Areopagitica, Iqbal, and Milton

November 18,2018

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On November 9, the birthday of Allama Iqbal, an article titled ‘Iqbal: poor philosophy, rich poetry’, written by a young writer, appeared on these pages. The article presented a point of view that is not normally found in our government-approved textbooks. It critically analysed Iqbal, both as a philosopher and as a poet.

In a nutshell, the gist of the article was that Iqbal was a much better poet than he was a philosopher. This apparently innocuous argument drew the wrath of the nationalistic and patriotic lot who cannot tolerate even slight critical appraisal of our national heroes.

This displeasure did not only come from the traditional promoters of the Two-Nation Theory, but also from some senior journalists who command respect for their own courage in the face of adversity. It seems that the purview of blasphemy is soon going to extend to include, in addition to religious leaders, all founding fathers such as M A Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, and Liaquat Ali Khan. This tendency of not critically analysing our heroes has had a damaging impact on our society. Universities and colleges have already been instructed not to arrange any conference or seminar where critical views are expressed while discussing matters of ‘national interest’.

What our young writer has written is not an entirely new perspective. Other critics, historians, and writers have written about Iqbal in a way that does not always confirm our official version of Iqbal as the dreamer of Pakistan, as a Muslim nationalist, and as a philosopher of outstanding merit. Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Salahuddin Derwesh, Jagan Nath Azad and some others including Iqbal’s son, Javed Iqbal, have discussed and presented Iqbal in a light that is different from the official Pakistani line of thinking on him.

Irrespective of the quality of their arguments, they have helped us see and understand Iqbal with a diverse perspective. Iqbal, Jinnah, Liaquat, and other leaders we place at a higher pedestal than ordinary mortals were all human beings. Iqbal was a literary genius with his own peculiar style of thinking and writing. All literary giants have been subjected to critical analysis and reams have been written about their achievements and failures. From Homer and Shakespeare to Hali and Faiz, all draw critics and historians to their life and work.

For political leaders, it is slightly different. More than their writings, their decisions and speeches are analysed. Even in Islamic history, some very well-respected personalities have not been spared by scholars. If you read histories by Tabari and Ibn Khaldun you will find chapter after chapter where they highlight the rights and wrongs of not only the founding fathers of various dynasties including Banu Umayyad and Banu Abbas, but also of even those who were involved in politics during the early years of Islam. If you read Imam Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, you will be amazed at how divergent their thinking was.

Even during the 19th and 20th centuries you will see daring writers who intellectually sparred with each other; their books are not only available but are also in popular demand. Reading Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s interesting commentaries on scriptures and Akbar Allahabadi’s satirical poetry on Sir Syed both amuse and enlighten you in their own ways. Just reading Maulana Maudoodi’s marvelous book ‘Khilafat o Malukiat’ clarifies so many confusions about the third caliph of Islam and his successors. The book is not only available, but also highly appreciated by Islamists and secularists alike.

Freedom of expression, both verbal and written, is a fundamental right; but efforts to curtail this freedom in the name of ethnicity, nationalism, patriotism, religion and security are not new. In the 18th century, Thomas Paine championed freedom of expression in America and Europe through his writings, such as ‘Common Sense’ (1776), ‘Rights of Man’ (1791), and ‘Age of Reason’ (1794). More than a century earlier, it was John Milton who wrote ‘Areopagitica’ (1644), which became an instant success. Even after almost four centuries, it still reads like a seminal text on freedom of expression.

In 17th-century England, parliament and the king were vying for power. Though the Church of England had been established in the 16th century, the struggle of power was still going on. Parliament consisted of aristocrats who were conscious of any criticism hurled at them or at their beliefs. In that situation a bill was presented that could reinforce the requirement for licence if anyone wanted to print a book. John Milton emerged as a fierce critic of this law and advocated that licensing was an infringement on the people’s right to print, purchase and read books.

Though Milton was a Puritan, he was against absolute powers given to the king or to parliament in matters of book printing. He was with Cromwell in his fight against the king but got disillusioned by some of Cromwell’s policies. In the mid-1640s, when Milton wrote Areopagitica, England was in the throes of a bitter and bloody civil war between the forces of the king and his opponents. Milton was not a member of parliament and could not deliver his speech in the house, so he decided to write his essay in a pamphlet form.

He wrote against publication censorship, although he was supporting Presbyterians in parliament. He argued against parliament’s 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing, also known as the Licensing Order of 1643. According to this law, parliament required authors to have a licence approved by the government before their work could be published. For Milton, it was both personal and a social matter of significance as he had suffered censorship himself in his efforts to publish his writings in which he had defended a married person’s right to divorce. For practising Christians, his was a radical stance which was condemned by the censors.

Just like it was with Sir Syed who was considered a heretic by many orthodox Muslims, Milton’s writings – including ‘Areopagitica’ – were full of references to scriptures which he used to strengthen his arguments. Since the English parliament at that time was dominated by the Calvinist Presbyterians, Milton used religion itself to fight for freedom of expression. He was convinced that freedom of expression was for the public good. Milton was a lone voice but he hoped that he could move the house with his appeal. He felt proud that he was promoting liberty in his country.

Milton believes that true civil liberty is when the complaints of citizens are freely heard, seriously considered and speedily redressed. If you apply that to today’s world – including America, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and many other countries – you see a contrarian approach to public complaints and grievances. Trump calls his opponents ‘nasty’, ‘rude’, and ‘terrible’; General Sisi imprisons anyone who calls him a dictator; Modi promotes Hindu fundamentalism, and in Pakistan you can’t even critically analyse your national poet without inviting the wrath of ‘patriots’. Saudi Arabia dismembers the bodies of journalists and Turkey takes over media houses.

In this gloomy scenario, writers such as Iqbal, Milton and Paine should be read with a clear mind and a critical eye. Learning and understanding do not come with reverence to ideas, poetry and philosophy. They come with grilling and questioning the very thoughts that are revered by the people.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.



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