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Iqbal, c.1929THE HERALD, 1997


Poetic Justice

There are not many writers who could write a mere 26 pages of prose and inspire others to generate weighty volumes on them. Yet we can be sure that Iqbal is one such case. And here is the proof, as if proof was needed.

The work under review is actually a revised edition of Muhammad Khalid Masud’s earlier work in Urdu. It is good that the 26 pages he has chosen are the sixth lecture in Iqbal’s celebrated collection, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought of Movement in Islam, which really gives a touch of the warmhearted humanist that Iqbal was. "The conservative thinkers of Islam… did not see, and our modern ulema do not see, that the ultimate fate of a people does not depend so much on organization as on the worth and power of individual men." A bold statement to be made in the wake of the post-khilafat revival of fundamentalism in 1924 (when the first draft of the lecture is assumed to have been written), or even in 1930 (when it was finally published).

Masud’s book stands apart from that unbearable load of unreadable pulp that abounds on the shelves of Iqbaliyat and usually passes as "commentary on Iqbal’s thought." Here is a genuine resource book which presents excellent material on the major sources of Iqbal, the genesis of the sixth lecture through his other published works and his letters, detailed commentary and interpretation, and a range of other issues which can increase one’s understanding of Iqbal’s lecture in its contemporary context.

Perhaps the most remarkable is the seventh chapter, which elaborates Iqbal’s concern with the plight of Muslim women in those days. Whether the fundamentalists mention it or not, Iqbal was amongst the earliest intellectuals of our era to raise a voice for the women to be granted equal right to divorce without intermediation of the court. For those women who were ill-treated by their husbands, the dissolution of marriage was almost an impossibility under the Hanafi personal law (in case of a missing husband, the deserted wife was supposed to wait for at least 50 years before she could even apply to a court for annulment of marriage). Consequently, it became very common for unhappy Muslim wives in British India to profess apostasy, since turning back from Islam was an act that automatically annulled a Muslim marriage according to the same personal law. Masud has quoted several legal dimensions of the issue.

Equally valuable are the excerpts he has included from Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, believed to have been written in response to Iqbal’s lecture. Thanvi attempted to clear "the misconceptions by pointing out that Hanafi law does not actually annul the marriage of a Muslim women even if she turns her back on Islam: apostasy turns her from a free woman to a slave girl and a virtual "possession" of her husband! Thanvi suggested some ways in which the Muslim community could help those women who wanted separation from their husbands on "justifiable grounds."

Thanvi could not deny that Islamic law recognizes a woman’s right to pronounce divorce on her husband without intermediation but maintained that "a woman is deficient in reason, hence to delegate the right to divorce to her without any precondition is very dangerous."

While Masud has done well by giving an account of the movement for reform in marriage laws that was launched after Iqbal’s lecture, it is very much arguable whether the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act (1939) was anything close to the purpose of Iqbal. It opened up the possibility of separation under specified conditions (some of them requiring the woman to wait for years before her marriage could be annulled) but women’s right to divorce was not mentioned at all. At the same time, the door to liberation from marriage through apostasy was also closed forever. Obviously, the men who drafted the bill were inspired by Maulana Thanvi rather than the wise man of the East who was a radical campaigner for unconditional equality between men and women in matters of divorce. Moreover, Iqbal had actually stressed the need for fresh lawmaking to be done by the democratic representatives of the Muslims, and demanded that the only document these lawmakers should hold in reverence should be the Quran, hence completely breaking free from the centuries-old corpus of Muslim Shariat, as codified by "the conservative thinkers of Islam."

The factual material about collected in this book clearly brings out the contrast between the ideas of Iqbal and his contemporaries and highlights the significance of Iqbal’s concept of ijtehad. It can be stated with confidence that, in future, no discussion on the lecture which does not draw upon Masud’s book is very likely to be considered worthwhile.

And obviously Masud has done injustice, not as much to himself as to his potential readers, by allowing such a book to be presented in a manner that is far from academic or even professional. There is a lack of good editing and irritating carelessness – references are made by page numbers of two different editions of Reconstruction (of which there was certainly no reason), and on some occasions the page number is quoted without pointing out the edition. In addition, the language is tedious in parts, sometimes to the extent of ambiguity. It is surprising that the two big research institutes who have collaborated in publishing this book – the Iqbal Academy and the Islamic Research Institute – could not find even one good editor between themselves.

The most serious problem – yes, problem – with this book, however, is this: it is offered not to be read as a resource book on the original lecture, but on the soulless summary of the lecture in chapter 4, and on certain other aspects of the lecture. In the ethics of serious scholarships this is absolutely unforgivable – especially when we are dealing with such a masterpiece as the sixth lecture.

Frankly, this anomaly takes its roots in the obsolete tradition of meaningless research that thrives in our universities and trickles down to all other courses at the lower level, right up to high school exams, where a student is blatantly instructed by the teacher not to experience the beauty of Ghalib’s ghazal but to rote-learn the essay that is its tashreeh (prose explanation). Quite frequently in his book, Masud appears like one such teacher – intent on coming up as a barrier between us and the sixth lecture, not respecting our ability to read the lecture on our own.

About Masud’s own reading of the lecture, it can be said that while he has immersed himself deep into the concepts and implications of Iqbal’s thought, he displays no intention to appreciate the unique craftsmanship of the poet philosopher. Indeed, the semantic structure of the lecture makes it one of the greatest masterpieces of Iqbal’s prose – the careful selection of points to elaborate and points to bypass, the discreet shifting from logic to history and the calculated appeals to the readers’ / listeners’ emotions. This is one meeting point of Iqbal’s diverse geniuses as a poet, a philosopher and an advocate. That it is ignored, almost sacrilegiously, by a scholar of Masud’s insight is a pity.

Masud seems, in fact, to have fallen into the trap of paraphrasing even though he makes a profound comment on this aspect in his introduction: "Iqbal developed his own style of reasoning, which was not based on Greek logic of syllogism but rather derived from acombination of the Quranic mode of exposition and the dialectics of tassawwuf. That method of reasoning is essentially emotive and intuitive rather than purely rational. It makes the reader participate in the process of reasoning rather than (leave him) an impartial observer listening to the argument." These are three well-written, meaningful sentences on the semantics of Iqbal’s lectures. One only wishes there were a few more in the book which, in spite of its grave shortcomings, is an intellectual treat that should not be missed by anyone who is interested in the subject.

Here is a genuine resource book which presents excellent material on the major sources of Iqbal, the genesis of the sixth lecture through his other published works and his letters, detailed commentary and interpretation, and a range of other issues...

Search the Republic of Rumi