This article was published in Dawn The Review, 29 May – 4 April 2001, with the disclaimer: “This is an imaginary interview with Iqbal, but not entirely imagined – all quotes are from Stray Reflections, the notebook he kept with him in 1910, through the most turbulent period in the life of his mind. That is when this interview is ‘supposed’ to have taken place.”
I met him by chance. I did not know who he was and might never had realized that I was meeting one of the most famous living intellectuals of the British India, were it not for a stray sentence that I caught in the tonga which we were riding together.
Well, this is how it all started. I had gone to the Chief Court (Lahore, of course) to see someone I knew there. As he was on leave that day, I turned to go back home when I saw this fair complexioned Punjabi gentleman who offered me a lift in his private gig (tonga). With his huge frame and well-kempt moustaches, I could have taken him for a body-builder, except that he appeared a bit too lazy for anyone immersed in physical exercise. Besides, he was wearing a barrister’s attire – even though that was also rather shabby, as if a tailor had cut it without measuring the person who was going to wear it.
His deep set eyes were shadowed by massively thick eyebrows under an unusually broad forehead and displayed a curious look which was hard to be defined either as noble or evil, perhaps a mix of both.
He was accompanied by a munshi who sat in the front, next to the driver, while the gentleman barrister sat down with me. I now think that the munshi must have taken that place out of courtesy for me rather than for his master for, as I discovered on the way, both he and the driver were on very frank terms with the educated gentleman.
For a while, the barrister kept quiet, immersed in a deep reverie. Then he gave a long sigh and murmured softly, Ya Allah. This was perhaps a cue for the two of his familiar companions to start whatever talk they wished to hold with him. The munshi immediately took out a packet of The Scissors and offered him a cigarette which he courteously passed on to me. He then took another one, lit it in a rather awkward fashion, and took deep, long puffs, much as one would draw upon a hooka. The cigarette burnt out rather quickly at this pace, and he then stretched out his hand for another one. The munshi provided it almost immediately.
Meanwhile, the two men sitting in front had embarked upon a rambling conversation with the gentleman that covered almost every topic under the sun – from the decadence of the society to wrestling matches in the mud-arenas of Mochi Gate to the famous prostitutes of the city and what their satisfied customers had to say about them. All this while, they were addressing him as Doctor sahib. When he turned to offer me a second cigarette, I asked him: “Excuse me, but I thought you were a barrister?” He told me that he most certainly was. When I asked him where did he study medicine, he gave a somewhat conceited smile and told me that the title referred not to a medical degree but rather to a PhD he had received from Germany some years back. As a journalist since the turn of the century (i.e., for about a decade), I had only heard of one barrister who was also a PhD in Lahore. “Are you, then Dr. Iqbal?” I asked him, fearing that if he says “No” it would make me feel really stupid to have suspected him for being such a celebrity. But his answer was in the affirmative. That left me dumbfounded for quite a while as I had not imagined the most famous living poet of the Urdu language, and one of the most profound scholars of our generation to be someone like this.
When, however, I recovered from the shock, I was overcome by the better part of my professional instinct: can I interview him for my newspaper, I asked. To this he refused flatly, which was rather not in keeping with the good humour that he had displayed so far. I was obviously hurt, and as if sensing it somehow, he added that I am at liberty to interview him at any length, as long as it is not for any newspaper. He justified this by telling me that he was going through a very formative phase of his thoughts those days and therefore did not want to come on record for ideas that he may feel obliged to disown the very next day. By that time I had become too interested in this amazing embodiment of contradictions that was passing as a human being, so I readily took him for his word. That is how this interview came about, which is probably destined never to be read by anyone.
Dr Iqbal, as I would now call him, invited me to stay with him for the lunch and then to linger on for a leisurely afternoon talk. He lives in the upper story of a small house in the commercial area of Anarkali. Entering it, I discovered that he is all alone in this abode, except for his servant Ali Bakhsh, whose prime duty is to freshen up his master’s hooka every now and then for as long as the master is awake and at home. Iqbal’s family, comprising his wife and two children in their teens, is settled in Sialkot with Iqbal’s parents and other relatives. This was a typically Eastern small town set-up, I considered.
One of the first things he did after entering his abode was to change from what he described as the suffocating noose of the British clothes to his favourite dhoti and long shirt, topped up with a Kashmiri shawl (his ancestors, incidentally, came from Kashmir).
Our conversation began with a rambling sentence that Iqbal had carelessly allowed to slip out while we were having our lunch. “At least in one respect sin is better than piety,” he had declared. “There is an imaginative element in the former which is lacking in the latter.” And doesn’t that sound like a glorification of the sin, I now asked. To this he added (with a long puff at the noose of the hooka): “Sin has an educative value of its own. Virtuous people are very often stupid.”
That prompted me to ask him whether he did believe in God. He was visibly amused.
“My friends often ask me, ‘Do you believe in God?'” He began. “I think I am entitled to know the meaning of the terms used in this question before I answer it. My friends ought to explain to me what they mean by ‘believe’, ‘existence’ and God, especially by the last two, if they want an answer to their question. I confess I do not understand these terms: and when I cross-examine them I find that they do not understand them either.”
Dr Iqbal, at this crucial stage of his intellectual career, is going through an interesting process. He has shunned the received notions of God. As both Ghazali and Ibn-e-Arabi (the two greatest Muslim thinkers from the extremely opposite milieus of Orthodoxy and Mysticism) have stressed, what people tell you about God is not the truth about God: it is only a mixture of various individual perceptions of God. A true believer is one who develops his own concept of God by integrating the faculties of sense, intellect and intuition present within himself. Iqbal, like many great Muslim minds before him, is in the crucial process of constructing this personal concept of the Divine Being. What it would be when it is complete is difficult to say.
But there are some hints in his conversation that point in a particular direction. “Christianity describes God as love,” he says, “Islam as power. How shall we decide between the two conceptions? I think the history of mankind and of the universe as a whole must tell us as to which of the two conceptions is truer. I find that God reveals himself in history as power more than love. I do not deny the love of God: I mean that, on the basis of our historical experience, God is better described as power.”
One might wonder, as I did, what he means by this ‘historical experience.’ He explained this by adding: “Both Islam and Christianity had to deal with the same adversary, i.e. idolatry. The difference, however, is this – that Christianity made a compromise with her adversary; Islam destroyed it altogether.”
Iqbal seems to be stressing a lot on the collective life of the Muslims as God’s chosen community, or the Ummah. This need not be a concern for anyone, he would perhaps say. “In the economy of nature each nation has a function allotted to it,” he believes. For example, he adds with some enthusiasm, the function of the German nation is the organisation of human knowledge – a function from which they have recently started to digress by taking up a commercial enterprise which may give them a dignified place in the corridors of European power but “they will have to suffer the displacement of a higher ideal by the all-absorbing spirit of trade.” Likewise, Iqbal observes, the Muslim nation (notwithstanding the geographical distribution of the Muslim population, which he never seems to take seriously) has been assigned with the sacred trust of God’s everlasting message. “I am almost a fatalist in regard to the various forces that ultimately decide the destinies of nations,” he declares.
“As a political force we are perhaps no longer required; but we are, I believe, still indispensable to the world as the only testimony to the absolute Unity of God. Our value among nations, then, is purely evidential.” That is why he claims that the Quran has clear predictions about the future of the Muslim world since it describes what God expects of the Muslim community, what it will get if it fulfils those divine expectations and what it will suffer if it wanders away from the chosen path like the people of Israel as described in the Holy Book.
Somewhere between these two poles of the universe – God and the community – lies the centre of Iqbal’s meditations. Quite surprisingly for his mystical background (only a few years back he was seen as the most promising mystical poet since Mir Dard), Iqbal’s central concern is not God but man. “For centuries, Eastern heart and intellect have been absorbed in the question: Does God exist? I propose to raise a new question – new, that is to say, for the East – Does man exist?”
In so many ways Iqbal seems to be deifying man: “The weak lose themselves in God; the powerful discover Him in themselves.” If Iqbal appears to be a fatalist in his ideas about the collective lives of nations, he seems to be a die-hard individualist when it comes to his concept of the individual man. “Both God and the devil give man opportunities only, leaving him to make use of them in the way he thinks fit,” he believes. He would go as far as denying the age-old concept that knows the future as if it was certain. He thinks that to believe in a predestined future is to deny the power of God. If the future has been pre-destined and man has no power over it, he argues, then “the freedom of God would also disappear,” as God Himself cannot then be seen as capable of changing it. Iqbal sees both man and God as free, creating this universe as they please. God is the absolute Creator, but each individual is a creator in his own limited scale. “God can be seen as creating Time from moment to moment. If the Universe is an open one, there is no pre-existing future, and God does not know the future because there is nothing to know!” Iqbal grants a vast freedom to the human being and thinks that God is willing to forgive much. “After all,” he would say with a smile, “the human intellect is nature’s attempt at self-criticism.”
Iqbal is obsessed with the possibilities of creation that are open before the human race. “God created things. Man created their worth,” he says. And then he would go on to list the other creations of man, each comparable with the creations of nature: poetry, art, families and nations and even the “truth” (“Power touches falsehood, and lo! It has transformed into truth!”)
But in order to become a creator, no matter how small or big, one has to transcend oneself. That brings the importance of “self”. Iqbal is full of criticism for those who place emphasis upon losing one’s individuality. He gives an entirely upside down definition of self-sacrifice: “Before you talk of self-sacrifice you must see whether you have got a self to sacrifice. The egoist alone is capable of self-sacrifice.”
As Dr. Iqbal had already said in the beginning, these ideas are still in the phase of creation and transformation. One cannot predict with certainty which ones of these the young philosopher would retain as he progresses far in his search for the truth about man. Nor can one anticipate fully what their outcome will be: Iqbal is a poet, a lawyer, a teacher and a public speaker at the same time. As such, the channels available to him for the expression of his thoughts are numerous. Which one does he find best is something only time can tell us. But whatever he might become, a second Ghalib, a legendary jurist, a straightforward philosopher, or a politician, one thing is certain: he is destined to make this era interesting for all those who live in it. And that is more than what can be said about many great men of history.