Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938), Poet, Philosopher
By Prof. Mustansir Mir
Submitted by Prof. Mohammad Soheyl Umar
Director for English Language and Professor
University of Central Punjab
Iqbal was born on 9 November 1877 at Sialkot, an old city in the province of the Punjab in Pakistan. Some four-and-a-half centuries before his birth, his Brahmin ancestors in Kashmir (northern India) had converted to Islam.
In the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when Afghan rule in Kashmir was being replaced by Sikh rule, Iqbal’s great-grandfather, or his sons, emigrated from Kashmir to Sialkot. In his verses, Iqbal refers to his Kashmiri origins and Brahmin ancestry. He weeps over the suffering and misery of the people of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. In one verse, he expresses wonder—and is also amused to think—that, in spite of his Brahmin background, he became privy to mystic insights that only the great Sufi masters possessed.
Iqbal’s father, Nur Muhammad, a tailor by profession, was a pious individual with a mystic bent. Though he lacked a formal education, he could read Urdu and Persian books and eagerly sought the company of scholars and mystics, some of whom affectionately called him an ‘unlettered philosopher’.
In a study circle held regularly at his home, well-known Sufi classics were read, and this must have been Iqbal’s first introduction to Muslim mysticism. Wishing to provide a religious education to his son, Nur Muhammad sent four-year old Iqbal to a mosque where he learnt how to read the Qur’an.
Iqbal fondly relates several anecdotes to show how his views and attitudes were subtly but decisively influenced by his father’s simple but deeply religious character. Iqbal’s mother, though illiterate, was highly respected in the family as a wise, generous woman who quietly gave financial help to poor and needy women and arbitrated in neighbors’ disputes. In a moving poem written at her death in 1914, Iqbal pays tribute to her compassion and wisdom.
Barely one year after joining the Qur’an school, Iqbal, now five years old, became a student of Sayyid Mir Hasan (1844‑1929), a distinguished scholar of religion and literature who headed a madrasah (religious school) in the city. During their long association, Mir Hasan not only instructed Iqbal in the Islamic religious heritage, but also helped him cultivate a highly refined literary taste.
Unlike many other Muslim scholars in India, Mir Hasan felt an urgent need for Muslims to acquire a European—which, in practical terms, meant secular—education in addition to a religious one. Their capture of Delhi in 1857 made the British de jure rulers of India, large parts of which had already been under their de facto control. Anger and frustration led many Muslims to reject everything that was associated with the ruling British—who had already blamed the Muslims for the 1857 Uprising. They accused the British of instituting policies to them of their former dominant political and social position. In the field of education, the traditional Islamic disciplines of knowledge and the Persian and Arabic languages soon lost their pre-eminent position in society; by contrast, English and the modern arts and sciences gained importance. As a consequence, the demand for scholars of Arabic and Persian diminished while the demand for scholars of English and modern disciplines of knowledge increased.
Many Muslim religious leaders discouraged their followers from studying English—which they dubbed the language of the infidel usurpers of India—and from acquiring a modern education. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817‑98), educationist and reformer, disagreed with this view. He was convinced that the salvation of the Indian Muslims lay in accepting the fundamental change that had occurred in the real world. Critical of the traditional Islamic educational system, which he termed stagnant and unproductive, he stressed the need for Muslims to study English and the European arts and sciences. Mir Hasan agreed with Sir Sayyid and supported his cause. He persuaded Iqbal’s father to have Iqbal admitted to Sialkot’s Scotch Mission College, where Mir Hasan was professor of Arabic.
At this college, Iqbal obtained the Faculty of Arts diploma (1895)—the highest then offered by the college—which represented two years of education after high school. (The Scotch Mission College was later renamed Murray College, which still exists under that name.)
While at Scotch Mission, Iqbal, now 15 or 16 years old, started composing poetry, some of which was published. Like many other budding poets in India, he became a ‘student by correspondence’ of Mirza Dagh (1831–1905), a famous Urdu poet known as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Dagh admired Iqbal’s talent, and Iqbal always took pride in having been one of his students. In a poem he wrote on Dagh’s death, Iqbal paid homage to Dagh’s consummate artistic skills.
By the age of 18, Iqbal had acquired all that the city of Sialkot had to offer him. These early years engendered some of Iqbal’s basic and characteristic attitudes, sympathies, and interests. His parents had given him a deep religious and mystical orientation, which he was to retain for the rest of his life. Iqbal’s love for the Islamic scripture, the Qur’an, is well-known.
The Qur’an, which he recited regularly, was a constant source of inspiration to him; indeed, Iqbal claims that his poetry is no more than an elucidation of the Qur’anic message. Iqbal’s father once advised him to read the Qur’an as if it were being revealed to him direct from God, for only then, he said, would Iqbal truly understand it. This remark left an indelible impression on Iqbal’s mind and determined his intellectual and emotional attitude towards the Qur’an. It later found expression in a memorable verse:
Until the Qur’an is revealed to your own heart,
Neither Razi nor the author of the Kashshaf will untie its knots for you. (BJ, 370)
(Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1150‑1210) and Abu l-Qasim Mahmud al-Zamakhshari (1075‑1144) were Qur’anic commentators, the latter’s commentary bearing the title al-Kashshaf.) It has been suggested that Iqbal’s choice of the subject of his doctoral thesis—Persian metaphysical thought—was indirectly influenced by his father. In apparent reference to his father’s powerful spiritual influence on him, Iqbal used to say that he had not formed his view of life through philosophical investigation but had ‘inherited’ it, and that he used logic and reasoning only to support and vindicate that view.
The influence of Mir Hasan on Iqbal, too, was formative. Mir Hasan was a committed and enlightened scholar who not only instilled in Iqbal a profound love of the Islamic intellectual and literary heritage, but also introduced him to modern learning. It was through Mir Hasan that Iqbal came to know about Sir Sayyid. Iqbal’s sympathy for Sir Sayyid’s educational movement, even though Iqbal had serious reservations about the value of the European educational system it promoted. Furthermore, if Iqbal’s thought presents a unique synthesis of the Eastern and Western traditions of learning, and if that synthesis was expressed mainly through the medium of poetry at once serious and eloquent, then it was in Sialkot, and principally under Mir Hasan’s guidance, that the first foundations of that synthesis were laid and the medium for its expression—poetry—chosen.
In a poem written in praise of an Indian Muslim saint, Iqbal reverently talks about his intellectual and literary debt to his dear teacher. In 1922, when the British government decided to confer a knighthood on him, Iqbal made his acceptance of the honor contingent upon recognition of Mir Hasan’s scholarship. Upon being asked what books Mir Hasan had written, Iqbal replied that he himself was the book Mir Hasan had authored. When Iqbal was knighted on 1 January 1923, Mir Hasan received the title of Shams al-‘Ulama’ (Sun of Scholars).
In 1893, Iqbal, then 16, married Karim Bibi, three years his senior. This was probably a hastily arranged match—and there are indications that Iqbal was against it, even though he deferred to his elders’ decision in the matter. Karim Bibi bore him a son and a daughter. The strain in the couple’s relations led to their separation, but Iqbal remained responsible for providing maintenance to Karim Bibi, who was to outlive him by eight years. (Continued next week)