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November 19, 2017

Poetic madness and modernity


November 19, 2017

The 140th birth anniversary of Allama Muhammed Iqbal saw many articles and essays being published in national dailies about the different facets of his personality and thought. The diversity of opinion has helped avoid encomiums, which have become the hallmark of scholarship on Iqbal.

Now, the world is witnessing an increasing interface between different cultures under the influence of globalisation in high modernity. Therefore, it is time to study Iqbal and his interface with modernity and reason in the backdrop of colonialism.

Iqbal was born and lived in an age when Indians – and specifically Muslims – witnessed the subjugation of their power and civilisation by a civilisation that was underpinned by reason. One of the main characteristics of the intellectuals of the Subcontinent during colonial times was their deep-rooted sense of inferiority. This created a mindset whereby they asserted their uniqueness by reverting to their spiritual heritage and cherry-picking various aspects of modernity to make them more relevant to the modern times so as to modernise their society. This ambivalence is evident in the thoughts and worldview of intellectuals who dominated the mindscape during the colonial period. Iqbal is no exception to this.

In Iqbal’s time, the old system had already died and the new system had yet to emerge. Everything was in flux and it was difficult to envisage a consistent picture about his times. So, he picked bits and pieces from Western philosophers and the Islamicate vocabulary to construct an edifice of his new thinking. His heart seemed to be imbued in Eastern spirituality – especially in Islam – but his mind was steeped in Western philosophy.

He had a realisation that the old ways of looking at the world would not make sense of modernity. Therefore, Iqbal relied on the works of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Fredrich Nietzsche and Henry Bergson to fill the intellectual gaps – even though he partially disagreed with them. That is why he considers their philosophical systems to be incomplete.

A salient feature of Iqbal’s thoughts is his preference for intuition over reason. He accepts Immanuel Kant’s views about the limitation of the human mind in comprehending reality in his magnum opus ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. But Iqbal wanted to employ intuition, khudi and the love for exploring the ultimate reality. His efforts are geared towards creating a new human in the shape of man of belief (mard-e-momin) whose sources of self stem from love and intuition. This stance, which is in favour of the heart and intuition, makes him among the league of philosophers who revolted against the reason.

Among the prominent critiques of reason is that by Nietzsche who wanted to cure the European civilisation of its cultural and psychological sickness. His opposition to reason, Christian ethics and the Western metaphysical tradition germinates from an experience that takes place in the foment of a crisis that was unique to Europe. Iqbal’s preference of the Dionysian ecstasy and madness was meant to face the questions that were pushed into the unconsciousness by the timid Apollonian reason. Being an affirmer of everything life-sustaining, Nietzsche wanted to turn life into art. He wanted to complement life by giving expression to unconscious forces that were suppressed by rationality.

Contrary to Nietzsche’s view, Iqbal’s opposition to reason stems from a vacuum created by the absence of power and an epistemological void in Islamdom. He tried to fill the poverty of the mind with emotion and intuition. In the West, it was a surfeit of reason in self and society that produced schools of thought to oppose instrumental reason. There is even a method to the madness of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra when he goes to the marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in his hands to seek God. Instead of injecting more reason into the Eastern self and society, Iqbal tried to fill the already spiritually glutted self with more spirituality. Hence, he cramped the space for reason by preferring other cognitive modes in the self.

Iqbal’s preference for madness under intuition proved to be a hurdle in creating a rational society in the enchanted Subcontinent. When the West embarked upon the project of modernity, madness and the holy fools were deprived of their sacred status. They were previously a part of the normal social order and were, at times, respected. With the rationalisation of society, those who were considered to be mad were treated as dangerous beings who were detrimental to social order and often consigned to mental asylums and the fools were not able to fool many.

The form of hybrid modernity and its failure that we have witnessed in South Asia today is the result of leaders and intellectuals who tried to retain the spiritual heritage of the enchanted worldview in the age of disenchantment. This is evident in the interface of Gandhi, Iqbal and Tagore with the Western civilisation. They thought of the East and the West not in terms of geography but within the categories of what Shamim Hanafi calls “two different modes of intellect and two different dimensions of human existence”.

This categorisation boils down to the essentialised forms of what constitutes the “spiritual East” and the “materialistic West”. If the East and the West are a result of different modes of consciousness, Iqbal’s mistake was to extrapolate an Eastern cure to the Western malaise and shun a Western rationality in the spiritual East.

Like Tagore and Gandhi, Iqbal portrayed the East as the repository of spirituality. Full of spiritual richness but mired in poverty and misery, the icons of the East embarked upon a reverse civilising mission whereby the spiritually-depleted West was to be replenished with an Eastern spirituality. In other words, it was the brown man’s burden to show the mystical light of the East to the West, which has illumined itself with the promethean fire of knowledge.

One of the German admirers of Tagore was Stefan Zweig. Observing Tagore’s hunger for publicity and his “new mania of travelling around Europe as a missionary of the spirit”, Zweig criticised Tagore and declared that it a “contagious disease”.

It is fallacious to think that the West is experiencing spiritual poverty in the post-Enlightenment period. Though various forms of spirituality in the shape of religion disappeared from the West, they have reappeared in diverse forms, such as the fine arts, literature, music, human rights, etiquettes, professionalism and philosophy. In this sense, spiritual expression expanded its horizons to accommodate the sense and sensibilities that were begotten by the experience of modernity.

Nietzsche deemed music as the best medium to express a sense of reality. Being a proponent of intuition, Iqbal employed poetry to express his encounter with reality. Dr Khalifa Abdul Hakim is of the view that Iqbal used medium of language to communicate its message and “language reaches its perfection in poetry, which is thought tinged with emotion”. This created a dichotomy in Iqbal as he attempted to build the edifice of Muslim modernity based on poetry that was dipped in spirituality.

Since poetic imagination is more appealing to the cultural milieu of Muslims in South Asia, it is preferred by readers. The labour of thinking through dense prose doesn’t appeal to the poetic mind of South Asians. Hence, the idea of modernity is conveyed through a subjective medium. This mindset is still evident among Muslims in Pakistan who want to see an objective reality and the order of modernity through the romanticised lenses of poetry.

It is under the poetic spell that the mard-e-momin is ready to jump into the fire of fanaticism whereas reason finds itself incapable of extinguishing the raging fire of madness with knowledge. Today, the fire of the mard-e-momin has replaced the fire of Prometheus in Pakistan. Hence, we see murder and mayhem committed by people who are driven by “divine” madness.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.

Email: [email protected]