Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan’s introduction to his translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems echoes Lenin’s classic essay in defence of Tolstoy. It provides a perspective to Iqbal’s contradictions, which arguably make him the greatest intellectual of the twentienth century India (including Pakistan). To paraphrase Lenin, the contradictions in Iqbal’s views are indeed a mirror of the contradictory conditions of his time – on the one hand, “centuries of feudal oppression, [colonialism] and decades of [colonial] pauperisation piled up mountains of hate, resentment, and desperate determination”. Iqbal strives to sweep away all the old forms and ways that characterised the old order. But on the other hand, “striving towards new ways of life, had a very crude, patriarchal, semi-religious idea of what kind of life this should be”.
Iqbal’s writings are full of such Tolstoyan contradictions – or what Kiernan says, “Iqbal, as usual, put new wine into old bottles not always well suited to it”; he “had ended by being, in some ways, the prisoner of the ideas that had promised to liberate him. All his life as a poet he had been using the hard, distinct, unyielding thoughts of a bygone age as supports round which the softer tendrils growing out of the amorphous sensations of his own age could twine themselves and climb. Dante and Milton did the same”.
Iqbal’s contradictions and consistency make him great. But, what was consistent in him? He “hated injustice; his protest, first made in the name of India, continued in the name of Islam; in this form it was reinforced, rather than superseded, by a protest in the name of the common man, the disinherited of all lands”. This is very important to understand ideas underneath the pan-Islamic theological crust that he developed to shape them.