Originally published on Dawn Blog, 9 November 2009, with the caption, “In his prose work, Allama Muhammad Iqbal foresaw the trajectory of the Pakistani masses, writes Khurram Ali Shafique.”
The best resource for understanding the work of Allama Iqbal is the collective experience of the Pakistani masses, including the unschooled. Call it a dream, but I consider it to be reality.
Let me give an example. The greatest prose work of Iqbal is in English, and is called The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. It was first published from Lahore in early 1930, and later (with some addition) by the UK-based Oxford University Press in 1934. Few Iqbal scholars claim that they can explain even half of the seven lectures contained in that volume. Hence, there is not the slightest chance that the masses of Pakistan, mostly unschooled, may have read, studied, or even heard about it.
Yet, if we divide the history of our community from 1887 to 2026 into seven periods (and this division is based on certain principles adopted from Iqbal), we discover that the topic of one lecture from the book becomes the dominant issue for the masses in each period. The sequence is exactly the same in which they appear in the Reconstruction. Of course, scholars prefer to discuss the book in its entirety (though with little results). But it is more productive to consider how one particular topic became the dominant issue for the people at each historical stage. The lectures contained in the Reconstruction are:
- 1887-1906: Knowledge and Religious Experience
- 1907-1926: Philosophical Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience
- 1927-46: Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer
- 1947-66: Human Ego – His Freedom and Immortality
- 1967-86: The Spirit of Muslim Culture
- 1987-2006: The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam
- 2007-26: Is Religion Possible?
The first stage (1887-1906) was dominated by the spirit of inquiry instilled by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who focused on the connection between ‘Knowledge and Religious Experience’ (in this context, ‘religious experience’ also means Divine Revelation). Even the simplest peasants from villages thronged the annual sessions of the Mohammedan Educational Conference where this issue was tackled in many forms. At the end, the birth of All India Muslim League fore grounded the next stage.
The second stage, 1907-26, was dominated by the restlessness of those educated youth who, partially due to the new learning and partially due to certain widespread misunderstandings, demanded a ‘Philosophical Test of the Revelations…’ These were the youth on whom the wider community depended for their survival, and hence the issue became pertinent to everybody. The end came through the elections of 1926, a landmark event revealing a scattered verdict without any single party dominating the scene.
The third stage, 1927-46, saw the steep rise in Muslim separatism, culminating in the demand for Pakistan, defined by the masses as ‘Pakistan ka matlab kiya? La ilaha illa Allah’ (What does Pakistan mean? There is no god except God). Regardless of how historians interpret the event, it has remained practically impossible for this nation to ignore the verdict passed by the masses at that point on the issue of ‘the Conception of God and the meaning of prayer.’ Despite the Bhuttos, [the Ayub and Yahya] Khans, Musharraf and whoever else has assumed power, sovereignty has perpetually belonged to God in our constitution and we may as well learn to deal with it.
The fourth stage, 1947-66, introduced two changes. If this connection between Iqbal’s Reconstruction and the shifts with Pakistan’s masses is making even a fraction of sense, then one can extend the argument to suggest that an explanation of this kind of historical phenomenon exists in every single work of Iqbal, including the Allahabad Address, where he concluded his concept of Pakistan on the following promise: ‘I do not mystify anybody when I say that things in India are not what they appear to be. The meaning of this, however, will dawn upon you only when you have achieved a real collective ego to look at them.’
The birth of Pakistan, then, was construed by Iqbal to be an attempt at achieving ‘a real collective ego’ which, according to the thinker, is the secret behind the ‘Human Ego – His Freedom and Immortality.’ This stage reached its climax in 1966 with the emergence of an incomparably popular leader in either wing of the country: Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of East Pakistan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of West Pakistan. One important point was proven at that time, despite the tumults of history and politics: the country could break, but not even the broken fragments would lose the independence gained after Partition. Freedom and immortality were retained, but the question of whether Pakistan is a ‘real’ collective ego remains. Let’s not be in a hurry to say no.
The fifth stage, 1967-86, corresponds with the fifth lecture, ‘The Spirit of Muslim Culture.’ Who can deny that this became the question that would not take a second seat – even for non-Muslims – whether it was during the Islamic Summit Conference organised by the left-leaning government of Z.A. Bhutto, the Constitution of 1973, or reforms imposed by the right-leaning regime of General Ziaul Haq.
The sixth phase, 1987-2006, ending three years ago, thrust upon us questions about ijtehad, which is the topic of the sixth lecture, ‘The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam.’ Can a woman become the head of a Muslim state? Can we revert to Sunday as a weekly holiday after adopting Friday as the day off? Can we modify or repeal the Hudood Ordinance? What is the difference between opposing the shariat and opposing a Shariat Bill? Can we support a non-Muslim superpower in its invasion of Muslim countries? The questions were not new, but never before did the entire nation have to face them so boldly and with such urgency on such a large scale (and with considerably more freedom than before). Some of these issues have been practically resolved by the masses now, regardless of how the secular and religious elite quibble in their closets.
Since 2007 we have moved into a phase where the topic of the last lecture has suddenly come alive in more ways than we may ever have imagined before: ‘Is Religion Possible?’ Is it possible for those who believe that it calls upon them to commit suicide? Is it possible for those who are threatened by such extremists? Above all, is it possible in the sense in which Iqbal uses the word ‘religion,’ which is to have a direct vision of the Ultimate Reality in this mundane life?
‘The modern world stands in need of biological renewal,’ says Iqbal in the seventh lecture. ‘And religion, which in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility…’ (Iqbal’s usage of ‘biological renewal’ would fit a phenomenon like the one presented here).
Presently, it is less important whether or not you agree that history is following a certain pattern, or that the pattern was foreseen by Iqbal. It is far more urgent to accept that the message of Iqbal can be interpreted in the light of the collective experiences of the masses of Pakistan. For that acceptance, the lives of the masses would first need to be interpreted on their own terms. They deserve that much respect. In any case, the educated elite can choose their own destinies, but the trajectory of the masses might be destiny itself.