(An address given to the German-Pakistan Forum in Berlin on November 16, 1990 on the occasion of Allama Iqbal’s birth anniversary.)
Now that the cold war has come to an end and peace is threatening to break out throughout Europe there is an understandable tendency to look for possible sources of future concern. After all, peace and harmony are not considered the natural state of human condition.
And sure enough, right next to Europe lies a vast region of “dark mystery”, of “lurking danger”, of “fanatical faith”, of “historical revanchism” – the world of Islam! Even the celebrated Fukuyama who has envisaged the “end of history” with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, qualifies his millennial optimism by suggesting that Islamic fundamentalism is the only ideology that remains undefeated by liberal technocratic democracy.
This morning (November 16) I listened to a BBC programme entitled “What Do Muslims Believe”? in which the current western image of Islam was vividly portrayed. The Salman Rushdie affair, the Iranian revolution, the Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan, the Palestinian Intifadah, Iraq’s aggression in the Gulf, the Saudi attempt to keep their women out of the driver’s seat, etc. were all referred to by British people in the street as presenting an image of Islam that was violent, aggressive, bigoted and even a threat. According to one person Islam might be “good for desert countries” but apparently had no place in the lush pastures of western society.
Muslims regard such western impressions of Islam as profoundly mistaken, even if we are able to understand how they may have been formed. Western ignorance and prejudice, however, are only half the story. The other half – as any conscientious and informed Muslim will concede – has been the failure of Muslim society in recent history to realize it’s own social ideals or even to move significantly towards it’s social, cultural and political potential, especially at a time when western society has realised many of its own possibilities.
But what does Muslim society strive towards? What is the essence of its elan? Despite diversity and division within Islamic society what is it that lends it an overall unity of texture and purpose? To gain an understanding of this would in my opinion enable our friends in Europe and other regions of the world to have a less threatening and negative image of Islam, and to appreciate that even when, rightly or wrongly, they differ with specific policies of Muslim countries, these differences do not stem from any fundamentally alien quality of Islam or Muslim society. Muslim society is certainly different from western society but its aspiration, values and imperatives are neither alien nor antagonistic to those of other societies.
A knowledge of the life and work of Iqbal can greatly contribute towards such an understanding. His poetry, his philosophy, his political speeches and letters embrace almost the whole living texture of the contemporary Muslim condition – including the emotions, the yearnings, the nostalgia, the frustrations, the anger, but also the generosity, the pride, the optimism and above all the unflinching faith that, taken together, define the contemporary Muslim – be he Pakistani or Arab, Central Asian or Iranian, Indonesian or African.
Iqbal died two years before the Pakistan Resolution was adopted in Lahore, nine years before Pakistan came into being and a generation before the Arab and Muslim world assumed its contemporary shape. Yet he remains perenially relevant. This is because the passion and “weltenschaaung” of Iqbal, as incomparably expressed in his Urdu and Persian verse and articulated in his Urdu and English prose, were both the reflection and product of those deeply rooted historical forces and religious impulses that have always characterised Muslim society.
What are these forces and impulses? In what way do they differ from those found in other traditions or societies? And how did Iqbal come to personify them in his life and works? Put very simply it may be said that Islam is the will to political expression par excellence of the monotheistic tradition that includes Judaism and Christianity. In modern times, the Pakistan Movement among the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent was the first successful expression of this characteristic of Muslim society. And Iqbal through his popular poetry, his mystical activism and his political advocacy articulated and even personified the Islamic raison d’etre of the Pakistan Movement, although naturally there were other elements, many of them secular in nature, that went into the development and culmination of the movement in the establishment of Pakistan.
The essence of Muslim society qua society is the will to express itself politically, i.e. in the form of public law, political authority and state structure. A Muslim community or society that for any reason is denied this prospect of a Sharia-based political existence ipso facto becomes a collectivity of individuals whose faith is challenged. This is because Islam intends more than a personal faith or communal tradition, it intends a political community that provides the necessary context for the fulfillment of the Divine Will on earth. This aspect of Islam is crucial to understanding all Muslim societies, even if historically it has seldom determined the actual state of affairs.
The Jewish faith is historically the first of the great monotheistic religious traditions. Yahweh’s covenant with his “chosen people” promising them the lands of the Canaanites lent an apparent political dimension to the faith. But I believe I am correct in saying that the Yahweh who promised the lands of the Canaanites to the Hebrew tribal confederacy was essentially conceived of as a tribal if all powerful deity. He promised them territory. He gave them the Law of Moses. But he did not insist on his moral precepts being expressed in terms of a political community. While the later Israeli prophets transformed Yahweh from being a “ jealous” tribal deity into a universal moral being, warned against the moral decay that had set in and preached a return to the Law of Moses, they were not concerned with founding a new polity.
The Laws of Moses and the precepts based upon it gave rise to an ethical and legal tradition which formed the essence of Judaism. But they did not give rise to a political tradition. The Jewish religious imperative to adhere to the Mosaic Law did not imply its manifestation in any political form. This is why the 19th century Zionist movement that led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel was essentially a nationalist and secular phenomenon. It was a product of the historical experience of the Jewish people in the diaspora rather than the manifestation of any will inherent in the Jewish faith itself. Modern Israel is the product of political Zionism rather than religious Zionism.
Similarly, Christianity as a religious tradition developed its universal message among adherents who were enjoined not to seek after “the Kingdom of this world” but to give unto Ceasar what was his. Later, of course, the Christian Church inherited the political power and institutions of the Roman Empire. But by that time its apolitical essence had been well established, and it can be said that the Papacy’s later attempt to integrate a political imperative into the Christian faith itself ultimately contributed to the emergence of the Reformation.
Islam, however, developed in a different milieu. The Quran was revealed over a period of 22 years that spanned two distinct periods of the Prophet’s life. The initial Meccan period included the revelations covering the essential articles of the Islamic faith and warnings against the fate of earlier people led astray by their faithlessness. The Quranic message was, however, completed during the later Medinan period during which the Prophet assumed political authority, and as part of his prophetic office, laid the basis for a Muslim polity that expanded during his life time to include western Arabia from Syria to Yemen. Accordingly, the political imperative within the body politic of Islam was right from the start an essential ingredient of the faith itself.
The vocation of the Christian was to bear witness to temporal affairs “uncorrupted” by the trappings of power. The faith of the Jew rested on personal adherence to the Law of Moses. But the way of Islam, or the Sharia, went further and enjoined the establishment of a community that would ensure the observance of God’s injunctions, i.e. the promulgation of the lawful and the prohibition of the unlawful, which is contained in the Quranic principle of. This political imperative within the faith of Islam necessarily implied the political independence of the community.
Needless to say, like all societies in history Muslim society, since the time of the Prophet and the early Caliphs, never fulfilled its ideals. Indeed the history of Muslim societies is far more secular than religious
– although religious perceptions and forces have always provided much of the texture of Islamic history and the parameters within which it unfolded. But from our contemporary view, the essential point is that even after the classical Caliphate in Baghdad fell to the Mongols in
1258 and the Islamic Empire split into numerous sultanates and empires, the political independence of the Muslim community as whole, i.e. the Ummah Al- Muhammadiyya, was, by and large, maintained vis-à-vis the external non-Muslim world. Spain was to be the great exception which led to the expulsion of both the Muslims and the Jews from that land. However secular later Muslim political units may have appeared, the fact that they were independent of non-Muslim political supervision and their laws and institutions were justified in terms of the Sharia, kept open the possibility of movement towards a Sharia-based political ideal.
But this prospect was put in palpable jeopardy with the advent of the age of western imperialism and colonialism which ultimately, with few exception, prevailed over the entire Muslim world. The loss of political independence vis-à-vis the external non-Muslim world starkly confronted Muslim societies with the perception that not only had they deviated from the divinely ordained path for the organisation of their collective living but that they had progressively lost the military, cultural, intellectual and political capacity to do much about it. This loss was inevitably perceived to be much more than a secular or political loss. It was felt as an essentially religious loss which threatened to undermine the self-identity of Muslims as a community of believers. This sense of loss persists in the trauma of the contemporary Muslim who finds himself, even after the passing of the era of colonialism and imperialism, grappling with “non-Sharia” forces that continue to shape and limit his circumstances.
The Muslim intelligentsia – religious and political – have – by and large blamed themselves for their predicament. They have sought the reasons for their decline. Many have found them in the history of orthodox theology and jurisprudence which led to the religious law becoming a world closed unto itelf. Others saw the fatal influence of contemplative and pantheistic mysticism which sapped Muslim society of its practical vigour. As a result of these influences actual Islamic history was seen to have evolved along profane and ultimately self-destructive paths while paying nominal obeisance to the injunctions of the faith. Accordingly, many advocated a return to the pristine Sharia of the Prophet and his early Companions as the only way out of the historical impasse. Yet others felt religion had had it’s day, and the history of the west including its Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Reason ought to be emulated so that Islam could be retained as a treasured moral tradition and cultural inheritance rather than as an active and contemporary guiding principle.
But it was Iqbal who more than anyone else saw that the predicament of contemporary Islam lay in some measure in all of these explanations, but in none of them alone. He recognized that Muslim societies had no venerable secular traditions to underpin a stable polity. Muslim society would disintegrate into chaos without Islam. External ideologies or influences could never take root unless they were integrated into the Sharia imperatives of the Islamic faith. For this to be possible Iqbal believed Islam had to be re-possessed by the Muslim. The “reception” of the Sharia had to be “re-constructed”. In this respect he was almost a “Protestant” figure. But there was an essential difference. Iqbal knew that Islam could never be limited to being a personal religion, i.e. confined to the “inner-forum” of the believer. Islam was inescapably a social religion, a political religion, and a universal religion that sought to manifest its truth to the rest of the world not by force, but through force of example. Accordingly, Islam had to be re-possessed by the community as a body and not just by the individual. This possibility already existed as Islam and recognized that the efforts of learned and pious individuals (ijtihad) could collectively and progressively shape the communal consensus on contemporary issues (ijma’). Iqbal also believed that devotional love of the person and example of the Prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him) as well as a mystical apprehension of his cosmic and timeless significance would inspire the community in the effort to transform, where necessary, the way in which it received the Divine Message of Islam while remaining true to it’s injunctions.
To many, Iqbal appeared to be a bundle of contradictions and confused thinking. And so he was. He himself said:-
(Iqbal himself is unaware of Iqbal There is no jest in this. By God there is none).
But Iqbal was inspired and unique in his confusion. His confusion and contradictions creatively represented the traumatic struggle of a living tradition seeking to reorient itself while maintaining a fidelity to divine direction based on the Quran and the Sunnah.
Iqbal was of course not the only person to live and articulate the trauma of the contemporary Muslim. There were others before him in every Muslim society, including the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. But before Iqbal those who addressed themselves meaningfully and seriously to the state of contemporary Islam tended to be either religious scholars or religious political leaders who were apart from the mainstream of political opinion which had acquired a nationalist and somewhat secular flavour.
Iqbal was unique because he combined a contemporary political vision with an intense religious sensibility. This along with his poetic genius enabled him to appeal to the mainstream of Muslim opinion and to evoke the political imperative inherent in the collective sensibility of the Muslim community. It was the re-awakening of this imperative that lay behind the Pakistan Movement. And it is this imperative that abides
– whether latently or overtly – in all Muslim societies.
There may have been greater poets in the Urdu language and in other Muslim languages. There were certainly religious scholars – including reformists and modernists – who wielded greater authority than Iqbal. But there was no one who operated on such a broad Muslim canvas and who so faithfully captured both the trauma and the possibility of the contemporary Muslim. More than any other person Iqbal expressed the political imperative that distinguishes Muslim society from other societies.
This imperative is neither aggressive nor violent. But it is assertive and ineradicable. Moreover, it insists on the political freedom in which to express itself and to evolve. Whenever this freedom is denied , sooner or later it will give rise to a militant response. This is essentially a defensive reaction and not a manifestation of any inherent extremism. Islamic Man is peaceful and tolerant. But he is not long suffering. He will not “bear witness” to his own persecution. If imposed upon, whether from within or without ; his community, resistance will eventually become an article of faith.
Iqbal’s continuing relevance lies in his reiteration of the enduring validity of this political imperative within Muslim society. He envisaged a Muslim renaissance on the basis of it as well as a modus Vivendi with other religions, philosophies and traditions: in which the Message of Islam would compete in peace and harmony for the soul of modern man.