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Allama Iqbal and The Sikhs

Poet-Philosopher of the East


Allama Iqbal and The Sikhs

Poet-Philosopher of the East

Guru Nanak Sahib
⟵ Back to articles

Allama Iqbal and The Sikhs

Poet-Philosopher of the East

Understanding Dr. Iqbal’s perspectives on Guru Nanak Sahib and the Khalsa, his interactions with Sirdar Kapur Singh and his favorite compositions from the Guru Granth Sahib.

9th of November is the birth anniversary of Allama Sir Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938); it is celebrated as the Iqbal day in Pakistan. I spent yesterday re-reading, reflecting, and writing about my journey with Dr. Iqbal and his relationship with the Sikhs.

Let me begin with Dr. Iqbal’s most oft-quoted couplet of all times from Bal-e-Jibril (Gabriel’s Wing): “Elevate the self so high, that before doing anything, Khuda (God) asks the human: Tell me, what is your will?” Even without the context, this appealed to me. In context, “Iqbal could have explained to him the ‘I am.’”

Allama (literally scholar) Iqbal, as he is popularly known, was born on 9 Nov 1877 in Sialkot, the Panjab, now West Panjab in Pakistan.

Of Kashmiri Brahmin (Hindu upper caste) ancestry, Allama Iqbal’s ascendants converted to Islam during the Mughal era. His paternal grandfather migrated to the Panjab at the advent of the Sikh rule under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early nineteenth century; this was when Kashmir became part of the Sikh empire.

Allama Iqbal studied in the Panjab, England, and Germany. He wrote in Persian, Urdu, English, and Panjabi. He was a lawyer, poet, scholar, and politician.

I became interested in Allama Iqbal in my early twenties when I heard him quoted in lectures and cited in readings often in South Asian circles on two matters: religion and politics.

When I first encountered the “Nanak'' poem in Bang-e-Dra (The Call of the Marching Bell) by Allama Iqbal, its depth and breadth astounded me. The poem starts with how the intoxicated privileged Brahmin didn’t embrace Buddha’s graceful message. It answers why India remains a house of sorrow for the so-called low-castes. It concludes by employing Islamic symbolism and presents Guru Nanak Sahib as the only one who succeeded in South Asia via “Tawhid” (1Ness)! And Allama did all this by placing the Panjab as the center of a revolution in the Hind (South Asia), at the cost of being labeled blasphemous for calling the Guru “mard-e-kamil” (the perfect man). He proclaimed:

Again from the Panjab the call of 1Ness arose:
A perfect man awakened South Asia from slumber.

When I first read the translation by Khushwant Singh, and later the original in Persian, of Shikwa (Complaint) and Jawab-e-Shikwa (Reply to the Complaint), I saw resemblances to the Sikh narratives in it. I still revisit the two poems; sometimes, I listen to their rendition by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I interpret Shikwa as a complaint from the believers that the 1Force-Divine is not fulfilling the promise to protect them from loss and decline. Similarly, I interpret Jawab-e Shikwa as a response that the 1Force has not broken the promise; rather, the Padawan-believers have turned away from the Jedi Way. This part of the Jawab-e-Shikwa addresses the hypocrisy of “holier than thou” that we all witness:

Self-destruction is your practice; you are so arrogant and self-regarding,
You flee from brotherhood; they sacrificed themselves for brotherhood.
You are all talk from head to foot; they were all character from head to foot.
You long for the bud; they hold themselves aloof from the rose-garden.
To this day, the communities remember their story,
The stamp of their sincerity is on the page of existence!

When I first read Allama Iqbal’s couplet on the Khalsa quoted by Harinder Singh Mehboob in Sahije Rachio Khalsa, I discovered Allama Iqbal’s longest and most carefully planned matnawi (extensive poem) in Persian Javidnama. In this “Song of Eternity,” Iqbal explores an eternal quest to discover the life and freedom; it is “a kind of Divine Comedy in the style of Rumi’s Matnawi.” Incidentally, he dedicated almost 4,000 verses to his son, who was also named Javed: “Life’s only purpose is to soar and fly. The nest is not the place to rest and lie.”

Iqbal, as “zinda rud” (living river), meets his mentor Maulana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (popularly Rumi), who agrees to act as his guide. Similar to how Virgil accepted Dante’s request to lead him through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven’s confines. In the Palace of Ashraf-al-Nisa, Rumi addresses Iqbal to “step outside the world of your senses. The palaces you see around you are not made of bricks and cement but of good deeds.” In that palace of a noble maiden from the Panjab, she kept a sword by her side while reading the Quran and ordered the two to be placed on her grave when she died. “The word of truth, and the power to protect it,” Rumi said to me, “These are indeed blessings.” Iqbal accepts that the Khalsa, the Sikh Sovereigns, replaced both. The Khalsa’s “shamhir” (Sword) and “quran” (Thought) was victorious in the Panjab.

Beyond the spheres of the seven-colored world, through Rumi’s guidance at “Qasar-e-Sharaf-Al-Nisa” in Javidnama, Iqbal’s words as translated by Arthur John Arberry and Bashir Ahmad Dar:

For long ages, beneath this golden dome,
the sword and the scriptures lay upon her shrine.
Her resting‐place, in this inconstant world,
spoke a message to the people of the Truth
until the Muslims did with themselves what they did
and time’s revolution rolled up their carpet.
The man of God was mindful of other than God,
the lion of the Lord took to the trade of the fox;
the quicksilver fire and fever departed from his heart—  
you know well what befell Panjab—  
the Khalsa snatched away sword and Quran
and in that land Islam expired.

When I read “The True Story: The State of the Sikhs before and after partition” by Sirdar Kapur Singh in Sachi Sakhi, I came across Iqbal’s letter to Jinnah, which I found to be quite insightful: "Also the insertion of Jawahar Lal Nehru's Socialism is likely to cause much bloodshed among the Hindus themselves. The issue between social democracy and Brahmanism is not dissimilar to the one between Brahmanism and Buddhism ... It is clear to my mind, if Hinduism accepts Social Democracy, it must necessarily cease to be Hinduism."

Sirdar Kapur Singh interacted with Allama Iqbal quite a bit. He writes about a nuanced understanding of Allama’s political Islam: king-subject, country-nation, community, social entity, cultural entity, and political power, and two-nation theory, and the “philosophical foundation of the dream of Pakistan.” In Sachi Sakhi, Sirdar Kapur Singh recorded:

Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal had also come to England for the Second Round Table Conference. I was a great fan of his poetic diction and philosophic glory since my college days in Lahore.
During the years 1928 to 1931, there was hardly a month when sometimes alone or with my friends I did not visit him in his house, which we called Pir Khana, to exchange views with him. In Lahore College, I had Persian and Philosophy as my special subjects, and Dr. Iqbal was a master of both because of which my love and respect for him was but natural. In 1930, when I was planning to complete my education in Cambridge, he had given his autographed photograph to me saying, "Always speak sweetly and never utter a rude word. You and I have met by destiny." I have this souvenir with me till date. Earlier, Dr. Iqbal also had been a student of Government College Lahore, and when he came to Cambridge, we invited him for dinner to Indian Majlis. I was sitting in front of him at the dinner table. He spoke to me in Punjabi, "Sardara, how much of your ancestral land have you mortgaged to the Hindus?" I replied, "Sir, there is no land mortgaged, but there is a loan which I have to pay, which keeps increasing with interest on interest and never seems to end." He became serious and said, "In Islamic society, man is not a slave of interest, this is beneficial for the Sikhs also." I understood his insinuation and smiled but kept quiet. After about five minutes, I wrote the Punjabi translation of one of his Persian poems on the dinner menu on which he put his signature. I had preserved his signatures as a souvenir, which got left behind in Lahore in 1947. But, his signatures in my Autograph Book are still with me.

Sirdar Kapur Singh also elaborated in Sachi Sakhi how Allama viewed the 1947 partition as inevitable and the reality of the Communal Award by the British, which “provided separate representation for the Forward Caste, Scheduled Caste, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, and Scheduled Castes”:

The root cause of the partition of the country was that the Muslims thought that there was no uniformity in the thought, speech, and actions of the majority. The same is the reason why the unity and stability of the country cannot be reinstated, and will remain so. And, the truth or untruth of it, its existence or non-existence will be decided by the progress of the Sikhs in India. There is no doubt about it.
Seen in this light, the spirit of the Communal Award still overwhelms the existence of India.
Sir Mohammad Iqbal had a definite view on this problem that when the Hindus talk about 'common elections,' 'one person one vote,' 'non-communal state,' and 'common self-government,’ in their hearts they have this shrewd policy that they have to take the political power from the foreigners by making the non-Hindus lower their guard and become careless, and then take over the political power unconditionally. In his Urdu couplet he says: "The Hindu does not lose sight of his selfish interest at any time. Nor does he let anyone know what is in his heart. To me, he says that I should give up my tasbi, the sign of me being a Muslim, but himself he keeps wearing the sacred thread on his shoulder.

I first heard about Sirdar Kapur Singh’s interaction with Allama Iqbal in the late 1990s when I lived in the East Panjab for five years to “discover my roots.” It was several conversations over tea and meals with Sardar Gurtej Singh who I called uncle as is common in South Asia. Sardar Gurtej Singh is a Sikh bureaucrat who resigned in Nov 1983 after discovering the plans for the 1984 June attacks on Sri Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib complex along with almost 100 other Gurduaras throughout the East Panjab.

Sardar Gurtej Singh in “Sirdar of the Committed” referring to Sirdar Kapur Singh in Chakravyuh: Web Of Indian Secularism shared how two banis (compositions) Phunhe and Gatha by Guru Arjan Sahib from the Guru Granth Sahib had a profound effect on Allama Iqbal. He writes:

One object awaiting proper display at such a museum is the Persian couplet of the famous poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, written in his own hand and presented to the Sirdar. He preserved it as a sacred relic. He cherished it as he did the memory of several wonderful conversations he had with the poet in London and in Lahore. It may interest many that the poet loved to hear Funhe and Gatha of the Fifth Guru and would ask the Sirdar to recite it every time he met him. He would go into a trance listening to it and regarded it as ‘the best expression of a lovelorn soul: without a parallel in Asia’. Many of the Sirdar’s ‘tribe’ have heard such stories from his own lips and will, I know, come to write them some day.

In 1999, I listened to a speech in Chandigarh by Giani Harinder Singh, who quoted Iqbal on comparing a slave versus the free person. Later I read the complete poem “Indian School,” where Iqbal forewarned to not search for the self’s knowledge in Indian institutions. Allama believed that education must be geared toward the distinct needs of people-nations. I have often quoted Allama’s “Hindi Maktab” from Zarb-e-Kalim (The Rod of Moses):

Iqbal, do not talk here about the knowledge of the self,
such sermons don’t accord with these schools.
Much good that birds that chirp may not descry,
The modes of a hawk, its state and rank so high!
A free person’s breath can match a slave’s year,
It is clear how slowly the time of slave moves!
A free person performs such deeds in a span of a breath,
a slave is prone to sudden death every instant.
The thoughts of free are lit with truth,
the thoughts of slave do not make any sense.
A slave is fascinated by spirituals’ miracle,
A free person herself is a living miracle.
This is the training that befits slaves well:
painting, music, and the science of plants (botany).

We live in a world divided between religious and atheists. In trying to make sense of the ideal beings archetypes, the world offers us the Gurmukh, the Khalsa, the Perfect Man, the Superman, and so on. Allama Iqbal’s “the Infidel and the Believer” in Zarb-e-Kalim must be understood more in the global human spirit. I interpret “Kafir-o-Momin” for myself as follows:  “The sign of a non-believer is that she is lost in the world, the sign of a believer is that the world is lost in her.”

I end with Allama Iqbal’s “Hindustani Bachon ka Qaumi Git” in Bang-e-Dra, where he pairs Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Guru Nanak Sahib in a world where the Tartars, the Greeks, and the Arabs come together. That world became Iqbal’s homeland, and the children of South Asia as a nation-community sang this song:

The land where Chishti voiced the call of truth.
The garden where Nanak sang the song of unity …
That is my homeland, that is my homeland!

The above Urdu poem used to be recited in South Asian school assemblies. Will that happen again? That depends on how South Asian nationalism proceeds. And what role the Panjab and the Sikhs will play in the homeland? Allama Iqbal had each child of South Asia identify with that homeland of 1Ness!


This Content has been made available for educational purposes only. SikhRI does not make any representation concerning the completeness of the Content. This Content is not intended to substitute research or a deeper understanding of the topic. SikhRI encourages readers to read multiple authors to gain a complete understanding of the topic.

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Written By

Senior Fellow, Research & Policy

Harinder Singh is the Senior Fellow at the Sikh Research Institute. He holds a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Wichita State University, an MS in Engineering Management from the University of Kansas, and an MPhil from Punjab University in the linguistics of the Guru Granth Sahib. 

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