Outrage of the patriotic brigade

By Ayaz Amir

Islamabad diary

I was aware that my hesitant comments about Allama Sir Muhammad Iqbal would ruffle the feathers of the patriotic brigade. But I was expecting something stronger than the limp outpourings – high on anger, low on facts and argument – from the usual suspects who we must take to be the permanent contractors (thekedars) of the Pakistan movement and the ideology of Pakistan. This is scarcely flattering.

Of the poetry come down to us in this part of the world Iqbal is a titan, a giant. Can anyone deny this? As a scholar of Islam there is no one to beat him. Forget about us who merely mouth his verses without paying heed to them – if we did pay heed we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in – he has been a source of inspiration to Iranian revolutionaries and anyone interested in expanding the horizons of Islam in the world today. Any attempt at Islamic revivalism (ijtehad) – which I personally take to be a hopeless undertake – is impossible to contemplate without recourse to Iqbal’s thought.

I say impossible to contemplate because we have been trying to do this for the last 1400 years without success. The moment we talk of Islam we step on to the pitch where the traditional mullah, the maulvi, the Mansoora champion, the Akora Khattak seminarist, the Deoband scholar, is overlord and vice-chancellor. And on this pitch not even a titan like Iqbal can hope to make much of an impression. The reason should not be too hard to understand. Iqbal is holding up the light while the mullah is dealing in obscurantism and dogmatism – and in the history of Islam up to this time the palm of victory has fallen to the lot of dogmatism.

In a dilettantish way I was only drawing attention to Iqbal’s occasional silences – on Jallianwala Bagh, Bhagat Singh, and to the circumstance that not too long after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh he was made a knight. Instead of calmly refuting me, the thekedars have gone red in the face.

In India recently some letters of Mahatma Gandhi surfaced written, when he was in South Africa, to a South African bodybuilder. A debate ensued in such magazines as India Today and Outlook whether the language of the letters revealed a homosexual relationship between the Mahatma and the strapping young man. The discussion was conducted in a calm manner with the heavens not falling and no one struck dumb with apoplexy.

Here in Pakistan we can’t suffer the smallest critical remarks about Iqbal or Jinnah. Lenin, Mao, Churchill, Ataturk, de Gaulle – everyone really – have had critical things written about them, without their essential greatness in any way lessened. This is how history is written, history being about the whole truth, warts and all, and not the hagiography, the blind praise, at which we in Pakistan so greatly excel. Apart from shallow and empty praise, is there a single good biography of Jinnah, or Iqbal for that matter, written by a Pakistani?

Not one and we are not ashamed of ourselves because the height of scholarship in this country is to deal in clichés and set up shop as a thekedar of Islam and the Pakistan movement. Our villains can have no saving graces. And our heroes can have not the slightest blemishes.

Consider this: there are journalists and TV anchors like Raza Rumi who come to within an inch of losing their lives at the hands of extremist hit-men and then there are fixtures of the television horizon who act like advisers to the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman calls them to ask their opinion about someone in their custody. And the fixtures scarcely pause before denouncing the captive as a CIA agent. And the man is shot, his body flung on the wayside. All this is recorded and is there for anyone to peruse on YouTube, the voice unmistakable. And such people are also unabashed thekedars of Islam.

If the Mahatma’s sexuality can be discussed in India, if the homosexuality of writers like W H Auden, Andre Gide, Stephen Spender – let these names suffice because the list is long – is written about and discussed, what’s wrong with mentioning in passing Iqbal’s knighthood? Tagore accepted knighthood, which he renounced after Jallianwala Bagh, but his knighthood does not detract from his poetic greatness. Iqbal is not the lesser poet for being a knight.

Manto was an alcoholic and died from alcoholism. Does that make him a lesser master of the Urdu short story? Firaq Gorakhpuri had an eye for good-looking male students. Vinod Mehta, the former editor of Outlook, who was a student of Firaq’s can write about this in a droll manner and we can all laugh with him…but this takes away nothing from Firaq’s standing as a poet of renown.

Wasn’t the master himself, Ghalib, a ‘rind’, a drinker, and didn’t he himself write: tumhein ham wali samajhte jo na baadakhawar hota? Ghalib did worse than take a knighthood: all his life he kept petitioning the British authorities for a pension and once undertook an onerous journey to Calcutta to petition the Company Bahadur in person…to no avail. Should this fact be omitted from his biography? Yet the same Ghalib was an intensely proud man, sensitive to the slightest aspersion on his dignity.

Isn’t it time we grew up? Isn’t it time we learnt to handle the truth? Shouldn’t we learn to come to grips with history? In the name of history we teach muck to our children and then hope to be a clear-headed nation. How can we be clear-headed when we accept as the truth not only half-truths but plain untruths? We are hypocrites in everyday life. We are hypocrites of history.

To counter my Jalllianwala Bagh statement a self-styled Iqbal scholar dredges up a relatively obscure six-lines nazm by Iqbal, hailing it as a glowing testament. To attest to Iqbal’s anti-colonialism he quotes a letter from, of all places, the archives of Hyderabad state. God in heaven, does anyone have to dig deep or look in this manner to attest to the revolutionary in Josh Maleehabad, the rebel in Habib Jalib or the crier after true liberation in Faiz Ahmed Faiz?

Iqbal’s entire corpus is about the liberation of the self, the uplift of the soul. Great poetry is timeless. It is for the ages, as Iqbal’s poetry is. Pointing this out would have been a better refutation, a more complete putdown, than descending into abuse.

I was just re-reading Iqbal’s Allahabad address (1930)…aspiration and feeling given flesh and meaning and, as in a flash of lightning, the future revealed, for Iqbal tells the assembled delegates that if the communal problem, and he sketches it magisterially, is not solved… “then will arrive the moment for independent and concerted action by the Muslims of India.” To meet this challenge, he goes on to say, two problems will have to be surmounted: the want of leadership in Muslim ranks and the loss of “the herd instinct” (the capacity to act together).

Jinnah soon supplied the want of leadership and in revitalising the League also gave fresh impetus to the herd instinct. But after Pakistan’s birth these did not last…not for long anyway. And today if Pakistan faces any problems it is precisely these two in slightly new forms. But Pakistan’s tragedy is that there is no Iqbal around and certainly no Jinnah.

No, Iqbal’s so-called defenders do him no service when they grow red-faced about his knighthood and events like Jallianwala Bagh. Iqbal was more than these. His poetry encompasses more worlds than are to be found in the prescribed courses of Iqbal studies.

But a nagging question remains. Iqbal is the father of the Pakistan idea. The Allahabad address leaves no doubt on this score. The name Pakistan is not used but the idea is there, put in words like never before. What has become of the fulfilment of that idea? The picture is not very inspiring. It is that of a caravan lost in the desert; its guiding principle, Islam, scarcely lighting the way; indeed Islam less a unifying force than a source of endless division. Did the fault lie in the vision or was there something wanting in us?

This article was published in The News


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