Sunday, November 6, 2011

E. M. Forster on Iqbal's 'Asrar-i-Khudi'

The following is a review by the famous English novelist E. M. Forster of Secrets of the Self (A. R. Nicholson’s translation of Iqbal’s ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’). The review was first published in  December 1920 in the literary magazine Athanaeum and later reprinted in The Sword and the Sceptre (1977) by Riffat Hasan (ed.). It suffers from serious chronological errors (for instance, the poem ‘A New Temple’ was written in 1904 and not in 1916 as asserted by Forster) and Iqbal’s own comment was: “The view of the writer in the Athenaeum [E. M. Forster] is largely affected by some mistakes of fact for which, however, the writer does not seem to be responsible. But I am sure if he had known some of the dates of the publication of my Urdu poems referred to in his review, he would have certainly taken a totally different view of the growth of my literary activity. Nor does he rightly understand my idea of the Perfect Man which he confounds with the German thinker's Superman. I wrote on the Sufi doctrine of the Perfect Man more than twenty years ago, long before I had read or heard anything of Nietzsche. This was then published in the Indian Antiquary, and later in 1908 formed part of my Persian Metaphysics.” (Letter to R. A. Nicholson, January 24, 1921).
By E. M. Forster

It is significant of Empire that we should wait so long for a translation from Iqbal, the writer who has been for the last ten years such a tremendous name among our fellow citizens, the Muslims of India. They respond to him as do Hindus to Tagore, and with greater propriety, for Tagore was little noticed outside Bengal until he went to Europe and gained the Nobel Prize, whereas Iqbal has won his vast kingdom without help from the West. Lahore, Delhi, Aligarh, Lucknow, Bhopal, Hyderabad regard him as a profound thinker and a sublime poet. Will London confirm their verdict? This question cannot be answered until it has been asked, and it has not yet been asked. Mr. Nicholson’s welcome and excellent little book only touches a corner of the subject. When will he, or some other Oriental linguist, gives us the material for a critical judgment? Meanwhile the following remarks may be of some slight help.

Poets in India cannot be spared form politics. Would that they could! but there is no hope in the present circumstances; one could as easily part Dante from Florence. As for the politics, they are triangular. There are two chief communities—Hindu and Muslim—and a ruling class of Englishmen. Owing to their common subjection and common Orientalism, the two communities sometimes draw together and oppose the English; owing to their different religions and to racial and social differences, they sometimes fly asunder. The English view these oscillations with cynicism, but they spring from instincts, deep if contradictory, that exist in every Indian heart. Shall the Indian look to the land he lives in, and try to make it a nation? Or shall he look to his own particular past—to Makkah if he be a Muslim, to the Vedas or Upanishads if Hindu and find in that his inspiration for the future? Heaven forbid that we should assist him in his choice; either goal seems barren if we may deduce form the history of Europe. But the choice itself is living, not to be sneered at, and we can see him hesitating over it even before the English came, advancing towards national unity under Akbar, retiring into religious diversities under Aurangzeb. Poets unless they belong to the school of roses and nightingales (gul and bulbul) cannot abstain from this choice; but since they decide by emotion rather than arithmetic, their attitude is often unstable and vexes the politicians. Iqbal is a case in point. Born in the Punjab, where the feeling between Muslim and Hindu is especially high, he came out at first on the religious rather than the nationalist side. Like his predecessor Hali, he wrote for his community. One of his early poems, ‘A Complaint,’ is addressed to God, and sets forth the great deeds of Muslims, their sufferings, their miserable recompense (“God, we have done all this for you, and for our reward the infidels have houris while if lightning falls from Heaven, it is upon us”). The poem was regarded as daring and had an immense success. In due course, ‘A Reply to the Complaint’ appeared, in which God defends himself by not unfamiliar arguments, retorting that the Muslims are to blame for their own misfortunes, owing to their lethargy and formalism. Both poems breathe the spirit of Aligarh, the great Anglo-Mohammedan College, which was founded to regenerate not India but Islam. ‘A Muslim Song’ begins ‘We are all Muslims, the whole world is our country: China, Arabia and Hindustan are ours,’ and then addresses such lost or ruined cities as Cordova and Baghdad. Iqbal had, however, Hindu friends, who were distressed at the path he was taking and remonstrated. He changed, the other side of his aspirations came to the front (“We are all Indians, our country is Hindustan, we are its bulbuls, it is our garden” very popular among students). This was followed, in 1916, by ‘A New Temple,’ in which the same idea is expressed with greater art. Weary of the narrowness of Muslim divines, the poet calls to the Brahmin priest to turn from his narrowness, and to join him in building a temple more lofty than any the world has yet seen, the Temple of India. The glory of the Courtyard from Makkah shall inhabit that temple; the image in its shrine shall be gold, shall be inscribed Hindustan, shall wear both the Brahmin thread and the Muslim rosary, and the Muezzin shall call worshippers to prayer upon a horn. A national anthem. Some of the poet’s admirers are pleased with ‘A New Temple,’ others displeased, and there is much discussion as to how he will evolve. If an outsider may venture an opinion, he will not evolve but revolve. He has felt, with great sensitiveness, the alternatives that Destiny is now offering to India, and one would expect him to continue hesitating between them, as in the past.

The above poems, like most of Iqbal’s work, are in Urdu, the language in which Anglo-Indians shout to their servants, and which they do not suspect of any other function. But he has also written in Persian, and this brings us to an interesting point. A cultivated Indian writer has more than one language lying ready to his pen, and he will select that which is appropriate to his subject-matter, and even to the state of his mind. If a Muslim is conciliating Hindus, he will certainly write in Urdu, which is becoming their common speech and which furthermore contains a Sanskrit element, within limits variable. The Hindu will, conversely, write in Hindi, which resembles Urdu, though not in script, in vocabulary. But if the poet feels religious rather than nationalist, if he sings not of a new India but of the glorious past of his community, then a more antique and concentrated medium may attract him; if a Muslim he may turn to Persian or even Arabic, if a Hindu to Sanskrit. Thus The Secrets of the Self, the Persian poem under review, though published between ‘Our Hindustan’ and ‘A New Temple,’ is totally opposed to them in spirit. It is addressed to Muslims only, is philosophic, separatist; on its literary side it depends upon classical Persia; and though there are non-Muslim elements in it they do not come from Hindustan: no, from a very different quarter.

For Iqbal completed his education in Europe; he had degrees from Cambridge and Munich, and keeps in touch with Western philosophy. And like other of his contemporaries he has been influenced by Nietzsche; he tries to find, in that rather shaky ideal of the Superman, a guide through the intricacy of conduct. His couplets urge us to be hard and live dangerously; tigers, not sheep; we are to beware of those sheep who, fearing our claws, come forward with the doctrine of vegetarianism. In an amusing fable he sets forth the consequences:
The fodder blunted their teethAnd put out the awful flashings of their eye…Their souls died and their bodies became tombs.Bodily strength diminished while spiritual fear increased.The wakeful tiger was lulled to slumber by the sheep’s charm:He called his decline Moral Culture.
We are to shun culture. And though Love is indeed good, it has nothing to do with Mercy, Love is appropriation. It is stealing as opposed to begging. It is the enrichment of the Self. If we seek love in this way, a new type will be born, a champion will come forth from this dust.
Appear, O rider of Destiny!
Appear, O light of the dark realm of Chances!…
Mankind are the cornfield and thou the harvest,
The leaves are scattered by Autumn’s fury:
Oh, do thou pass over our gardens as the Spring!
Receive form our downcast brows
The homage of little children and of young men and old.
When thou art there, we will lift up our heads,
Content to suffer the burning fire of this world!

As a guide to conduct, Nietzsche is at a discount in Europe. The drawback of being a Superman is that your neighbours observe your efforts, and try to be Supermen too, as Germany now realizes. But this is no place to criticize Nietzschean doctrine. The significance of Iqbal is not that he holds it, but that he manages to connect it with the Quran. Two modifications, and only two, have to be made: he condemns the Nietzsche who is an aristocrat, and an atheist; his Superman is permitted to spring from any class of society, and is obliged to believe in God. No further difficulty occurs. There is a text in the Quran which says: “Lo, I will appoint a vicegerent upon earth,” and another text relating that the vicegerency was offered to Man after Heaven and the Angels refused it. Legalists quote these texts in support of the Caliphate; Iqbal in support of his Superman. It is our duty to imitate the divine attributes, and to pass through Obedience and Self-Control to His vicegerency.
God’s vicegerent is as the soul of the universe,His being is the shadow of the Greatest Name.He knows the mysteries of part and whole,He executes the command of Allah in the world.
But likeness to God does not mean union with Him. On the contrary. The Hindus are wrong: so are the Sufis, so even is Iqbal’s own master, the great poet Jalaluddin Rumi. The nearer the Superman approaches god the fuller he grows his own individuality. The desire to merge, to renounce the Self, is a sign of decay, and the doctrine has been evolved by subject races as an anodyne.

It may be remarked in passing that Iqbal by no means turns the Pantheistic position; he says that the Self ought not to seek union with God, but he is not clear as to whether it might succeed if it did try; the spectre of Hinduism still haunts him. But this again is a side issue. What is so interesting is the connection that he has effected between Nietzsche and the Quran. It is not an arbitrary or fantastic connection; make Nietzsche believe in God, and a bridge can be thrown. Most Indians, when they turn to the Philosophy of the West, do not know what will be useful to them. Iqbal sure has an eye.

In another poem, The Mysteries of Selflessness, he treats of Islam as an ideal society, a Catholic Church, in which the Believer can lose himself and touch a life greater than his own. How is the Superman to fit in here? It will be interesting to see, and perhaps Mr. Nicholson will give us a translation. But The Mysteries of Selflessness is likewise in Persian, and what we really need is a translation of the Urdu poems, for it is on them that the poet’s reputation rests. That reputation is unchallenged, although purists at Delhi complain of his provincialisms and party leaders regret that he will not come properly to heel. One thinks of him as a sensitive and shifting personality, in whom is possibly the divine fire, as a nightingale vexed by political watchwords which he cannot ignore because of the realities that lie behind them. Neither India nor Islam is at present a garden, and the voice of Iqbal rings clearer when his conscience is lulled and his own true country—though it be a but a mirage—beckons across the arid sands where Muslim and Hindus and Englishman manoeuvre.
My song is of another world than theirs;This bell calls other travellers to take the road.
How many a poet after his deathOpened our eyes when his own be closed,And journeyed forth again form nothingnessWhen roses blossomed o’er the earth of his grace.

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