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'India is the greatest Muslim country in the world'

Mohammed Iqbal was arguably the finest poet of his time.

Mohammed Iqbal But the man who wrote the immortal Saare Jaan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara is often reviled in India for championing the cause of Pakistan. In this fascinating extract from his much acclaimed biography of the poet, Iqbal Singh explores Iqbal's association with the genesis of Pakistan.

Before 1930 Pakistan was not even a name or, if it was, nobody had heard of it in public. In that year Iqbal presided at the annual session of the All-India Muslim League held in Allahabad. As is customary on such occasion, he read a lengthy address at the opening session in which he made a tour de horizon of the general political situation in the country with specific attention to the problem of Muslim interests.

His address is somewhat different from the usual generalities and platitudes which are the stock-in-trade of presidential addresses. It has seriousness, an intellectual gravity, and a dignity which never failed him when he really directed his mind to any particular problem. There is good deal in that is parochial and polemical, but it also has passage of -- for an Indian gathering -- remarkably lucid prose.

He begins by denying that he has any special political axe to grind:

"I lead no party; I follow no leader. I have given the best part of my life to a careful study of Islam, its law and polity, its culture, its history and literature. This constant contact with the Spirit of Islam, as it unfolds itself in time, has, I think, given me a kind of insight into its significance as a world-fact. It is in the light of this insight, whatever its value, that, while assuming that the Muslims of India are determined to remain true to the Spirit of Islam, I propose, not to guide you in your decisions, but to attempt the humbler task of bringing clearly to your consciousness the main principle which, in my opinion, should determine the general character of those decisions."

He then proceeds to develop the argument so dear to his heart regarding the true nature of Islam. It is not, he contends just another religion among many religions, but a unique world-view embracing the whole sphere of human activity; a total philosophy if you like, which cannot be reconciled with narrow nationalistic ideals. It differs, moreover, from other religions like Christianity, for example, in that it is not other-worldly, but accepts the world of time and space and believes in a Kingdom that is of the earth. As the whole argument is fundamental to Iqbal's position and is here stated with greater clarity than anywhere else by him, it deserves to be quoted at some length:

"It cannot be denied that Islam, regarded as an ethical ideal plus a certain kind of polity by which expression I mean a social structure, regulated by a legal system and animated by a specific ethical ideal -- has been the chief formative factor in the life-history of the Muslims of India. It has furnished those basic emotions and loyalties which gradually unify scattered individuals and groups, and finally transform them into a well-defined people, possessing a moral consciousness of their own. Indeed it is no exaggeration to suggest that India is perhaps the only country where Islam, as a people building force, has worked at its best. In India, as elsewhere, the structure of Islam as a society is almost entirely due to the working of Islam as a culture inspired by a specific ethical ideal. What I mean to say is that Muslim society, with its remarkable homogeneity and inner unity, has grown to be what it is, under the pressure of the laws and institutions associated with the culture of Islam.

"The ideals set free by European political thinking, however, are now rapidly changing the outlook of the present generation of Muslims both in India and outside India. Our younger men inspired by these ideas, are anxious to see them as living force in their own countries, without any critical appreciation of the facts which have determined their evolution in Europe. In Europe Christianity was understood to be a purely monastic order which gradually developed into a church-organisation. The protest of Luther was directed against the church-organisation, not against any system of polity of a secular nature, for the obvious reason that there was no such polity associated with Christianity. And Luther was perfectly justified in rising in revolt against this organisation, though, I think, he did not realise that in the peculiar condition which obtained in Europe, his revolt would eventually mean the displacement of the universal ethics of Jesus by the growth of a plurality of national and hence narrower systems of ethics. Thus the upshot of the intellectual movement initiated by such men as Luther and Rousseau was the break-up of the One into a mutually ill-adjusted many, the transformation of a human into a national outlook, requiring a more realistic foundation, such as the notion of country, and finding expression through varying systems of polity evolved on national lines, on lines which recognise territory as the only principle of political solidarity.

"...The universal ethics of Jesus is displaced by national systems of polity and ethics. The conclusion to which Europe is consequently driven is that religion is a private affair of the individual and has nothing to do with, what is called man's temporal life. Islam does not bifurcate the unity of man into an irreconcilable duality of spirit and matter. In Islam God and the universe, spirit and matter, church and state, are organic to each other. Man is not the citizen of a profane world to be renounced in the interests of a world of spirit situated elsewhere. To Islam matter is spirit realising itself in space and time... A Luther in the world of Islam is an impossible phenomenon; for here there is no church-organisation, similar to that of Christianity in the Middle Ages, inviting a destroyer. In the world of Islam we have a universal polity whose fundamentals are believed to have been revealed, but whose structure, owing to our legist' want of contact with the modern world, stands today indeed of renewed power by fresh adjustments. I do not know what will be the final fate of the national idea in the world of Islam. Whether Islam will assimilate and transform it, as it has transformed and assimilated before many ideas expressive of a different spirit, or allow a radical transformation of its own structure by the force of this idea, is hard to predict... At the preset moment the national idea is reclaiming the outlook of Muslims, and thus materially counteracting the humanising task of Islam... I hope you will pardon me for this apparently academic discussion. To address this session of the All India Muslim League you have selected a man who has not despaired of Islam as a living force for freeing the outlook of men from its geographical limitations, who believes that religion is a power of the utmost importance in the life of individuals as well as states, and finally who believes that Islam is itself Destiny and will not suffer a destiny..."

After this bold declaration, Iqbal descends to more mundane regions -- to the problem of reconciling the various groups and their interest in India. He repeats the unexceptionable platitude that 'the unity of an Indian nation, therefore, must be sought, not in the negation, but in the mutual harmony and co-operation of the many... And it is one the discovery of Indian unity in this direction that the fate of India as well as of Asia really depends....'

But why has it been impossible to discover this principle of harmony and co-operation? Iqbal has his diagnosis; not a very brilliant diagnosis, but certainly a revealing one. We have failed because, he observes, 'we suspect each other's intentions and inwardly aim at dominating each other. Perhaps in the higher interest of mutual co-operation we cannot afford to part with monopolies which circumstances have placed in our hands...'

The passage is significant. After the sublime flight into the sphere of the ideals of Islam which is 'a Destiny and will not suffer a destiny' we are pulled down by the force of gravity into the not so heroic realm of economic exigencies. The real reason why Indian unity has been impossible to achieve, according to Iqbal, is because certain groups (presumably, the Hindus) having established monopolies in various economic fields are not prepared to share them with their Muslim counterparts.

This is not a very original analysis of the origin of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, thought it happens within limits, to be a correct analysis. It might have been furnished by any mediocre middle class politician. But coming from the Poet of Islam it has a unique significance.

Excerpted from The Ardent Pilgrim, An Introduction to the Life and Works of Mohammed Iqbal by Iqbal Singh, Oxford University Press, 1997, Rs 295, with the publisher's permission. Readers in the US may secure a copy of the book from Oxford University Press Inc USA, 198, Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA. Tel: 212-726-6000. Fax: 212-726-6440.

Iqbal, continued