’s message. His work needs to be added to our textbooks, especially those of English medium schools. It is a tragedy that we are taught Shakespeare in school but not Iqbal. There needs to be greater emphasis on expanding the vocabulary of words taught in Urdu so that students can actually understand Iqbal’s writings in Urdu. Even some of our lughats (dictionaries) do not carry words that are used in his poetry.

Finally the Iqbal Academy of Pakistan, which is designated to “promote and disseminate the study and understanding of the works and teachings of Allama Iqbal,” needs to play a larger role in spreading his vision. The first step should be to upload all his work on the internet. I am glad that Iqbal’s magnum opus, “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” is finally online and available for all to view. But, there is a need to digitally archive all his work in Urdu and Persian along with translations of his complete work so that they are readily accessible to more people. The academy should sponsor scholars to go on tours of various schools and universities in the country and hold student debates in order to get students interested.


Asad Badruddin

A student of economics and international relations at Tufts University in Boston who hails from Karachi. He blogs at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • faraz

    Can you briefly explain what kind of state he wanted, and what solution he had for the problems faced by the muslimsRecommend

  • Bilal

    Mr. Iqbal is a great Urdu poet after mirza ghalib in sub continent. how beautiful some one has written that…

    ” Ager mein tanasikh ka kail hota tou zaroor kehta, ke mirza Asadullah khan ko jo Shairi se Ishq tha, us ne un ko adam mein bhe chain na lainay diya. aur majboor kiya ke woh phir kisi jasd e khaki mein jalwae afroz ho ker, shairi ke chaman ki aabiyaari karey, aur unho ne doobara janam liya aur Iqbal ka naam paya”


    If I believed in life after death, I would have said for sure, the love of poetry didn’t let Mirza Asadullah khan take peace in his eternal life and compelled him to get in some human body once again to serve the world of poetry and he was born again and took the name of Iqbal.Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    Very well written article.
    Iqbal’s ideology holds no bound it was not only about the state but “ummah” as a whole which made him to say
    “If we are resolved to describe Islam as a system of superior values, we are obliged, first of all, to acknowledge that we are not the true representatives of Islam”

    @faraz link below is for you Recommend

  • faraz

    @Fahad Raza
    How can you explain Iqbal’s praise for Turkish secularism in his famous lectures, “The Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam”:
    “The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey above has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom; she alone has passed from the ideal to the real -a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle. To her the growing complexities of a mobile and broadening life are sure to hiring new situations suggesting new points of view, and necessitating fresh interpretations of principles which are only of an academic interest to a people who have never experienced the joy of spiritual expansion… Most Muslim countries today are mechanically repeating old values, whereas the Turk is on the way to creating new values. He has passed through great experiences which have revealed his deeper self to him. In him, life has begun to move, change and amplify, giving birth to new desires, bringing new difficulties and suggesting new interpretations.”

    And do you think Ijtehad is possible in an Islamic state? How will the state deviate from its own previous interpretations of Islam? What if people don’t agree with a certain interpretation of Islam? What about the sectarian differences which are so intense that ulema of different sects label each other as heretics?

    Iqbal said that:
    “The inner cohesion of such a nation would consist not in ethnic of geographic unity, not in the unity of language or social tradition but in the unity of religious and political ideal or in the psychological fact of like-mindedness.
    The membership of Islam as a community is not determined by birth, locality or naturalization; it consists in the identity of belief. Nationality with us is a pure idea; it has no geographical basis.”

    This is total rejection of history. Conflict in the earlier days of islam were based on tribal differences. Muslims have never been a monolith. And what about ethnic violence in Pakistan which has nothing to do with religion or absence of religion. And if religion has no boundries, then what was the purpose of carving out Pakistan out of British India.Recommend

  • Iftikhar Ahmad


    There is no place for English medium schools in Pakistan. Bilingual schooling is a new concept in education. In Pakistan, the medium of instruction in schools must be Urdu and English right from Nursery level. Arabic should be an additional language to be taught. This means that in schools all children must learn to read, speak and write Urdu and English languages. The children will be able to enjoy the beauty of their Urdu literature and poetry and keep in touch with their cultural heritage.

  • Ahmad

    Your post is nothing but misrepresentation at best, a lie at worst. Here’s the complete passage you cite:

    “The question which confronts him today, and which is likely to confront other Muslim countries in the near future is whether the Law of Islam is capable of evolution – a question which will require great intellectual effort, and is sure to be answered in the affirmative, provided the world of Islam approaches it in the spirit of ‘Umar – the first critical and independent mind in Islam who, at the last moments of the Prophet, had the moral courage to utter these remarkable words: ‘The Book of God is sufficient for us.”

    So you see how that part you so conveniently miss out on completely changes the meaning of the whole passage.

    Iqbal did admire Turkey, as your passage makes clear, but he admired it because he supported Ijtihad and regarded other Muslim majority nations as stuck in their slumber while Turkey was getting a move on. He never supported the secularization of Turkey. He had this to say about the National Party of Turkey:

    “Personally, I think it is a mistake to suppose that the idea of State is more dominant and rules all other ideas embodied in the system of Islam. The truth is that the Turkish Nationalists assimilated the idea of the separation of the Church and the State from the history of European political ideas. Such a thing could never happen in Islam; for Islam was from the very beginning a civil society. The Nationalist theory of State, therefore, is misleading inasmuch as it suggests a dualism which does not exist in Islam.”

    In the same chapter, he admits that Turkey is drifting from the mainstream but says that it needs to develop on its own, set its own house in order (as do all other Muslim nations) before founding a league of nations. Quoting Eiya, he says:

    “In order to create a really effective political unity of Islam, all Muslim countries must first
    become independent: and then in their totality they should range themselves under one
    Caliph. Is such a thing possible at the present moment? If not today, one must wait. In the
    meantime the Caliph must reduce his own house to order and lay the foundations of a
    workable modern State.”

    So you see, when taken in context, your point is wrong, completely, utterly, and unmitigatedly wrong.Recommend

  • faraz

    So how many of us believe that Book of God is enough? The difference in interpretation of Hadees has fragmented the ummah. In fact Iqbal severely criticized such disputes over Hadees. So Ataturks secularization was ijtehad? Which religious scholar was involved in this ijtehad? So people with no knowledge of Islam can carry out ijehad. And who defines the limits of ijtehad? Technically there is no Church in Islam, but practically the different schools of jurisprudence hold similar control over the thoughts of the society. Didn’t Imam Ghazali force the rationalists out of Islamic discourse? The caliphs gained legitimacy from ulema and provided special status to the school of thought which those ulema prescribed. Islamic thought thus froze in time. State neutrality is therefore essential to de-freeze the process. Different states rallying under a caliph is pure fantasy, a rejection of history and politics; it shows how naive he was. And what about the other questions i raised in my previous post? Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    I think you need to read his work in the books he wrote. now nobody can teach you or answer you to your satisfaction if you don’t have an open mind that other may have a point. With reference to your question posted I gave you a link to seek what you were looking for. instead of look for and admitting “may be” some point are accurate you “Mis-quote” as pointed out by Ahmed.

    Now i am neither willing nor inclined to your immature queries, go find out What Iqbal wanted and make a valid argument this time but before you do that Do read his books and understand basic concept of state with respect to Islam not what the rest of the world teaches.

    Thanks Ahmed for a well analysed reply. Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Faraz, you so convenientlyy make the jump that me defending Iqbal means I agree with him and his idea that Pakistan should be a religiously defined entity. I don’t. I was just pointing out that alot of people serve their own interests by redefining and manufacturing Iqbal’s message, as you have so clearly done. After all, dead people can’t really defend themselves; somebody has to do it for them. So, to answer your very first reactionary question, I think the Quran should have no place in society in Pakistan and should play no part in shaping any policy, and religion should be left to individuals to interpret as they so please without them imposing their own beliefs on other people. And maybe you should read the entire chapter you so conveniently quoted from before asking your irrelevant feel good questions, but wait, context should never stand in the way of a good (but fake) narrative, now should it? And unlike you, Iqbal was not so arrogant as to be dogmatic on his own views; he repeatedly says that it is very possible that he could be wrong about everything. He himself makes the telling observation that a religiously defined entity is unattainable since since it cannot be constrained by borders, something you would know if you had bothered to read his whole work. The people who today control the church you speak of, the priests of Islam, so to speak, weren’t the saviors Iqbal had in mind for Pakistan. His poetry makes this quite clear, but then again, you actually have to read the man in his totality to see that, which, ironically is precisely what this blog post is about. Those very Mullahs also passed a fatwa against Iqbal for deriving inspiration of his work, ‘Aftab’ (i think) from Hindu scriptures. A sampling of Iqbal talking about the Mullahs:

    Being present myself, my impetuous tongue
    To silence I could not resign
    When an order from God of admission on high
    Came the way of that revered Divine;
    I humbly addressed the Almighty: Oh Lord,
    Excuse this presumption of mine,
    But he’ll never relish the virgins of heaven,
    The garden’s green borders, the wine!
    To meddle and muddle and mangle,
    And he, the pious man – second nature to him
    Is the need to dispute and to jangle;
    His business has been to set folks by the ears
    And get nations and sects in a tangle:
    Up there in the sky is no Mosque and no Church
    And no Temple – with whom will be wrangle?

    To finish, Iqbal’s ideas were certainly idealistic and impractical even in his own time (which he is willing to admit), but his contribution towards making Pakistan a reality cannot be ignored. I also posted this in Riffat Hussain’s article, and responded to your “liberal fascist’ schtick. If you bothered to find out the meaning of those two word, you’ll find that the phrase is an oxymoron, borrowed by our media morons, but cognitive thinking is required to figure all of this out, not asking a whole list of irrelevant reactionary questions in the hope that people who disagree with your manufactured narrative simply give up.Recommend

  • Asad

    I am willing to give you a bit more leeway on your basic points because:
    1) While Iqbal did not think secularization was the ideal, he still did not see it as incompatible with Islamic values
    2) In his prologue to the the Reconstruction he is the first to point out that no idea is stationary and all ideas (including his own) must evolve and adapt over time. He would be the first to encourage a reconstruction of his reconstruction

    @Farhad and Ahmed
    I think the major confusion and cause for this debate is how we define religion. Iqbal define’s religion as that which, “in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood,
    nor ritual, (and) can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great
    responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involves, and restore to
    him that attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining
    it in hereafter”
    This higher definition or religion can be defined as an interpretation of secularism (because it strips emphasis on rituals, dogma, and priesthood in politics) or a reconstruction of Islam.Recommend

  • Salaar Shamsi

    Asad, you have god-gifted talent for writing. Brilliance at work. Couldn’t agree more with the basic idea behind the article. I completely under where you are coming from. Our youth has forgotten the principles taught, or perhaps, preached (for the lack of a better word) by the legendary Iqbal. Perhaps, its a matter of perception but I would blame it on the influence of western world and how integrating our cultures and traditions with the ‘modern’ world has negatively impacted us beyond belief. It’s quite simple, when your youth can’t understand the ideology behind the text, following it is virtually impossible. If we are to improve and move forward as a nation, we need unity and understanding and perhaps adopting some of Iqbal’s ideas wouldn’t such a bad idea. Real food for thought here. Terrific stuff.Recommend

  • faraz

    I think Iqbal’s lectures are more coherent than his poetry which is a collection of random, unrelated and incoherent ideas. In his poetry, Iqbal comments on complicated phenomenon like Communism in a few verses by just declaring whether it’s good or bad, that’s it. He simply passes a verdict without explaining anything in depth. I have a problem with Iqbal’s oversimplification of complex issues. If a layman like me can have problems with his ideas, how will they impress the practitioners?


    I absolutely agree with your concept of religion and state. But the fact is that Iqbal had no real solution to the problems faced by Muslims. Iqbal’s savior was a Murd e Momin, a militant figure who subjugates the entire non-Muslim world through use of force. He didn’t really believe in the power of intellect, and he often falls under the cult of great figures of his time. Iqbal’s narrative will always be manufactured mainly because it’s a collection of muddled ideas; people are forced to pick and choose to make some sense of it. So you want me to adopt the typical Pakistani approach of shutting down my brain and accept that he was great. I bracketed ‘liberal fascist” to point out how stupid this term is and how the right wing media which idolizes Iqbal hasn’t really studied his lectures which are more in line with whom they call liberal fascist. But i disagree that Iqbal had much role in creation of Pakistan. In his Allabad Speech, the so called dream of Pakistan, he only talked of an autonomous region inside the Indian federation. He even suggested that a combined Hindu-Muslim army be deployed in NWFP to guard against the invaders who have historically attacked from that route. He died years before the Lahore Resolution. The year he died, the Muslim league suffered a crushing defeat in elections. He must have died a dejected man.Recommend

  • DiscoMaulvi

    I am not much of a Urdu reader but have always enjoyed Shairi, especially something as intellectually stimulating and profound as that of Iqbal. There are some verses which are indeed gems.


  • Maleeha Khan

    one word for IQBAL…… A “gr8” peoet!!!Recommend

  • TT

    Nice work Asad.

    Hopefully in your next blog you will address the practical application of Iqbal’s ideology in statecraft.

    TT Recommend

  • Haris

    A “Layman” who doesn’t know any thing about poetry specially Urdu why in the name of all that Holy your making comments about a great poet. Is just the desire to just punch what ever come on your tiny thinking cell.

    I hate the “I don’t know but I tell you attitude” in burgers.

    Anyway nice Blog Author. Keep it upRecommend

  • faraz


    I think you didnt get it. If you cant answer my simple questions then some academic or intellecutal would tear apart this philosophy. As the author rightly concludes from his ambivalent ideas that ‘While Iqbal did not think secularization was the ideal, he still did not see it as incompatible with Islamic values.’

    You want me to accept Iqbal’s greatness without studying him, thats typical pakistani apporach. I am sure your heros include Ghaznavi, Abdali, Aurengzeb, because thats what written in the textbooks, and we are not supposed to challenge that. Recommend