Sunday, February 19, 2012

Iqbal: Pro-modernity in English, Anti-Modernity in Persian/Urdu?

by Salman Hameed

In my class (Evolution, Islam, and Modernity) for tomorrow we are looking at the Modernist Islamic Movements at the end of the 19th century and extending into the first half of the 20th century. Of course, we are looking at familiar names such Muhammad Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Aghani, Rashid Rida, etc. But Allama Iqbal - who ended up being celebrated as the national poet of Pakistan - presents an interesting case. His book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought is indeed important. But in Pakistan, at least when I was growing up there, we mostly talked about his poetry (and his idea of Pakistan) and rarely had discussions about his book. The book may be important, but is it also influential? The reason I thought about this is that one of the readings (from Kurzman's Modernist Islam) claimed that Iqbal's Persian and Urdu poetry often denounced modernity, but his English-language prose embraced modernity. I didn't know that such differences were so explicit in Iqbal.

For example, at one point Iqbal praised Turkey for its wide scale westernizing reforms: "The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom: she alone has passed from ideal to the real - a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle". This bit is from his Reconstruction. But then in his Persian poetry, he turns on Turkey's Westernizing project in his Javid namah:
The Turk, torn from itself,
Enravished by the West, drinks from her hand
A poison sweet; and since the antidote
He has renounced, what can I say except
God save him. 
I just find the use of different languages for different messages, not necessarily surprising, but definitely interesting. He is talking to two different audiences. I know that another modernist Jamal al-din al-Afghani also faced a similar criticism.

But to be fair, Iqbal was a thoughtful writer and was placing his own struggles and contradictions straight on the paper. He even talks about biological evolution in Reconstruction and begrudgingly accepts it - though he leaves room for a higher plane of spirituality. Similarly, in one of his famous poems, Masjid-i-Qurtuba (Cordoba Mosque), he says a few positive things about benefits of reason (and may be even the Enlightenment) [quoted from Kurzman]:
Germany has witnessed the upheaval of the Reformation,
    which has erased all marks of earlier times.
The sanctity of the temple priest has been nullified,
    and the delicate ship of thought has embarked on its course.
The French have also seen a revolution,
    which has overturned the world of Westerners.
The descendants of the Greeks, aged by their worship of antiquity,
    have become youthful again with the pleasures of renewal.
The soul of the Muslim has a similar ferment today,
    [but] this is a divine secret which the tongue in unable to express.
Let us see what springs from the bottom of this ocean;
    let us see what colors the sky now turns. 
This is fascinating stuff. We have been having a ball in our class sorting through the various definitions of modernities as well as terms such as westernization, secularization, and tradition.


Gary said...

Interesting Salman I knew of al-Afghani's view of evolution from reading Adel Ziadat's book and also something of Iqbal's view. Obviously they are more complex characters than just that. Considering that both these great thinkers were trying to navigate the minefield (or should it be mindfield?) of tradition and culture vis a vis modernity, you could expect them to produce seemingly contradictory writings.

Salman Hameed said...

Gary - I agree with you. And also, while we are getting a snapshot of all their views at the same time, their views must have evolved over time as well. But I think these are fascinating intellectuals.

Usman said...

It's been a while since I read Iqbal, but I would venture to say he was not necessarily anti-modernity or anti-reason (in fact if I am not wrong he pretty much shoots down metaphysics) but he is cautious about the tendency towards secularism in modernity. However, this is what I remember and I would need to go back and re-read Reconstruction to be able to speak intelligibly about the matter.

Aurangzeb said...

Regarding Iqbal's view on Turkey, it is also important to reading them in the chronological order (regardless of the language) since he changed his views on Turkey a number of times.

majid said...

we south Asian are mastered in de-framing personalities, and getting our desired meaning out of prose. we have portrayed prophet as a magician what else can be expected by us then turning a philosopher into religious preacher