Two Great Men, Enduring Legacies – Aijaz Zaka Syed


Jama-Masjid-DelhiBoth Iqbal and Azad were men born ahead of their time and had the uncanny ability to see far into the future 


[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast week saw the birth anniversaries of two of South Asia’s tallest visionaries. Allama Iqbal and Maulana Abulkalam Azad were contemporaries although Azad was 11 years younger. In their background, temperament and outlook, no two men could have been more dissimilar.

What was common between them though was their concern for and lifelong preoccupation with the lot of South Asian Muslims. They left a strong imprint on the political and intellectual outlook of Muslims in undivided India. Both were men of extraordinary intelligence, intellectual brilliance and insight that helped them see far ahead into time.

Of course, Iqbal was in a different league altogether in stature and in his universal appeal and there can be no comparison between the two. His influence on generations that came after him remains unsurpassed.

If Azad in his teens had established himself as a writer of fiery prose and brought out a popular paper called Al-Hilal besides joining the freedom struggle and working on commentary of Holy Quran, Iqbal’s popularity as a poet and philosopher spread to far corners of the subcontinent and beyond in his own lifetime.  No poet has ever been so wildly popular and widely quoted as he has been.

Even today, 76 years after his death, his popularity knows no bounds. In Hyderabad, Dars-e-Iqbal (Iqbal studies) sessions are still held on a regular basis. Interestingly, a lot of mediocre stuff by other poets is often dumped into Iqbal’s account. Which is a minor crime considering what he has suffered at the hands of those claiming to be inheritors of his formidable legacy.

The 136th birth anniversary of Iqbal predictably saw a lot of hot air and platitudes in the name of tributes to the Poet of the East, in Pakistan. Newspapers talked of celebrations being held across Pakistan with “great reverence and fervor.”

There were no celebrations to speak of on the other side of the border in India though where ‘Saare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara’ written by him remains the most popular patriotic song although Tagore’s ‘jana gana mana’ is the national anthem.

As with everything else, Iqbal seems to have become a victim of the never-ending India-Pakistan war of wits and nerves. You can’t really blame India, I guess, for being indifferent to someone who is considered the ‘national poet’ of Pakistan. Especially when Pakistan also sees Iqbal as its ideological architect.

The poet died in 1938–much before the idea of a homeland for Muslims germinated into a popular movement led by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He was both a humanist and a pan Islamist and believed the entire world belonged to Muslims.

The man who celebrated India with ‘saare jahan se achcha’ also gave us: “Muslim hain watan hai saara jahan hamara’ (We are Muslims and the whole world belongs to us!)

He had drunk deep from the nectars of Islamic philosophy–chiefly from the Quran and Prophetic traditions and philosophers like Ghazali and Rumi, even as he mastered Western philosophy arming himself with a PhD from the Munich University.

What fascinates me no end is the question–what would Iqbal have thought of the current state of Pakistan–and the predicament of Muslims around the world?

What medicine would the great sage have offered for the various malaise plaguing his people? If only Pakistan had truly been a model, modern Islamic state, as envisioned by its architects, it would have been such a source of strength and pride to all South Asian Muslims and those around the world.

Extremism has emerged as a clear and present danger to Pakistan and the rest of the world of Islam. A lunatic fringe claims to speak on behalf of the faithful. Things fall apart and there’s chaos everywhere. What would have been Iqbal’s solution to our woes?

The same question intrigues me with reference to Maulana Azad.  What would have been his counsel to India’s Muslims—and those around the world? As everyone knows, Azad had been a passionate votary of Indian nationalism and Hindu-Muslim unity and had vehemently opposed the idea of the Partition till the very last minute.

He literally begged Gandhi, Nehru and Patel to work out a compromise formula with Jinnah and Muslim League. Even after Pakistan was formally announced, he tried to dissuade Muslims from fleeing to the new state.

His speech at Delhi’s Jama Masjid in October 1947–two months after the Partition–remains one of the most powerful examples of sublime oratory. He spoke like an ancient oracle and cast a spell on his audience: “Behold, the high towers of Jama Masjid are asking you: where have you lost the pages of your history? Only yesterday your caravans had performed ‘Wazu’ on the banks of Jamuna. And today you are afraid to live here. Remember that you have nourished Delhi with your blood. You are afraid of tremors; there was a time when you were an earthquake. You fear darkness when you yourself symbolized light.

“Those were none but your forefathers who not only laughed at the bolts of lightning, turned away tornadoes, challenged the tempests and made them alter their course. It is a sign of a dying faith that those who had once grabbed the collars of emperors are today clutching at their own throats. They have become oblivious of the existence of God as if they had never believed in Him. Today you are in a helpless, hapless and in a miserable condition. A community with a faith that can turn the tides before bending is in such a situation today because you had become sentimental. Go back it is your home, it is your country….”

It is said that following Azad’s spirited call, thousands of Delhi’s Muslims who had packed their bags to leave for the newfound land returned home with new hope and sense of determination.

In subsequent years though, as Muslims’ condition worsened in the country with frequent communal riots and continuing atmosphere of intolerance and suspicion against the community, Azad did little to help his people.

Today, I wonder, what the Maulana who was dismissed by Quaid-e-Azam as a ‘show boy of the Congress,’ would have thought of India of his dreams. “On his 125th anniversary, Maulana Azad lies a forgotten man,” wrote Rahul Vaishnavi last year. “It’s indeed ironic how the man who persuaded thousands of Muslims during Partition to stay back in India is now a forgotten man.”

Vaishnavi is horrified by the condition of Azad’s mausoleum near Jama Masjid. “Its red sandstone boundary walls are defaced with posters and betel juice marks. Shopkeepers hang cases full of clothes and jewelry on them. Inside the walls the dry fountains gather dust and filth. Situated in the heart of Meena Bazar, the mausoleum is surrounded by numerous shops selling food, mobiles, CDs, clothes and other knick-knacks. Open sewers and a dump yard nearby tell a tale of unbelievable civic and governmental neglect.”

In a way, Azad’s last abode mirrors his forgotten legacy. Despite being one of the stalwarts of Independence movement and having played a seminal role as India’s first education minister, founding its world-class universities, IITs and numerous research and development institutions, Azad looks increasingly irrelevant today in the India of his dreams. Perhaps more so since Narendra Modi has stepped into the shoes of his lifelong friend, Nehru, to rule the country.

The same is more or less true of the people he persuaded not to turn their back on the land of their ancestors saying, “If you go to Pakistan, you might find your co-religionists, but never your countrymen.”

On the other hand, the lot of those who did migrate to the ‘promised land’ aren’t better off either. I’ve said this before and I say it again. Indian Muslims have been the biggest losers in the grand bargain struck by the guilty men of Partition in 1947.


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