Inspiring Generations – Iqbal and Azad


“di sheikh ba chiragh hami gasht gird-e-shahr
kaz dev-o-dad maloolam, insaanam arzoost”

(Yesterday the Master with a lantern was roaming about the city
Crying ‘I am tired of devil and beast, I desire a man)

“zin hamrahan-e-sust anasir dilam girift
sher-e-khuda o rustam-e-dastanam arzoost”

(My heart is weary of these weak spirited companions
I desire Lion of God, and Rustam, son of Zal-Dastan.)


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Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Maulana Azad, two men who beautifully fit Rumi’s description in the verses above, have inspired and influenced generations of Muslims across South Asia for almost a century now. While history has assigned them two very different pedestals – one as the spiritual father of Pakistan and the other as the foremost Muslim Nationalist in India, they both seem to have captured a similar mindset among the succeeding generations of Muslims, especially in India. Both were writers par-excellence, politicians, and public intellectuals who were rooted in the Indo-Islamic ethos and also well-versed in Western thought. Connected with global Islamic communities, they were men of action who left formidable literary works and ideological legacy behind them. Who were these two men? Where did they come from? What shaped them into who they became? What makes them different, competing figures, yet similar, co-existing role models?

Iqbal (1877) was born in the village of Sialkot, Punjab which was under the British colony of India, to a Kashmiri father and a Punjabi mother. Being of Kashmiri Pundit ancestry, they later converted to Islam. Azad, eleven years younger than Iqbal, was born in Mecca, then part of the Ottoman Empire; his father was from Delhi and his mother from Hijaz, Arabia. The family moved to Calcutta when he was and he subsequently grew up there. Azad’s forefathers were prominent scholars since the time of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.

Iqbal studied in the Scotch Mission School, Sialkot, and then moved to a Government College in Lahore. Later, he went to England and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Philosophy from Cambridge and qualified as a Barrister at Middle Temple. He received his PhD from Munich. Azad was home schooled for most of his life by private tutors his father appointed. He was a voracious reader and taught himself quite a few disciplines. He later visited Al-Azhar University in Egypt but did not have a formal degree from there.

Later on, Iqbal taught Philosophy at the same Government College in Lahore and also briefly practiced law. Eventually he settled down to focus on his writings, supported by some princely states like Bhopal. Azad took up journalism and served as an editor at a few newspapers in Lucknow and Amritsar until he launched his own newspaper in Calcutta. Finally he took up the full-time role of a politician and a freedom fighter.

While their backgrounds and political trajectories were different, there were quite a few common influences and themes that run across their career and works.

Iqbal and Azad were both influenced by their travel overseas during the first decade of the 20th century. Iqbal’s travel to Europe gave him a deeper insight into both Eastern and Western thought, which helped him rediscover Islam as a life force that could bind a global community. Azad discovered nationalism during his travels to Egypt and Iraq where he met and conversed with some nationalists and revolutionaries fighting for independence in their respective countries.

They criticized the inertia that had spread among Muslim masses with the rise of mysticismthat was believed to be responsible for the lack of drive and action which impeded their growth, intellectually and politically. In the decade that followed, Iqbal published his famous ’Mathnavi’, Asrare-e-Khudi (Secrets of the Self ) and Rumooz-e-Bekhudi (Secrets of Selflessness) which critiqued this mysticism. Instead, he advocated for a more nuanced version, aligned with the Quranic spirit, that focused on individual action and struggle and the community of the transformed individuals.

Around the same time, Azad published his weekly Urdu newspaper ‘Al Hilal’, and later when it was banned by the British, he started the journal Al Balagh. These weeklies were forthright in their content and invited Muslims to actively engage in the freedom struggle citing it as their religious duty. His editorials focused on the history of early Muslim struggle and that of the Prophet’s companions in the face of oppression. He alluded to the glorious legacy of Islam while calling people to action, advocating communal harmony and national unity.

Both were essentially modern in their outlook and deeply inspired by men such as Jamaluddin Afghani who was the first crossover reformist with influence across the Muslim World and Europe. They have written passionately about Afghani. In Iqbal’s ‘Javid Nama’, the poet-protagonist Zinda Rud led by Rumi as the guide, happens to meet Afghani in one of the spheres. When the time for prayer comes, Afghani leads the prayer while Iqbal and Rumi pray behind him. Azad talks at length about Afghani’s travels and his influence on reformers such as Mohammad Abduh of Egypt. He takes credit for introducing Afghani to Indian audiences through Al-Hilal. His own travels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey were also in a way inspired by Afghani’s similar trail some forty years earlier .

Iqbal and Azad were very conscious of the composite culture that developed over thousand years with an Islamic presence in India. For Azad, this was reflected in his politics and for Iqbal in his poetry.

Azad became one of the strongest proponents of political unity right from the beginning of his political career. He was the first major voice to call on Muslims to shed their reservations and join a full-scale struggle for Independence along with their fellow compatriots. As the events unfolded leading to Independence and Partition, Azad fought with the votaries of the two nation theory and stood his ground until the end. With his foresight, he could see the perils of nationhood based on religion and forewarned what it meant for the coming generations. Despite his efforts, when partition became a reality, he calmed the anxieties of all the Muslims who chose to remain in India calling on them to not lose heart and have courage. He asked them to look back at their glorious cultural heritage and become equal partners in nation-building.

Iqbal’s poetry reflects the composite culture in all its glory. We have poems such as ‘Hindustani Bachon Ka Qaumi Geet’, ‘Himala’, ‘Naya Shivala’, ‘Ram’, ‘Tarjuma-e-Gayatri’, ‘Nanak’ and many others which are essentially Indian in their scope and theme. While many accuse Iqbal of moving away from Indian themes this is far from the truth in his later themes. If we look at works such as ‘Bal-e-Jibril’ and ‘Javid Nama’, they are profound and explore the essence of human ego, one’s potential and relationship with the Universe, and the “Ultimate Ego”. Kashi (the ancient Hindu and Buddhist seat of knowledge that was a host to other ideologies as well) is spoken in the same vein as Rum’ (Anatolia), Sham (Syria) and Samarqand – all great centres of Islamic learning. In Javid Nama, on his journey across the celestial spheres, the poet first meets Vishwamitra (the ancient Indian sage who he calls “Jahan Dost”) and converses with him about the deeper meanings of life. As he goes on, he observes the Tasins (a mystical term from the Quran) of Gautam along with those of Jess, Zoroaster and Muhammad. His poetry is replete with such characters and imagery.

Their eagerness to learn and adopt from diverse sources marks another common element in their personas. Iqbal is conversant with all major contributors of Western and Eastern philosophies. He was at ease discussing Einstein, Bergson, and Hegel, along with Ibn-e-Rushd, Ghazali, and Maimonides. Azad quotes from Western sources on the Crusades or talks at length about Indian, Arab and Western music, and even discusses the origin and history of tea drinking, all in the spirit of an avid learner.

One of the most critical elements that runs through both their literary works as well as their lives is the primacy of the Quran as the cornerstone of all their ideological underpinnings and actions. Across their works; poetry or prose, ideas and verses from the Quran keep surfacing in a thoughtful manner. Their speeches and lectures are filled with quotes and interpretations from the Quran. All their actions seem to suggest a life of struggle for their own spiritual elevation, as well as the furthering of a value-based civilisation in accordance with the teachings of the Quran.

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