Dr. Thomas Stemmer

“Poetry ‘has something to say’ which ‘cannot be said’.” (Muhammad Suheyl Umar)[1]

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I have always considered Muhammad Iqbal as a poet.

Yes, I know that the correct way of referring oneself to him is to call him a poet-philosopher. Furthermore, I am very well aware, that Iqbal himself understood poetry as a means to an end, not as a value in itself. Not as l'art pour l'art. But since a closer look at his philosophy shows that he has not established a system and therefore is not a classic philosopher, but a deeply inspired thinker, going beyond narrow restrictions, this might also serve as a hint at the fact, that his poetry is also not `ordinary’ poetry. It is poetry in a deeper sense.

So in which way is Iqbal a poet?

I came across the name Muhammad Iqbal in a very poetic way. The year was 1985 and I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday. My parents had driven me to Heidelberg so that I could start my studies at the South Asia Institute and at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Heidelberg. I was new to the city, and therefore I enjoyed late evening walks through the streets trying to catch the atmosphere. While strolling through the dawn I developed the habit of reading the names of the streets trying to put them to memory. One evening I felt a strong attraction to the river Neckar. Readily I gave in to that urge, since walking alongside a river surely is an uplifting experience.

It was there that I followed a noisy street at the river known as B 37. I already knew this B 37 as Vangerowstraße, but here, close to the city’s centre, the name was different: Iqbal-Ufer. That struck me as odd. Who was Iqbal? I pondered. While walking around I even discovered some sort of a memorial stone with the very same name on it: Iqbal.

I have always had a love for unknown things and I thought I've got to find out more about this... However, I might have forgotten about it, since my mind was absorbed in getting accustomed to university life. But the name Iqbal would show up a second time. While selecting the courses I came to know that at the South Asia Institute there was an Iqbal Chair, held by a visiting guest professor from Pakistan. Since the name Iqbal had now presented itself again, I quickly enrolled in the course on Sufi poetry offered by Prof. Malik, who held the Iqbal Chair in those days.


That was the beginning.

Very soon, I found out that Iqbal was the poet-philosopher of Pakistan, in fact, the person who– in a way– founded Pakistan. I read translations of his poetry, both German (by Annemarie Schimmel) and English. Interestingly enough, I was soon to discover one of Muhammad Iqbal's most famous poems depicting an idyllic evening scenery alongside the river Neckar. In my native German it was translated as Ein Abend am Neckar [An Evening by the River Neckar]. In it, Muhammad Iqbal expressed a vision of quietness along the river:  (...) Zieht der stumme Strom der Sterne / Ohne Glockenklang zur Ferne, / Berg und Strom und Feld in Stille, / In sich ruht der ew'ge Wille. (...) [(...) The caravan of the stars moves on / In silence, without bells. / Silent are hill and forest and river; / Nature seems lost in contemplation. (...)][2]. In 1985 the Iqbal-Ufer does not specifically evoke a vision of silence at first sight; the B37 (of which the Iqbal-Ufer is a part) is full of noisy cars. Silence? Yes: silence! Even nowadays. I am convinced that Iqbal caught a glimpse of inner silence.

I suppose there is a word to describe this ability to catch inner silence: poetry.

From that experience(s) on, I kept digging into the poetry of Muhammad Iqbal.

It seems that Iqbal's poetry “as a means to an end” represents only an outer layer of words covering inner silence, and behind this layer his silent poetry flavours his writings, even his prose with a certain fragrance. From here, it might become clear why for example his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam– itself being a philosophical work!– rings such a familiar poetic bell.

I will go one step further. Maybe this silent, inner poetry within Muhammad Iqbal's “poetry & prose in words” is that specific universal character in his works turning him into a great spiritual personality. And maybe this is an explanation why so many people can benefit from his books– Muslims and non-Muslims like myself alike– pretty much in the same way as Muhammad Iqbal himself discovered the Western poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Or as Dr. Ahmet Albayrak recently wrote about Iqbal: His words are epigrams.[3]

Yes, I have to admit: My efforts in digging into Iqbal's poetry displayed here are just a starting point.

There will be more to come.


Notes and References


[1] Umar, Muhammad Suheyl: “That I may see and Tell”. Significance of Iqbal’s Wisdom Poetry, Iqbal Academy Brochure Series № 2, Lahore, Pakistan, 2002, p. 12

[2] Quoted after the Preface (for the English translation, p. 5) and after the Geleitwort (for the German translation, p. 9 – 10) of: Koehler, Wolfgang (Hrsg. / ed.): Muhammad Iqbal und die drei Reiche des Geistes. Muhammad Iqbal and the Three Realms of the Spirit. Band 3 der Schriftenreihe des Deutsch-Pakistanischen Forums e. V., Vol. 3 in the series by the German-Pakistan Forum, Hamburg, 1977

[3] Dr. Albayrak, Ahmet: The Status of Iqbal Studies in Turkey,” in: Almas, Vol. 7, Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, Sindh, Pakistan, 2004, pp. 1-16 (quote on p. 14)