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An Islamic response to modernism: Muhammad Iqbal and his poetry.

Modern Man

   Love fled, Mind stung him like a snake; he could not
   Force it to vision's will.
   He tracked the orbits of the stars, yet could not
   Travel his own thoughts' world;
   Entangled in the labyrinth of his science
   Lost count of good and ill;
   Took captive the sun's rays, and yet no sunrise
   On life's thick night unfurled.

Muhammad Iqbal


Muhammad Iqbal's poem, Modern Man, reflects his life of struggle to engage the Western world while holding fast to the values of his Islamic home. The poem, originally written in Urdu, reflects the confusion he saw in the British students he studied with at Cambridge, and those who ruled colonial India during his lifetime. The struggle Iqbal committed his life to engaging was between modernity (empiricism, nationalism, individualism, etc.) and Islam. While he recognized that modernism brought significant scientific and economic benefits, he also understood that materialist gains did not equate with self-understanding. Iqbal declared, with his life and poetry, that modernism did not provide an adequate philosophical foundation for life. He believed that the East should resist what the West assumed to be true and that Muslims could bring the wisdom of the East to balance the science of the West. To capture the sunrise through physics and astronomy, but lose the beauty and meaning that surrounded such an event, was the very heart of what Iqbal saw as modern man's dilemma.

Muhammad Iqbal was an artist and philosopher called to straddle cultures and traditions. He developed a prophetic voice that ultimately had a unifying affect on the Muslim Indians living in a demeaning system of British colonialism. Iqbal's life was always one of in-between. Born into a Brahmin family that had converted to Islam, he attended Muslim and English schools, moved from Indian nationalism to Muslim brotherhood, and called for a rethinking of Muslim ideals in light of modernism. As Lawrence wrote describing Iqbal, "His quest was to bridge Islam and the modern world without supporting colonialism or embracing atheism" (p. 155).

This article will provide an overview of one Muslim man's historic response to modernism, using the Arabic medium of poetry. But before looking at Muhammad Iqbal specifically, it is necessary to establish the role of language and poetry within the Islamic context. Poetry in the West has been a useful artistic expression, having evolved from the romantic notions of the Irish Bards to the urban reality of Wyclef Jean. But in the East, poetry and language have an even deeper cultural role. Together, they form a channel of communication as deeply imbedded in Arab culture as the sun, the clan, and the reciting of history under a desert night sky.

Cantarino writes that "Islam began as a religious and social movement among the Arabs who, upon their conversion were supposed to undergo a basically religious process that we may call Islamization. The formal acceptance of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, was during this time, the only characteristic of the new community" (1975, p. 9). Because all converts were Arabs, Arab culture was the assumed framework of Islam. From a cultural point of view, the assumption of a Muslim's Arab background provided Islam with a national sense, the effects of which can clearly be seen today. The religion of Islam solidified the preservation of Arab culture. As Islam spread throughout the region, it took Arab culture with it, and played a transformative role in the cultural and literary development of all people that accepted the Islamic religion. Arab culture and Islam became one.

As Islam spread through Bedouin tribes, it was absorbed into dialects that varied within an Arabic linguistic frame. However, Uthman Ibn Affan, a companion of the Prophet and the third Caliphate, solidified the Meccan dialect of Arabic by officially proclaiming that the Medina recension of the Qur'anic text was the divine form that had come to the Prophet. In doing so, Uthman set Islam into a specific cultural and linguistic category, giving "divine authority to the Arabic form of speech in which it had been revealed" (Cantarina, p. 11). Learning Arabic became a religious duty and began to take on a unique role in culture. As Adunis describes the relationship, "the Arab has grown up in a culture which views language as his speaking image, and himself as its feeling, thinking reflection. It is a union of reason and sentiment, the chief symbol and assurance of Arab identity" (p. 82).

In the same sense, poetry itself became a religious duty. Arab culture is a desert culture, and oral traditions were the tools for acculturation through stories of origin, history, and religion. Poetry was used early as a way to remember and recite long family histories and folk tales. As Arabic became the language of Islam, poetry became the form of communicating Islam's tenets and interpretations. Muhammad, like many Arab traders of the time, did not read or write well, but relied on others. As Lawrence notes, "When Muhammad had to sign, he would ask others to read aloud what was written, then he would sign by pressing the palm of his hand to the paper" (p. 25). He did not need to read or write, as Arab culture was a culture of recitation. Stories containing family lines and religious tenets were recited in a tribal circle, with structure reinforced by rhyming patterns that facilitated memorization.

As would be culturally appropriate, the revelation of the Qur'an came to Muhammad as a rhyming poem. According to the Qur'an, God pressed on Muhammad rhyming rhythms that became his prophetic legacy. He was told to "recite," which is literally what the word "Qur'an" means. As written in Chapter twelve,
   "We have sent it down with truth,
   and with truth it has come down.
   And we have not sent you (Muhammad),
   Except as a herald and a Warner.
   And we have divided the Recitation (Qur'an)
   That you may recite it to humankind at intervals,
   And we have set it down by revelations." (Chapter 12, verses 105-6)


To recite, a structured revelation in rhyming intervals is understood by Muslims to be an intentional act of God, Allah's plan to distribute the final prophetic declaration. It was a revelation that came into Arabic culture in a form of Arabic culture: poetry. As the foundational text of Islam is a form of poetry, poetry become forever linked to Islam. When discussing the purity of the Qur'an, Cantarino notes, "Not only the doctrinal content, the spiritual meaning of the Qur'an had been revealed, but every word and letter, every phrase and linguistic form found in the sacred text" (1975, p. 13). The message of the Qur'an inspired, while the literary form, tasked to carry the meaning, was an inherent and congruent aspect of the message.

As Arab culture progressed and Islam spread, the culture shifted from recitation and adopted forms of writing. Stetkevych notes that "scholarship in orality theory over the past several decades suggests that the poetic text is, through its rhyme, meter, formulaic construction, and rhetorical devices, essentially mnemonic in nature and thus more stable than the prose anecdote" (2002, p. 2). Capturing oral traditions by writing them down was the next logical evolution of the recited chants of Arabic culture. Although the Qur'an was never written down by Muhammad, only spoken, it was preserved in the format Stetkevych describes and then later passed on to countless nations. As noted earlier, the words, the language, and the format themselves were all understood to be inspired and equal in importance.

Islamic poetics are firmly rooted in Arab cultural traditions and in the sacred text of the Qur'an. Both cultural tools came to the forefront as Western nations began to encroach on Arab culture in the early form of the Crusades and later in policies of colonialism. In response to such incursions, Arabs often reached back to the cultural foundations of traditional Islam and poetry. As Adunis notes, "ft would appear that the return to the ancient has been more eagerly pursued whenever the internal conflict has intensified or the danger from outside has grown more acute" (1990, p. 76).

And the conflict has been acute. As modernist values were forced upon the cultures of the Middle East, vivid disconnects emerged and have continued. One may compare a quote of Iqbal from the previously noted poem, written in 1910, "He tracked the orbits of the stars, yet could not travel his own thoughts' world," to the thoughts of current Islamic scholar Al-Zeera, who writes, "As an Islamic researcher, I find myself trapped in the rigidity of positivism and the looseness of constructivism" (2001, p. 92). At the basis of Islamic mistrust of modern ideals is the Western belief that reality can be understood scientifically, without a broader metaphysical understanding of reality.

One of the leading Islamic scholars today, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, has spent his life addressing the issues of Islam and modernity. A prodigy from Iran, Nasr was the first Iranian to graduate from MIT, completing a degree in physics in 1954. He went on to Harvard and finished his PhD at the age of twenty-five. His dissertation reflected a shift from physics to philosophy. Perhaps he moved from the particulars to the universals as he observed the vivid dilemma of contemporary American society.

As a Muslim, Nasr responds to modernism by connecting nature to eternity, reflecting the Arab poems of his ancestors. In his 2002 work, "Islam and the Plight of Modern Man," he speaks poignantly to what happens when humans dismiss their connection to nature, and what such a disconnection means. "But very few have realized that the pollution of the environment is no more than the after-effect of a pollution of the human soul, which came into being the moment Western man decided to play the role of the Divinity upon the surface of the earth and chose to exclude the transcendent dimension from his life" (2002, p. 4). Nasr reflects the traditional schism between Islam and modernism, as attempts to force a tightly focused, modernist worldview back to a broader perspective, as if from an empiricist magnifying glass to a holistic panoramic view that includes the cosmos and divinity.

From the Crusades, to Napoleon's successful invasion of Egypt in 1798, to colonialism after both World Wars, Muslim nations have been forced to embrace or refute a Western worldview. Moosa expresses the pain of many Muslims, as he writes,

Particularly during the last three centuries, Muslim societies the world over have experienced cataclysmic changes and transformations, including the long night of colonization and the mixed fortunes of the various post-colonies after independence. These colonies and post-colonies have witnessed the dissipation of historical knowledge traditions, which were rapidly replaced or turned into hybrids by the addition of newer strands of knowledge and technology. In some instances, the death of knowledge traditions--epistemicide--has indeed occurred. (Moosa, p. 28)

The term "epistemicide," the literal wiping out of knowledge traditions, has been the greatest fear (some would say reality), among Muslim scholars. It was the same fear that existed in India, as the Queen of England was declared "Empress of India" in 1877, the same year Muhammad Iqbal was born into the world. As he grew in knowledge and vision, Iqbal found himself stepping into the rapidly developing conflict between the Islamic East and the modernist West.

Iqbal was born on November 6, 1877, in the town of Sialkot, Punjab, now a dusty border town in northeastern Pakistan, about five kilometers from the Indian boarder. Although Sialkot was thoroughly Indian in nature, Iqbal's family had been Muslim Brahmins for over four hundred years. Certainly, his unique pedigree was a foreshadowing of his life calling. To be born into the conflict between Islam and modernity in an Indian border town, and into a family of Muslim Brahmins, was a potent indicator of his where his life was moving.

When Iqbal turned five years old, he became the student of Sayyid Mir Hassan, a local scholar who tutored young boys and men. Unlike most tutors in the Punjab region, Hassan encouraged his students to think beyond the traditional Islamic parameters. As Mir notes, "Mir Hasan felt an urgent need for Muslims to acquire a European--which in practical terms meant secular--education in addition to a religious one" (2006, p. 3). This training was in the context of an increasingly tense relationship between Indian Muslims and the British. Demands for a representative government were gaining voice among the Muslims in Punjab. It had been in 1855 that the British had captured Delhi, the primary city in the region. Clearly, Hassan desired to see his pupils develop the Western intellectual skills needed to engage the British colonizers.

As Iqbal was being trained, anti-British sentiment was increasing. And so, even within his first seven years of life, Iqbal was straddling the lines of Western and Eastern, Muslim and Hindu, traditional and modernist. As May notes, "Islamic and English educated, and imbued with Muslim reformist side by side with European ideas and ideals, he never threw off the pull of either, despite his subsequent critique of the Western way of life and thought and his defense of the Islamic philosophical and scientific tradition" (1974, p. 56).

After having exhausted the formal educational opportunities in India, Iqbal traveled to Cambridge to study law in 1905. He returned to India in 1909 with a passion to engage the issues of his nation. By this point, Iqbal was writing in Persian, Urdu, and English. His intellectual promise was flourishing as he utilized ancient Urdu and Persian forms of poetry to express thoughts on the role of Muslims in a nation being colonized by the British. In his poem from 1915, "Secrets of Self," Iqbal uses the story of a tiger being tamed by sheep to illustrate what the British Colonizers had accomplished with Indian Muslims:
   In their stupidity they swallowed the charm of the sheep.
   He that used to make sheep his prey
   Now embraced a sheep's religion.
   The tigers took kindly to a diet of fodder:
   At length their tigerish nature was broken.
   The fodder blunted their teeth
   And put out the awful flashings of their eyes.
   By degrees courage ebbed from their breasts,
   The sheen departed from mirror.
   That frenzy of uttermost exertion remained not,
   That craving after action dwelt in their hearts no more.
   They lost the power of ruling and the resolution to be independent,
   They lost reputation, prestige, and fortune.
   Their paws that were as iron became strengthless;
   Their souls died and their bodies became tombs.
   Bodily strength diminished while spiritual fear increased;
   Spiritual fear robbed them of courage.
   Lack Of courage produced a hundred diseases--
   Poverty, pusillanimity, low mindedness.
   The wakeful tiger was lulled to Slumber by the sheep's charm
   He called his decline Moral Culture.


The poem is an excellent example of Iqbal's work. He is a creative poet, developing vivid images that are pointedly clear. He is also a courageous philosopher, using the medium of poetry to express critical views in a form that could be heard by young and old alike. In this poem of the tiger, Iqbal's lifework can be seen. He is a visionary prophet, a man who has straddled dividing lines between East and West, Hindu and Muslim. He uses a medium that has instant credibility with the people he is writing to, a form of poetry that echoes the writing of the Qur'an, but in the language of his people.

As Iqbal came onto the scene, "He used poetry not only to express feelings, but also to discuss metaphysical, political, and economic issues, to comment on cultural and artistic matters, to reflect on the human existential situation and above all, to contribute to the transformation of individual and collective life in accordance with the dictates of an all-embracing ethical vision" (Mir, p. 55). Iqbal began to write deeply challenging epics in forms that reached back into Arab-Muslim history. Like the story of the tiger, his characters reflected ancient tales and were written intentionally to convey new ideas in forms that reflected the old.

Having studied in England, Iqbal understood the full implications of modernism on the Arab world and Islam's need to change. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought, he states very clearly, "The task before the modern Muslim is immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past" (Iqbal 1962, p. 97). Moose notes that Iqbal "recognized that nothing less than radical ways of reimagining Islam were required" (p. 40). And so his poems were not meant to coddle, but to confront. He did not see the time or opportunity for Islam to slowly transition, but to reform quickly and decisively. "The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that great knowledge, even though we maybe led to differ from those who have gone before us" (Iqbal 1962, p. 97). It is in this vein that Iqbal wrote such works as Modern Man, directly challenging the presuppositions of modernism in a form that could be embraced by a society eager to reflect on the past.

In "Rumuz--I Bekundi," written in Persian in 1918, one can see another significant transition in Iqbal's poetry. Previously, Iqbal had believed that Hindus and Muslims would be able to work together and regain independence from Great Britain. But as petty arguments continued to derail negotiations between the Muslims, Hindus, and the British, Iqbal began to give up on a united Indian nation. Instead, he came to focus on the Muslim League, an organization of Muslim men focused on Muslim issues of independence. Iqbal believed that Islam was the unifying force that could make them a cohesive nation, declaring "We are seventy million and far more homogenous than any other people in India. Indeed the Muslims of India are the only Indian people who can fitly be described as a nation in the modern sense of the word." Beyond the power of Islam to unite Indian Muslims, Iqbal also believed that Islam would unite all Muslims, creating an ever-growing brotherhood. He held these beliefs in opposition to the modern nation-state, which he understood to be a Western invention and responsible for World War One. In "The Community Not Bounded by Space," a section of Rumuz--I Bekundi, Iqbal writes,
   Thou art a Muslim; do not bind thy heart
   To any clime, no lose yourself within
   This world dimensionate. The Muslim true
   Is not contained in any land on earth,
   Syria and Rum are lost within his heart.
   Grasp thou the heart, and in its vast expanse
   Lose this mirage of water and clay. (Iqbal, 1953, p. 30)


While it may appear to contradict the homogeneity Iqbal proclaimed regarding a separate Islamic state for Muslims, he saw the separate state as a means to an end. By separating from the Hindu majority in India, Indian Muslims would finally be free to become part of the greater Muslim Brotherhood of nations. It is interesting to note "Mahatma Gandi held fast to the one nation theory of the (Indian) Congress" (Malik, p. 92). Gandhi believed that India needed Muslims to be united with Hindus if the British Colonizers would ever be thrown off. For Iqbal, the promise of the Islamic unity outweighed the potential of an independent India, -which ultimately had largely capitulated to the modernist worldview.

But Iqbal persisted in his call for a separate state. As Wynbrandt (2009) writes, "At a meeting of the All India Muslim League in Allahabad in 1930, its President, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, a noted poet and philosopher, raised the possibility that peace would be impossible between Muslims and Hindus unless Muslims were give the status of a separate nation. He stated that the predominately Muslim northwest region of the subcontinent was destined to form a self-governing unit" (p. 146). Although Iqbal would not live to see it, Pakistan would be formed. When World War Two erupted, Muslims in India were able to leverage the overextended British by demanding a promise for independence. Richard Stafford Cripps came to India in March of 1942, sent by the British government to try to appease Muslims. Wynbrandt (2009) notes that "Cripps offered independence for the subcontinent at war's end, an assembly to draft a constitution, protection for minorities, and choice for the provinces as to whether to join the new Indian state (p. 153)." The Islamic Republic of Paldstan was eventually founded on August 14, 1947.

The final most common form of poetry used by Iqbal was epic poetry illuminating the beauty of nature. True to the Islamic tradition, Iqbal highlighted sparrows, mountains, and rivers in order to point to the creator behind their existence in nature. Such poems were yet another reflection of the past. One such poem is titled, "The Himalayas,"
   The lightening on the mountain peaks
   Has handed the clouds a whip
   With which to drive the steed of the wind.
   Himalayas, are you some playground
   That nature has made for the elements?
   Oh, how joyous are the clouds as they reel along--Flying
   away like an elephant unchained! (Band I-Dara)


In three lines, Iqbal paints a vivid picture: the wind is a horse, the clouds are the rider, and the lightening is a whip. The next two lines reflect the vast spaces that characterize the Punjab, as their plains run up against the Himalayas. The final image, of an elephant unchained, may strike a westerner as odd, but would delight one who has seen storm clouds bounce through the mountain peaks of northern India. Indian Muslims took great courage from Iqbal's epics, as they were reminded of the greater reality of Allah, and how their suffering under British colonial rule was small and momentary in light of the greater reality.

The other element that shines so clearly in Iqbal's poetry of nature is movement. Reflecting Islamic epics depicting the movement of Allah, Mir states, "Iqbal seems to be at his best when is describing movement, whether physical or metaphorical" (p. 58). For a Muslim, to grasp movement in nature is to appreciate the transience of natural existence, pointing toward the relative stability of eternity. Iqbal's nature epics reflected the best of Islamic theology, reminding his countrymen of what was to come.

Iqbal's legacy continues to grow, long after his death in 1938. Mir notes that "Muhammad Ali Jawhar famously said that he and other Muslim leaders of India leant the true meaning of Islam from Iqbal's works, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah acknowledged Iqbal's seminal role in shaping Muslim identity in India and in directing the movement of thought and action that culminated in the creation of Pakistan" (p. 142). Today his works are being reprinted and new commentaries written, as his wisdom is once again applied in contexts where Muslims face Western modernism. May his words give peaceful guidance and grace to all those who read.

Works Cited

Adunis, 1990, An Introduction to Arab Poetics, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Al-Zeera, Zahra, 2001, Wholeness and Holiness in Education: An Islamic Perspective, Herdon, VA: The International Institute of Islamic Thought Press.

Cantarino, Vicente, 1975, Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age, Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Iqbal, Muhammad, 1953, Mysteries of Selflessness, London: John Murray Publishing.

Iqbal, Mohammad, 1962, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Press.

Lawrence, Bruce, 2006, The Qur'an: A Biography, New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.

May, Lini S., 1974, Iqbal: His Life and Times, Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Press.

Moosa, Ebrahim, 2005, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, 2002, Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society.

Mir, Raza, 2006, Anthems of Resistance: A celebration of progressive Urdu poetry, New Delhi: Roli Books.

Stetkevych, Suzanne, 2002, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Wynbrandt, James, 2009, A Brief Histoiy of Pakistan, New York, NY: Infobase Printing.
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Author:Meehan, Mark W.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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