Magazine article Cross Currents

An Islamic Response to Modernism: Muhammad Iqbal and His Poetry

Magazine article Cross Currents

An Islamic Response to Modernism: Muhammad Iqbal and His Poetry

Article excerpt

Modern Man     Love fled, Mind stung him like a snake; he could not    Force it to vision's will.    He tracked the orbits of the stars, yet could not    Travel his own thoughts' world;    Entangled in the labyrinth of his science    Lost count of good and ill;    Took captive the sun's rays, and yet no sunrise    On life's thick night unfurled.  Muhammad Iqbal 

Muhammad Iqbal's poem, Modern Man, reflects his life of struggle to engage the Western world while holding fast to the values of his Islamic home. The poem, originally written in Urdu, reflects the confusion he saw in the British students he studied with at Cambridge, and those who ruled colonial India during his lifetime. The struggle Iqbal committed his life to engaging was between modernity (empiricism, nationalism, individualism, etc.) and Islam. While he recognized that modernism brought significant scientific and economic benefits, he also understood that materialist gains did not equate with self-understanding. Iqbal declared, with his life and poetry, that modernism did not provide an adequate philosophical foundation for life. He believed that the East should resist what the West assumed to be true and that Muslims could bring the wisdom of the East to balance the science of the West. To capture the sunrise through physics and astronomy, but lose the beauty and meaning that surrounded such an event, was the very heart of what Iqbal saw as modern man's dilemma.

Muhammad Iqbal was an artist and philosopher called to straddle cultures and traditions. He developed a prophetic voice that ultimately had a unifying affect on the Muslim Indians living in a demeaning system of British colonialism. Iqbal's life was always one of in-between. Born into a Brahmin family that had converted to Islam, he attended Muslim and English schools, moved from Indian nationalism to Muslim brotherhood, and called for a rethinking of Muslim ideals in light of modernism. As Lawrence wrote describing Iqbal, "His quest was to bridge Islam and the modern world without supporting colonialism or embracing atheism" (p. 155).

This article will provide an overview of one Muslim man's historic response to modernism, using the Arabic medium of poetry. But before looking at Muhammad Iqbal specifically, it is necessary to establish the role of language and poetry within the Islamic context. Poetry in the West has been a useful artistic expression, having evolved from the romantic notions of the Irish Bards to the urban reality of Wyclef Jean. But in the East, poetry and language have an even deeper cultural role. Together, they form a channel of communication as deeply imbedded in Arab culture as the sun, the clan, and the reciting of history under a desert night sky.

Cantarino writes that "Islam began as a religious and social movement among the Arabs who, upon their conversion were supposed to undergo a basically religious process that we may call Islamization. The formal acceptance of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, was during this time, the only characteristic of the new community" (1975, p. 9). Because all converts were Arabs, Arab culture was the assumed framework of Islam. From a cultural point of view, the assumption of a Muslim's Arab background provided Islam with a national sense, the effects of which can clearly be seen today. The religion of Islam solidified the preservation of Arab culture. As Islam spread throughout the region, it took Arab culture with it, and played a transformative role in the cultural and literary development of all people that accepted the Islamic religion. Arab culture and Islam became one.

As Islam spread through Bedouin tribes, it was absorbed into dialects that varied within an Arabic linguistic frame. However, Uthman Ibn Affan, a companion of the Prophet and the third Caliphate, solidified the Meccan dialect of Arabic by officially proclaiming that the Medina recension of the Qur'anic text was the divine form that had come to the Prophet. …

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