Opinion: Why Pervez Hoodbhoy Loses; Iqbal & Sir Sayyed Win
PKKH Exclusive | by Mhummad Umer Toor
Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (PH), a believer in the dictum of “Science for its own sake,” has to come to pass unqualified judgements on the poetry and message of Iqbal – as if PH was dean of literature & philosophy at Al-Azhar University. He has reduced Iqbal’s rigorous and universal poetic work to mere sensational sentimentalism. He has degraded Iqbal by equating him to an emotional awami poet, who continues to misguide many in the Dr’s opinion. If anything lacks an intellectual judgement, then that is Dr PH’s (mis)understanding of why Pakistan breathes and sees things from Iqbalian lungs and eyes. Perhaps repelled by deeply Islamic and anti-modernist message of Iqbal, he is doing so to vent his frustration. Why is he frustrated? Majority of Muslims seem to have rejected the pseudo-liberal, secular-fundamentalist interpretations of Islam by the likes of Dr Pervez in the favor of holistic understanding of Iqbal, who critiqued modernity at the deepest level both in verse and prose. (We would concede the argument that at some important levels Iqbal too was an Islamic modernist – but nothing of the sorts of PH & co.)
- PH begins by saying, “In the battle for Pakistan’s soul, Sir Syed’s rational approach ultimately lost out and the Allama’s call on emotive reasoning won. Iqbal said what people wanted to hear — and his genius lay in crafting it with beautifully chosen words. Unfortunately, his prescriptions for reconstructing society cannot help us in digging ourselves out of a hole. Iqbal’s politics, routed through his soul-stirring poetry, is the real reason why he is Pakistan’s supreme icon today.”
Routed through his intellectual public lectures and writings addressed to the political and intellectual elite, Iqbal’s message makes him not only a “supreme icon” but a spiritual and intellectual guide as well. Moreover, Iqbal’s poetry is not divorced from his serious thought and philosophy expressed in English or Persian. Content is more or less same both in prose and poetry; underlying thoughts and worldview are consistent; but expressions are different. Poetry cannot allow itself to be formally logical; philosophy cannot afford to be informal. PH has confused content with manifestation. He misunderstands nature of poetry, and denies its relation with philosophical and metaphysical truth. What’s more, allegation that Iqbal said what people wanted to hear is saying that Iqbal was dishonest and only wanted to please people. How can anyone verify that? One can only reject it given Iqbal’s admonitions and criticisms of 20th century Muslim in his poetry (compare Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa).
PH’s (mis)reading of Iqbal’s poetry is superficial and rejectable. To call his poetry, which clarifies one’s vision of reality and calls one to action, as “emotive” is a serious intellectual blunder, if not outright dishonesty. By calling it emotive he seems to imply that Iqbal’s poetry is irrational and fundamentalist. What else can be the implication? Certainly Iqbal’s poetry is an illumination, a direct intellection that speaks to the qalb, a source of intelligence as per Qur’an. One might call it the nur of Allah by which a momin sees and understands things – a way of knowledge & understanding that a haughty, modern physicist is most likely to deny. (He said that every verse descends on him in final form – showing directness, an aspect of revelation.) Iqbal’s poetry was a meta-logical crystallization of what he had learned directly from Qur’an, this is even truer for his philosophical Persian poetic works: at least this is how Iqbal described his own works!
Sir Sayyed’s 19th century apologetic essays have, however, been hailed as beacon of light for centuries to as per PH. The ghosts of 19th century Muslim modernism have been invoked in PH’s article: submission to Western imperialism & Eurocentrism, rebellion against the revealed religious doctrines & view of nature & reality, surrender to wholesale materialism, etc. This is what Sir Sayyed preached, with all due respect to him as a Muslim leader and educator. Sir Sayyed was under pressure vis-a-vis modern Western thought and civilization as per Iqbal. He did not have the tools to respond to its intellectual challenges (lacking training in philosophy and science, for instance). His writings – no wonder simplistic – had tinges of inferiority complex. We might say that the greatest gift of the efforts of Sir Sayyed to Islamic world was Iqbal, who outgrew his predecessor. Iqbal understood the shortcomings of Sir Sayyed, namely, his submission to the dogmatic claims of 19th century science, modern philosophy and an attitude of West-worship. But, Iqbal always paid huge salutations to SS’s efforts and viewpoints. In that sense, Sir Sayyed and Iqbal emerge out as winners in my mind.
- “Sir Syed accepted the Holy Quran as divinely revealed … He proposed a radical reinterpretation of the Holy Quran to make it compatible with science and modernity … Among other matters this involved understanding miracles, which science cannot accept as factual. Sir Syed therefore explained the Great Flood, as well as various miracles of Jesus, to be purely allegorical and symbolic.”
Like most modernized Muslims, PH suffers from the plague of scientism, which takes science as an ideology. For many 19th century Muslims, “modern science had become god, unconsciously – and not the God of Islam.” The attempt was to make Quran look compatible with science to prove Quran’s credibility! “That was a major disease worse than cholera that entered Muslim world,” deplores physicist-philosopher Dr Nasr. Today things are better we believe. A young muslim scientist today is more likely to believe in unseen realities than a diffident graduate of Sir Sayyed’s institution. PH has not, however, reformed himself (nor the modern science which still has its mechanistic & positivist moorings intact).
The impulse to interpret Qur’an according to dominant scientific view is an old one. For instance, in old days, it was believed that bees produced honey not in their stomach but in the glands of their legs. Qur’an says that Allah produces honey in bees’ batoon, which literally means stomach. To conform Qur’an to the scientific view of his time, Al-Razi said that one meaning of batoon was also gland of bees legs. Today, we know that the literal meaning (i.e., stomach) is correct!
This is not to suggest that the cold scientific interpretations are unjustifiable; they do show us that there’s nothing illogical or irrational about Qur’an. However, to deny angels, miracles or higher realities which cannot be confirmed in a physics laboratory is an illegitimate attitude; because, this is beyond the vocation of science as such. As Bertrand Russell told the young MIT scientist, Dr Nasr, that “Physics doesn’t concern itself with the nature of reality of things per se but with mathematical structures related to pointer readings.”
- PH considers the prescriptions of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan more practical and vivid than Iqbal’s.
Iqbal’s metaphysical and practical poetry on one hand and his “serious” English works on the other hand do not qualify for PH’s recommendation as useful and clear guides for Muslims. Just because Iqbal didn’t write “2+2 = 4” kind of essays for public?
Iqbal, unlike Sir Sayyed, was at the frontier of intellectual efforts of his time, and at the same time involved in many projects: social, political, and educational – although he was not a man of action in the sense Sir Sayyed was. He had read many texts of Einstein and on higher physics, such as theory of relativity, as well. This allowed him to critique classical physics under which 19th century man was spell-bound. And, if we are to believe that the change comes at the highest level – intellectual, philosophical and spiritual – then Iqbal was that change agent par excellence. PH’s dull and simplistic notion of Iqbal’s “impracticality” and “vagueness” is neither justifiable nor wise. Intellectual matters are inherently complex; whereas, operational procedures or policy recommendations are not. By the way, who ‘clearly’ dreamed of Pakistan (as it is today, geographically)?
- PH sees Sir Syed as a man of rationale who tried to bring back Muslims from “backwardness.” Iqbal, in his opinion, hardly offered any clear solutions to end the suffering of Muslims.
Backwardness is a western ‘innovation of misguidance’ to pass value-judgements on other civilizations which have not ‘developed along purely material lines’. The idol of ‘indefinite economic progress is what the moderns worship, and everyone in the world is made to prostrate before it. PH’s sentimental call for revision of Islam is no exception. Most, if not all, of the mental efforts of moderns are not invested in purely intellectual pursuits but in increasing GDP, inventing luxurious items, performing academic acrobats by saying new things and making ‘smart bombs to kill dumb Muslims’. It is precisely to save themselves from western domination that Orientals have to build the machine – and not to be part of a League of the ‘Civilized’ ‘Developed’ of West. For the Oriental, spirit, contemplation and harmony with nature is Real; and destruction of nature, pursuit of self-interest and greed Unreal.
Talking of material poverty, Iqbal was deeply concerned with it. He said that poverty can lead to spiritual death of people. This is why he was so interested in economics. Economic vision of Iqbal was concrete and insightful for his time, and even relevant today philosophically. He wrote for the first time an up-to-date standard economics textbook in Urdu; spent years figuring out plans to tackle poverty as per shari’ah laws; and raised his voice at highest level for exploited under-privileged ones. Perhaps, PH needs some understanding of economic works & ideas of Iqbal.
In short, the real problem is that PH doesn’t know what he knows not. His appreciation of Iqbal’s poetry is not accurate; rather his criticism of it seems more sentimental than even poetry can be! PH’s worldview is based on the ideas of modernism, eurocentrism, materialism, and scientism – and it is from this platform that he attacks Iqbal; whereas Iqbal dismantles the very platform! Lastly, accusations on a poet-philosopher of being impractical and not clear are self-contradictory. No wonder why Iqbal and his mentor Sir Sayyed must win; and PH may lose, unreformed.
Muhammad Umer Toor is a wanna-be philosopher in distant future. Based in Lahore, with a BSc in Business, he blogs at www.toorumer.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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