Allama Iqbal: Stay in Europe
By Prof. Mustansir Mir
Submitted by Prof. Mohammad Soheyl Umar
Director for English Language and Professor
University of Central Punjab
3. Europe (1905-8)
Arnold and Iqbal were highly appreciative of each other. When Arnold left for England in 1904, Iqbal wrote a touching poem in which he paid tribute to Arnold and expressed his resolve to follow him to England. With the financial assistance of his elder brother, Iqbal was able to realize his wish. In 1905, he arrived in Cambridge, entering Trinity College as a research scholar.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Cambridge was a renowned center of Arabic and Persian studies. Its luminaries included Reynold M. Nicholson, who later translated Iqbal’s Persian poetical work Asrar-iKhudi into English (1920).
At Cambridge, too, Iqbal met with the philosopher McTaggart and attended his lectures on Western thought. In the meantime, Iqbal also enrolled as a student of law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. At Arnold’s suggestion, furthermore, he registered as a doctoral student at Munich University. In June 1907, Iqbal obtained a BA from Cambridge. In November 1907, Munich University awarded him a PhD for his thesis on the development of metaphysics in Persia. In July 1908, Iqbal was admitted to the bar in London. In the same year, his doctoral thesis was published in London.
The European phase of Iqbal’s life is notable for several reasons. During this period, Iqbal gave almost exclusive attention to his studies; never before or after was he to lead such an intense academic life. His devotion showed results—three degrees from three prestigious schools in three years was a remarkable feat by any standard.
During his stay in Europe, Iqbal acquired a sound knowledge of the German language. He was already familiar with a variety of German works in translation, but now he was in a position to make a first-hand, in-depth study of the German philosophical and literary tradition.
From this period onward, references to German writers and their thoughts become more frequent in his works, and he begins to see himself playing in India a role similar to that played in Germany by Goethe, whom he greatly admired. The influence of German thought and literature thus seems to have served as a counterweight to that of English. It has been rightly suggested that Iqbal’s interest in German literature was due partly to the phenomenon of the Oriental Movement, which represented the influence of Hafiz, Sa‘di, Rumi, and other Persian poets on such writers as Herder, Rückert, Goethe, Schiller, and Heine.
Iqbal’s preoccupation with his studies in Europe gave him few opportunities to compose poetry; the number of poems he wrote during this period is small, and he often had to decline requests to contribute poems to journals or newspapers in India. While in Europe, Iqbal, in fact, became skeptical of the need to write poetry at all: it seems that the opportunity for reflection and observation afforded by his stay in Europe compelled him to rethink the poet’s role in society.
With the Indian context in mind, he came to the conclusion that Urdu poetry, with its decadent themes and stock expressions, was totally inadequate to the higher task of nation-building. His association with the Anjuman-iHimayat-i Islam had already led to his composing of poems about India’s Muslim community, and Iqbal seems to have become further convinced of the need to dedicate art to life. At the same time, he seems to have felt a certain inadequacy on his part—namely, that he lacked the ability to compose the type of poetry that was the need of the hour—and so he decided to stop writing poetry. When his friends opposed his decision, he agreed to defer to Arnold, who persuaded Iqbal to continue writing poetry.
In Europe, as in Lahore, Arnold played an important role in Iqbal’s education and intellectual upbringing, and Iqbal’s stay in Europe further strengthened the bond between them. It was Arnold who had arranged Iqbal’s admission to Cambridge’s Trinity College even before Iqbal had arrived in England. During his visits to London, Iqbal frequently stayed with Arnold, and when Arnold took six months’ leave from the University of London, Iqbal substituted for him as professor of Arabic. It was at the recommendation of Arnold and others that Iqbal was exempted, during his doctoral studies, from fulfilling Munich University’s residency requirements. Iqbal’s doctoral thesis, upon publication, was dedicated to Arnold.
In Europe, Iqbal was able to make a close and critical study of Western civilization, on which he was to comment in much of his later work. While he admired certain aspects of that civilization, he was critical of its secular character and warned Muslims of the dangers of blindly imitating the West.
In one of his verses, Iqbal says: ‘The storm of the West has transformed Muslims into real Muslims’ (BD, 267). Arguably, this observation applies first and foremost to Iqbal himself. During his stay in Europe, Iqbal underwent a major change in his view and estimation of nationalism. Before leaving for Europe, he had championed the cause of Indian nationalism and had worked for Hindu-Muslim unity. To him, loyalty to the country could coexist without any serious tension with one’s commitment to one’s religion. Consequently, he wrote poems in which he extolled Indian nationalism.
In Europe, Iqbal witnessed at first hand the deep discord that jingoistic nationalism had caused among the major European powers and that, several years later, was to climax in World War I. Reflection on the European political situation led Iqbal to draw a distinction between the territorial and ethnic nationalism of Europe and the ideological universalism of Islam, and he eventually rejected the former in favor of the latter. This transformation in Iqbal’s thought was to have far-reaching consequences for his poetry and thought.