Iqbal’s view of an ideal Muslim woman

Published: May 27, 2010
Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

There is little doubt that to Iqbal a woman’s most important role is that of a mother. He likened motherhood to prophethood in Rumuz-e-Bekhudi (Mysteries of Selflessness): Motherhood is mercy, being linked/By close affinity to Prophethood/And her compassion is the Prophet’s own/For mothers shape the way that men shall go/Maturer, by the grace of Motherhood/The character of nations is; the lines/That score that brow determine our estate. (Translation by A J Arberry).

In according the highest respect to motherhood Iqbal is in keeping with Islamic tradition in which a hadith that says paradise lies under the feet of your mother is universally known and accepted. Iqbal’s view that mothers are the pillars of a stable society, in that they nurture and guide future generations, may be regarded as “conservative” but it is not meant to diminish women in any way. It should be seen as representing a just and positive perspective in light of the growing number of single mothers, particularly in the west, many of whom live below the poverty line even in affluent societies such as the US.

In Javed Nama, Iqbal depicts the Sphere of Mars as an ideal spiritual democracy where there are no masters and no servants, no beggars and no priests. The only disturbance in this perfect Sphere is caused by the appearance of a European woman who tries to teach women how to become emancipated. The primary reason underlying Iqbal’s desire to limit a woman’s freedom appears to be his belief that this would distract her from the proper execution of her most important responsibility, namely that of taking care of the upbringing of the next generation. One of his statements on this subject reads: “Nations which give women more freedom than is necessary regret their mistake at one time or another. Nature has imposed such important responsibilities on a woman that if she tries to discharge them fully, she cannot find the leisure to do any other work. Taking her away from her real duties and giving her work which can be performed by a man would certainly be wrong. For instance, making a woman into a typist or clerk is not only a violation of the laws of nature but a regrettable attempt to turn human society topsy-turvy.”

Iqbal considered it crucial for the development of a Muslim society that its women expend their energy on being good wives and mothers. To him, as to most Muslims, Fatima, threefold blessed on account of being the Prophet’s (pbuh) daughter, Ali’s wife and Hussain’s mother, is the perfect role model for women. In his tribute to “lady Fatima, the perfect pattern of Muslim womanhood,” Iqbal points out a number of attributes that he values in her — her unlimited love, willingness to render selfless services, self-surrender to her husband’s will and pleasure and her kindness, fortitude and patience.

Published in the Express Tribune, 28th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Asif kunbher
    May 28, 2010 - 1:31AM

    iam at lost for words for this column, every one should go through it,Recommend

  • Waqas
    May 28, 2010 - 3:22AM

    Great article- this philosophy needs to be spread around.Recommend

  • faraz
    May 28, 2010 - 3:26AM

    Iqbal dedicated poems to Mussolini while Italian Fascist army was using chemical weapons against muslims in Ethiopia and Lybia. So much for his philosophy of Muslim Ummah. Is it fine, if a women is employed as a cook or a maid? what a ridiculous argument. If it is about human nature, then how do women get more marks in exams than boys? And what about those millions of working women, how are they working beyond the limitations imposed by “nature”. I am sure there is another poem of Iqbal, where he is totally in favour of working women. He was a thoroughly confused man.Recommend

  • Jasmine
    May 28, 2010 - 8:45AM

    This looks more like a intermediate level essay than an actual article. And frankly I do not see the point of the article. Summarization of Iqbal’s views on Women? Or is it just an attempt to start a debate? And can she actually speak on the behalf of Iqbal because of her scholarly capabilities? Or is this one of those articles which are written for those international conferences?Recommend

  • Afficer Khan
    May 28, 2010 - 12:21PM


    perhaps the millions working women have broken marriages and living as single parent families, they are just forced to be working as they dont have anybody to feed them or take care of them….nobody said that women should be employed as maids or cooks…..ask any young mother and she will tell you that they want to be with their newborns all the time…there is nothing like a mother’s love for her child…great article…Recommend

  • rehan
    May 28, 2010 - 2:19PM

    Bull hit!Will Dr.Riffat in the “Land of Freedom”defend or oppose or beat about the bush if asked to give her comments on Iqbal’s views on a woman clerk/typist?Will she support Iqbals’s views on”LIMITING”women’s freedom in front of an audience who already has a myopic opinion on Islam vs women?Recommend

  • faraz
    May 28, 2010 - 4:31PM

    @afficer I also want to stay home and watch my television. Obviously women who work all day as maids dont do it out of passion. Such brave women should be encouraged who decided to leave their comfortable homes to work and support their families. I am only talking of Iqbal’s pathetic philosophy that women shouldnt work as it would be a voilation of laws of nature. If thats the case, then working women should be praised for doing something which is beyond their abilities. Iqbal says that those nations regret who allow women to work as if rise and fall of nations is linked to working women!Recommend

  • Afficer Khan
    May 28, 2010 - 7:00PM


    what if the working women were paid the same amount they earn by working, to stay with their kids and raise and take care of them? Recommend

  • faraz
    May 28, 2010 - 7:52PM


    This is practically impossible but certainly the majority would prefer to stay at home. The working women potrayed in soap operas dont reflect the reality. Women work to earn money so they can feed their family, educate their children and improve the living standard. A 60 year old lady washes clothes at my house just because of her poverty, and she is one the most inspiring individual i have ever seen.Recommend

  • Huma
    May 28, 2010 - 8:59PM

    I cannot believe that a woman, in 2010, has written this article, without pushing Iqbal’s argument a bit further. I am a professional woman and a mother. I know that by being motivated as a person, being engaged with my career and the world around me, by having the financial independence to demand that my husband treats me like an equal partner in our relationship, by being intellectually and professionally satisfied, I am being the best person I can possibly be — and thus the best mother I can possibly be.

    If I were sitting at home achieving nothing and participating in no useful way in my society, I would have very little to offer my children in way of guidance, advice or example.

    Please, our country already treats women horribly. Can the educated women in Pakistan’s ranks stop saying silly things and have the courage to push their agenda a bit more explicitly. Recommend

  • Anum Batool
    May 28, 2010 - 11:41PM

    Commendable article! Iqbal perhaps directed Muslims with the most appropriate and enlightening approach through his prose and poetry,towards the consequences they had to face in the long run. Recommend

  • RW
    May 29, 2010 - 3:28PM

    @Huma: With u 100%…women who can balance motherhood, family, career, society and still end the day with smiles on their faces, THOSE are the women who make the best mothers
    What is a child going to learn when he/she is reared by someone who is not enhancing a society’s contribution to the global persuasion. I implore ALL women to provide their children with a true worldly perspective…theres only so much the chaar diwari will teach a mother and her childRecommend

  • Nojeba
    May 29, 2010 - 11:46PM

    Im a working female myself. Yes i believe a woman who has worked and been exposed to the world can raise her kids better cuz she can prepare them for what they are going to face.

    I feel a part time job or a less demanding job can be balanced with kids but I dont think a career can be balanced with kids. If one thinks of their career then no job is 9-5 its atleast 9-7. With those kind of hours and pressure, its humanly possible eo either manage a successful career or raise kids with proper values. Either one will suffer.Recommend

  • Fatima Saleem
    May 30, 2010 - 2:22PM

    Cannot negate Iqbal, besides one doesnt have to b a super- intellectual to raise children. For me,It is the character moulding to good values & the nature closer to man,s ideal nature that needs to be passed over to the next generation.Whosoever, be it a career women or an illitrate in a remote village manages to do this, I guess is the best mother.

    As regards emancipating women,In our society,Liberation of women could only come through first liberating men. And for that to happen a booming economy & a free & fair judiciary is fundamental.

    An escalating economy & a free judiciary would lead to social uplift anyways & will beget awareness of human as well as women rights. It will change attitude towards women without being overly skeptical about it.Recommend

  • Jun 7, 2010 - 11:36AM

    Seriously Dr. Riffat, how do you reconcile your own obvious success in your career with Dr. Iqbal’s philosophy.

    And I am completely dumbfounded by another statement – “The only disturbance in this perfect Sphere is caused by the appearance of a European woman who tries to teach women how to become emancipated.”

    Thanks to this European woman – you and other women are in the position of choice. They can choose to realise their full potential as human beings rather than be subjugated by the benevolent dictatorship of iqbal and his ilk.

    Dr. Riffat – the young girls of Pakistan want a different, more liberating discourse from people like you who have achieved some professional success. It is like getting a driving licence and then saying that there should be a limit on issuing driving licences for new drivers. Recommend

  • Muhammad Ilyas Khan
    Jun 12, 2010 - 12:54AM

    This article is an excellent example of self-contradiction, and utopian nostalgia. ‘Preach as you do’ should be the rule. The writer seems to have typed the essay, still laments the role of a woman as a ‘typist or clerk’ using whatever of Iqbal’s philosophy she understands (or doesn’t) and terms it a violation of the laws of nature if a woman become a typist or clerk, thus contradicting no one else but herself! What if she can’t become a typist or clerk and has to become a prostitute instead to earn her hungry children some food? Frankly speaking no one is going to listen to this self-contradictory sermonizing which is no better than the myopic sermons of a village mullah. I wonder at the amazing integration of thoughts of a professor at a world-class university with the thoughts of a mullah in a village in the far flung tribal areas of a third world country!Recommend

  • Ishtiaq Ahmed
    Jun 13, 2010 - 12:09PM

    Dear All,

    It with great hesitation that I also join this discussion on Iqbal. He is the icon of some and I don’t want to have another round of polemical exchanges on my hands or rather on my nerves, but I am encouraged to say my two paisas about Iqbal and Riffat Hasan. I totally agree with Ilyas Sahib and Professor Sirajuddin’s assement of Iqbal as a bundle of confusions. In some of my writings I have called him the embodiment of confusion because poetry, unlike, prose is full of emotions and one get away with one chain of ideas here and another chain of ideas there and admirers can celebrate both moods because they too are not disciplined to think in a consistent and logical manner.

    I can also say that Iqbal actually opposed equality of women both in terms of ideas and practice. His poetry on this theme is just self-righteous celebration of motherhood and other such roles and nothing more.

    Riffat Hassan I got to know in my childhood but 1959 (or was it 1960?) is a good year to mention when she left for England to study at Durham University. I was jut 12 then and she somewhat older, very intelligent and a poet and writer. We were neighbours. I must say she was the first woman I thought one could worship – at that age one can be easily carried off the feet.

    What happened to her subsequently when she returned was that she had become an Iqbal addict and since then has wasted much of her life putting sense into senseless ideas and practices.Her latest piece is the ultimate indication of total intellectual paralysis. In 1995 when I met her in England again after 36 years she was quite defensive and in fact admitted that Iqbal had nothing worthwhile to say about women. Now, she finds some fine words to place women in the private sphere – something the Greeks had proposed more than 2500 years ago. Alas Riffat – you should not have left Lahore.

  • Ammara Khan
    Jun 14, 2010 - 10:59PM

    What is the point of writing this article? Iqbal was just a poet. His so-called philosophy was nothing but a disfigurement of western philosophy. I’m amazed to see people appreciating such nonsense in twenty first century. Keeping women as marginalized figures in society is essential for the empowerment of his good-for-nothing Iqbalian Mard-e Momin. Recommend

  • Erfan Afghan
    Jun 27, 2010 - 4:27PM

    Dr Sahiba absolutely fantastic article.Recommend

  • ahmed
    Jun 30, 2010 - 3:43PM

    time and time again, women have proved that they are smarter than men and are much more responsible, you can check the latest FSC or Matric results for proof. It’s about time that there should be a paradigm shift, and men should be forced to sit at home and change diapers. If men are ever found with non mahram women outside of the home, or without a burka then they should be shot. Recommend

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