A few years ago I presented a paper on Allama Muhammad Iqbal at a conference in Islamabad. It goes without saying that in Pakistan, Iqbal holds a larger-than-life status and is often remembered as the Poet of the East, the Poet Philosopher, and as Musawwar-e-Pakistan. Thus, my paper, encouraging a different and more nuanced mode of reading and interpreting Iqbal was slightly perplexing and alarming for the Iqbal fans in the audience.
What I had suggested in that paper, an opinion I hold even more strongly now, was that we need to start reading Iqbal’s work within its historical context and not as something transhistorical and immutable. For example, Iqbal’s Mard-e-Momin is one of the major tropes in his poetry. While this figure, according to Iqbal, can be “like silk amongst his friends” his major traits are always his zeal for Jihad, his uncompromising attitude toward modernity, and his desire for action. This here, therefore, is an ideal resistant subject for a colonized people. Read within the colonial context, Iqbal’s retrieval and mobilization of this action packed militant subject is absolutely understandable.
But under the current situation this militant figure, so deeply entrenched in a premodern past, wary of new knowledges and current modes of thought automatically points to the Taliban. I am pretty sure that Iqbal’s mujahid was nothing like a talib, but if we read Iqbal uncritically then the Taliban become the idealized mujahid that Iqbal could have imagined.
There are also instances of cherry picking Iqbal to suit our purposes. For example, when people want to deride democracy they rely on one verse that Iqbal had translated from Nietzsche:
جمہوریت وہ طرز حکومت ہے جس میں
بندوں کو گنا کرتے ہیں تولا نہیں کرت
(Democracy is a system of government in which
People are counted but not weighed)
A lot of journalists and political pundits in Pakistan quote this verse to offer a definitive answer about the failings of democracy. But what we need to understand is that there is something deeply important about the concept of one person one vote: it acknowledges at the very outset that all human beings are essentially equal and since they are all equal, they must vote as equals to elect their representatives. Quality, Human quality, is deeply subjective and if we attempt to decide the outcome of elections through a graded or weighted voting system, then we will not really have a democracy but an oligarchy. This is one instance where Iqbal is totally wrong and not acknowledging it can have disastrous consequences for the future of democracy in Pakistan.
Similarly, quite a few journalists also insist via Iqbal that a politics detached from religion or void of religion is barbaric. This actually is historically absolutely wrong. Wherever human beings have been able to separate religion from politics, their democratic systems are stronger and their cultures more pluralistic. In fact, in the current world, insertion of one dominant religion into state politics tends to be more problematic and destructive. Some examples of this can be seen in the negative impact of religion in India, United States, and Israel. The more religion enters the politics of these nations, the more intolerant become their cultures. Pakistan itself, of course, is yet another example of what happens when one dominant religion claims all politics.
These are few instances where Iqbal was either himself totally wrong or has been read incorrectly. Trust me there are many other things from Iqbal that can be and should be read differently. The choice, of course, is ours but a lot depends on our choices.
In the end if Iqbal cannot help us in developing a safe, tolerant, and pluralistic society then we need to find other, better narrative to articulate our national identity.