This is the preface from Mysteries of Selflessness (1953), Arberry's translation of Rumooz-i-Bekhudi by Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938).
Here, Arberry foresees three major challenges to Western domination: (1) Islam's claim to be the final religion; (2) The general perception in the Muslim world that many good things in the West were influenced by Muslim culture of the past; and (3) the educated Muslims' confidence that they are now ready to provide indigenous intellectual software better than the West's.
Arberry points out that the epitome of these intellectual "threats" were Iqbal and Pakistan. The suggestions seems to be that instead of an open confrontation on intellectual grounds, the West should pretend to seek, "first, a diminishing of tension, next, a rational compromise, and, ultimately, an agreement to work together towards common ideals."
The historian of the future, when reviewing the great events of our times, will doubtless count among their most remarkable the sudden and surprising emergence, shortly after the second world-war, of an independent nation of nearly one hundred million souls, whose principal claim to nationhood was the religion professed by the great majority of its citizens. We still stand too near to the birth of Pakistan to be able fully to appreciate the significance of that dramatic, that heroic solution of the Indian Problem, as it had occupied the minds of our fathers and grandfathers; but even the most indifferent reader of the newspapers must by now have begun to grasp something of the impact of Pakistan’s creation upon the main tendencies of world-politics. Pakistan’s spokesmen in the debates of the United Nations have attracted so much attention and respect, whether in their Kashmir arguments or in their championship of Moroccan or Tunisian aspirations, that it would be a singularly dull-witted observer of the international scene who would still fail to realize that this new country is destined to play a very leading part in the coming drama of world-history.
When the future historian proposes to analyse the cause that determined and conditioned the emergence of Pakistan, he will be bound to take into account the personality and writings of a man who is regarded by some as the creator, and by many as the principal, or a principal, advocate of the creation, of that great power. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) , described by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his impressive Modern Islam in India (Gollancz, 1946) as “the outstanding Muslims poet and thinker of the century”, whose greatness “may be measured in terms of the universal attention and veneration which he has attracted,” died indeed before he could see the unexpectedly early realization of his dream of an independent nation for India’s Muslim provinces; his last years of mental and physical anguish were not relieved by the consolation of knowing that the cause for which he strove so long was so soon to triumph. But a spate of publications, issued in Pakistan hard upon the heels of its independence, hailed him as the spiritual founder of the richest and most numerous Muslim country in the world, and the emphasis of this testimony has not diminished with the intervening years.
Iqbal was a poet as well as a philosopher, and he preferred to express his philosophy in poetry rather than in prose; which is presumably the main reason why he is still so comparatively unknown and misappreciated in the West. For whereas his few prose writings are chiefly in English, his poetry is in Urdu and Persian, and abounds in the conventional imagery of those literatures; so that even when translated into English it is apt to be felt as somewhat remote and unfamiliar. Moreover, not only is his style highly idiomatic, but his thought is not infrequently complex, and almost too subtle for the language in which he chose to express it; while the exuberance of his poetic fancy baffles the reader not alert to its rapid transitions and not aware of the conceptual unity underlying the rhetorical diversity. I know of no Oriental poet who confronts the translator with problems so various and so stubborn.
The greatness of Iqbal first became apparent when he published his Asrar-i-Khudi, a Persian philosophical epic which the late R.A. Nicholson translated under the title The Secrets of the Self (Macmillan, 1920). In that poem he developed the first part of his theory of the individual in society. “The kingdom of God on earth,” he wrote to Nicholson, “means the democracy of more or less unique individuals, presided over by the most unique individual possible on this earth.” Selfhood, or individuality, is the chief theme of the Asrar; “the moral and religious ideal of man is not self-negation but self-affirmation, and he attains to this ideal by becoming more and more unique.” He aims to show that it is only in an ideal Islamic society, as he understands the matter, that the individual can hope to achieve complete self-affirmation.
The second half of this theory is presented in the Rumooz-i-Bekhudi, which I have now translated as The Mysteries of Selflessness. It is obvious that the Iqbalian conception of selfhood, if developed in isolation from society, ends in unmitigated egoism and anarchy. But he was not interested merely in the individual and his self-realization; he was equally concerned with the evolution of an ideal society, or community as he preferred to call it. It is only as a member of this community that the individual, by the twin principles of conflict and concord, is able to express himself fully and ideally; it is only as an association of self-affirming individuals that he community can come into being and perfect itself. Iqbal thus escapes from Libertarianism by limiting the community’s authority, making it a challenge and not an insurmountable obstacle to the individual’s self-realization.
Such, in very brief and very simple, are the fundamental ideas worked out in these two poems. The ideas themselves are of course not particularly new; not particularly new either is the proposition that Islam is the ideal society; what is new, and what justifies Iqbal’s pretension to be a leader of thought is the application of this philosophical theory of individuality and community to the religio-political dogma that Islam is superior to all other creeds and systems. The propaganda for Islamic unity in modern times has been continuous from the days of Jamaluddin Afghani (1839-97); Iqbal was one of the latest albeit one of the ablest and most influential of its publicists. He supplied a more or less respectable intellectual basis for a movement which is in reality more emotional than rational.
In the Rumooz, Iqbal states the case for international Islam. In this phase of his life he was still thinking most intently of the possibility of a revived caliphate, bringing together in a single theocracy the 300,000,000 Muslims of the world. The subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the extinction of the caliphate, secularisation of Turkey, and the creation several independent or semi-independent Arab states cause him to modify his optimistic appreciation of the scene. “For the present,” he wrote in his Reconstruction of Religious Though in Islam (O.U.P., 1934), “every Muslim nation must sink in her own deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on hers alone, until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics. A true and living unity, according to the nationalist thinkers, is not so easy as to be achieved by a merely symbolic overlordship. It is truly manifested in a multiplicity of independent units whose racial rivalries are adjusted and harmonized by the unifying bond of a common spiritual aspiration. It seems to me that God is slowly bringing home to us the truth that Islam is neither Nationalism nor Imperialism but a League of Nations which recognizes artificial boundaries and distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restricting the social horizon of its members.” This was the mood in which Iqbal agitated for the secession of Islam India and the creation of Pakistan. The date of the millennium has been postponed; but in the meanwhile there is important work to be done.
The events of 26 January 1952, Cairo’s “Black Saturday,” brought home to many, who where hitherto content to minimize the conflict between Islam and the West, that a situation existed fraught with the most serious danger. It is strange that the portents should have been lying for a long time. When Iqbal wrote, “Believe me, Europe to-day is the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement,” he was not saying anything that he has not said before, and he was not seeking merely to provoke and shock; neither was he a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. The present threats to the peace and security of the world are certainly not few; among those threats there are not many greater than the revival lately of that spirit of irreconcilable hostility which found its most dramatic and bloody expression in the Crusades.
Over-simplification of complex issues is a most mischievous evil, perhaps the besetting sin of the twentieth century. A world accustomed to promote adult education through the popular press rather than by serious literature has become so conditioned to headlines that it seems no longer possible for an intellectually honest, and therefore hesitant, evaluation of any problem to attract wide notice. For a professing philosopher Iqbal was remarkably ready to dogmatize in the modern fashion. “The idealism of Europe,” he writes, “never became a living factor in her life, and the result is a perverted ego seeking itself through mutually intolerant democracies whose sole function is to exploit the poor in the interest of the rich.” This is the kind of utterance which explains why communists find no difficulty in claiming Iqbal as one of their own. It is of course as necessary for an Oriental politician as for his Occidental fellow to paint the world in two colours, black and white; but when a politician poses, and is accepted, as a prophet, it is irresponsible for him to continue to indulge in the puerilities of the soap-box, unless he is ambitious, like a Hitler, to stage a fantastic Götterdämmerung.
Present-day Oriental contempt for Europe, to my way of thinking the most terrible and menacing aspect of contemporary politics, is not to be dismissed simply as a triumphant reaction against a defeated or a penitent imperialism. Doubtless, there is much of that in it; but the roots go deeper. It is not to be attributed solely to the egregious activities of those little Intellectuals, who in the twenties and the thirties went about the world loudly proclaiming the imminent collapse of European civilization, fouling the nest they fancied they had outgrown; though the seeds which they so light-headedly scattered are yielding a sufficiently rank harvest. It is not even to any exceptional extent a recoil of horror from the genocide of the great wars; yet that makes for a fair enough show of self-righteousness. All these factors are present and active; but underneath them all lies the challenge flung down more than thirteen centuries ago in the deserts of Arabia, and taken up again and again by Iqbal and all his predecessors and successors. Islam claims specifically to be the final revelation of God to mankind, and an overthrow of all other religions.
Europe for centuries was unfair to Islam, in the sense that the positive achievements of Muslim civilization were over-looked, scholarship being the handmaid of religious partisanship. Against this injustice Amir Ali and his school rightly protested; and since polemics had been Europe’s chosen weapon, Europe had no reason to complain if Islam proved equal to wield that arm with skill and enthusiasm. The liberal movement of last century made possible a more realistic assessment of Islam’s contribution to humanity; European scholars, long before Amir Ali was born, now delighted to discover and advertise the advancements in mathematics, medicine and science, the manifestations in art, literature, law, philosophy and politics, for which Islam could, by a generous over-simplification, be held responsible. It became fashionable to acknowledge legacies; and the inheritance of Europe from mediaeval Islam was duly admitted.
Swooping eagerly upon this learned testimony by impartial observers to their past greatness, Muslim apologists presently began to allege, with more and more assurance and stridency, that what was good in modern European culture was due to Islam, and what was evil was due to other forces. One Indian writer, F.K. Durrani, went so far as to declare that “all progress in learning, culture and civilization from the seventh century to the present times owes itself directly or indirectly to the mind of the founder of Islam.” In a scarcely less ebullient mood Iqbal wrote, “Believe me, Europe to-day is the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical achievement. The Muslim, on the other hand, is in possession of these ultimate ideas on the basis of a revelation, which, speaking from the inmost depths of life, internalizes its own apparent externality. With him the spiritual basis of life is a matter of conviction for which even the least enlightened man among us can easily lay down his life; and in view of the basic idea of Islam that there can be no further revelation binding on man, we ought to be spiritually one of the most emancipated peoples on earth… Let the Muslim to-day appreciate his position, reconstruct his social life in the light of ultimate principles, and evolve, out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam, that spiritual democracy which is the ultimate aim of Islam.”
The tables have indeed been turned. Christian Europe, adventuring into the East upon its self-appointed civilizing mission, is now informed that it is itself in need of civilizing anew from the East.
How serious is all this? It is easy, sitting in a comfortable chair in London or Paris or New York, to deny the whole argument half-amusedly as a battle of lords. That is a dangerous delusion, as any observant traveller in the Islamic world to-day will readily testify. Quite apart from the blood and fire of Cairo’s Black Saturday, which those who wish may, if they choose, interpret as an exasperated reaction against British imperialism, or an attempted communist uprising, or the age-old lawlessness of an Oriental mob, it is impossible to live intelligently for a single day in any part of that large stretch of the earth’s surface extending from Morocco to Indonesia, without becoming uncomfortably aware that Islam and Europe stand poised against each other, and that the choice between peace and war may not be far off. Whether we like it or not, be we Europeans or Africans or Asians, we live in dangerous times, and may well be heading for the greatest collision since Richard fought Saladin. Are we justified in pretending that the facts are otherwise?
If the threatening and so unnecessary conflict is to be avoided, it is imperative that we should make a renewed and unremitting effort to understand each other’s viewpoint, and to study what possibilities exist for, first, a diminishing of tension, next, a rational compromise, and, ultimately, an agreement to work together towards common ideals. In translating the Rumuz-i-Bekhudi I have endeavoured to interpret the Muslim case, as expressed with forceful eloquence by a remarkable thinker and a remarkable poet. For my own part, as a Christian not interested to persuade any Muslim to share my ancestral faith, I believe that the present discord between Christianity and Islam, if it cannot be resolved, can at least be so sensibly modified as to be removed from the perilous arena of emotion to the more tranquil debate of reason. In the debate it will become apparent that the area of agreement between the two faiths is very much larger than the area of disagreement, generating the reasonable hope that opposition may in time give way to cooperation. More especially is this likely to happen, if Christians and Muslims realize soon enough, and clearly enough, that they are confronted by a common enemy able to destroy them together, unless they resist him together.
“I am not sure that I have always grasped the meaning or rendered it correctly,” Nicholson wrote in his translation of the Asrar; and I have seen a copy of that book, marginally corrected by Iqbal himself, which bears striking witness to the difficulties so fine a scholar of Persian as Nicholson found in elucidating the obscurities of Iqbal’s style. I can only repeat his remarks on my own account here; and must add that my translation, such as it is, would have been even more unsatisfactory, had it not been my good fortune to have it revised by eminent Pakistani scholars, members of the Iqbal Academy, who were personal friends of Iqbal, and are therefore far more familiar than I can hope to be with his ideas and modes of expression. I am glad to take this opportunity of expressing to them my cordial thanks. In casting the translation in the form of unrhymed verse—the original is written in rhyming couplets—I have tried, while seeking strict fidelity to the meaning, to convey something of the poetical flavour of the Persian model.
Source: Collected Poetical Works of Iqbal (forthcoming). Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Lahore. Pakistan
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