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:
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:
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:
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:
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”:
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:
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):
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 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!