The creation of Pakistan on August 14th 1947 is a milestone in modern Muslim history. Iqbal – A Message from the East is a historical journey through the life and legacy of Muhammad Iqbal, the poet and visionary behind the founding of Pakistan.
By Nadia Khan
Historian and writer. Founder of Golden Threads: A project exploring shared history, culture and art across the Islamic world and beyond. @nadia.khan30
If you want to know about the history of Pakistan and its connection to the bigger picture of Indian history, this documentary is a must watch. In just under an hour, the film puts Muhammad’ Iqbal’s remarkable life of action and purpose in the context of one of the 20th century’s most significant milestones: the partition of India.
Also fondly known as Allama (most learned), Iqbal was born in 1877 in Sialkot, now in modern day Pakistan. He was born at the crossroads of two worlds not long after the official collapse of the Mughal Empire. He fondly remembered the past power and glory of Muslims in India but also witnessed their lowliness, lack of education and inability to adapt to modernisation and scientific advancement.
The film takes the viewer along with Iqbal as he embarks on a voyage of personal discovery. His outlook changes from Indian nationalist to staunch believer in Muslim unity. This change happens on his travels to Europe to study law. The catalyst for the change was his close exposure to the western world; the powerbase of colonialism, which at the time was spreading like a cancer across the Muslim world.
After Iqbal’s return to India in 1911, his writing became more political, and he was driven to awaken his community and remind them of their great history dominated by faith, tolerance, open mindedness and an ability to adapt to change.
Iqbal’s poetry is still well known but the fear is that the beauty and depth of his words and message will be lost to a younger generation. This film is a great reminder of his life and impact on the world stage. It includes a selection of Iqbal’s beautiful Urdu and Persian poetry which are interspersed within the film’s narrative.
As an historian, I loved that the film focused on Iqbal’s impact on Indian history. The story of his pivotal role in the creation of Pakistan is narrated poignantly by his son, Javed Iqbal. He speaks about his father’s relationship with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan, who saw Iqbal as a spiritual guide. The film nicely reflects on the relationship between these two men whose actions have shaped our living history, and are vital symbols of the nation.
Although Iqbal died before India’s partition took place in 1947, he was the visionary behind Pakistan. In Iqbal’s 1930 Presidential Address at the All-India Muslim League conference in Allahabad, he called for Muslims in India to have autonomy and self-governance. He believed this should include the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan. After Iqbal’s revolutionary address, the idea of a separate nation for Muslims in India took flight. It was eventually followed through by Jinnah.
Iqbal was frustrated at how the All-India National Congress dealt with Muslims in India by excluding them from the freedom movement with Hindu idioms and references. However, he was equally frustrated at Muslims in India, and indeed around the world, for the part they played in their own decline.
The film emphasises Iqbal’s drive to revolutionise Muslim thought. Iqbal believed strongly that Muslims had to move with the times, and embrace modernisation but without forgetting their Islamic core. He believed that modernisation and Islam were totally compatible, and that change was essential to growth for individuals and the wider Muslim community.
“The task before the modern Muslim is therefore immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam, without completely breaking with the past.”
I liked the depiction of Iqbal’s own humanity and as the film points out, his life did contain contradictions. Iqbal is credited with the vision of a Muslim Pakistan but he also believed in the unity of all human beings. He felt that divisions along the lines of nationalism, ethnic groupings and tribalism were the root cause of problems in the world.
Iqbal was also angry at Sufis in India for contributing to the decline of Muslims (in his view) through their lack of action and these thoughts are reflected in his poetry. At the same time, Iqbal was also heavily influenced by the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi who believed in a broader humanity that transcended national lines.
I enjoyed the insights of the real man, frailties and all, provided by Iqbal’s son, Javed Iqbal and the esteemed academics interviewed for the film. These provided a wonderful understanding of the poet’s life.
Iqbal’s philosophy and poetry were part of his message and gift to the world. He passed away in April 1938 but the legacy of his actions and thinking live on to this day; not least the nation state of Pakistan. The film concludes with a poignant image of the Persian inscription on Iqbal’s tomb which perfectly sums up his core belief of unity and progression: