Iqbal: Beyond poetic catchphrases

Iqbal’s vision of a modern Muslim comfortable with science, evolution, rationality and democracy is dead.

Asad Badruddin April 22, 2011
Yesterday was the death anniversary of one of Pakistan’s prominent national heroes, philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

Dr Riffat Hassan wrote a wonderful piece on how Iqbal’s ideology and message has been excluded from national discourse. I would like to echo that sentiment; today’s generation feels no connection to Iqbal’s ideas.

Every once in a while, I see a couple of his lines on someone’s Facebook status but that’s about it. Pakistanis know nothing of the man beyond a few catchphrases. His ideas are important to understand, question and reflect on, because we have all grown up in an environment that is a product of his ideas. His vision for what Pakistan is more important now than ever before.

The great intellectual leaders

The age of colonisation gave birth to a new intellectual trend among Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia. Muslims who chose to study till the university level engaged in the study of Persian, Arabic, Urdu, as well as German, French and English. Thus, understood both worlds and what emerged was the first semblance of a dynamic, vibrant, cultured Muslim elite. The combination of the East and the West, the old and the new, the modern and the ancient produced an intellectual movement exemplified by men like Iqbal.

The disinterested and the conservative

Sadly, it seems that this movement died out. I have met Muslims from different countries. They, for the most part, fall into two categories: the disinterested or the conservative. The former does not care and the latter emphasises rituals, but lacks the intellectual drive to pursue discussions on ethical, scientific and philosophical movements. Most of this group’s religious emphasis is on Arabising their speech and inserting the usual Arabic phrases in them - which is fine; I suppose it is hard to develop a Muslim identity as a minority in a country.

What this tells me is that today, in Pakistan and I’m guessing from my encounters with immigrant Muslims in America, in the rest of the Muslim world too, we are plagued by intellectual stagnation. Our viewpoints are disjointed and polarised; we are either Tabhleegi or Westernised with no cultural roots. Iqbal’s vision of a modern Muslim comfortable in the East and the West, with the scientific method, with evolution, with rational inquiry, with democracy, is dead. It is no wonder we are such a confused society.

The way ahead

To reinvigorate the Muslim consciousness we need to revive Iqbal’s message. His work needs to be added to our textbooks, especially those of English medium schools. It is a tragedy that we are taught Shakespeare in school but not Iqbal. There needs to be greater emphasis on expanding the vocabulary of words taught in Urdu so that students can actually understand Iqbal’s writings in Urdu. Even some of our lughats (dictionaries) do not carry words that are used in his poetry.

Finally the Iqbal Academy of Pakistan, which is designated to “promote and disseminate the study and understanding of the works and teachings of Allama Iqbal,” needs to play a larger role in spreading his vision. The first step should be to upload all his work on the internet. I am glad that Iqbal’s magnum opus, “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” is finally online and available for all to view. But, there is a need to digitally archive all his work in Urdu and Persian along with translations of his complete work so that they are readily accessible to more people. The academy should sponsor scholars to go on tours of various schools and universities in the country and hold student debates in order to get students interested.
Asad Badruddin A student of economics and international relations at Tufts University in Boston who hails from Karachi. He blogs at
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


faraz | 12 years ago | Reply @Haris I think you didnt get it. If you cant answer my simple questions then some academic or intellecutal would tear apart this philosophy. As the author rightly concludes from his ambivalent ideas that 'While Iqbal did not think secularization was the ideal, he still did not see it as incompatible with Islamic values.' You want me to accept Iqbal's greatness without studying him, thats typical pakistani apporach. I am sure your heros include Ghaznavi, Abdali, Aurengzeb, because thats what written in the textbooks, and we are not supposed to challenge that.
Haris | 12 years ago | Reply @faraz A "Layman" who doesn't know any thing about poetry specially Urdu why in the name of all that Holy your making comments about a great poet. Is just the desire to just punch what ever come on your tiny thinking cell. I hate the "I don't know but I tell you attitude" in burgers. Anyway nice Blog Author. Keep it up
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