Cam Diary: Oxford remembers the Cam man
The symposium on Iqbal was magnificent. The Pakistan Discussion Forum, which aims to foment discussion and dialogue and engender greater East-West understanding, can be proud of their achievement
“What! Oxford organising a meeting on a Cambridge man. Allama Iqbal belongs to Cambridge. How dare they snatch him away from us? The cheats!” That is how some of us felt on hearing that Oxford University’s Pakistan Discussion Forum was holding a function entitled “Mer Payam Aur: Symposium on the Poet of the East Sir Allama Iqbal (1877-1938)”.
Sabieh Anwar, Oxford’s cunning quantum physics post-graduate who was the organising spirit behind the symposium, had already e-mailed an appeal: “We would like to extend a formal invitation to Cambridge PAKSOC members and all Pakistanis studying at Cambridge. As Iqbal was a student at Cambridge, I am sure many Pakistanis would be interested in attending this symposium”. In his email to me, he added, “We are really trying to target people in the West, who have maybe heard of Iqbal, but need a more thorough introduction to his art and thought.” How could one not attend?
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St. Antony’s College, Oxford, May 24. Dr David Matthews, who was to speak on “Iqbal’s Art and Poetry” started speaking in Urdu, stopped to survey the lecture hall and said, “Since most people here don’t understand Urdu, I’ll speak in English now”. There was a sigh of relief and a ripple of smiles among the 200-strong audience. Iqbal said the renowned author and Urdu expert from the University of London, was first and foremost a poet, rather than a philosopher (or even a politician). It was important to emphasise Iqbal’s poetry, both in Urdu and Persian.
Mathews recited some beautiful poems. Mathews’ translations into English made them even more enjoyable. The classic Shikwa (1911) or the complaint to God, traces the history of Muslims from their glory to their fall. Asrar-i-Khudi (1915) is in Persian and was Iqbal’s way of appealing to a wider audience outside the sub-continent. Then there’s the Bal-i-Jibreel collection (1935). No doubt Iqbal was a giant, a master poet.
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The keynote address at the symposium was “Iqbal from a Western Philosophical Standpoint” by Prof Keith Ward, the Chair, Faculty of Theology, Oxford. Revd. Ward, who is the author of “God: A Guide for the Perplexed”, tried to explain Iqbal’s ideas in “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” (1934). Ward’s talk might have been entitled “Iqbal: A Guide for the Perplexed”.
Since I count myself among the “totally perplexed” when in comes to Iqbal’s “Reconstruction...”, Ward’s discourse late in the afternoon only helped confuse me further with concepts like “dynamic creativity” and the “endless journey” in the universe. There is no destination; the journey itself is the creative process. And God is the ultimate reality. All creation, the entire universe is the expression of God’s will. According to Iqbal, Islam is a creative force. Change is creative. If you don’t change, you die... And then you wake up!
Ward called for a re-evaluation, a re-discovery of Iqbal’s works. Iqbal was in favour of debate and discussion. In the end, Ward reminded the audience that philosophers love differences and if religious people followed suit, we’d be better off.
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Dr Yahya Michot of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies spoke on “Mohammed Iqbal: Islamic Thought for the 21st Century?” Michot placed Iqbal among the classical thinkers of Islam. Iqbal, he said, was the “last of the greats”. Iqbal’s doctrine of the self was in line with classical Islamic scholars. Iqbal was a shahid, a witness of God. In his search for knowledge, Iqbal went to Europe and stayed there from 1905 to 1908. Iqbal was “animated by a quest for beauty” and had an open and critical mind. He remains an inspiration for Muslims.
Sabieh Anwar spoke on the “Highlights of Iqbal’s Thought”. Iqbal’s profound verse was not a romantic lullaby, nor did it belong to any one nationality. Iqbal’s verse is about “valour, incessant action and self-realisation” and its message transcends geography. He was special because he created “an intellectual trajectory of his own”. Iqbal was unique because of both his art and his thought.
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The Symposium was chaired by Dr James Morris, Chair of Islamic and Arabic Studies at Exeter University. He spoke for everyone in his concluding remarks when he said that he was impressed by the speakers, the poetry recitals, etc in short the entire Symposium. “Here, Here.”
As promised the symposium was studded with renditions of Iqbal’s poetry: Dr Homa Katouzian’s masnavi rendition from Javid Nama in the mystical or dervish style was moving. Salman Asif read in a very dramatic style. Bihani Sarkar, who is trained in classical Indian music, sang beautiful verses from Baal-e-Jibreel and Bang-e-Dara.
Ali Abbas, assisted by Fasi Zaka, delighted the audience by singing Shikwa and Bang-e-Dara.
Overall, the event was magnificently organised. The Pakistan Discussion Forum, which aims to foment discussion and dialogue and engender greater East-West understanding, can be proud of their achievement.
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One, Iqbal was a Cambridge man! Two, Iqbal’s Asrar-i-Khudi and Javid Nama were translated by two Cambridge men, RA Nicholson and AJ Arberry. Three, Prof Keith Ward has a doctorate from Cambridge, where he was also a Dean of Trinity Hall College. Four, Dr David Matthews was at Downing College in Cambridge for two years (1965/66) for research.
“O Lord! Let the voice of this solitary nightingale pierce hearts, / Let hearts awaken to the music of the marching bell, / Let hearts be revived by a new pledge of loyalty...”
— Sir Cam, Cambridge, England