Why wasn’t Iqbal awarded a Nobel?

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  It’s one of the biggest mysteries that Dr Muhammad Iqbal didn’t get Nobel despite his profound poetry and the corpus of literary work of the highest calibre. Iqbal and Tagore were simultaneously writing poetry in the sub-continent and if the level of poetry of both the masters is assessed dispassionately, Iqbal has an edge over Tagore. Both were mystics and they were heavily influenced by Persian mysticism of Fariduddin Attar, Jami, Hafiz, Sanai, Khaqani and the most sublime of all, the redoubtable Jalaluddin Rumi. Iqbal called Rumi, his ‘ruhani ustaad’ (spiritual master), whereas Tagore was influenced by Hafiz Shirazi.

While Tagore almost plagiarised Hafiz in his 103 poems in Gitanjali, that won him 1913’s Nobel, Iqbal’s inspiration was devoid of pilfering. A look at his oeuvre and his great works like Baang-e Dara, Payaam-e Mashriq, Hayat-e Javeed, Baal-e Jibreel (Wings of Gabriel), Ramz-e Bekhudi, Shikwa and Jawab-e Shikwa, to name but a few, will reveal that the depth of his poetry was greater than that of Tagore.

Though comparisons are always odious, at times one has to compare to bring out the difference and put things in perspective. The first and foremost criterion for Nobel in literature has been the writer’s comprehensive work and its transcendental universalism. The message has to be germane to all ages. On this count, the message of Iqbal has more relevance and greater reach. If humanitarianism is the core of Tagorean poetry, Iqbal also doesn’t lack a universal vision. Agreed, the great Iqbal became a bit Islamic in the final phase of his life, it doesn’t take away his greatness.

The reasons behind overlooking Iqbal were more political than the perceived lack of profundity. Tagore’s family hobnobbed with the high ranking English officials and he (Tagore) had influential English friends. Though Tagore belonged to Brahmo Samaj, a sub-division of Hinduism, he was viewed by the Brits a ‘Refined Upper Class Hindu’ (Nirad C Chaudhary’s words) and they wanted to project a ‘Hindu’ above a Muslim.

One has to take into account the then social and political state of India. Brits were still seething with anger over the active role of Muslims during the “Mutiny” in 1857 and the entire community became an eyesore to them (read Collingwood and Arnold Toynbee’s “India after Sepoy Mutiny”). So no Muslim should get international recognition. The axe fell on Iqbal, who despite his exhilarating poetry and philosophy, had to concede in favour of Tagore, a distinctly lesser poet than him. Moreover, Iqbal didn’t compose poetry to please the King and Queen of England. Tagore wrote panegyrics for the Throne. Otherwise also, Nobel goes to those who ingratiate with high and mighty.

This makes no difference to Iqbal’s genius. Marcel Proust, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy and John Updike never got the Nobel but they’re universally read.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2012 on page no. 2

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