Allama Iqbal, Bacha Khan and terrorists – Suroosh Irfani

Iqbal, Bacha Khan and terrorists —Suroosh Irfani

It might well be that the heartless war our homegrown jihadis and Afghan Taliban are waging against Pakistan exemplifies Islam’s dangerous inversion that Iqbal had warned against some three generations ago. Such inversion has virtually displaced Bacha Khan and Iqbal’s spiritual humanism by a jihadi extremism at war with humanity

“Muslims are at war with one another, in their hearts they only harbor schism. They cry out if someone else pulls a brick out of a mosque which they themselves shun” — Allama Iqbal, Armaghan e Hijaz (verse translated by Mustansir Mir)

When Muhammad Iqbal, the ‘spiritual founder of Pakistan’, wrote the above verses shortly before his death in 1938, the blowing up of mosques and beheadings of fellow Muslims had not yet become part of everyday Muslim life. Nor was the destruction of schools, or the ban on girls’ education and music part of a freedom struggle that led to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Indeed, by the 1930s when Iqbal’s Islamic rethink had earned him the appellations of ‘Poet of Islam’ and ‘Wiseman of the Ummah’, non-violence was shaping the freedom struggle against British rule in much of India. While Gandhi was emblematic of such a struggle, shades of non-violence also permeated Muslim political discourse. Such a discourse was as much in evidence in the ‘martial’ North West Frontier Province — the cradle of jihadi terror in Pakistan today — as the rest of India.

However, as Britain started discussing India’s future in a series of Round Table Conferences during the 1930s, Iqbal was apprehensive that Britain might “transfer political authority to the Hindus” for its “material benefits”, leaving Muslims marginalised in India. Such a development, he warned, could be “disastrous…You will drive the Indian Muslims to use the same weapon against the [Hindu] Government…as Gandhi did against the British Government.” (Iqbal’s Letter to Sir Francis Younghusband, The Civil and Military Gazette, July 31, 1931).

Clearly, his poetics of Muslim ascendancy notwithstanding, non-violence for Iqbal was integral to India’s democratic experiment as it “educated people…without destroying the structures of government itself”.

However, as the Round Table Conferences continued in London, the NWFP was swept by a populist upsurge for social reform and political rights never before seen in Muslim history: a non-violent movement led by Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, just after his return from Haj in 1929. Called the Servants of God Movement (Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek), it reflected the onset of a radical transformation in popular imagination in a tribal culture, where violence constituted mutual deterrence under the rubric of ‘badla’, or revenge.

Convinced that Pashtun would be denied their rightful place in the modern world so long as they remained mired in colonialism, poverty and violence, Ghaffar Khan struggled to undo the triple curse by invoking non-violence as “the weapon of the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]” and the driving spirit of his movement. The Prophet’s [PBUH] non-violence, Khan argued, exemplified “patience and righteousness”, and so long as the Servants of God remained true to the Prophet’s [PBUH] example, no power on earth could subdue them.

Consequently, as social and educational reforms of the Servants of God began transforming lives, people hailed the saintly Khan as a ‘saviour king’ — Bacha Khan.

Indeed, one could say that the spiritual politics of servanthood that Bacha Khan invoked in the name of God and the Prophet [PBUH] was, at one level, the social corollary of an ideal that Iqbal espoused in his poetry. In Javid Nama, Iqbal’s magnum opus reflecting the creative imagination of a new Muslim consciousness, he expounds the mystical meanings of the concept of servanthood as a deepening of consciousness with diverse expressions, its high point being the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as His servant, abday’hu.

In a sense, while Bacha Khan and Iqbal stood at opposite ends of Indian politics — the former struggled for a united India, the latter for Muslim separation — they exemplified different facets of the same discourse of non-violence. This is borne out by an inner vision of Iqbal that inspired him to write Armaghan e Hijaz — his last poetic work composed in both Persian and Urdu.

In the vision late one night, a tall saintly figure appeared in Iqbal’s room, emphatically urged him to raise a grouping of 500 men, and then disappeared in the night, leaving the ‘Poet of the East’ deeply shaken. It is worth noting that Iqbal’s vision occurred in a political context, when several radical Indian Muslims were secretly crossing over to Afghanistan to organise armed struggle against the British Indian government. Given such context, did the vision imply that Iqbal, too, should raise an army of 500 holy warriors for jihad against the British?

Iqbal discussed the vision with his father, a Sufi of the Qadiriya order, who interpreted it as a call for writing a poetic work of 500 verses to educate Muslims and deepen their humanity. As Faqir Wahiddudin notes in his biography of Iqbal (Rozgar e Faqir, p.117), the truth of the father’s interpretation was borne out when Iqbal composed Armaghan e Hijaz. Comprising just over 500 verses, the work unfolds with an allusion to Iqbal’s vision: here Iqbal declares that he is “raising a new army of Love”, to counter a dangerous revolt that’s brewing against the heart of Islam from within.

It might well be that the heartless war our homegrown jihadis and Afghan Taliban are waging against Pakistan exemplifies Islam’s dangerous inversion that Iqbal had warned against some three generations ago. Such inversion has virtually displaced Bacha Khan and Iqbal’s spiritual humanism by a jihadi extremism at war with humanity.

Clearly, Pakistan’s survival as a modern democratic state is hinged on healing an inner Muslim split that has turned Iqbal’s dream state into a nightmare. Such healing entails, on the one hand, an urgent recovery of Iqbal and Bacha Khan’s spiritual politics; and on the other hand, rethinking of a flawed security outlook that sees India as mortal enemy and Taliban as strategic asset.

Indeed, the “strategic renaissance” the Pakistan Army needs for reclaiming the NWFP from Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood has pointed out, will remain elusive without Iqbal and Bacha Khan’s presence as a cultural force.

Suroosh Irfani is an educator and writer based in Lahore. He can be reached at

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