Who was Muhammad Iqbal?

Lahore, Pakistan — Nearly seven decades after his death, Muslims still visit his modest tomb here in Pakistan’s second largest city. Writer, poet, teacher, lawyer, philosopher, political activist — Muhammad Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) was all of these and more.

He was born into a middle-class family of modest means and, like so many young boys, was sent to the local Madrassa (Islamic school) to learn the Qur’an. Later at Government College in Lahore (then still part of India), Iqbal earned his M.A. in Philosophy. He also began his teaching career there, before moving to Islamia College.

As a graduate student, Iqbal met the renowned British scholar Sir Thomas Arnold, who was impressed with the young man’s intellect and advised him to pursue Ph.D. studies in England, which he did in 1905. Iqbal was not only admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge; he also successfully enrolled at the University of Munich in Germany to study Law. But even though he was enjoying an opportunity most Indian students could then only dream of, Iqbal lived with his eyes wide open and his keen mind receptive to the society around him. During his years in England, he was horrified to see how negatively people were affected by an excessively materialistic lifestyle. He was determined to use his intellect and artistic talent to blend the best of both East and West and that resolve emerged in his writing.

In June 1907, he received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cambridge, and in October that same year, his Doctorate in Law from Munich — an amazing achievement of international multi-tasking, long before the electronic age made such feats even remotely possible. Not surprisingly, on his return to India the 30-year-old academic prodigy was quickly called to the bar.

Iqbal soon became very popular as a poet and his published works were widely translated throughout the Arab world. I first encountered his poetry as a young person growing up in Cairo, Egypt, and particularly remember a powerful poem entitled "Hadeeth Al Roah – When the Soul Speaks," which was sung by the legendary artist, Om Kalthoom.

Because Iqbal‘s first love was philosophy, however, most of his poetry and prose writings bear signs of European thinkers such as Bergson, Whitehead, Ward, Nietzsche, Einstein, Ouspensky, and Spangler. Some he actually met during his years in England, while others were encountered through their works.

Iqbal was a prolific prose writer as well. Besides articles published in newspapers and academic journals, he wrote three books –one on Economics, in Urdu (based on his doctoral thesis); The Development of Metaphysics in Persia (a compilation of lectures delivered at Madras); and The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam . It was through this third work, the second of his two English-language books, that Iqbal came to be widely known to the Muslim world. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam examined in detail the Islamic theories of the Universe, God, the Ego, Immortality, the Afterlife, Divine rewards and punishments, Freedom of the Will, and many other important philosophical topics.

The philosopher and poet also grew into an ardent political activist who believed in taking his philosophy to the street. Iqbal felt strongly that Muslims of the Indo-Pak subcontinent needed to awaken and free themselves from a double yoke of oppression — from the economic power of Hindus, who had monopolized India’s trading and commercial resources and left Msulims as outcasts, and from the imperialism of the British, who had distrusted the loyalty of the country’s Muslims ever since the 1857 War of Independence, which they called a "mutiny."

As a philosopher, Iqbal understood the need for a sound philosophical basis so that Muslims could be rehabilitated as full citizens of the human community; he found that basis in the process method, what he called "the philosophy of change."

He believed there is a gradually rising note of egohood in the universe which reaches its highest point, or crescendo, in human beings; thus he laid great emphasis on the development and strengthening of the human ego, describing factors that built it up as well as those that weakened it.

Iqbal advocated a healthy interdependence between the individual and his or her society, maintaining that active membership in a community is what confers a sense of purpose and lends significance to people’s lives. He rejected materialistic or mechanistic explanations of the universe and instead affirmed the spiritual nature of Ultimate Reality. According to Iqbal, any civilization that elevates materialism over spirituality is doomed to destruction.

He often reminded people of the Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon, which succinctly describes a charter of human rights in which there are no distinctions of caste, colour, or creed. The sermon urges Muslims to build an egalitarian society, based on the principles of love, freedom and equality.

Iqbal‘s philosophy was spiritual, dynamic and progressive and it helped to awaken and inspire ordinary Muslims throughout India and the world. His untimely passing after a mere half-century on earth left an enormous void that is still felt by fellow believers and by all who aspire to truth, freedom, justice and spiritual peace.

Related Link:

Now or Never :: Are We to Live or Perish forever? ::
Exact words of the Declaration entitled "Now or Never" as published by Choudhary Rahmat Ali, who coined the name PAKISTAN, on the 28th January 1933