Commentaries Culture Education

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)


Women’s Rights in Islam, By Sayed Mumtaz Ali

Translated by Masood Ashraf Raja


In these few pages I have explained the crux of my thoughts about the rights of women, a subject upon which I have often thought and reflected. Although my thoughts have gone through slight changes over a period, my views on all- important aspects of this subject have neither weakened nor changed too drastically. In fact, I believe that these reflections have strengthened my resolve and bettered my character. I am hopeful that my expression of these thoughts and the attendant practice of these ideas would enhance the cultural development of our nation. And that is the reason I am daring to share my thoughts openly.

I am aware that my thoughts would be given various unsavory names: emulating English values will be one of the charges brought against me and my views. A hundred pens will write against me and numerous lips will criticize my attempt. But those true souls who find the way of the Prophet (peace be upon him) better than their own family values will find some truth in my thoughts and will, I hope, attempt to live according to the example of the Prophet. And the barbs of the critics, I am sure, will not deter these true souls.

If my this humble attempt enables, in any way, the rights of one lone old woman to be upheld in Hindustan, I would consider it a worthwhile reward of my efforts.

The False Preference of Men Over Women

Men and women are both part of the human race and cannot, therefore, have any essential preference of one over the other. A few characteristics that privilege men over women are strictly related to the societal role played by men while using those [gender-specific] characteristics. Other than these existential differences, all other differences that fix a male essence and a female essence are just arbitrary and unreliable. These existential differences are always caused by the material conditions such as the differences in one’s regional abode, climate, difference of age, or cultural differences. I will prove that the gender differences that have been normative in our current culture, a difference that should have been based in natural division of labor, are highly accentuated and are based in myth, prejudice, and male ignorance. Thus, our current explanation of gender roles is harmful and based on uncivilized and prehistoric barbaric ideas.

The entire edifice of our culture is based on this false premise: Men are rulers, women the subjects, and that the women are created for men’s comfort.

From this it is construed that men have the same rights over women as they have on other things that they own and in such a relationship women can never be considered men’s equal. Now if men had considered this unclean principle only as a product of their male prejudice, I would have had no problem with it. But the tragedy is that men consider this claim to be rational, just, and divinely inspired. To refute these claims and to prove them wrong is the main purpose of this book.

I will conduct this discussion in five parts. In Part 1, I will refute the evidence used to prove privilege of men over women; Part 2 deals with the question of women’s education and Part 3 with Purdah. In part four I will discuss the rules of marriage, and in part 5 the cultural norms for marriage.

The Arguments Offered in Favor of Men

Following are some of the reasons offered by those who believe that men are better than women:

  1. God has granted more physical strength to men, therefore they are privileged in all those spheres that need physical prowess and mastery. From this it is construed that governance, as it depends on physical power, is a male prerogative.
  2. Men’s mental capacities, just like their physical strength, are also relatively stronger than those of women. That is why historically women have always thought to be less intelligent and their superstitious ways, shortsightedness, and infidelity are all rooted in their weak intellect.
  3. Just as kingship is the most important institution in the material world, the Prophethood is the greatest human role in the spiritual realm. God has always appointed men as prophets but never a woman.
  4. Theologically, one verse of the Qur’an (Al Nisa) is mobilized to claim that men are “rulers over women.”
  5. Another argument offered in favor of men is that God created Adam first and then Eve as his companion. Therefore, it a woman’s role is to be a comfort to man, to obey his rule, and to prefer his comfort over her own in order to be true to her divine purpose of creation.
  6. The Qur’an equates testimony by two women to that of one man and gives half of a male share of inheritance to women. Both these statements are also used to prove that men are superior to women.
  7. As God permits men to have four wives but does not grant the same tight to women, this also is used as an argument for the divinely inspired superiority of men over women.
  8. Another argument in favor of male superiority is that the Qur’an promises them female companions in the afterlife, while women are not promised male companions in heaven.

Besides these rational and Qur’anic arguments, there are also a few other irrational mythological reasons that are offered to prove male superiority [which Munshi Inyatullah mention in his book], but I do not consider worthy of consideration.

In a nutshell these are some of the reasons-you may call them intellectual or religious, that are used by many to render one half of human population as inferior to the other half. As a result the women are reduced to a condition of obedience to men that is even worse than slavery. These arguments have made it so that even the worse kind of sinful men can still consider themselves better than women.

I will now analyze these arguments to see whether they are based in any logical reasoning or are they just falsehoods mobilized by the proponents of the status quo in order to keep the male dominance intact.

Refutation of the Male Superiority Arguments

I will now analyze these arguments to see whether they are based in any logical reasoning or are they just falsehoods mobilized by the proponents of the status quo in order to keep the myth of male superiority intact. Anyone who selflessly and objectively analyzes the above cited arguments would reach the conclusion that these are just base argument without any basis in the shariah or in reason.

First Argument: Men are superior to women because of their higher physical strength. Their higher physical strength also grants men the right to govern.

The first argument offered in favor of men declares them superior to women because of higher physical prowess of men. This is a rather strange argument. I do not deny that men are usually physically stronger than women. But how can one construe from this argument that simply because men have more physical strength, they are, as humans, superior to women.

A division of physical labor corresponding to one’s physical strength is only natural. No one denies that men can perform more labor-intensive tasks. Men can labor freely: they can carve mountains, cut trees, and, if they so desire, chop off heads of other men. The question, however, is that how does this physical prowess make them superior to women? One can see the sad poverty of this argument, if one were to compare physical prowess of men not with that of women but with that of beasts of burden. Most beasts of burden are blessed with more physical strength than men. So if physical strength is the only criterion for one’s superiority over another, then why are not the laboring animals considered superior to men? Would it be logical to state that since a donkey can carry a heavier load than a man it is, therefore, superior to man? Naturally, we cannot make such a claim nor can we, thus, claim that a man is superior to a woman because he is stronger.

We must also question the very nature of this comparison of physical strengths between men and women. We know that men and women have the same animal essence. We do not designate them as “male human animal” and “female human animal.” The term human animal, in fact, designates both men and women. The term human is a combination of two faculties: animal+speech. Thus, it is the capacity of rational speech that makes humans better than other animals. The humans therefore have evolved beyond their animal nature, and if they have, then how come men are considered better evolved than women. And if the brute strength is a cause of superiority, doesn’t it amount to privileging the very animalistic part of human beings that they have left behind as humans?

We know that human beings are an evolved form of animals; they are humans because God imbued their animalistic spirit with an angelic essence. This new creation–a combination of animal and angel–He named human. Thus the comparison between men and women should not be based in their animalistic qualities but rather their angelic qualities. To prove man superior in animalistic attributes is, in fact, a denigration of his angelic qualities.

Secondly, if for a moment we do accept male superiority on the basis of physical strength alone, does it mean that men are essentially and naturally stronger or is this difference in their relative strengths based in existential material reasons? A realistic observation reveals that this difference in male and female physical strengths is not natural but is temporary and caused by environmental and cultural factors over thousands of years. This difference appears even in men depending on their regions of abode. Looking at men alone, why is it that the Afridis from Kabul are so physically strong and vital while the Baboos of Bengal are dark and weak? Why is it that we consider the Punjabi Sikhs as lions, but find the Bunyas effeminate and less manly? The causes of physical weakness of women are even older than the ones that have caused the Bunyas and baboos to be weak and are mostly environmental. Even if women live in different regions, their physical prowess is strongly connected to the civilizational aspects of their particular cultures. This civilizational difference becomes quite obvious if one were to compare the physical strength and vigor of the women of Ghazni and Hirat with the begums of Lucknow and Delhi. Obviously, the relative differences in their physical prowess are not based in their gender [in which case both these female groups would display the same degree of physical prowess] but in the culture in which they live. The relative physical weakness of women is, therefore, produce over a long period by keeping the women away from the kind of activities that would have made them physically stronger.

The second assumption of the first argument in favor of men is even more ridiculous. Governance and rule are never always a result of physical prowess. This rule of might is right might have applied in the earlier stages of human development when human being lived a savage and unorganized state. During this stage it might have been possible to assume that the strongest amongst men shall be the ruler. But as soon as a rudimentary social order was established, the rule of power and brute strength no longer remains the sole justification for individual rule. Thus, as the social systems develop, the ruler no longer governs through brute force but rather relies on the good will of his friends and allies. This rule [working through the collective hegemonic influence of ones allies] has remained a central tenet of governance in all ages. The mere fact that the ruler must work in concert with like-minded people presupposes that governance is not necessarily dependent upon brute strength f men. In fact, if alliances are important to rule, then, other than the normalized privileged position of men, there is no reason one could not imagine women being a part of such alliances and may even become rulers themselves. Info fact, in every culture women have been known to become rulers at one point or other and in most cases have proven to be great and respected rulers. In India the rule of Razia Sultana, though brief, was a relatively more peaceful and prosperous rule. Similarly, Jahangir’s rule is in truth reign of Noor Jehan, the queen. Currently, one can see how grandly does the Queen of England run this empire. Is there any reason for us to think that governance belongs only to men?

Furthermore, to think that governance is dependent only on force is based in faulty reasoning. Development of knowledge, rise of civilization, and mastery of India by Britain has taught us that knowledge is the most powerful force in the world. And those who posses knowledge, whether male or female, have the right to govern over those who lack in knowledge. Thus, we hope that men would no longer use their physical strength as the sole reason for their right to governance and for their superiority over women. It is, in fact, a preposterous argument.

(More later)