Iqbal: a visionary for all times

The national poet and one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, known in the vernacular as Shair-e-Mashriq

Dr Amineh Hoti August 14, 2021


True universal heroes rise from humble beginnings to make a universal impact as visionaries for all times. Allama Muhammad Iqbal was one such hero who was born on the 9th of November 1877 in Sialkot and died on the 21st of April, 1938, a few years before the making of Pakistan. On the 14th of August on the birthday of Pakistan there is no better time than to remember Allama Iqbal, the national poet and one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, who is known in the vernacular as Shair-e-Mashriq or the Poet of the East. His ideas inspired the making of Pakistan and the Founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam. Allama Iqbal was a philosopher-scholar of Islam: Allama meaning scholar; he is also known as Muffakir-e-Pakistan i.e. the Thinker of Pakistan. One is immediately reminded of Iqbal’s now famous signature pose of his hand on his forehead in a pensive reflective manner. As a lawyer, theorist, politician, writer – a polymath – he is also known as Hakeem-ul-Ummat or the Sage of the Ummah of the community of the believers.

Despite reaching such great heights in his lifetime and posthumously that led him to be perceived as a national hero with such grand stature and titles, Iqbal came from a very humble background: his father was a tailor who lacked formal education and who drew descent from Hindu Brahmins. As a child, Iqbal studied at a local school or madrassa in Sialkot headed by Syed Mir Hassan who was also an Arabic teacher at Sialkot Scotch Mission School where Hassan persuaded Iqbal’s father to allow him to study. Inspired by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who encouraged education for the Muslims of India (even from other sources than Islam such as Christian and western sources) Hassan had succeeded in influencing Iqbal’s father to allow Iqbal to study in the missionary school to attain an education led by Christians. In India and Pakistan, missionary schools were and are considered some of the best schools in the region. From here, Iqbal joined Government College Lahore where he studied for a degree and where he met Professor Thomas Arnold. Arnold, seeing the spark of philosophy and knowledge in Iqbal, encouraged him to acquire further studies in the West. This is when Iqbal also just discovered the works of Maulana Rumi. Iqbal got into the prestigious Trinity College at the University of Cambridge to do a BA in 1907 while simultaneously studying Law at Lincoln’s Inn.

Most students would struggle with one degree at a prestigious university, but Iqbal in the same year, in 1907, also undertook a PhD in Germany at the Faculty of Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. In his complex PhD thesis, which I read with great interest, called The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, Iqbal traces the development of metaphysics in Persia from the time of Zarathusthra (the Parsi faith) to the Baha’i faith.

“We are, like other things Partakers of this struggle, and it is our duty to range ourselves on the side of Light which will eventually prevail completely and vanquish the spirit of Darkness” Zoroaster's view of the destiny of the soul is very simple. The soul, according to him, is a creation, not a part of God as the votaries of Mithra (1) afterwards maintained. It had a beginning in time, but can attain to everlasting life by fighting against Evil in the earthly scene of its activity. It is free to choose between the only two courses of action-good and evil. Through knowledge, philosophy, religion and ethics, Iqbal is interacting, learning from and drawing inspiration with different faiths. In his book Javaidnama, Iqbal reveres Buddha as a special figure of inspiration.

Iqbal standing firmly on the ground of being Muslim and drawing inspiration from Rasul Allah (SAW), he engages intellectually with ideas from various faiths, wisdoms and philosophies. In his PhD thesis, Iqbal emphasises, “I have tried to maintain that Sufism is a necessary product of the play of various intellectual and moral forces which would necessarily awaken the slumbering soul to a higher ideal of life.” He clearly adored Rasul Allah (SAW) and beloved Rabbee (God). Iqbal drew inspiration from Hafiz, Ghalib, Rumi, Goethe, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and other scholar-saints. While always aware of his own foundations, he was interacting with Eastern and Western philosophers drinking from the wisdom of both, taking the good like a sieve and discarding the unnecessary.

In a short period of time, Iqbal had drawn inspiration from the University of Cambridge, taking its prestigious name and knowledge and giving back to Cambridge his own name which characteristically marks Cambridge out for its many illustrious alumni. In Cambridge, I often walk down the street where Iqbal stayed and his college trying to go back in time to visualise Iqbal on the same streets I now walk.

Within the same period, Iqbal had also completed his doctoral thesis and soon after in 1908 qualified as a Barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, London (London is a 45-minute train ride from Cambridge). In 1906, Iqbal joined the All-India Muslim League where in 1908 he was elected to the executive committee of its British wing. Within a short period of time, he had attained the highest degrees, become a qualified lawyer, scholar, and politician.

Tracing Iqbal’s journey through Pakistan and Europe, I was appointed on the selection committee of Government College Lahore where I saw the plaque honouring Allam Iqbal and then through a major research project called Journey into Europe led by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed (during 2015-2018). We travelled to Cambridge, Munich, Heidelberg, Sarajevo, Cordoba where Iqbal had clearly left his distinguished marks. It seemed to me that while attaining knowledge in the West, through reflective self-thought which many eastern scholars must ask themselves – who am I? How much do I belong? What are my own roots? Who inspires me? Where am I going? What is my goal? Iqbal had re-discovered his own identity, his own selfhood which was inspired by the notion of knowledge: ilm. Knowledge that was rooted in the Book, the holy Quran, and embodied in Rasul Allah (SAW) and pointed direct to beloved Allah. His philosophy and jazba (enthusiasm) are reflected in his famous, and one of my favourite, poems, Masjid-e-Qurtuba which I found on our Journey into Europe project right above the desk of the Mayor of Cordoba while Ambassador Ahmed was interviewing the Mayor for the research project. Whitten in beautiful gold calligraphy the Pakistan government had gifted the poem to the Mayor’s office and I have selected some translated lines I found which, as in all translations into another language, do not do the original poem justice:

Ishq Dam-e-Jibreel, Ishq Dam-e-Mustafa (PBUH)

Ishq Khuda Ka Rasool, Ishq Khuda Ka Kalaam


Love is the breath of Gabriel. Love is the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)

Love is the messenger of God. Love is the Word of God


To Love, you owe your being, O, Haram of Cordoba

To Love, that is eternal; never waning, never fading


The might of the person of faith is the might of the Almighty:

Dominant, creative, resourceful, consummate


Soft in social exposure, tough in the line of pursuit

But whether in fray or in social gathering, ever chaste at heart, ever clean in conduct


In the celestial order of the macrocosm, His immutable faith is the centre of the Divine Compass


He is the journey’s end for reason, He is the raison d ’etre of Love

An inspiration in the cosmic communion


O, Mecca of art lovers, You are the majesty of the true tenet

You have elevated Andalusia To the eminence of the holy Haram


Your equal in beauty, if any under the skies

Is the heart of the Muslim and nowhere else


Their sagacity guided the East and the West

In the dark ages of Europe, it was the light of their vision that lit up the paths


Were I to lift the veil from the profile of my reflections

The West would be dazzled by its brilliance


Life without creativity is death

The tumult and turmoil of new intellectual ideas, keeps the soul of a nation alive


Incomplete are all creations without the lifeblood of the Creator

Soulless is the melody without the lifeblood of the Maestro (Beloved God)


In this poem Iqbal writes that a Muslim’s “world knows no boundaries”: a believer he would argue doesn’t limit his knowledge but expands it acquiring and continually being inspired from all those who offer the gift of knowledge. Iqbal would write profusely and produce: The Knowledge of Economics (1903), Tarana-e-Hind (Song of India: 1905), Asrar-e-Khudi, Rumuz-e-Bekhudi, Bang-e-Dara, and so many other poems, verses, and manuscripts. One of his poems is dedicated to Lord Ram whom he called Imam-e-Hind.

Having been through the process of lapidary where Iqbal was interacting with eastern and western religions and philosophies, he developed an overwhelming sense of identity and awareness. On his return to the subcontinent (then today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and so forth) he saw how members of his own faith community lacked vision, confidence, education and know-how. This was also just around and after the time when Sir Syed was calling for Muslims to gain positive pride in who they are and to participate in society and contribute to the wider goals. Seeing the huge gap of Muslims whose power, lands, status, language had been snatched away like a rug under their feet were resisting colonial rule and everything that symbolised colonialism including its dress, language, behaviour, etc. Muslims as a community were demoralised and as a result marginalised. Iqbal rallied them and persuaded Quaid-e-Azam to lead the Muslims out of seeing themselves as the oppressed victims and to have pride in their own being and selfhood. This interaction happened in the UK. Quaid-e-Azam inspired by Allama Iqbal’s letters came back to the subcontinent and would battle, despite his own severely ill health which would cost him his life a year into the creation of Pakistan, to attain the goal of an independent land for freeing oppressed Muslims of the subcontinent and for their fellow brothers and sisters of all faiths.

According to Javaid Iqbal, Iqbal’s son who I had the pleasure of meeting several times, there are five qualities that Allama Iqbal wanted the future generations to develop within them which are also the qualities of a shaheen. These qualities are relevant to individuals but also very relevant to the development of a nation:

Buland Parwaaz: fly high and think big, long-term thinking. Plan ahead.

Tez nighah: develop a sharp vision: foresight is important.

Khilwat pasand: meditate/reflect/pray/ponder/think (ideally in quiet spaces/or on the place of prayer, the janamaaz).

Ashiyana: develop your own home/your community/your neighbourhood/ develop good relations with neighbours far and wide in the world.

Don’t eat others’ prey: earn yourself. Be independent and stand on your own feet. Don't look to others for charity/loans/debt/borrowing. You can do it yourself! Believe in the highest human abilities of yourself. If others have done it in the world you can do it better! Be positive about your self and your nation. Believe: and it will happen.

These are valuable lessons – for both older and young people – for living a dynamic, enlightened and creative life, contributing to one’s own society, nation and the world community. By interacting with and learning from both the East and the West, Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam became the special leaders and visionaries they were who have inspired and continue to inspire so many thousands of people. Today, we can learn from their method of being inclusive, creative, empathetic, open minded, forgiving, hard working and valuable global citizens, drawing from the ocean of knowledge from whichever source it is found.


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