Allama Iqbal on Relations Between Muslims and Hindus in India

Muhammad Iqbal, popularly known as Allama Iqbal, the spiritual founder of Pakistan, once had something of an illumination, which led him to the reflection, as he wrote in his well-known Urdu poems, Bang-e-Dara, that once while returning from a prison (metaphorically ‘bonded-state’). “I realised that in the G?t? is contained the Qur’?n, and in the Qur’?n the G?t?.[1] (He is referring of course, to the celebrated Hindi Scripture Bhagavad G?t?).

This, on the face of it, is an amazing if not a provocative admission, and an unlikely one to come from somebody who found himself to be poles apart from that other contemporary Indian patriot, who swore by the G?t?, and said of the Almighty that “Ishvara and All?h” were equally His names. If G?t? contains the Qur’?n and the Qur’?n theG?t?, Iqb?l and Gandhi between them should have been able to find a less bloody solution to the Hindu-Muslim problem, and there should have been no cause for a separate Muslim patriotism that found itself pitted against the alleged ‘Hindu’ nationalism, Unless, of course, we take the G?t? and the Qur’?n to be unequivocally preaching just such intolerance and territorial demarcations based on religious differences. It is doubtful that Iqb?l read a clear mandate for unrestrained jihad[2] in the Qur’?n and a similar vindication of war in the battlefield sermon of K???a to a despondent Arjuna. Rather, Iqb?l saw in the tenets of at least the Qur’?n the fundamental basis for the unity of humankind, and of brotherhood, under a social order that did not succumb to the divisions of race, religion, gender, nation and tribes (except perhaps for the nominal purposes of identification).[3] He expected the same of the G?t?’s fine teachings. If there was an opposition, it should come to naught, or end in futility, just as Iqb?l thought of the “amazing tussle between the shaikh and the brahmin, in which neither lost nor won.”[4] Should it strike a greater note of irony that the same Iqb?l is famous for the lyrics of a popular Hindustani song (declaring the brotherhood of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians of the subcontinent)?

la ilaha illa Ll?h

la ilaha illa Ll?h

“Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Ishai saab hei bhai-bhai.”

To Iqb?l, however, finding the G?t? in the Qur’?n, and vice versa, did not necessarily entail that one accepts just about anyone’s interpretation of the G?t? not the least of those who tended to read the same sort of pantheistic monism in the G?t? that several Islamic thinkers had been guilty of, particularly in the form of doctrine of Wahdat-al-Wuj?d or ‘unity of Being’, sometimes rendered at ‘Unityism’. ?a?kara, and to an extent R?m?nuja, would be singled out as perpetrators of Hindu version of absolutism, and the mystic Shaikh Muhyid-D?n Ibn-al’Arab? as the principal expositor of the corresponding Islamic doctrine. In Iqb?l’s own judgement, which is expressed in the Preface to Asr?r-e-Kh?di (Secrets of the Self):[5]

In the analysis of the question of the asr?r (self) there are references to strange and amazing similarities in the historical backgroundof Muslim and Hindu thought; the very angle from which ?r? ?a?kar?c?rya gave an exegesis of the G?t?, is the point of view from which Shaikh Ibn-al’Arab? of Andalusia has given a commentary on the Qur’?n, and that has left a deep impact on Muslims.

A deep impact or impression, though, on which Muslims and to what end? Is Iqb?l as approbating as he sounds to be, or is he prefacing that to which he is going to provide a corrective, as it were? And was this the only instance of similarity between Hindu and Islamic thought that troubled him, or that he found to be interesting, and was it to have any effect on his own analysis of the problematic?

The deep impression that Iqb?l speaks of was left on the generality of mystics all over the Islamic world, and since fourteenth century the concomitant pantheistic ideas formed the common theme of most Islamic poetry.[6] Iqb?l was quick to blame this doctrine for the decadence which characterised all Eastern people in general and Islamic people in particular in respect of their indifference to the world of Appearance in deference to the spirit of other-worldliness.[7] This, not withstanding, he thought the reformist efforts of the Aligarh Movement instigated by Sayyid Ahmad Kh?n, confounded though by the heresies of the Q?d?yania belief in the complementarity of the revelation of the founder of the Ahmadeyya movement, who declared himself to be the buruz of Prophet Muhammad, making his own finality virtually the finality of Muhammad.[8]

The doctrine of ‘Unityism’, to Iqb?l, smacked of pantheistic monism, which he believed, inevitably led people to the belief in illusionariness of the world and only served to paralyse the capacity for action amongst the people who otherwise took delight in spending all their time thinking of other-worldly joys (be it Nirv??a, or the mystic extinction in God).[9] The impressions then were anything but deep in Iqb?l’s own mind. On the contrary, he struggled hard to rid his mind free of such a spell he himself had come under apparently quite independently of Islamic mystic and Hindu thinkers. That independent influence is attributed to Iqb?l’s deep study of European idealists and modern netaphysical thinkers, from Hegel, through Kant, Fichte, and Nietszche, to Henri Bergson, Bradley, McTaggart and Whitehead. Thus there was obviously a tension in Iqb?l; perhaps not unlike the tension one finds in the G?t? as it tries to strike a balance between the absolutism of the by-gone Upani?adic era, on the one hand, and the bhaktism with its radical theodicy that was gaining momentum in G?t?’s time (if not promulgated by the G?t? itself). What is fascinating is that Iqb?l arrives, as a result of this tension, to a distinctive Islamic syncretism, presumably quite independently of the Hindu, not to speak of Ved?ntic influence, that he had embraced during his early thinking career. And in this he attempted to give Indian Islam a distinctive turn that freed it from the metaphysical implications of pantheistic monism that had become ingrained in much of the S?f? tradition, whose earliest link with India might have been created by al-B?r?n?. Iqb?l finds vindication for this syncretism in the Qur’?n, in the Prophet’s teachings and, in particular, in the life and works of Indian Muslim leaders who preceded Iqb?l. He then discovers that this is precisely where the G?t? is at, so to speak. This discovery struck a warm chord in Iqb?l, and he was greatly comforted by it. He extolled the teachings of ?r K???a, and was encouraged to learn that one of his shaikh friends, Maul?na Abdul Maj?d Daryab?d, was doing a comparative study of his Qur’?n-based Asr?r-e-Kh?di[10] and the Bhagavad G?t?. Thus is understandable his evocation, with which we began this discussion: that the G?t? is in the Qur’?n and the Qur’?n in the G?t?.

Allama Iqbal

Allama Iqbal

Indian Origins of Iqb?l

In light of these remarks, we may ask: was Iqb?l then a typically Indian thinker? and was his synthetic approach just another variation on the theme followed by most Indian thinkers, from the authors, whoever they might have been, of the Upani?ads (especially of I?a and ?vet??vatera fame) and of the G?t?, down to the likes of Ram Mohun Roy, Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan and to some degree Gandhi himself?[11] Iqb?l, after all, was born of brahmanical ancestry. His ancestors were Kashmir? Brahmins who converted to Islam about three hundred years before his birth in February 1873 at Sialkot in the Punj?b. Iqb?l self-consciously refers to his brahmanical extraction in this verse:[12]


Look at me, for a Hind thou wilt not see again.

A man of Brahmin extraction versed in the mystical

knowledge of R?m [R?m?] and Tabr?z.


To pursue his biographical details a while, Iqb?l moved to Lahore, where he received further education and began to write poetry (in Urdu, since Persian was being phased out in the subcontinent). In 1905 he went to Europe and studied in Cambridge, Munich and taught in London. His doctorate thesis was a masterly work on The Development of Mataphysics in Persia.[13] Here he came under strong influence of Hegelian writers, but he also found affinity with Greek thinkers and the German romantic idealists we mentioned earlier though he derided the Neoplatonists and later rejected Plato as well. But it was the French Philosopher Henri Bergson who was to have an even greater impact on the budding Muslim mind. (Much later Iqb?l was to pay his tribute to Bergson in Paris, in 1931-2, greeting him with the Qur’?n phrase that had Bergson totally disarmed, namely, ‘Don’t vilify Time!’).[14]

While in Cambridge he had spent considerable time with the philosopher McTaggart, who was later to confirm that Iqb?l’s own orientations during his Cambridge days tended towards pantheism and mysticism. McTaggart’s own view was that selves were the ultimate reality whose true content and goodness were to be found not in time but in eternity, and not in action but in love. It is clear that McTaggart’s philosophy had left a deep impression on Iqb?l, though he later rejected McTaggart’s thesis of the unreality of time.[15]

In 1908 Iqb?l returned to Lahore and took up teaching philosophy and English literature in the Government College. Later he concentrated on law. Meanwhile, he longed to return to the Eastern sources, and to refurbish the Islamic roots in the way that he thought Western but also Hindu, especially Ved?ntic thinkers, had achieved. This dream is evidenced in a telling paragraph he wrote in his Preface to The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.Iqb?l seemed almost ashamed of his Persian heritage and while he might not have been taken in by the pantheistic leanings of the ?a?kara-Ved?nta system, he nonethless comes out in laudatory eloquence on the virtues of the Hindu intellectual disposition; it is worth quoting the passage in question at some length:[16]


“The subtle Brahmin sees inner unity of things; endeavours to discover it in all aspects of human experience, and illustrates its hidden presence in the concrete in various ways. …The Hindus, while admitting, like the Persian, the necessity of higher source of knowledge, yet calmly moves from experience to experience, mercilessly dissecting them, and forcing them to yield their underlying universality. In fact the Persian is only half-conscious of Metaphysics as a system of thought; his Brahmin brother, on the other hand, is fully alive to the need of presenting his theory in the form of a thoroughly reasoned-out system. And the result of this mental difference between the two nations is clear. In the one case we have only partially worked-out systems of thought; in the other case, the awful sublimity of the searching Ved?nta.”


Might this early impression and gnostic appeal have made a subconscious acceptance of some elements of the G?t?’steachings much easier at a later phase in his thinking? Of course, he soon came to reject the apparently meticulous model he had found in Ved?nta, and either believed the Persians had as much to offer or did not see the need for such hair-splitting analysis and sublimity of search.

The Eastern sources that Iqb?l clutched on to more seriously on his return were basically the Qur’?n, the Prophet’s tradition, and the writings of mystics, such as the theists Jal?l al-din R?m?, Muhammad al-Ghaz?l? (whose disenchantment with his former profession of law and philosophy appealed to Iqb?l), and the Indian scholastics, such as Shaykh Amnad Sirhind? (1564-1624 C.E.), Ibn-I-Abdul Wah?b (17thc), Sir Sayy?d Ahmad Kh?n (1817-98), and Sh?h Wal?ull?h (b.1703 C.E.), whom Iqb?l called ‘the last great theologian of Islam’.[17] All three are renowned for their Indo-Muslim revivalist leanings.

Ahmad Sirhind? is, of course, very important figure in the Indian tradition. Born in East Punj?b, Sirhind?’s scholarship earned him a place in the court of Akbar at ?gra, where he shared his mystical exuberances with the Mughal emperor, but later shifted his allegiance to the Naqshaband? reformist group under Khw?jah B?q?-bill?h. Overall, he is said to have influenced the restoration of the purity of Islam in India and inspired the orthodox reforms of Aurangzeb, in his attempt to impose the shar?’at on the state.[18] Sirhind?, however, did not concern himself directly with Hinduism (dubbed kufr) and other non-Islamic religions, except in some disparaging way. He was more concerned to instigate a distinct role for India’s Muslims vis-?-vis Hindus, which, with Aurangzeb’s reforms, provoked riots among Hindus.[19] Iqb?l himself paid his tribute to the revivalist Aurangzeb, who is credited with having extirpated the libertarian movement of his rival brother D?r? Shukoh; the latter’s heretical leanings went back to the S?fis, but he was also the last to attempt a reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam on the basis of their esoteric similarities.[20]

Non-Islamic sources, however, were to continue to exercise Iqb?l’s mind, even if for their dialectical worth i.e. in terms of finding some doctrine to argue against, as was the case with ?a?kara’s particular interpretation of theG?t?.[21] More positively, he had thought of narrating the R?m?ya?a in Urdu verse. He saw his own classic J?vid N?mah (his answer to Dante’s Divine Comedy in line with the Hindu epics of Mah?bh?rata and R?m?ya?a). One might say this is indicative of Iqb?l’s attraction to the Sm?ti literature, as distinct from the ?ruti with its overwhelming emphasis on polytheism (in the Vedas) and absolutism (in the Upani?ads) SirhindI, though, would have been truly appalled, for he did not see R?m and Rahm?n as one and the same, or even comparable, and he was scornful of the human characteristics of Hindu deities.[22] What would have been literature of the infidels (kufis ) was quite tolerable to Iqb?l; though he was worried about the polytheism and asceticism of the Pur?nas.

 Krishna's Dance of Delight (Rasa Lila). Rajasthan, Bundi, India. ca. 1675-1700

Krishna’s Dance of Delight (Rasa Lila). Rajasthan, Bundi, India. ca. 1675-1700

Iqbal’s Metaphysic

For the particular problem areas of interest, we now turn to the discussion of some of Iqb?l’s own insights and theories, particularly as regards the nature of ultimate reality, revelation, mystical experience, and their ramifications in practical life. I want to discuss these in the context of their affinity and parallel in the G?t?, with some reference, on the one hand, to Sirhind?, since his Islamic syncretic conservatism created waves for later development, and on the other hand, to Radhakrishnan, who curled his brand of syncreticism in no small measure from the G?t? itself. Although it is true that both Iqb?l and Radhakrishnan came heavily under the sway of idealistic and mystical thinkers (both Eastern and Western) in their formative years, while Iqb?l tried to free himself, though not altogether successfully as Rascid reminds us,[23] Radhakrishnan absorbed the ideas and incorporated them in his vision of Ved?ntic neo-realism. But they were both products of their time, at a moment when Eastern intellectual thought was making a return to its own after centuries of foreign, in particular Western European visitations. In J?vid N?mah, Iqb?l has R?m? remind a Hindu sage, by name Jah?n Dost, deep in meditation under a tree that: [24]


The East saw God but did not see the world;

The West crept along the world and fled away from God.


Remonstrating against his own lure to the West he howled: ‘I drank the West’s anammelled bowl, and darkness settled on my soul’; elsewhere he protested: ‘Europe today is the greatest hindrance in the way of men’s(sic) ethical achievements;[25] and in J?vid N?mah he calls into question India’s wisdom and asceticism as well.

Iqb?l was obsessed with two philosophical problems that at the same time bring him closer to the G?t? in view ofG?t?’s own preoccupation with these. One concerned the exacting nature of the ultimate reality, qua ontology of God, and the self’s place in the scheme of being, the other concerned the notion of action vis--vis the mystic renunciation of a life of action.

The ontological status of God is a topical issue for Iqb?l, as it had been for S?f?s and theologians over many centuries. He develops this in a number of his poetical works, but more pertinently in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,[26] that emerged from a series of lecture he delivered in South India in 1928. In this work Iqb?l looks for a fresh inspiration from modern thought and experience to up-date and qualify the idealistic tendencies of early vis--vis S?f? mystical philosophy, so as to move towards a more deed-oriented and creative process of religious life and thought. Though Iqb?l is firmly committed to the unquestionable dogma that there is no God but God: l? ?il?ha ?ill?-ll?h (one of the two super-rational pillars on which Islam is founded); yet he is of the view that human mind can penetrate the mystery of the divine. Iqb?l’s is one of the first to attempt to bridge the conceptual gap and explain Islamic cosmology in quasi-scientific terms, drawing heavily from modern philosophical endeavours. Indeed, he would endorse K???a’s insistence to Arjuna on ‘insight accompanied by knowledge’ for this awesome task (BG X1.1). In this he appears to have sided the S?f?s against the orthodox Sunna ulam? who took the word of Qur’?n to be the final authority without need for interpretation on all such matters.[27]But to be equally fair to the spirit of the Qur’?n, Iqb?l did emphasise the inadequacy of the human intellect in arriving at certain religious truths, such as the totality of God’s being. Here he would agree with Immanuel Kant that if there is to be some actuality (suggested for Kant by pure reason and expressed in the limiting idea of thing-in-itself), it falls outside the boundaries of experience and consequently its existence cannot be rationally demonstrated. But what kind of experience was Kant referring to? Obviously sense-experience guided by intuition. Iqb?l invokes Ibn al-‘Arab? to suggest what might if the Kantian view is reversed, so that ‘God is a percept; the world a concept’![28]

That would render the awareness of God a possibility within the bounds of experience, albeit experience of a higher order. This might bring Iqb?l closer to ?a?kara’s ideal of aparok??nubhuti (i.e. immediate ‘identificative’ experience of the ultimate reality). But in other respects Iqb?l moves away from the ‘Ibn al-‘Arab?’s ‘unitive’ experience, and draws closer to R?m?, al-Ghaz?l? and Sirhind?, who were also taken in immensely by the S?f? vision of ‘unity of Being’ and ‘Emanation’, but were later persuaded otherwise by the views of the Sunnah although Sirhind? seemed to keep having spurts of heretical experiences.[29] Perhaps heretical tendencies were endemic to Indian Islam ever since al-B?r?n? made connections between the S?f? speculations and the teachings of the G?t? and Patajali’s Yogas?tras, which he had attempted to translate.[30] This may have even influenced Abu Yazed through Ab? Al? al-Sind?, probably an Indian S?f?.[31] Inevitably, S?f? ontological monism also implied large concessions to Hindu pantheism: either they could be mutually harmonised, or both had to go. Indian Islam adjudicated towards the latter, and Iqb?l in no small measure contributed to this move. Paradoxically, however, he retained a soft spot for the ‘teachings of ?r? Krishna,’ and I want to show why he had this appeal, whether and to what extent he was justified.


Extracted fromsutrajournal

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