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HERALD, June 1998

Divine Quartet: Iqbal's Search for God

Iqbal, c.1899Iqbal stands at the junction of classical and modern Islamic scholarship. Born in 1877 (according to an officially accepted account) he belonged to the last of the generations of those Indian Muslims who had grown up with Arabic and Persian as languages to dream in, and the poems of Hafiz and Jami to sing on a pleasant day. At the same time, he belonged also to the first generation that grew up in the modern schools set up by the British colonialists. This dual privilege gives him a special significance for the people of our own times: he can serve as an accessible medium for anyone of us who wishes to look at our classical heritage and may find it too archaic. A reader who studies about the mystical experiences of the medieval Sufis may need to put in some extra effort while translating those experiences for her or his own times. That is when Iqbal could be extremely useful, because he is the man belongs to our age as well as theirs.

One area where Iqbal can be particularly useful for the modern reader is "the experience of God." A modern reader, too busy with the tools of rational thinking and objectivity, is quite likely to forget that for our ancestors not very long ago God was not merely a concept to discuss and understand, or reject, but a reality to be experienced.

Iqbal’s work in this regards is a reminder that such an experience as God can only be described with reference to the parameters of traditional writing. Modern philosophy exists through the acknowledged or implied denial of God and therefore cannot deal with the subject. It is interesting to note that very little has been written about this aspect of Iqbal’s mind as compared to the other dimensions of his thought. This need not surprise us: as it was understood in his own times, the urgent problem in Iqbal’s thought was not the nature of God as much as it was the nature of man. But was it?

Speaking, then, in terms of the classical literature, the most interesting aspect of Iqbal’s experience of God is its organic nature: it is possible to trace at least four distinct stages in his life which influenced or were influenced by his experience of God.

1. To see is to see not

The first phase may be outlined from his early years up to 1907.

Iqbal’s experience of God in this phase is pantheistic. He was born into the great mystic tradition, and is even said to have become a formal initiate into the Qadriya Order through his father who was always known to be a Sufi (even though not a literate one.) Iqbal’s early poetry (mostly uncollected except in the variorum anthology of Gian Chand) reveals strong inclination towards the doctrines of the classical Spanish mystic Ibn-al-Arabi, whose Bezels of Wisdom Iqbal had studied under the masters of the Qadriya Order. In the absence of any prose testimony to his beliefs at this time, whether from his own pen or from someone else’s, his poetry is as far as we can go. Some of the common themes that arise here are the interrelated natures of sexual desire and love for God (clearly an influence of Ibn-al-Arabi), the similarity of all human religions, reverence of the Holy Prophet as a mirror of the divine light (and a much similar status for Ali). The one overwhelming idea that encompasses his spiritual life at this stage is that God is the separated beloved whom man -- Iqbal never lived to the age of non-sexist language -- has to find in everything beautiful, including one’s own heart. Like all pantheists he too subscribed to the belief that the "Reality" (haqeeqat) is only One, and that is God. The thousands of different shapes that appear in this world are like thousand veils pulled down on the face of that reality. The true seekers learn to ignore the "Appearance" (majaz) of whatever they see, and concentrate instead on that which is unseen, the Reality. In other words, God exists everywhere and those who can see through the appearance see Him manifest in things as little as a glow-worm and as huge as the Himalaya.

All this while Iqbal was studying Arabic, Philosophy and English literature at college (first in Sialkot and then in Lahore) and later started teaching all of these subjects. An important incident at this phase is his falling in love (and coming out of it, one may add) with Ameer Begum, a singer from the red light area of Lahore. The poem he wrote in 1903 with her inspiration is the climax of his early poetry (even though only one stanza was later included in Baang-e-Dara [1924], and that too under the title Dil, rather than the original title of the poem, Abr-e-Guharbar.) The poem exalts at once the woman he loved, the Holy Prophet he revered, and the Almighty he worshipped. The mystical connection between three loves (treated there as one) betrays that the poet has gone through some kind of spiritual catastrophe that alloyed his diverse devotions into a unity in a manner typical of mystical experiences. Together with this poem came a ghazal that declares his creed most vividly for the entire phase -- Zahir ki aankh say nah tamasha karay koi: to see is to see not. The pantheist is ever ready to perceive God as Beauty and this is what Iqbal seems to be experiencing at this stage in his life.

2. God is...?

His visit to England and Germany (1905 - 1908) introduced him to the mind of Europe first hand. To read Hegel (or even to teach it) in a dusty classroom of Lahore was one thing. To see how the best of the German mind was responding to it was another. (Or, for that matter, to see how the politically shrewd mind of the British was polished by the influence of Lock and Burke.) Iqbal had been acquainted with beauty in all its forms for long. Now, for the first time he was introduced to power in its most charismatic outfit.

If we look at the development of the western thought over the last two hundred years, we find that the educated European mind seemed to regard the enlightenment as a kind of cure-all at the turn of the eighteenth century. That dream shattered with the after-effects of industrialisation in the course of the nineteenth century and the best of the thinkers, teachers and politicians at the beginning of the twentieth century, and for some years preceding it, had started to regard power as the ideal that would solve the problems of the world for once and for all. (-- much as information is the supposed wand of the good fairy for us, living in the times that we are living!). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Hegel had explored the magic of power. Nietzsche had praised it without any inhibitions. The politicians were putting it into their manifesto: the enlightenment as well as the industrialisation has failed to liberate the humankind from its miseries because the right way of doing it was not through knowledge or money but through power; give absolute power to the best of the men and he will set everything right for you.

Iqbal grasped this ideology as best as a man of his genius could have done, and, with an uneasy sense of urgency realised that in the final stake for survival the Muslim community would be left out because for centuries it had glorified (like Iqbal himself) beauty rather than power. Today, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the struggle for power did not rid the humankind of its miseries but only increased them to a pitch that was never known before. We also know that the paradigm that placed power at the centre of all virtue was dismantled by the middle of the twentieth century so that most educated minds of the our own times no longer speak of absolute power in the same terms as the thinkers and politicians of some sixty years ago.

It is naïve to assume that Iqbal would not have agreed with this if he were alive today. He did, in fact, predict the world wars much before the hour. But he was a man of his times and solving the human misery permanently had always been one of his highest ambitions. He had previously believed that the solution would come through mass production of commodities and their fair distribution (he naively professed the same in the preface of his first publication, a handbook on political economy, in 1904.) Now, he saw that the world was moving towards that desired goal through the corridors of power and, like a practical man, he decided to join the caravan (not to say the bandwagon!). An interesting phenomenon that has defied the grasp of his critics is that he is extremely practical where he is most speculative and extremely speculative where he sounds most practical. This contradiction (if it were one) had its roots in his heritage of Sufi literature.

And, like a true mystic, he could not leave his God out of his world view. The best of the European minds had not bothered to reconcile the truth of power with the reality of Christian love, because they had accepted the duality of the secular and the spiritual. Not Iqbal. For him God had to be seen in the Signs of the times, because that is what He had promised the fore-parents of the human kind on the eve of the Fall. If the signs of the times were correctly read to be pointing towards power, then power must be the Truth. "I find that God reveals Himself in history more as power than love," he was to scribble in his private note-book three years later. "I do not deny the love of God; I mean that, on the basis of our historical experience, God is better described as power."

This was the second stage in Iqbal’s experience of God, beginning March, 1907. (A ghazal curiously dated in Bang-e-Dara is just one of the pointers towards this date.)

The logical conclusion was, however, terrifying. If power was divine, then why was it that those who truly believed in God were the only ones to be seen without any power at all. Neitzsche’s words must have rung in his ears and given him a shudder: God is dead. About the same time as he was scribbling in his notebook he wrote to a friend: "It seems more logical to believe in an omnipotent devil than a just God." This was the dark night of his soul. The agony can hardly be understood by those for whom only the rational side of the things exists nor by those for whom a belief in God is nothing more than membership right (or rite) to a community. Iqbal was a man of intellectual integrity. If he were convinced that God does not exist, then he could stop at nothing short of coming out before the world and professing his observation – much like Niezstche. This he feared most to do, and this is what he complains about in the poem he appropriately titled as Shikwa [Complaint]. The poem was first read out in March, 1911, and marks the climax of the period of his turmoil. On the surface he is asking God why has the Muslim community become weak and miserable, but it is not difficult to read between the lines a far more basic question: Have You grown weak? Interpreted in the language of the day as Iqbal understood it, this would mean: Do you still exist? This is not to be taken as the slander of a sceptic, but as the lament of a true lover. To doubt in the existence of God is one thing, to grow impatient for beholding a sign of His existence, another.

3. The divine in the human

How would God respond to this sort of a lover’s complaint? One needs only look at the opening lines of the Jawab-e-Shikwa (or The Answer to the Complaint, written a year and a half later): "The word that comes out of the heart seldom goes in vain" – a loan from an Arabic proverb which Iqbal must have known from his childhood. The third stage of his experience is marked with a resolution: it is not that the Almighty has grown weak but that the people who claim to be His lovers have shunned the will to power and grown weak themselves. If God is power, why should He manifest Himself before those who worship frailty? To behold God, within or without, one has to become powerful himself because weakness is falsehood.

The thesis, finely presented in the poem, had been crossing his mind for quiet some time. In the latter pages of his private notebook we find such entries as "The weak lose themselves in God; the strong discover Him in themselves." It took him the next six years to create a system of thought out of these stray reflections. Presented in his two long poems, collectively called Asrar-o-Ramooz (both in Persian, published 1915 and 1918), it can be summarised in this manner: the image of God is seen by the powerful man in his own heart (Iqbal could not say much about women, and a powerful woman in any case would have definitely made him grow cold) while the will of God is manifested in the life of a powerful community dedicated to the cause of God. As Iqbal saw the world of his own days, it had placed the centre of power not in the abstract existence of God but in the concrete entity of geographical nationalities. Hence, it had not yet discovered God. God was not manifest there except as a potential faith – much like the pagan world of the pre-Muslim era described at beginning of his Shikwa. But if God was a reality, (as he very much believed Him to be), and if this reality had to manifest itself as power, then the logical conclusion was that the Muslim community would rise once again to power, because they were the last witnesses to His existence. The Muslims, therefore, would rise once again if only they could be taught to abhor weakness and yearn for power. This last task Iqbal warily took upon himself. His commitment to the Muslim community, therefore, was not born out of his concern for the Muslim community itself, as has been interpreted by his critics and hagiographers alike. His call for power had its roots in the ascetic’s determination to behold God, which he thought is only possible through power and not just individual power alone: "O Long awaited Reality," he loathes in one of the most beautiful Urdu ghazals, "Do manifest Yourself sometime in the garb of Appearance!"

Naturally, this third phase of his spiritual life shifts his focus from God to man. "For centuries Eastern heart and intellect have been absorbed in the question – Does God exist?" he wrote towards the end of his notebook: "I propose a new question – new, that is to say, for the East – Does man exist?" this was not the only occasion when he put his creed in so many words. Once asked by a European about his system of philosophy he replied, "My ancestors were Brahmins [Hindu religious elite]. They used to question, what is God? Now I am trying to figure out what is man." By which he did not mean that man is a more important issue than God, but rather that God could only be experienced through the human.

This stage was also marked by his commitment to the public life – as a candidate to the legislative assembly, as a communal statesman and as a visiting lecturer. He never made a secret of the fact that he despised the public role thrust upon him, and it was not out of sheer modesty that he said so. Everyone who knew him also knew that he was probably the laziest great man of history. But what was most heavy on his heart was the burden of becoming a mouthpiece for the Muslim community alone, whereas he had never learnt to distinguish between a Hindu and a Muslim even in the matter of faith. Even to the end of his life (even after proposing whatever he proposed in the Allahabad Address of 1930), he always regarded Ram and Krishna as two of the greatest prophets and Gita always remained to him a sacred text. In the poetry dating from his later period he never tires of reminding God that he is fulfilling his public obligation much against his own nature: "A hundred worlds sprung out of the fields of my thought. You created only one, and that too with the blood of my desires." 

4. And to Him do we return

His illness in 1935 relieved him of many such obligations. Knowing that he was to remain bed-ridden for the rest of his life, he found time to experience God beyond good and evil. Perhaps it was also the shadow of death which he must have felt by now: he was by then in his late fifties and he had never wished to live longer than the Prophet, who had died at the age of sixty-three. Or perhaps he now felt that he had written enough didactic material to suffice his community for another half century and now at last deserves some time for himself. It is recorded that when a bunch of college students came to him asking for his "message to the youth" he silenced them by saying that they should first follow what he had already written.

The fourth phase of Iqbal, lasting only three years before his death in 1938, is the one that is the least explored. His prose writing having been reduced now entirely to official correspondence with public figures, his poetry and armchair conversations are where we must turn to look for his experience of God in this phase. Both seem to suggest a pantheistic perception of God. More and more scholars (including his own son, Dr. Javed Iqbal) are now pointing out that something like his earlier pantheism can be traced in this last phase of his life. One thing seems to be certain: he had made his peace with God. Perhaps out of respect for the Holy Prophet, whose dying words he must have recalled several times over: "To the highest of the companions." Iqbal’s own insistence that "let me tell you the mark of a true believer; there is a smile on his lips as death comes to him" is just one of the several anecdotes that support this hypothesis. If this phase of his life is explored further through the material that is available to us, we might be rewarded with the final perception of God by a man who had sought Him in all the good and the evil of this world, and who is probably the most recent one (let’s hope not the last) in the long chain of the mystic poets like Attar and Rumi. Until more research is carried out, a few lines from his very last poem may suffice as a hint. This is how Hazrat-e-Insaan opens and closes: "What abundance of intellect and vision is here in the world; nothing would conceal, for this world is made up of light… What is the climax of my ever-renewed stirrings? If I am the end of all then what is it that lies beyond me?"

Muhammad Iqbal, the poet philosopher of the East, journeyed through at least four distinct phases in his experience of God.

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