Muhammad Iqbal: Writer Against Colonialism


A review of Iqbal’s Urdu Political Poems: The Writer Against Colonialism, by Uzma Qazi.

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), poet, philosopher, and political activist, is one of the most well-known Muslim intellectuals of the modern world. As one of the chief intellectual architects of “Muslim nationalism” in South Asia, Iqbal’s rich oeuvre of Urdu, English, and Persian writings were at once universal in their anti-colonial, humanist appeal as well as particular, articulating past and future visions for the Muslims of British India. Today, Iqbal’s writings carry force not only in Pakistan, but in such places as Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey. He has been influential for Pakistani nationalist imaginaries over generations, across the political spectrum, ranging from Urdu poets and writers of the progressive literary movement, to leaders of religious political parties. The veritable obsession with Muhammad Iqbal amongst South Asian Urdu-speaking thinkers in particular has been consolidated and institutionalized within Iqbal Studies in Pakistan.

This dissertation “liberate[s] Iqbal’s image from strict stereotypical categorizations” that cast Iqbal in anachronistic ways and politicize him for presentist agendas, which Qazi claims characterizes much of Iqbal Studies (p. 1). With an explicit focus on Iqbal’s Urdu political poetry, and challenging the aforementioned, Uzma Qazi’s project charts the figure of Muhammad Iqbal in the context of the rising tide of anti-colonial movements in South Asia, as they were articulated by diverse sections of colonial North India’s urban and Urdu-speaking Muslim elite. This intellectual biography gestures at once to the historical as well as aesthetic ebbs and flows of Iqbal’s Urdu oeuvre for “Iqbal cannot be understood within the parameters of one discipline” alone (p. 7). Furthermore, Qazi argues that Iqbal’s articulation of Muslim nationalist politics did not translate into a territorial nationalism, and that even if his writings seemed at times to be contradictory, they ultimately indicated a level of complexity in his work that is often overlooked. Seeing Iqbal as a “multi-nuanced” anti-colonial thinker, Qazi squarely places him, above all, as a “writer against colonialism” (p. 107). Drawing from post-colonial studies, and in particular the works of Frantz Fanon, this dissertation seeks to un-pack the oversimplifications that have plagued studies of Iqbal over the years, not least of which is the view that his poetry and philosophy are “some combination of East and West.” Qazi prefers to see in Iqbal’s Urdu oeuvre “the amplification of a struggling subject against the meta-narrative of the colonizer” (p. 4).

Chapter 1 examines Iqbal’s most well-known poems: Shikwah (Complaint) and Jawab-e-Shikwah (Reply to the Complaint). To open with this set of poems is a challenge for any scholar wishing to explore their nuances, since these poems in particular constitute a well-trodden path for scholars of poetry, politics, comparative literature, history, and religious (Islamic) studies. Rather than extrapolating from these poems themes of warfare, as Qazi claims have been given undue emphasis by Orientalists, the chapter aims instead to complicate Iqbal’s understanding of history, to situate the poems within the context of “the political turmoil Muslims were facing both nationally and internationally”, and to challenge readings which have dismissed Iqbal out of hand for his “contradictions” (p. 38). Thus the chapter traces the life of the poems as having emerged out of urban North Indian Muslim elites’ articulations about a waning Ottoman Empire as well as the burgeoning conversations over the Urdu literary canon.

In Chapter 2, “Mosque of Cordoba: From Politics to Metaphysics,” Qazi discusses Iqbal’s understanding of historical Muslim-Western encounters, while at the same time exploring Iqbal’s travels to Europe as a formative period in his intellectual development. Qazi examines influences as diverse as Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche, in proposing a turn to the history of ideas. Most interpretations of this particular poem, Qazi argues, have tended to over-examine Iqbal’s “nostalgia,” his “admiration for the Muslim past,” but Qazi believes that such an analysis is incomplete without first engaging with the underpinnings of Iqbal’s philosophical analysis, in particular, his understanding of temporality (p. 73). Qazi then delivers an analysis of Henri Bergson’s notion of durée in Iqbal’s writings and how this ties into Iqbal’s notions of mard-e-khuda and khudi, before finally situating the “Mosque of Cordoba” within the category of “Spain Poems” which Iqbal composed.

Chapter 3 takes up the life of Iqbal’s poem, “Satan’s Parliament,” which Qazi argues can be read in some ways as an allegory for the 1930 Allahabad Address, where Iqbal addresses the All-India Muslim League—the party which would go on to become an instrumental force in the demand for Pakistan. Qazi here forcefully argues that “Iqbal outright rejects the idea of a nation that is determined by physical boundaries” and furthermore argues that Iqbal’s understanding of the ideal Muslim state has to do with the poet’s ethics, as explicated in Islamic idioms (p. 114). Ultimately, this chapter shows that Iqbal was also participating within a world wherein “Indian Muslims’ identities were embedded in both Islam and India; they did not deny their Indian roots, but they did not want to sacrifice religious affiliations with Islam…” (p. 123).

In the fourth and most fascinating chapter of this dissertation, “Mehrab Gul Afghan’s Thoughts: Iqbal’s Socio-Political Will,” Qazi examines the relationship of Iqbal’s poetry to the broader geo-political contours of South and Central Asia, by discussing Iqbal’s travels to Afghanistan. Qazi discusses “the significance of Iqbal’s tour of Afghanistan in 1932 as a backdrop for the poems” of “Mehrab Gul Afghan’s Thoughts” which appear in Iqbal’s last collection of Urdu poetry, The Strike of the Rod of Moses (p. 176). This chapter argues that notions of educational reform from British India influences Iqbal’s perception of Afghan politics, and, in turn, comes to play a significant role in Iqbal’s fictional figure of Mehrab Gul.  The chapter is a particularly welcome addition to analyses of Muhammad Iqbal’s works, since it takes up his latter publications. Most importantly, however, the chapter discusses Muhammad Iqbal in terms beyond the binaries of Islam and Europe, by turning to Iqbal’s travels to Afghanistan.

Overall, Iqbal’s Urdu Political Poems: The Writer Against Colonialism is a work that examines Iqbal’s political poems from a fresh perspective, and synthesizes some recent historical and comparative scholarship on Muhammad Iqbal, in arguing against over-simplifying the well-known Muslim intellectual. The dissertation on Muhammad Iqbal as a figure of “literary resistance against imperial hegemony” (p. 136) contributes to the ongoing interdisciplinary conversation over the relevance of Muhammad Iqbal as a figure of both universal and particular appeal.

Sarah F. Waheed
Department of History
Oberlin College

Primary Sources

Urdu texts in various genres, ranging from hagiographies to literary histories, Iqbal Academy Pakistan.
Kuliyat-e-Iqbal. Lahore: Maktaba-i-Jamal, 2005. Print.

Dissertation Information

University of Alberta. 2013. 259 pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan Hart.

Image: Mosque of Cordoba, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

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