The Ethical Ideal of Islam and Indian Muslims (Iqbal 1908)


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The following is a part of the work of Dr Muhammad Iqbal that was presented by him in Lahore (1908) upon arrival back to the sub-continent. This was following the completion of his higher education in the West (1905-1908). Dr Muhammad Iqbal, a member of the Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam, importantly, did not present his usual poetry at the annual event of the Anjuman between the years 1908-1911. Instead, Dr Muhammad Iqbal presented three articles during this period. The work presented here is from the first of these three articles and contrasts the state of the Muslims of the sub-continent with the ethical ideal that has been given by Islam to the world.

The Ethical Ideal of Islam and Indian Muslims

Let me stop here for a moment, and see whether we Indian Muslims are true to this ideal.

(1) Does the Indian Muslim possess a strong will in a strong body?

(2) Has he got the will to live?

(3) Has he got sufficient strength of character to oppose those forces which tend to disintegrate the social organism to which he belongs?

I regret to answer my questions in the negative. You know, Gentlemen, that in the great struggle for life it is not principally number which makes a social organism survive; character is the ultimate equipment of man not only in his efforts against a hostile natural environment, but also in his contest with kindred competitors after a fuller richer, and ampler life.

The life-force of the Indian Muhammadan, however, has become woefully enfeebled. The decay of the religious spirit, combined with other causes of a political nature over which he had no control, has developed in him now a sense of dependence and, above all, the laziness of spirit which an enervated people call by the dignified name of “contentment” in order to conceal their own enfeeblement. Owing to his indifferent commercial morality, he fails in economic enterprise; for want of a true conception of national interest and the right appreciation of the present situation of the community among the communities of this country, he is working, in his private as well as public capacities, on lines which, I am afraid, must lead to ruin. How often do we see that shrinks from advocating a cause, the significance of which is truly national, simply because his standing aloof pleases an influential Hindu through whose agency he hopes to secure a personal distinction.

I tell you, Gentlemen, that I have got greater respect for an illiterate shopkeeper who earns his honest bread, and has sufficient force in his arms to defend his wife and children in times of trouble, than the brainy graduate of high culture whose timid voice betokens death of soul in his body, and who takes pride in his submissiveness, eats sparingly, complains of sleepless in [=at] night, and produces unhealthy children for his community, if he does produce at all.

Gentlemen, I hope I shall not be offending you when I say that I have a certain amount of admiration for the Devil. By refusing to prostrate himself before Adam, whom he honestly believed to be his inferior, he revealed a high sense of self-respect, a trait of character which, in my opinion, ought to redeem him from his spiritual deformity, just as the beautiful eyes of a toad redeem him from his physical repulsiveness. And, I believe, God punished him not because he refused to make himself low before the progenitor of an enfeebled humanity, but because he declined to give absolute obedience to the Will of the Almighty Ruler of the Universe.

The ideal of our educated young men is mostly service; and service begets, especially in a country like India, that sense of dependence which undermines the force of human individuality. The poor among us, of course, have no capital; the middle-class people cannot undertake joint economic enterprises owing to mutual mistrust; and the rich look upon trade as an occupation beneath their dignity. Economic dependence is the prolific mother of all the various forms of evils. Even the vices of the Indian Muhammadan indicate weakness of life-force in him. Physically, too, he has undergone dreadful deteriorations. Go and see the pale, faded faces of Muhammadan boys in schools and colleges, and you will find the painful verification of my statement. Power, energy, force, strength — yes, physical strength is the Law of Life. A strong man may rob others when he has got nothing in his pocket; but a feeble person must die the death of a mean thing in the world’s awful scene of continual warfare.

But how to improve this undesirable state of things? Education, you might say, will work the transformation. Now, Gentlemen, I do not put much faith in education as understood in this country. The ethical training of humanity is really the work of great personalities who appear from time to time in the course of human history. Unfortunately our present social environment is not favourable to the birth of such personalities of ethical magnetism. An attempt to discover the reason of this dearth of personalities among us will necessitate the subtle analysis of all the visible and invisible forces which are now determining the course of our social evolutions — an inquiry which I cannot undertake in this lecture. But you will, I think, admit that such personalities are rare among us. Such being the case, education is the only thing to fall back upon.

But what sort of education? There is no absolute truth in education, as there is none in philosophy or science. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is the maxim of fools. Do you ever find a person rolling in his mind the Theory of Light simply because it is a fact of science? Education, like other things, ought to be determined by the needs of the learner. A form of education which has no direct bearing on the particular type of character which you want to develop is absolutely worthless. I grant that the present system of education in India gives you bread and butter. You manufacture a number of graduates, and then you have to send titled mendicants to the government to beg appointments for them. Well, if you succeed in securing a few appointments in the higher branches of service, what then? It is the masses who constitute the backbone of a nation. They ought to be better fed, better housed; and properly educated. Life is not bread and butter alone; it is something more. It is the healthy character that reflects the national ideal in all its aspects.

For a truly national character, you ought to have a truly national education. Can you expect free Muslim character in a young boy who is brought up in an aided school in complete ignorance of his social and historical traditions? You administer him doses of Cromwell’s History. It is idle to expect that he will turn out a truly Muslim character. The knowledge of Cromwell’s History will certainly create in him a great deal of admiration for the Puritan Revolutionary; but it cannot create that healthy pride in his soul which is the very lifeblood of a truly national character. Our educated young men know all about Cromwell, Wellington, Gladstone, Voltaire, and Luther. They will tell you that Lord Roberts worked in South African wars like a common soldier at the age of eighty. But how many of us know that Muhammad II conquered Constantinople at the age of twenty-two? How many of us have the faintest notion of the influence of our Muslim civilisation over Modern Europe? How many of us are familiar with the wonderful historical productions of Ibn Khaldun, or the extraordinary noble character of ‘Abdu’l-Qadir of Algeria? A living nation is alive because it never forgets its dead.

I venture to say, Gentlemen, that the present system of education in this country is not at all suited to us as a people: It is not true to our genius as a nation. It tends to produce an un-Islamic character. It is not determined by our national requirements. It breaks away entirely with [=from] our past. It appears to proceed on the false assumption that the ideal of education is the training of human intellect rather than human will. Nor is this superficial system true to the genius of the Hindus. Amongst them it appears to have produced a number of political idealists whose false reading of history drives them to the upsetting of all conditions of political order and social peace.

Gentlemen, you spend an immense amount of money every year on [the] education of your children. Well, thanks to the King Emperor, India is a free country; everybody is free to entertain any opinion he likes. I look upon it as a waste. In order to be truly yourself, you have to have your own schools, colleges, and your own universities keeping alive your social and historical traditions, making you good and peaceful citizens, and creating in you that free and law-abiding spirit which evolves out of itself a nobler type of political virtue. I am quite sensible of the difficulties that lie in your way. All that I can say is that if you cannot get over your difficulties, the world will soon get rid of you.

Muhammad Iqbal

April 1908 C.E / Rabi-ul-Awwal 1326 A.H

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