Iqbal’s Thoughts on State & Society
By Murtaza Razvi


It is seldom that a newspaper article on intellectual giants like Allama Iqbal, especially on Iqbal Day, gives more than a general biographical account of the man of his stature. The standard eulogizing poured out on such occasions tends to belittle the poet-philosopher’s achievements by obscuring the more important facets of his intellect, namely, his contribution to Muslim religious and political thought in our times.

So on this Iqbal Day, let us not speak of him as we have been conditioned to speaking of many lesser men passing off as leaders in our midst. Iqbal’s contribution to furthering Muslim thought goes far beyond the political sloganeering for which he has been used by successive governments in this country. The most recent examples were those of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Ziaul Haq.

During the former’s premiership, Iqbal’s line ‘Uttho meri dunya ke gharibon ko jagado’ became a slogan that galvanized and moved the teeming millions. It was left to General Zia to undo that populist appeal by hammering in before Khabarnama on PTV every night ‘Juda ho deen siyasat se to reh jati hai changezi’ as an instrument of supporting his own obscurantist brand of Islam. While Z.A Bhutto and Zia will find their place among the dead rulers of this country, Iqbal will continue to keep company with living academics and students of literature, philosophy and politics.

Iqbal’s intellect, as deduced from his concept of Khudi (self) and the series of lectures on the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, was very much the product of the socio-political realities of his time. The concept of Khudi (as put forth in the Persian masnavi Asrar-i-Khudi, published 1915) and the lectures delivered in Madras in 1928, were Iqbal’s earnest attempts at seeking a meaningful place for Muslims among the then emerging comity of nation states.
The change engulfing the world in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Ottoman empire, Europe’s espousal of modern knowledge and the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the communist Soviet Union, having a popular appeal among colonized peoples, and impending decolonization, all made Iqbal’s a rapidly changing world. Muslims spread across Asia and Africa, with most living under western colonial rule or in protectorates, appeared least prepared to take their reins in their own hands.

Iqbal had no ready solutions to tackle the multifaceted challenges facing the Muslims. But that did not stop him, like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Jamaluddin Afghani and Mohammed Abduh before him, from trying to stir a debate and seek an indigenous Muslim response to change. This was despite knowing that what was endorsed as his scholarship by western academia and enlightened sections of his own community could well become his handicap with the Muslim religious establishment. But his own thorough understanding of religion propelled him to seek to bridge the gap that was seen to exist between religion and modern knowledge.

His call for reinstating Ijtihad, as proposed in the Madras lectures, for instance, met with fatwas and allegations of blasphemy from some quarters. The populist appeal of his poetry - prophetic, nationalist and spiritual and devotional by turns - saved him from outright condemnation by the self-proclaimed guardians of faith. The latter day Persian masnavi ‘Pas che bayad kard aye aqwam-i-sharq’ (so what should be done, nations of the East?) has all three elements woven into its poetic eloquence.

As time has shown, the post-colonial Muslim experience, Iqbal’s primary concern, has not been a particularly happy one. He was well aware of the Muslims’ shortcomings and the lack of modern intellectual acumen that was needed to counter western civilization’s onslaught against them. This was manifest in the form of direct colonization of Muslim peoples or forced military or political intrusions into Muslim countries on the pretext of countering the threat from communism or fascism.

Today, although under different circumstances, Iqbal’s prognosis, outlining the then impending misery he believed would be Muslims’ lot in a rapidly changing and modernizing world, has largely come true. In a country believed to be of his own ideological conception, the scourge of resistance to new ideas from the outside world and our failure to bridge the gap between the modern and the spiritual ways of life have rendered us socially, politically and intellectually almost dysfunctional.

This state of static living has been compounded over the years. This is because the world today has gone much further and deeper in scientific knowledge than was thought possible in Iqbal’s lifetime. But it remains just as dangerous a jungle where the survival of the fittest is still the norm.

The arm twisting and the vanquishing of the weak and the meek has continued, whether it is in Palestine, Iraq or as seen in the cat-and-mouse game being played out between the US and al Qaeda terrorists throughout the world. That Iqbal should have been the last of the great Muslim thinkers is a measure of our self-imposed socio-political and economic apathy and ineptitude.
How often do we take stock of such facts? Not even on occasions like the Iqbal Day. The aim here is not to give ready solutions; for that we have the generals who, in the absence of anyone more worthy, have donned that mantle. Iqbal suggests that a possible solution of Muslims’ dilemma lies in the re-opening of the doors of Ijtihad (interpretation).

Separation of the eternal and temporal aspects of the faith, as in Ibadaat (obligatory prayer, the fast, Hajj and Zakat) and Muamelaat (everyday decision-making, including legislation and governance) is another remedy - as has been deduced from Iqbal’s Madras lectures by Justice Javid Iqbal, Iqbal’s son and a scholar in his own right.

In a published interview with this writer in 1990s Justice Iqbal dwelled at length on the latter aspect of his father’s thought. While the Allama believed that there should be no alteration in the way the Ibadaat are performed, the Muamelaat, which directly relate to change as a continuing process, will have to be dealt with in accordance with the demands placed by society.

We know from the Madras lectures on the reconstruction of religious thought that Iqbal was not in favor of the traditional madressah-qualified scholars as being the sole guardians of faith entrusted with giving authoritative rulings on Muslims’ everyday problems. Indian scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, in his recent paper on the Madras lectures, quotes Iqbal as saying, “...state in Islam is theocracy, not in the sense that it is headed by a representative of God on earth who can always screen his despotic will behind his supposed infallibility.”

This also puts in perspective the latter-day Allahabad Address to the All India Muslim League session (1937), in which the Allama gave the idea of the creation of an independent Muslim-majority state in India, and which became the basis for the Muslims’ demand for Pakistan.

This, and his correspondence with the Quaid while the latter was practicing law in England, urging him to come back and lead the Muslims of India, explain the solution that Iqbal sought for his community’s social and political uplift. There was no dearth of religious scholars among the community and Iqbal was on very good personal terms with many of them, but he refrained from giving them the center stage of Muslims’ affairs.

Though essentially very conservative and careful with interpreting religion, Iqbal, both at the political and intellectual levels, managed to present a possible confluence between modern sensibilities and the role of divine injunctions in public life of our times. At the academic level, this was made possible through his informed interpretation of the religious dogma.

We know that Ijtihad undertaken by Muslim scholars before the sack of Baghdad in 1258 was done under the guidelines then having been established by the four learned Imams, - Hanbal, Malik, Shafe’i and Abu Hanifa. Iqbal insisted that the scholars who undertook the task of interpreting the Shariah under the Abassids were well versed in temporal knowledge of the day as well as the divine injunctions, as decreed by the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The doctrine of Ijtihad, which itself flows from the Shariah as ruled by the learned Imams, is all about interpreting and reinterpreting the two basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence in accordance with change taking place in society. The Shariah does not place a time limit on the practice of Ijtihad. This is because as human society evolves and socio-political and economic realities change, the spiritual need to seek guidance from faith remains a constant, and Iqbal held that the ulama alone could not be made the sole arbiters on that score.

It may sound anathema to today’s more assertive ulama, but the fact remains that Iqbal was an ardent admirer of Kemalist Turkey, and there are several references to this in his Madras lectures. This is despite the fact that he never denied the emotional and symbolic importance the Ottoman caliphate had for Muslims everywhere, including the subcontinent.

However, Iqbal’s absence from the Khilafat Movement, which by default fell to the lot of the Congress and the Muslim religious establishment in the former’s bid to enlist the latter’s support for its brand of politics, also remains a fact.

It is ironic that textbooks promoting Pakistan ideology and written during Gen Zia’s time should have tried to lump Iqbal’s thought with that behind the Khilafat Movement or that espoused by the ulama and mashaaikh belonging to the traditional madressah establishment of the period. It is intellectual dishonesty of this kind that must be exposed and disowned as a crude aberration. The traditional mullah and the scholar equipped with both religious and modern knowledge remain poles apart in Iqbal’s perception.

Justice Javid Iqbal sums up the Allama’s concept of a modern Muslim state, saying that members of parliament in a given nation state, who should be well versed in both religious and modern knowledge, could be entrusted with making laws in line with modern demands and enshrining the faith’s spirit of justice and equity.


This was Iqbal’s blueprint for a desirable Muslim government in modern times. While we may have achieved the nation state we claim he had conceived, his real dream of running that state effectively has remained unfulfilled. This, unfortunately, is the truth today as it has been all these years.

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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