Interview with Viewpoint Magazine

By Adnan Farooq (Editor, Viewpoint)

Nadeem F. Paracha (Photo by Rahat Khan – 2001)

Born in Karachi, Nadeem Farooq Paracha is a leading cultural critic and columnist. After his ‘O’ Levels from Karachi Grammar School (1983); he did his B. Com from St. Patricks Govt College (1987), and studied Political Science at the University of Karachi but couldn’t finish his MA (1989). He was active in student politics at college with Peoples Students Federation (PSF). Twice, he was arrested by General Zia regime.  For ten years he worked with the Jang Group (first with Weekly Mag and then with The News between 1990 and 2000). Currently he is doing regular columns for the DAWN,, The Pioneer and Indian Express.  In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses women representation—or what he considers lack of it—in Allama Iqbal’s works. Read on:

Iqbal hardly took up the women’s cause in his works. On the contrary, he appears to oppose modern education for women. Do you think Iqbal’s views are anti-women? 

Well, let’s just say women didn’t seem to figure a lot in his writings. I don’t particularly find him to be anti-women as such, but then, if a poet and a philosopher of his calibre is inspired and influenced by men like Nietzsche and his Superman concept, the subject of women and women rights understandably goes missing.

Iqbal’s role model is Shaheen (Falcon). In an interview with Viewpoint, Manzur Ejaz said Taliban were Iqbal’s Shaheen. One may not fully agree with him but Iqbal’s Sheheen is hardly feminist. His Shaheen, many will find, as patriarchal. Your comments? 

Iqbal’s Shaheen is a Muslim adoption, rather mutation of Nietzsche’s Superman. And I think he acknowledges that. When Iqbal talks about the Shaheen in the context of the Muslim ummah, the impression one gets is that the ummah is first and foremost a macho, all-male fraternity. At least that’s the initial impression.

How befitting it is to call Iqbal Pakistan’s national poet when he does not represent half the population?  

I agree. I’ve always had a problem with that. The truth, to me at least, is that Iqbal’s understanding of politics was nothing like his understanding of poetry or philosophy. He was a wonderful thinker and wordsmith when it came to reigniting the Muslim imagination about their past glories – even though many of these glories were sometimes simply myths constructed after the fall of the Mughal Empire to regenerate a demoralised and defeatist attitude the Muslims of India suffered from with the fall. Secondly, Iqbal unfortunately didn’t seem to comprehend the fact that a separate Muslim state in the region cannot be homogenous.

That’s why I think he was Utopian, looking for unity through a singular concept of faith in a region with numerous religions, Islamic sects, subsects and ethnicities.

Iqbal’s an enigma. And no wonder, over the years we have found him to be quoted by both the right-wing, including the politicised clergy, as well as those who call themselves liberal. Someone like me is only able to enjoy his work on an aesthetic level.

A section of left intellectuals tried to appropriate Iqbal. But Pakistan’s otherwise vocal feminist movement has hardly engaged in characterizing statist ideologues like Iqbal.

Iqbal was a cultural icon who is wrongly hailed in this country as being some kind of a political hero as well. That’s the confusion. He’s a genius  wordsmith, but he wasn’t much of a politician.

He was too much of a creative soul to be a politician. He was a metaphysical thinker, not a man of  the physical realpolitik. Iqbal’s audience was exclusive. He was talking to a Muslim elite whom he wanted to emerge as a vanguard and rid the Muslim masses from what he considered were illiterate and distorted ideas about Islam.

His understanding of ‘folk Islam’ that the Muslim masses still follow in the region was condescending and riddled with biases.

If ‘folk Islam’ was plagued by superstition and so-called innovations, then certainly, the concept of faith being advocated by Iqbal has layers and layers of a an understanding of Islam which is close to what we now call urban middle-class morality.

After reading Iqbal in this context, one feels that as if it were the Muslim masses alone who were responsible for the fall of the Muslim empires and that only the elitist Muslim vanguard were the ones trying to rediscover what was lost.

Within left, while Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri and a few others glorified Iqbal, we find people like Ali Abbas Jalapuri rejecting him while Sibt-e-Hassan was at one stage critical too. What explains this split in left over Iqbal? Did left ever evaluated Iqbal with a feminist perspective? 

People like Faiz, I think, were admiring Iqbal more on an aesthetic level. Also, Iqbal’s imagery of macho Muslim power may have appealed to certain Marxists.

However, had Faiz been alive today, I don’t think he would’ve been all that enthusiastic about what Iqbal’s thoughts evolved into becoming. Iqbal’s Islamic Utopianism in this era of  extremism, and, more specifically, in this epoch of the rapid radicalization of the country’s urban middle-classes, does sound rather reactionary.

But it didn’t when he first wrote them down. That’s why one can now see Iqbal being quoted more by right-wing elements, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami rather than by the left, or whatever that is left of it.

But I do believe the women belonging to the left in Pakistan did try to evaluate Iqbal with a feminist perspective, but, of course, were deeply disappointed. To Iqbal, figuratively speaking, the ummah’s gender was male.

How would you characterise Iqbal given the fact that he was praising Marx as well as Mussolini? Marxism stands for women liberation while fascism oppresses women like religious fundamentalism? Where do you find Iqbal on women question: close to Marx or Mussolini? 

Like I said, Iqbal seemed to have admired muscular philosophies. That’s how he saw Marx as well, as this powerhouse of arrogant brilliance and action. Funny thing is he seemed more interested in Marx the provocateur. Iqbal wasn’t all that enthusiastic about Marxism, as such.

We also have to understand that some very intelligent men of the subcontinent, both Muslim and Hindu, who felt their nations becoming submissive and lethargic under the thumb of British imperialism, had begun to admire some self-assured and neo-Nietzschean figures emerging in Europe at the time. Iqbal was one of such intelligent man who too got inspired by such political figures.

On the question of women, he wasn’t close to Marx because he never did think much of Marxism.

Iqbal is critical of Mullah but eulogises ‘Mujahid’. Is Iqbal’s Mujahid any better compared to mullah when it comes to women question? 

Iqbal’s mullah that he criticises is the guy who is illiterate, superstitious and usually found in a small mosque in a small village. Iqbal’s eulogised ‘Mujahid’ is someone like Abul Ala Mawddudi – Islam’s very own Platonian ‘philosopher king.’ A learned scholar, a lucid thinker, prolific writer, but at the same time, single-minded, if not entirely myopic, conservative, patriarchal, anti-pluralistic and someone geared to inspire a Muslim elite to lead a cultural and political jihad against secular nationalism and those strands of Islam that Iqbal thought were adulterated and too pacifistic.

So, yes, there’s a difference between Iqbal’s mullah and his mujahid. However, on the question of women both are conservative, but one’s conservatism is cruder than the other.

Iqbal himself practiced what we can call Halala in case of his second wife. However, he was in love with a liberal women Atia Faizi. He opposes women education but employs a German nanny for his own daughter. He is Pan Islamist but wants a Kashmiri husband for his daughter. What explains these contradictions. And how do these contradictions reflect in his works? 

Such contradictions can be found in a number of conservative thinkers in the region. They are conservative and yet flex their tongues and muscles like revolutionaries. They can be secular and liberal in their habits, but think that the masses would not be able to handle indulging in such habits. This has bred hypocrisy and confusion and a society riddled with some rather warped notions about all things ‘liberal.’ Even those who, unlike Iqbal, were not liberal in their habits suffer from contradictions.

Take the example of Mawddudi again. A great advocate of jihad in Kashmir, someone whose party helped ship a number of young men to wage jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but Mawddudi himself did not allow his own son to go to Kashmir.

There is no doubt about Iqbal’s prowess as a philosopher and poet, but I sometimes feel, a non-critical stance towards his work in this country has actually damaged his standing. He was a product of his time and well suited to compliment what was going in the minds of Indian Muslim men in the first half of the 20th century. But was he a visionary? I don’t think his work is as relevant today as it is made out to be. Certainly not in a post-modern world where the notions of universalism based on certain singular concepts of faith and progress have long crumbled and given way to a healthy respect and need for democracy, pluralism and diversity. Iqbal’s mullah is a dying breed but then so is his Mujahid whose fast becoming outdated.

(Taken from ViewPoint magazine April 2011 issue)


  • abcxyz  On November 4, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Does he know what were the views of Nietzsche about women? Please Google.

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