Two of the highest modes of expression developed by humankind are poetry and philosophy. The poet speaks to us through verse, and the philosopher through prose, each one inviting us into their realm of communication as we try to tackle those great existential questions that have gripped us since time immemorial. Countless are the poets and philosophers that have preceded us, but few are the timeless among them to whom we routinely return in search of answers. Even fewer are those who collapse the distinction between “poet” and “philosopher” altogether, neither title suitable to encapsulate the fullness of their message. It is they, these great shapers of the human legacy, whose words transcend their time and space to speak to us today.
“Thoroughly critical of his Islamic tradition but also thoroughly rooted within it, Iqbal embodied a love that was as critical as it was embracing – the highest form of love. To explore this love, kindled both by anguish and by hope, is to explore what it is that kindles our own love.”
So recognizable are these poet-philosophers in our contemporary discourse that one need not even mention their full names for the listener to know who is being discussed. They include the likes of Rumi, Hafez, Dante, Goethe, Emerson, Tagore, and many more. One such figure in this pantheon of monumental poet-philosophers is Iqbal, the great “Poet of the East,” who spoke in deep conversation with all of the aforementioned names. As Iqbal’s son Javid once stated: “in its highest form, poetry is more philosophical than philosophy itself.”
So, what relevance do the writings of this Muslim poet-philosopher of the twentieth century have for us today? What is there to unearth and draw from his writings as we attempt to understand our role as the shapers of our collective human legacy? What can Iqbal teach us as we try to grapple with the deeper existential questions posed to us now?
The following selected poem – for which I provide my own translation and commentary – is a deep meditation by a man who spent a lifetime in search of answers to the troubles of his time and who was not afraid to ask equally as troubling questions, even to God Himself. Thoroughly critical of his Islamic tradition but also thoroughly rooted within it, Iqbal embodied a love that was as critical as it was embracing – the highest form of love. To explore this love, kindled both by anguish and by hope, is to explore what it is that kindles our own love.
But before we taste the fruits, we must familiarize ourselves with the terrain. A short biography and a summary of Iqbal’s key works along with a brief discussion of their political impact precede the translation and commentary, which forms the body of this essay, before a conclusion with a list of further readings.
For the reader who is already familiar with Iqbal, we hope that this commentary will add further depth to your understanding of his thought, and for the reader who is completely new to Iqbal, it is our hope that this serves as your introduction to one of the most penetrating minds that the Muslim world has ever produced.
Introduction – Part I – Biography and Key Works
Muhammad Iqbal (1877—1938) was born in the town of Sialkot in the Punjab province of what was then British India (and is now modern-day Pakistan). His family was of Hindu Brahmin descent and of Kashmiri provenance, and like many Kashmiris of the time, had fled south toward the Punjab after the unsuccessful rebellion of 1857 which resulted in the end of the Mughal Empire and the British Crown’s subsequent forceful takeover of India.
Iqbal’s first teacher was the legendary Sayyid Mir Hassan, who taught him Arabic, Persian, and the religious sciences (Mir Hassan also taught Faiz Ahmad Faiz, another prominent Urdu poet of the twentieth century). After completing his early education at the Government College in Lahore, Iqbal taught at the University of Punjab and shortly thereafter traveled to Europe in 1905 upon the advice of his mentor, Sir Thomas Arnold. At this stage of his life he was already recognized as a burgeoning Urdu poet.
Between 1905 and 1908 he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge in philosophy and concurrently qualified as a barrister after studying law at Lincoln’s Inn. Immediately after, he acquired a doctorate from the University of Munich, through which he also learned German and graduated with his famous thesis The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, a prolific overview of the history of Persian metaphysics that is still read today. He then returned to Lahore to begin teaching once more. Because of his eclectic educational upbringing and his thorough exposure to the finest of both traditional and secular schooling, Iqbal was primed to blossom into a well-rounded thinker from a very young age.
The voluminous output of his intellectual production during the decades spanning his writing career complicate any attempts to identify an easy mapping of his ideas and require that they be contextualized with reference to his own intellectual trajectory as it developed. Iqbal can only be understood if the sociopolitical moment in which he toiled is understood. The particularities of his day, however, in no way preclude us from drawing lessons from his work in our day, as this commentary will aim to demonstrate. Iqbal is easily among the most favorably cited modern Muslim thinkers in the Muslim-majority world today and deserves our attention if only for this reason.
It is interesting and ironic to note that while Iqbal is considered a kind of pan-Islamic poet and intellectual, his “Islamic awakening” only took place after his stay in Europe. Among his most prominent early Urdu works upon returning to India include Shikwa (“The Complaint”), written in 1911 as a lamentation to God asking why He had forsaken his community. From a very early stage in his career, Iqbal was keenly aware of the global ruptures taking place all around him and sought – through poetry – to make sense of this turbulence. A year after Shikwacame Jawab-e Shikwa (“Response to the Complaint”), which was God’s response to Iqbal, reminding the Muslim community that they too had forgotten their responsibility toward Him. This style of bringing characters into a dialectic interaction with one another for the purpose of drawing broader points or levelling criticisms became Iqbal’s classic style of poetry.
A prolific Persian litterateur, he penned his Asrar-e Khudi (“Secrets of the Self”) in 1915, which was arguably the first in a series of successive groundbreaking works that punctuated his mark as a prominent global Muslim intellectual. In it, Iqbal expounded upon what he described as the notion of the “Self” – one’s core essence – whose purpose was, as we shall see in this commentary, self-actualization in a dialogic relationship with God rather than self-annihilation in the presence of God. The individual is God’s vicegerent on earth and is responsible for living out this purpose through engaging both with the material plane and the heavenly plane.
Iqbal’s Asrar was followed by Rumuz-e Bekhudi (“Mysteries of Selflessness”) which was published in 1917, also in Persian, with the aim of reminding Muslims as a whole (and not just as individuals) of their communal responsibility toward one another and the world at large: the Islamic ummah was “the seal of communities” in the same way the Prophet Muhammad was “the seal of prophets.” While the Asrar focused on the individual, the Rumuz focused on the community. Both of these were written in the rhyming couplet style of Mawlana Jalal-al Din Rumi’s (d. 1273) Masnavi-e Manavi, a masterpiece work in classical Persian poetry which Iqbal took as an inspiration for his own poems.The Asrar was such a tour de force in the intellectual milieu of Iqbal’s time that the British Crown knighted him in honor of it, granting him the title of Sir Muhammad Iqbal.
In 1924, Iqbal penned a response to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (d. 1832) West-Östlicher Diwan (“West-East Diwan”), a tribute that Goethe wrote to the Persian and Muslim-majority world in the form of poetry, inspired by the classical poet Hafez. Though Goethe’s work itself was not atypical of the romantic orientalist writings of the time, Iqbal received it well for Goethe’s high praise of “the East’s” fidelity to its spiritual core. Iqbal’s response was entitled Payam-e Mashriq (“Message of the East”) and was intended as a reciprocal praise to Goethe, but also a rejoinder to “the West” that called on its people to recognize what they lost in the march toward secular modernity.
Other works of Iqbal’s poetry include the Bang-e Dara (“Sound of the Bell”) in 1924, a collection of his finest Urdu poems up until that point, and Zabur-e Ajam (“Persian Psalms”) in 1927, which followed in Iqbal’s classic didactic style of presenting existential or spiritual dilemmas and then offering solutions to them by drawing from the repertoire of the Indo-Persian and Islamic intellectual traditions.
As an active member of the Muslim League in India during the 1920s—30s, Iqbal was heavily involved in the political scene of his time, and his popularity grew as he lectured in various universities throughout his homeland of India and in Britain. It was in 1930 where he gave his famous “Allahabad Address” in the city of the same name (renamed to “Prayagraj” by the current Indian government) where he made the first public call for a separate and semiautonomous Muslim nation in northwestern India under an Indian federation.
In the early 1930s, he also participated in the London Round Table Conferences organized by the British Government and the Indian national congress. Upon concluding the Round Table Conferences, Iqbal had the opportunity to travel to Europe before returning to the Indian subcontinent. He traveled through France, where he was able to meet his philosophical inspiration, Henri Bergson, as well as the Islamicist Louis Massignon. Through his travels to Spain, he stopped by Cordoba, where he visited the former Mosque of Cordoba, which is now a cathedral. After asking for permission to offer prayer there and being granted it, he may have become the first Muslim to do so in seven centuries. His meditation there elicited the release of his Masjid-e Qurtuba (“Mosque of Cordoba”), an eight-stanza elegy to the Muslim world which became widely celebrated as one of his finest poems written in Urdu.
In 1931, he was invited by the Arab leadership in Palestine to the General Islamic Congress conference in Jerusalem, where numerous prominent Muslim figures were invited in a pan-Islamic venture to address the dilemma facing the Arabs of Palestine with regards to the expanding Zionist project. On the invitation of King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan in 1933, Iqbal visited the country to help with the founding of Kabul University and to advise on the country’s education system. This stint resulted in a short Persian work entitled Mosafer (“Traveler”). His final collection of poems in Urdu were the Bal-e Jibreel (“Gabriel’s Wing”), a poem which we discuss in this essay, and Zarb-e Kaleem (“Moses’ Rod”).
In 1932, Iqbal published what is regarded as his masterpiece in Persian, the Javid-nama, named after his son Javid. This work borrowed from the theme of the “Isra wa’l Miraj” in Islam, an event in which the Prophet Muhammad made a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then upward toward the heavens guided by Angel Gabriel. At each stage upward into the heavens, Gabriel is said to have introduced the Prophet Muhammad to a different prophet in the prophetic chain starting with the Prophet Adam and opened up Muhammad’s heart to the secrets of the heavenly worlds. It is here that it is said that the Prophet received the command for the five daily obligatory prayers in Islam. In the Javid-nama, Iqbal similarly chronicles a journey where he, the disciple, is guided into the heavens by the master, none other than Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, who introduces Iqbal to various prominent poets and philosophers, with Nietzsche being the last.
Extensive travel throughout his homeland of the Indian subcontinent, Europe, and then the Middle East in the early twentieth century gave Iqbal profound insight into the problems gripping the world at large. With his mastery of the key philosophies and languages of both “the East” and “the West,” he was able to formulate a systematic philosophical project of his own which he articulated in a series of lectures across India, culminating in his magnum opus and his most popular English-language work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1935). Iqbal chose this to be the title of his book as a tribute to Imam al-Ghazali, whose work Ihya ‘ulum al-Din (“The Revival of Religious Sciences”) is widely regarded by Sunni Muslims to be the authoritative masterpiece work of Islamic theology.
“It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the content and corpus of his Urdu and Persian works beyond this brief overview, though it suffices to say Iqbal’s poetry has earned him a reputation as among the most preeminent – if not the preeminent – Urdu and Persian poet of the modern period, such that he has been deemed the ‘Rumi of the Age.’
It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the content and corpus of his Urdu and Persian works beyond this brief overview, though it suffices to say Iqbal’s poetry has earned him a reputation as among the most preeminent – if not the preeminent – Urdu and Persian poet of the modern period, such that he has been deemed the “Rumi of the Age.”
Introduction – Part II – Poetry and Politics
The great scholar of Islam Annemarie Schimmel writes that what distinguished Iqbal’s Persian and Urdu poetry from that of his predecessors was that Iqbal’s poetry expanded beyond the realm of aesthetic pleasure into the realm of calling for action. Poetry served a higher purpose for Iqbal, as Schimmel writes: “… Iqbal’s poetry never strives at attaining that pure verbal beauty in which classical Persian and Urdu poetry excels. Yet he uses the vocabulary of traditional poetry very skillfully: roses and nightingales, the cupbearer and the tavern, are found as much in his lyrics as in those of earlier mystical poets. ”
Iqbal maintained fidelity to the original symbolism and vocabulary of Persian and Urdu poetry of the classical periods, but while classical Persian poets like Hafez sought to entice their audiences and drive them toward rapture with the Divine, Iqbal’s Asrar-e Khudi (1915) sent shockwaves through the Persianate world when he argued that it is precisely this rapture which leads to stagnancy, and what is needed is dynamism, as Schimmel writes: “… Iqbal tried to change the content of this inherited vocabulary: the nightingale must remain separated from the rose in order to become active in its singing, i.e., to become creative; for creativity, the highest proof of personality, dies in union.”
“Any discussion of Iqbal is inevitably colored by his role in inspiring the creation of Pakistan, a state whose birth he did not live to see, and whose political trajectory one wonders whether he would have supported.”
Any discussion of Iqbal is inevitably colored by his role in inspiring the creation of Pakistan, a state whose birth he did not live to see, and whose political trajectory one wonders whether he would have supported. Since the state’s founding, his poetry has often been instrumentalized as a weapon for political legitimation, which may lead some observers to conclude that it does not carry much relevance outside of that context. But to say that Iqbal’s poetry is limited to the context of Pakistan because the state has coopted it after him would be an anachronistic reading of Iqbal; a projection onto the past based on what has transpired in the present. As “Shaer-e Mashriq” (“The Poet of the East”) and “Hakeem al-Ummat” (“The Sage of the Islamic Ummah”), Iqbal transcends Pakistan.
“But to say that Iqbal’s poetry is limited to the context of Pakistan because the state has coopted it after him would be an anachronistic reading of Iqbal; a projection onto the past based on what has transpired in the present. As ‘Shaer-e Mashriq’ (‘The Poet of the East’) and ‘Hakeem al-Ummat'(‘The Sage of the Islamic Ummah’), Iqbal transcends Pakistan.”
His work continues to be cited by thinkers from various ends of the spectrum, from the modernist and reformer Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), who helped develop the University of Chicago’s Near Eastern Studies program, to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei (b. 1939). That Iqbal’s message resonates with thinkers from such a wide range demands that we give him our attention.
Iqbal has become an enigmatic figure in the modern Muslim world today, and to cite him particularly in the Urdu and Persian-speaking worlds is to punctuate one’s own legitimacy and build one’s own cultural and moral capital. In this regard, it is pertinent to quote Schimmel once more:
“Iqbal’s work has been discussed in Pakistan and India, later in Iran and Turkey, and more recently in the Arab world, in an almost uncountable number of books and articles. He has been appropriated by almost every faction inside Indo-Pakistan for its own purposes: he has been regarded as the unsurpassable master of every virtue and art; he has been made a forerunner of socialism or an advocate of Marxism; he was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist; he was the poet of the élite and of the masses, the true interpreter of orthodox Islam and the advocate of a dynamic and free interpretation of Islam, the enemy of Sufism and a Sufi himself; he was indebted to Western thought and criticized everything Western mercilessly.
One can call him a political poet, because his aim was to awaken the self-consciousness of Muslims, primarily in the subcontinent but also in general, and his poetry was indeed instrumental in bringing forth decisive changes in the history of the subcontinent. One can also style him a religious poet, because the firm belief in the unending possibilities of the Koran and the deep and sincere love of the prophet (in both his quality as nation-builder and as eternal model for man) are the bases of his poetry and philosophy. Perhaps one can summarize his role by saying that he wanted to remind Muslims of the fact that man was created as ḵalifat Allah, God’s vicegerent on earth, and was called to work and to ameliorate the world as a co-worker with God, without assuming that this earth was his own property.”
Perhaps line six of Rumi’s Masnavi can illustrate the importance that Iqbal has had for such a wide range of people across time and space:
“har kasi az zann-e khwod shod yar-e man – az darun-e man najost asrar-e man”
“All befriend me hearing what they want to hear – none seek those secrets I bear within”
With this background firmly in place, we may now move on to the substance of his poem, Jibreel-o Iblees, in his Bal-e Jibreel. The poem follows Iqbal’s classic dialectic style, bringing into dialogue the angel Gabriel and Satan. The two parties represent polar opposites: one is an archangel who in religious literature represents obedience to all of God’s commands and is tasked with the noble duty of delivering revelation (such as the Gospel, the Torah, and the Quran) to the Prophets of God throughout time. The other party represents the embodiment of evil; a being who occupied a high station with God as an “honorary angel” for his good deeds in spite of being a jinn  but was cast out for his refusal to follow God’s command to bow to Adam, earning a name synonymous with evil and a status as the eternal enemy of mankind.
Like all poems, especially those of great poets, this one is open to multiple interpretations. The following is a humble attempt by a student to try to make sense of it with reference to Islamic theology and the Quran, the themes of Islamic mysticism (used interchangeably with Sufism in this essay), and Iqbal’s philosophy of movement. All translations are my own attempts. The translation of Jibreel is highlighted in blue while the translation of Iblees is highlighted in red to make it easier for the reader to follow. At the conclusion of my commentary, there is a list of further readings in English for those who are interested in studying Iqbal, his ideas, and his impact in greater depth. After all, one essay on a short poem cannot do them justice.
I would like to give thanks to my Urdu professor at Columbia University, Aftab Ahmad, who helped me in accessing the treasures of Urdu poetry on an academic level. And a special thanks to my father, whose repeated insistence on holding on to our heritage has finally left its indelible mark on me, despite my stubborn resistance as a student and a son. Daddy continues to teach me in his own ways, and this is one fruit of his many painstaking endeavors. The translation and commentary would not be possible without these two individuals.
Jibreel-o Iblees(“Gabriel and Lucifer”), found in Bal-e Jibreel(“Gabriel’s Wing”) by Muhammad Iqbal
Transliteration, Translation, and Commentary by Asad Dandia
Transliteration: Hamdam-e dereena, kaisa hai jahaan-e rang-o-boo?
Jibreel: “[Hello], old friend! How goes the world of color and scent?”
Jibreel initiates the conversation with Iblees, asking him about affairs in the world of “color and scent,” i.e., the material world. There are a few things implicit in Iqbal’s choice to begin the conversation in this way.
In Islamic theology, angels are not said to have free will. They are said to have been created for the sole purpose of worshiping God, and they must obey whatever they are commanded to do by Him. Because of this fact, we can conclude either one of two things: Iqbal is suggesting that God ordered Jibreel to initiate this conversation, or that Jibreel has a degree of free will that allows him to initiate this conversation with an “old friend.”
Later we will see, as evidenced by the Quran, that angels do indeed have the capacity to question and are not entirely bound by this restriction. The title of “old friend” indicates the high status that Iblees once held with the angels long ago. Though the Quran refers to Iblees as “a clear enemy” to humanity, Jibreel clearly recalls a time when the reality was different.