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Muhammad Iqbal’s Reading of the Event of Karbala and the Idea of Freedom

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

11 October 2021

One Finds an Excellent Blend of Islamic and Western Philosophy in Iqbal’s Poems

Main Points:

1.    This essay argues that in Islamic philosophical-literary tradition, parables and symbolism have been significant devices to convey religious, ethical, and philosophical ideas to the masses.

2.    Specifically, it discusses how Iqbal employed the old, classical symbols, Ishq and ‘Aql, to introduce modern idea of freedom in Islamic thought.

3.    Finally, it criticizes modernist approach of tracing every modern idea back to the early or medieval history of Islamic tradition.



Sir Muhammad Iqbal


Symbols and parables are profound literary devices. They have been with us for centuries, and we still encounter them in our daily lives. These devices are ingeniously crafted to express allegorically some religious, philosophical, and ethical values and their fundamental doctrines Not only can messages wrapped in symbols and parables easily be grasped by the masses but also, they can be passed down from generation to generation. Religions, philosophers, and mystics have been using these devices to instruct people into their systems. Most of the time, these parables are based on some real occurrences that have occurred in a certain point of history. The Quran frequently, yet creatively, uses historical occurrences to illustrate its teachings. It exhorts its readers to draw lessons from them. Through an examination of the Quran’s treatment of historical parable, one can conclude that history serves an educational purpose for people. Furthermore, the Quran’s representation of historical occurrences engendered symbolism, for example, Moses and Abraham are the symbols of good and God-fearing beings and Nimrod and Pharaoh are the representatives of bad and oppressiveness. The application of symbols to historical parables in the Quran inspired an entire philosophical-literary tradition in Islam. Literary masterpieces by Fariduddīn Attār (d. 1221), Rūmī (d.1273), and others are excellent examples of this tradition. They not only drew on the Quran, but also found parables in Islamic history, creating symbolism in an attempt to inculcate ethical principles and moral values in their readers. The stories they told and the meanings they generated persist today in our memory, culture, and ethical behavior. It is important to note that in reference to historical occurrences they did not question the historicity of these events because their objective was to draw lessons from them. Such an approach enabled them to engage freely with historical events and interpret them in the form of parable or symbols. Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) belonged to the same philosophical-literary tradition. Since Iqbal was trained in the modern western philosophical tradition as well, one finds an excellent blend of Islamic and western philosophy in Iqbal’s poems. He tried to present the modern philosophical ideas, such as, self, or khudī, freedom, or Hurriyat, in the language of the tradition he inherited. Interestingly, the lessons and ideas Iqbal drew from historical occurrences were inspired by modern philosophy. Nevertheless, he projected these ideas onto Islamic history as if they had always been there.

This essay is an attempt to understand how Iqbal employed Islamic symbolism to communicate modern ideas to his community. To do so, I would like to discuss a Persian poem, Dar Ma’na-e-Hurriyat-e-Islāmiyya wa Sirr-e-Hāditha-e-Karbalā, of Iqbal published in his philosophical poetry book, Rumūz-e-Bekhudī (Secrets of Selflessness, published in 1918). The poem contains 39 couplets. In this poem, Iqbal revisits the tragedy of Karbala, which occurred in 680 AD. Before Iqbal, the tragedy of Karbala was represented in the Islamic tradition as the battle between good and evil, Hussain being the good and Yazīd the evil. However, Iqbal portrays the tragedy of Karbala as the battle for the freedom of consciousness and will, and as against an oppressive and authoritarian tyrant. In his depiction of the tragedy, Iqbal employs terminologies from the mystical tradition of Islam, such as, ‘ishq and ‘aql to show what Hussain and Yazid signify through their symbolism.

In Persian mystical tradition of Islam, the metaphor of ‘ishq is used to refer to a pure or sublime state of the belief in Tawhid, or oneness of God. ‘Ishq, generally translated as love, requires faithfulness and loyalty from the lover (‘āshiq) towards his beloved (mā’shūq), meaning that his heart must belong to his beloved only. Mystics differentiate between ordinary love (‘ishq-e-majājī) and true love (‘ishq-e-haqīqī). For mystics, only the Creator is worthy of His creation’s true love. By drawing an analogy from the idea of the worldly love, mystics maintain that one must forsake any bit of attachment to the world in his heart in order to attain true love of God because two loves cannot reside in one heart. When one’s heart is cleansed of worldly attachments and becomes the adobe of true love, only then does the lover achieve the sublime state of belief in the oneness of God. The idea of reason (‘aql) is antithetical to the idea of love. The idea of reason represents the desires for worldly gains, i.e., money, status, or power.

In his poem, Iqbal slightly alters the meaning of Ishq. He employs the term to express the idea that the submission of one’s heart, or will, to the One and Supreme Lord frees the self from the lesser gods of the world. The first couplet of the poem declares that whoever pledges to God, his neck is freed from the shackles of every other god. This submission is identified with ‘Ishq in Iqbal’s poem, meaning that a faithful lover cannot submit his will or consciousness to anyone else: worldly lords, tyrants—otherwise it would be considered a betrayal. As a result, an ‘Ashiq attains a state of true freedom, Hurriyat: freedom of consciousness in Islam. In the next couplet, Iqbal says that love and faith (‘īmān), complement each other, and that love enables a faithful lover to do impossible things in order to preserve what he holds dear. For Iqbal, this is the freedom of mind and consciousness.

Contrary to ‘Ishq, is the idea of ‘Aql. Like the mystics, Iqbal also views the two concepts as opposite binaries. While ‘Ishq connotes the spiritual, ‘Aql signifies the material. The sole objectives of ‘Aql are to obtain material gains. In the first half of the poem, Iqbal compares ‘aql with ‘Ishq, and emphasizes on the merits and demerits of each. It is important to note that here and in other places in the mystic tradition, ‘Aql is used as a metaphor to refer to a mind which is deeply anchored to worldly things. After establishing that ‘ishq is submission to one Lord and freedom from all, and that ‘aql is a corrupted desire for worldly gains, Iqbal asserts that, like Moses and Pharaoh, Hussain and Yazid are born out of these two forces. In Iqbal’s symbolism, Yazid is the epitome of ‘aql, who desired power by oppressing the freedom of will of the masses. Hussain, whom Iqbal once addressed as the imam, leader of lovers (‘āshiqān) refused to submit to a tyrant, a worldly lord, since he had already submitted to the Supreme Lord. Iqbal beautifully articulates the opposition of an ‘āshiq to a tyrant, he says, Except for Allah, a Muslim submits to no one, and nor does his head bow to any Pharaoh, i.e., a tyrant. And, in order to preserve his ‘Ishq, Hussain sacrificed himself. His ‘ishq allowed him to annihilate himself.

Hussain sacrificed himself for his Hurriyat, for the freedom of mind and consciousness, and set an example of resistance against a tyrant and authoritarian ruler. Iqbal’s utilization of an historical event and mystical terminologies in order to look for inspiration that must correspond to his modern mind presents a unique example of rereading of our past. One can contend that the projection of present onto the past will prevent us from seeing the past as it is. The answer to this contention could be that Iqbal and other philosophers belonging to the Islamic philosophical-literary tradition do not engage with the historicity of events. Rather, they focus on their capacity for inspiration. Such efforts require extraordinary creative intelligence.

However, as much as ingenious are the efforts of Iqbal, this approach is loaded with some epistemological problems. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in order to defend Islam and Islamic civilization against Western modernity, many Muslim modernists argued that modern ideas, like, human rights, etc., had never been foreign to Islam. The rereading of Karbala is a great example of this approach where Iqbal tries to say that the idea of freedom had been inherited in the idea of the Oneness of God.

Similarly, long before Iqbal, Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928), had argued that Islam had given numerous rights to women, for instance, right of inheritance, right of seeking a divorce (Khula’), etc. hundreds of years before the European Enlightenment. The drawbacks of this approach are: first, it avoids the hard question, that is, if these ideas, like the modern concept of freedom, were always present in Islam why there had always been authoritarian states, supported and abetted by scholars, in Muslim societies? Second, it precludes us from acknowledging that we have been missing so and so in our tradition and that we need to reform the tradition to make it sensible in modern times. And to do so, we need to borrow from other traditions and civilizations.

This acknowledgment not only enables us to appreciate the good in modern civilization but also makes us realize that our tradition is an amalgamation of other civilizations.

Muhammad Iqbal was a modernist. Through his poetry, he introduced revolutionary and modern ideas to Islamic tradition and advocated for reform in Islamic thought. However, his legacy dried up in India due to our negligence and indifference. We need to revive Iqbal’s legacy and engage with it creatively and critically to further the cause of reform in Islamic tradition.


Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses.


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