Campaign against Iqbal

Tracing the roots of the relentless propaganda

Allama Iqbal is celebrated by many Pakistanis as the politician who first articulated the idea of Pakistan in all its concreteness. Others regard him as the philosopher-poet who devoted a lifetime to the task of rousing the subcontinent Muslims from their blissful slumber by making them conscious of their own identity. At the same time, there is no dearth of those who do not hold Iqbal in particularly high esteem. They have a great deal to say about why they are not impressed with Iqbal. Let us consider some of these groups and the objections they voice against Iqbal.

Traditional mullahs were the first to take it upon themselves to denigrate Iqbal. Before Iqbal, they had had similar issues with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Their gripe was not regarding any specific issue on which they could not see eye to eye with Khan. (God knows there are many beliefs held by Khan which no sensible man could agree with, but that was not the point.) Their issue was with the general lack of reverence which Khan had for clerics. Their problem with Iqbal was the same. Hence the many fatwas declaring him outside the fold of Islam, not from some obscure mullah but from the likes of the khateeb of Lahore’s famous Wazir Khan Mosque. This bad blood continued till the very last days of Iqbal’s life when he had a very public and acrimonious debate with Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani on ‘What makes nations: Religions or countries?’ Madani commanded deep reverence among his followers, who never forgave Iqbal for his insolence. Thereafter, no story was too outlandish if it helped them ‘get even’ with Iqbal. The stories of Iqbal having a weakness for alcohol and his having killed a prostitute were born in this context.

Then there were the Sufis of his time. Iqbal was not averse to Sufism per se – among others he had great regard for Nizamuddin Auliya, Ahmad Sirhindi and Ali Hajveri – but he was against the brand of Sufism that encouraged inactivity and defeatism. His blunt critique of Hafez Shirazi – who enjoyed a widespread loyal following – alienated many Sufis, who were in turn not favourable in their opinions of Iqbal, who they accused of being rather full of himself.

Decades have passed since Iqbal’s death, and many generations have come and gone since. But the propaganda started by one or the other of these groups continues getting recycled. Therefore, there is plenty of ‘material’ available for anybody who wants to score a cheap point or two. But the legacy of the great man lives on regardless.

The fact that Iqbal once had a good opinion of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad before denouncing him later is used by both sides against him. One party never forgave him for distancing himself from Ahmad, the other party for not doing it earlier.

After the publication of some of his works one communist newspaper, in its missionary zeal, declared Iqbal a communist. Not one to take such an accusation lying down, Iqbal sent a letter to the daily Zamindar’s editor in which he declared that being a Muslim he could not possibly subscribe to the theories of communism. This did not win him many friends among the communists, who responded by joining others in peddling propaganda against him. Like some of the mullahs before them, their accusation of choice was that Iqbal was a British agent who, on the behest of his masters, was hell bent on dividing India into many parts.

As if all this was not enough, Javed Iqbal writes in his biography of the great man that one source of propaganda against Iqbal was the man himself. Possessing an irrepressible sense of humour and horrified of ascribing to himself even an iota of piety, he was wont to respond to simple questions in a way that opened many doors of speculation. People who knew him well understood this. But the same cannot be said of those who are accustomed to taking things more literally. For example, during a party at Mian Shah Din’s home where there was provision of liquor for British guests, Din told Iqbal in a lighter vein that for Iqbal there was separate arrangement elsewhere. To which Iqbal retorted that he had learned two things from Din: drinking secretly and never giving alms to anybody. Now, anybody who knows anything about Iqbal knows that he was a teetotaler who not only raised funds for many causes but donated large sums of his own money as well, but there were those who used such incidents as the basis of their critique of Iqbal.

Probably the most repeated objection against Iqbal is that he was not averse to some ‘undesirable’ forms of art. That Iqbal had a tremendous sense of music and rhythm is evident from his poetry. Furthermore, he had an intimate knowledge of raags. He liked listening to qawwalis and his own poetry sung. And he was not averse to an occasional visit to the notorious first floor singing ladies. Though today’s puritans are often found raising their eyebrows at this, it was a norm for the times. The music played there was rooted in culture and the verses sung often consisted of Persian classics – a far cry from the crudity portrayed in Bollywood or what goes on in similar places these days.

In his sixty years, Iqbal managed to offend almost every group one could think of. He continues to upset those who came much later: today’s liberals, for example. Much of Iqbal’s metaphor comes from his conception of Islam. Being allergic to religious symbols and imagery of any kind, the liberals are naturally not enamoured with him.

Decades have passed since Iqbal’s death, and many generations have come and gone since. But the propaganda started by one or the other of these groups continues getting recycled. Therefore, there is plenty of ‘material’ available for anybody who wants to score a cheap point or two. But the legacy of the great man lives on regardless.

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Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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