Retrieving Iqbal for the New Generation

“Why keep on harking back to Iqbal?” This is an increasingly common lament we find in certain sections today. One answer is suggested by as important a personality as Ali Shariati who has shown why Iqbal qualifies as Ali Guna (Ali-like) and thus deserves consideration. He has paid Iqbal one of the greatest tributes ever by an intellectual of his stature, showing him to be an unfragmented and model Muslim intellectual. Iqbal’s indeed is a mission akin to prophethood, and we need to read him to appreciate how this is the case. But it is sad to note that new generations are mostly unable to fully appreciate his Urdu verse, not to speak of his Persian works or his philosophical prose.


Iqbal is to be read as a thinker, as a poet and as a reformer. He is to be read and appreciated not as an individual but as link in the great chain of Islamic theosophy. He embodies in himself the best in the Islamic intellectual tradition and is inarguably one of the most sophisticated responses to the many malaises of modernity. He is the conscience of the subcontinent, a witness to the glory and power of love, of transcendence, and of the treasures of the Spirit he calls Ego, in an age of rampant secularization and desacralization.


Suffering from countless social problems, all round corruption, misgovernance, consumerism, the culture of bey hisi, and accustomed to take for granted, or as given, the huge mass of lies that surround us, the thousand and one forms of alienation, a beggarly state that has no control on its resources and citizens equally unconcerned about the suffering of countless girls that find no husbands,  an army of the unemployed, huge mismanagement of human resources due to severe shortage of quality educational institutions, mushrooming of private educational institutions due to the malfunctioning government system, we need a rebel like Iqbal as a teacher who asks us to fight all forces that hinder the free development of personality.


Iqbal is relevant as he articulates nothing but the teachings of countless prophets, sages and traditional philosophers in the modern idiom. Capitalism has not been conquered and the demon of power that spoils everything has yet to be vanquished, and thus Iqbal continues to be relevant also in his critique and rejection of all enslaving political, economic, and social institutions.  We have so far betrayed Iqbal as we haven’t yet realized his dream of the perfection of the ego and a truly democratic society.

Iqbal is still relevant. He didn’t believe that Capitalism was over, or that we should mix religion with politics, but rather that we should guide politics by values that most of us cherish, at least in theory.


Although, to some extent, by adopting the welfare state model the West has largely ceased to be the West that Iqbal criticized, by rejecting scientism and letting mysticism assert its voice – and with postmodernism questioning key postulates of the Enlightenment Project that led to secularization – his critique retains its force.


Girami’s couplet “those gifted with eyes to discern meaning know that Iqbal/ though not a prophet, yet did fulfill the mission of prophethood” best describes Iqbal’s importance today. The question is how to connect newer generations to Iqbal and the heritage he gave expression to. I think Iqbal studies should be offered as an optional subject after higher secondary education. That could introduce students to great treasures of Persian and Urdu literature, to key debates in theology and philosophy, to Modernity and its multifaceted challenges and appropriations, and to allied areas of knowledge.


Iqbal was proud to have a Kashmiri connection in his blood and was ever concerned with its predicament. He is ours no less than he is of Pakistan or undivided India.  The Kashmiri community has interiorized Iqbal as a symbol of Muslim identity, love of the Prophet (S.A.W) and a dynamic affirmatory worldview. He has been an inspiration for Sheikh Sahib and is no less an inspiration for Geelani Sahib. I think our present predicament could be better understood by a deeper reading of him.


He is the most influential Muslim thinker of the last century and without engaging with him we cannot proceed to the future with confidence. Iqbal is not merely a thinker or a reformer or a poet but a symbol and embodiment of a complex integral heritage or tradition that is a constituent of our collective self or identity. Reading him one drives into an ocean of spirituality and theosophy and philosophy and accesses vital aspects of the past 1300 years of Islamic heritage and the much older Indian, or eastern, and western traditions as well.


He can be enjoyed at many levels and, at least in part, by everyone. It is no wonder that all schools have tried to claim him on their side. More importantly, he provides symbols that can unify most of them. The point is what are we doing today to retrieve him from oblivion, from the shelves where his kulliyaat is kept, almost like the Quran, but not read, and if read, not much understood? We will have to take stock of his agony, his passion, his prayers and his tears.