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Iqbal: The Reluctant Feminist

Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit.

I started reading Iqbal in eighth grade. Since then, I have read almost all works of Iqbal and published quite frequently about various aspects of his large literary oeuvre. In fact, almost two chapters of my book (Constructing Pakistan, Oxford UP 2010) rely quite heavily on Iqbal’s poetry and his political wirings. I state all this to prepare the reader that I am familiar with Iqbal the poet, the philosopher, and the historical figure and my critique of Iqbal’s elevation to the level of a national poet of Pakistan, thus, comes from this place of knowing, this place of love.

Appropriating a poet’s work for the work of a nation is always a political project: in this process of imagination, the poet is given a prophetic status and his works are mobilized to underwrite the nation. The British did that in the figure of Shakespeare; The Pakistanis have indubitably relied on Iqbal as the prophetic poet philosopher of the nation.

What happens when a poet is elevated to the mythical level of being a national poet? His works can then be mobilized to crystallize and fix a certain imagination of the nation, could be one answer. In this process of using the works and words of a national poet, the poet’s works become trans-historical and timeless. In simple terms, the thoughts of a national poet become a legitimizing text in defining the nation with an absolute reliance on the past. I believe that it is crucial to the Pakistan’s future to re-read Iqbal within the contextual history of his writing and to challenge all visions of human existence with this matrix.

First, what kind of subjectivity does Iqbal’s works privilege, and what underwrites the retrieval of such subjectivity? (I have written longer works on this that you can read in your own time by following this link: It is fairly obvious that Iqbal’s project of historical retrieval is a masculine project: his ideal man (or or mard-e—mujahid) is an action-oriented male figure modeled upon the male figures of early Islamic history. This retrieval of an idealized male subject involves a chronotopic approach in which time and space come together to invoke him: the time of the Prophet and the region of Hijaz. Our mullahs often quote this timeless figure as the ideal male subject of our present and, not surprisingly, often quote Iqbal in emphasizing their point. Late Dr. Israr Ahmed was famous for quoting Iqbal.

What we need to understand is that Iqbal’s political poetry is deeply tainted with the politics of his times: his retrieved Muslim subjectivity, therefore, is a reactionary retrieval of an idealized Muslim malehood specific only to his particular political context. This retrieval through an idealized past is a common practice during the final stages of all anticolonial movements. During the final stages of struggle, in what Frantz Fanon calls the “fighting phase,” the poets, instead of thinking toward the hitherside of future, think backwards to an idealized pre-colonial past, which in case of Iqbal happens to be the Islam of eighth century. The male subject so retrieved—the mujahid—thus is posited as an ideal subject needed to resist the colonizers through an unsullied, premodern subjectivity. This works fine during the anticolonial struggle as such tropes of masculinity are absolutely essential for any freedom struggle. But this exercise in retrieval also leaves the postcolonial Muslim-state in love with an irretrievable past. Resultantly, if we read Iqbal’s idealized male subject as non-contextual and transhistoric instead of reading it within its historical context, we end up privileging a countermodern, pre-colonial male subjectivity as opposed to its modern counterparts.

I am suggesting that we need to re-read Iqbal within the context of our current predicament. Also, we cannot rely on Iqbal to give us all the answers and we need to have the courage to admit that maybe, like so many of us humans, Iqbal can also be wrong sometimes. But Iqbal has been so deeply impressed upon our consciousness as the national poet philosopher that even suggesting that he was not at all perfect, can incite a venomous counter attack from his acolytes.

Rereading Iqbal with the tools of modern theory will enable us to read the very male-specific and sexist nature of his work. While his work lauds the exploits of men and produces a detailed genealogy of a male mujahid identity, the attention to the role of women is pretty thin. In fact, Mullahs often use Iqbal to justify the status of women as “passive citizens.” When it comes to the question of women’s rights in the postcolonial Pakistan, I think Iqbal terribly squandered his cultural and symbolic capital in not taking an explicit stance on the rights of women. It is no that he could not have found existing works on the subject: after all Maulana Mumtaz Ali had published his revolutionary, and now totally neglected, Haqooq-e-Niswan and had already launched a journal to this effect. Iqbal’s silence, or lukewarm engagement, with the question of women’s rights can thus only be attributed to a matter of choice, for, being a learned philosopher, he could have not been ignorant of the debates in progress and of the importance of the this particular issue for the future of Pakistan.

His stance on women is pretty clear form his earliest works: women are whole only in supporting roles and cannot really have or possess an individual, agential subjectivity of their own. This is quite odd coming from a philosopher who leaves no philosophical thought untouched in his last work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Of course, the Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit and this is what Maulana Mumtaz Ali had done with great courage and wonderful eloquence in his book on the rights of women. The reason our Mullahs have never engaged with Mumtaz Ali’s work is simply because none of them have the kind of wisdom to grasp the issue and debate it; it is easier just to parrot the age-old clichés for the secondary state of women as “sanctified” by religion.

In my alternative history of Iqbal, I imagine him thinking deeply about the rights of women. In this alternative history Iqbal asks the following questions:

  • – Are women capable of reason and speech?
  • – Are women responsible, legally, for their actions?
  • – Are women responsible for their actions and shall be judged as individuals on the Day of Judgment?

If the answer to all these questions is in affirmative, then, in my imagined history, my Iqbal employs his monumental philosophical skills to form an answer. He writes, or says, or declares that since women are individually accountable for their actions in this world and the other, that accountability presupposes that they have an individual, agential, and fully realized political and social identity. We cannot have it both ways, Iqbal would say, for if women are not fully realized active citizens, then they should not be fully accountable for their sins both here and in the hereafter. In fact, my Iqbal would go a step further and suggest that if we acknowledge women only as secondary beings—in relation to their male counterparts—then all their spiritual and corporeal sins should be attributed to their male masters.

But as we all are painfully aware, Iqbal never goes there. He challenges, unravels, and berates a hundred different philosophies but never has the courage to tackle the most significant question of Islamic way of life: the question of the rights of women.

And now, sadly, in his postcolonial apotheosis to the role of a national poet and philosopher he has become the most useful prop to all those who can only imagine a reactionary Pakistan: A Pakistan uncomfortable in the present, terrified of the future, and deeply in love with a romanticized irretrievable past.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)